Title: The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World
Author: David Jaher
Genre: Nonfiction, History
Release Date: October 6th, 2015
Source: Received from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review
The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.
Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince…the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.
The Witch of Lime Street is clearly a well-researched book. My love of author’s notes is well known, and this one did not disappoint- citing countless resources and their location, should the reader wish to conduct their own investigation.
The ‘seduction’ part of the title is a bit misleading, as all seduction referenced in historical archives was slander against the medium not proven fact (except for one, at the end of her career). In fact, I found a lot of the speculation blatantly sexist (not by the author, but by the men of that era).
By their accusations, they assumed any fraud was as a result of her loving attention and power, as opposed to the very real fact that she was under constant, increasing pressure to do more (by researchers AND her husband).
They also assumed she could fit severed child’s hands and inflatable devices and paraphernalia in her vagina and extract without hands, and re-conceal as if that part of anatomy is a storage box. Which is laughable, especially considering this was the 1920s, when we’d discovered the atom, not the dark ages.
There were also pretty constant slanderous attacks based solely on the desire to appear desirable by a pretty lady (ie. she’s female and attractive, she tried to seduce me! I, the noble scientist, rebuffed her of course, but this is how she pulls the wool over others’ eyes).
It was also interesting to me that the researchers only needed to satisfy one trick as fraudulent in order to dismiss her entirely. There was no middle-ground or room for belief. I suppose that was the prevailing thought of the Jazz Age: all or nothing.
But the book presents to many facets of the story, in such detail, that a clear picture emerges (which clearly put me on the side of Margery), and at war with loving and hating Houdini by turns.
In terms of the writing: the first 40 pages or so were a struggle. There’s a lot of exposition thrown in your face before you get context on these people and why you should care. But then it picks up and maintains a good pace.
The most major issue I had was with the fractured timeline. Events were referenced, and then re-reference in a new context, such that I didn’t understand until the ‘death chapters’ what the timeline was. The addition of a month and year on each passage would’ve been extremely helpful.
The author does an excellent job of not foreshadowing the conclusion of the Margery case, and not showing a clear bias toward or against the possibilities. Because of this, it read much more like a fiction, and was pretty engaging. No character is painted as the hero or villain, and Houdini and Mina especially come to life.
Speaking of Houdini, he’s prominent in this book….but not until about halfway through. Stick with it.
My verdict on the Margery case, based on this information, is that she was genuine AND faking it (probably in response to the pressure she was under). Regardless, by all accounts she was a formidable and gracious woman, and by the end the entire case seemed to be more about testing a woman’s stamina than any psychical prowess.
I did appreciate the historical context for the prevailing schools of thought (especially the psychological approaches to psychic phenomena). I was confused by some of the quotes, such as the Biblical passages, which seemed out of context for an historical nonfiction (although all held loosely together by a common thread of mysticism, I thought quotes of that era alone would go further to setting context and exposition).
By the end of the novel, the reader is left (as Mina clearly desired) unsure of where the truth lies. I wish I could have seen some of those red-light photographs that captured much of her phenomena, although the descriptions alone are creepy enough. I also want to learn more about Rose Mackenberg now.
In (extremely long) conclusion: If you enjoy American history, Houdini, the Spiritist movement, the 1920’s, and/or the very genuine research being done into paranormal occurrence as science, you should read this book.