“There are two kinds of secrets.
The ones we keep from others
and the ones we keep from ourselves.”
The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Crown; 1St Edition (October 6, 2015)
History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.
It is right before the semester begins which means that for many of us academics our final moments of reading for fun is about to be greatly reduced to more academic texts and pursuits. Last week I finished reading two books. One of which is David Jaher’s debut novel, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World. The book is partly about the history of spiritualism in the early 20th century and partly about the face-off between illusionist Harry Houdini and the young, pretty wife of a Boston doctor named Mina Crandon who went by the name Margery in order to keep her privacy.
The story reads as a work of fiction although it is based in the history of the 1920s. Margery’s advocate was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and physician most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes. Urging her to take part in controversial research sponsored by Scientific American which offered a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic, Margery underwent an extensive investigation which included illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. Like so many families dealing with loss, Houdini became interested in Spiritualism while dealing with the loss of his mother; yet, he still remained a skeptic throughout his life and attempted to prove that Margery and others like her were charlatans. It turns out that the tests that she was given during the investigation made her one of the most successful Spiritualists in the country. This frustrated Houdini for while he continued to prove what she was doing was fake, others preferred to believe in the spirits, especially Margery’s deceased brother Walter.
While Jaher went into almost graphic detail about the lengths the Spiritualists went through to prove that they were not being fraudulent (e.g. invasive strip searches), readers have to use their own imaginations to truly understand the extent of the ectoplasm that were "birthed" during the investigations.
Personally, I enjoyed that nearly half of the book was build-up to the Houdini and Margery meeting. The rivalry is a slow build with the ending being much more of a surprise than expected.