Although the skeptic vs. spiritualist rivalry between Harry Houdini and Mina Crandon (a.k.a. “Margery the Medium”) has been well-documented previously, we’ve never seen it explained in such exacting detail nor depth, nor so well contextualized in the social and intellectual mileu of Jazz Age America, as in David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street.
The book is social history written with a novelistic sensibility (and has recently been optioned as the basis for a feature film), delineating the peculiar personality politics of the post-First World War spiritualism controversy.
Our only criticism is that perhaps too much space was devoted to play-by-play descriptions of “Margery’s” seances, which – although obviously a key point of interest – did tend to repetitively resolve into “weird things happening in a dark room”. That minor quibble aside, this is a must-read book for anyone interested in the causes and effects of the ’20s seance craze.
The anthology Houdini’s ‘Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg is now available in both print and ebook editions.
Following the devastating losses of human life incurred during the First World War and then the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, bereaved families turned to the nascent religion of Spiritualism, which promised them contact and communication with the spirits of the dead. Sadly, but inevitably, most of those families fell prey to the cynical trickery of “ghost racketeers”, whose seances were con games designed to separate their victims from their hard-earned cash.
Enter Rose Mackenberg, a private detective trained by the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini to infiltrate and expose the ghost racket. Rose became the most prominent and prolific member of Houdini’s “secret service” of investigators. Throughout the 1920s, she was instrumental in debunking hundreds of phony spirit mediums.
Houdini’s Girl Detective is an illustrated anthology of Rose’s original expose articles, first published in several North American newspapers during 1929. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of the ghost racket, offering a deeply skeptical take on ectoplasm, spirit rapping, table-tipping, “love and luck potions” and similar chicanery.
Recommended for anyone with an interest in the causes and effects of the Jazz Age spiritualism craze.