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.
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.
David Jaher’s extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation’s most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other’s orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: Is there life after death?
Actual Rating: 2.5
Since reading Quenby Olson’s The Half Killed a while back, I’ve been interested in learning more about Spiritualism and the séance culture that took England and the United States by storm. This book takes place in the 1920s, several decades after the initial rising of this flavor of Western Occultism.
My low star rating has nothing to do with the information Mr. Jaher provides here. I was actually quite fascinated by his accounts of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom I knew only little of before I began reading this book. There is also a wealth of information here about Spiritualism and Occultism that enriches my understanding of the early 20th century.
There are several reasons why I stopped reading earnestly at 80% and skimmed my way toward the end. First, the organization here is very poor. The book is entitled The Witch of Lime Street, but the reader doesn’t even find out who bears that title until nearly halfway through the book. There is no clear direction or introduction informing us that the focus of the book will be the Scientific American contest or the subsequent rivalry between Mina Crandon and Harry Houdini. There is no central point, no guiding reason, no thesis. This book, while well-written and informative, is more a report and collection of information than synthesizing research. Additionally, the inclusion of so many similar accounts of séances and seemingly unrelated tangents makes the reading process tedious. It was very strange to be both attracted and put off by the subject matter and the writing.
I’m glad that I read what I did of this book, because as I said before it gave me more insight into Spiritualism and its impact on early 20th century American culture, but I’m not sure that I can heartily recommend it. If you have the opportunity to pick it up, definitely flip through and glean what you can. The information is definitely there. It’s just difficult to process.
Recommended for: those interested in historical accounts of occultism, paranormality, etc.
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.