Edwardian-social-issue-of-the-week: faith healing
“Supernatural” crime: faith … killing (?)
We open inside a traveling tent-show where faith healer Elias Downey is explaining the origin of his miraculous powers to an enraptured audience. God, we are told, used Elias as a conduit in healing his desperately ill younger sister, Jane, when the Downeys were both children. A skeptic scoffingly interrupts and, shortly thereafter, falls to the floor, coughing blood and insensible. His wife desperately pleads with Elias to save him, but it’s too late – the man is dead.
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton attend the dead man’s funeral, hoping to gather enough evidence to prove that a crime has actually been committed, in order to be able to order an autopsy. Elias Downey arrives to pay his respects and Houdini (sacrificing all decorum for expedience) baits him into a loud science vs. faith confrontation, distracting the mourners while his colleagues examine the corpse. Doyle deduces that the man may have been suffering from dengue fever, and may therefore have died of natural causes after all.
Constable Stratton, however, discovers that several other people have died shortly after disparaging Reverend Downey and the team then attends another of his faith healing services. Houdini performs an impromptu demonstration of “psychic surgery” on a member of Downey’s audience, to illustrate the power of the placebo effect; the man is deceived by the trick and believes himself to be cured, and so he feels better. Ironically, Houdini himself then falls violently ill; meanwhile, Doyle is convinced of Reverend Downey’s powers and asks him to try to heal his comatose wife, Touie, who does, in fact, rally shortly after Downey prays over her.
Doyle, doubting his earlier diagnosis of dengue fever, conducts an illicit autopsy on the dead skeptic and is overcome by a toxic miasma rising from the man’s incised abdomen; coming to, he realises that the man was poisoned, suggesting foul play in the other deaths that have befallen people who scoffed at Downey. While Doyle and Stratton interview the wife of the dead skeptic, Houdini performs his matinee magic show, but is again overcome by illness and fails to escape the Water Torture Cell, requiring a dramatic glass-smashing rescue.
Eventually it transpires that the Reverend’s sister, Jane, has been bumping off “disbelievers” in order to bolster her innocent brother’s reputation, and thus his ability to do some actual good, even if only via the placebo effect.
The main emotional through-line in this episode lies in Arthur’s relationship with his newly-revived wife Touie. As the story began, he was losing hope that she would recover and was packing her clothes away in storage. After she regains consciousness (as it turns out, she was actually healed by an experimental medical treatment rather than by the Reverend’s prayers), the two of them share some tender moments … but tragically, by episode’s end she has relapsed into the coma. The distraught Doyle is comforted by his young daughter, and then, together, they unpack Touie’s clothing and re-hang it in her closet.
- We’re asked to accept a lot of coincidences in this episode, especially regarding the timing of various illnesses and recoveries, which fit so neatly and dramatically into the storyline as to severely strain credibility.
- Episode 3 is basically an examination of both the limited and erratic benefits and significant dangers of faith healing – here identified as nothing, more nor less, then the placebo effect, bolstered by the above-mentioned heavy dose of dramatic license. The ever-skeptical Houdini offers some trenchant and accurate observations along these lines, and while the more credulous Doyle is always ready to accept a supernatural explanation, his practical skills as a physician are crucial to solving the case.
- Constable Stratton doesn’t have a great deal to do this time, other than to glance sternly at the two “boys” while they banter; hopefully she’ll have more of an active role in the rest of the season, aside from being Houdini’s burgeoning love interest.
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Only six ibangs this week, but we’re looking forward to Episode 4, when Houdini and Doyle take on the legendary “leaping ghost”, Spring Heeled Jack!