Did Margery really contact her dead brother?
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.”
THE WITCH OF LIME STREET Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World