Did Margery re­ally con­tact her dead brother?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY KATHER­INE ARCE­MENT kather­ine.arce­ment@wash­post.com Kather­ine Arce­ment is a pro­ducer at The Wash­ing­ton Post who has also con­trib­uted to the Lon­don Re­view of Books.

In the af­ter­math of World War I, a reli­gious cult called spir­i­tu­al­ism en­joyed a re­vival in the United States and Bri­tain. Spir­i­tu­al­ists be­lieved in an idyl­lic mi­lieu called Sum­mer­land, where the dead could be com­mu­ni­cated with from be­yond the grave, prefer­ably via a medium at a seance. Even Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle was an ad­her­ent: The creator of Sher­lock Holmes had be­come a be­liever af­ter see­ing the work of a clair­voy­ant and af­firmed his be­lief af­ter the death of his son Kings­ley. Solv­ing the mys­tery of what hap­pens af­ter death be­came a project of sci­en­tists — among them in­ven­tor Thomas Edi­son — as many Bri­tons and Amer­i­cans sought out medi­ums to con­tact their de­ceased loved ones.

David Ja­her’s “The Witch of Lime Street” fo­cuses on the story of one medium in par­tic­u­lar, a house­wife who called her­self Margery. (Her nick­name gives the book its ti­tle — she lived on Lime Street in Bos­ton.) A vi­va­cious young blonde mar­ried to a sur­geon, she found af­ter an en­counter with an­other medium that she, too, had psy­chic gifts, which man­i­fested through her dead brother, Wal­ter. In the dark of a seance, ghostly Wal­ter could do all man­ner of incredible things: ring bells, throw trum­pets through the air and make clocks freeze. Margery’s pow­ers were said to pro­duce “ob­jec­tive phe­nom­ena of great dis­tinc­tion,” in­clud­ing ec­to­plasm, an “ethe­real yet vis­cous sub­stance” that em­anated from the medium’s ori­fices.

The only prob­lem was that some peo­ple didn’t be­lieve her story, in­clud­ing the great il­lu­sion­ist Harry Houdini. As part of a com­pe­ti­tion hosted by the mag­a­zine Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, a five-mem­ber team be­gan test­ing her and other psy­chics in an at­tempt to find proof of con­tact with the dead; one mem­ber of that team — brought on not as a sci­en­tist but as some­one who knew all about il­lu­sions — was Houdini. As one medium af­ter an­other tried to demon­strate oc­cult pow­ers, Houdini caught them all, ex­plain­ing how what seemed mirac­u­lous was ac­tu­ally the re­sult of trick­ery. Margery, Houdini charged, was “a very cheap fraud.”

Through deep sourc­ing of news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence, Ja­her him­self has suc­ceeded in re­viv­ing ghosts. In do­ing so, he at­tempts to pro­duce a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of spir­i­tu­al­ism, with a some­times sti­tled chronol­ogy as we fol­low sci­en­tists and medi­ums back and forth from the United States to Bri­tain. Ja­her’s de­pic­tions of Margery and Houdini are quite vivid, as their char­ac­ters bat­tle loudly in per­son and in print.

De­spite be­ing ex­posed by Houdini, Margery never gave up. On her deathbed in 1941, 15 years af­ter Houdini’s death and long af­ter the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in spir­i­tu­al­ism had waned, an in­ves­ti­ga­tor pressed her to re­veal her meth­ods. Margery told him to go to hell. “Why don’t you guess?” she asked. “You’ll all be guess­ing . . . for the rest of your lives.”

By David Ja­her Crown. 436 pp. $28

THE WITCH OF LIME STREET Seance, Se­duc­tion, and Houdini in the Spirit World

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