The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (Crown Publishers, 2015)
The 1920s may elicit feelings of nostalgic glamour, but it was a time of emotional desperation for a country recovering from the enormous losses World War I. It’s no wonder that people turned to the paranormal in an effort to reconnect with loved ones and scientists dedicated their studies to proving the occult true.
Jaher’s story centers on one of these unusual collaborations between psychics and scientists. The magazine Scientific American was offering a cash reward to the first medium who a panel of experts deemed authentic in their ability to connect to those on the other side. It is here in our story that two famous men enter – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Doyle believed in the paranormal and in particular the power of one woman, known as Margery. Houdini, however, knew a con artist when he saw one; as an illusionist, he saw what others were too distracted to notice. Houdini sat on the magazine’s panel entrusted with proving – or debunking – psychic ability. Margery needed to convince Houdini that it was the spirit of her departed brother Walter who was coming forward in séances.
In case you want to find out for yourself if she succeeds, I’ll leave you to read the over 400 page story. It’s mildly entertaining; who doesn’t love a good séance with the Handcuff King. The Scientific American competition must be well-documented because the entire book is focused on this one event in paranormal history. However, if you (like me) are not well-rooted in early twentieth century American culture, Jaher’s re-telling of this moment in time may feel detached. I would have preferred less detail about *every* séance Margery performed and more background on the social history of a country that suddenly found its people desperate for a new religion. Context regarding women’s place in this society would have made Margery feel real; she seems as lifeless as her dead brother.
As an aside, an examination of our scientific understanding of anatomy in the 1920s may also have kept me more focused on the crux of the story. There are *so* many references to Margery’s vagina and what she may have possibly stored there as instruments to aid in deception during paranormal practice. You simply can’t end a paragraph with “Margery’s vagina might be a storage place for spirit hands and fake teleplasm,” and give the reader no details. And later, “Was the medium in the hypnotic state…when she packed artificial hands into her vagina?” It’s as though all these learned men think women have a built-in handbag. It isn’t until page 359 that we get one of them admitting that the others are “Comically ignorant…of the physiology of the female subject – and the true proportions of any woman’s vagina.” Thank god they weren’t all idiots.
Jaher’s book is ok. It’s likely a favorite among fans of the paranormal who are well-read in the practices and history of the occult. If you are new to this period in American history and the subject of psychic ability in general, the text can be overwhelmingly nuanced without providing any general backdrop for the events played out on its pages.
Please note: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a review.