The 1920s were a high point in people believing that they could communicate with the dead. This may well have been due to two major events: the First World War of 1914-1918 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Both of them resulted in many millions of deaths, many of them sudden and of young people, causing deep grief among the survivors. One can well understand the yearning of people to somehow connect with the ones they had lost.
Naturally this created a market for those who could claim to channel the spirits of the dead and as a result there was a cottage industry of people conducting seances, where you go to talk with a loved one through an intermediary. Belief in this was widespread and indeed this form of ‘spiritism’, the belief in the existence of an afterlife where the deceased lived and could be communicated with, was viewed as a kind of religion that was independent of other religions and devoid of beliefs in any particular god. Belief in communicable spirits was supported by many eminent people of that time, including scientists such as Sir Oliver Lodge, whose son had died. Another notable believer was Arthur Conan Doyle whose son Kingsley had died during the war and Doyle believed that through a medium, he had been able to talk with him. His wife Jean also claimed to have the ability to communicate with the dead using the mode of spirit writing, where her hand would be guided over paper by the spirit.
If the ability to communicate with the dead was real, it would have revolutionary scientific consequences, implying the existence of new forces of nature. That would be even more spectacular than the relativity and quantum mechanics revolutions that had just shaken the world of science. Naturally this aroused interest in investigating these phenomena to see whether they were real or whether people were deluding themselves and being taken in by hucksters and charlatans who were using magic skills and other forms of trickery to pretend to those who came to them for sittings that they were in touch with the sitters’ loved ones. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed in the UK to study spiritism and it spawned an American offshoot, the ASPR.
This was also the heyday of Harry Houdini (born in 1874), the great magician and escape artist, and he played a major role in such investigations. His was an interesting perspective. He believed in the existence of the afterlife and did not a priori rule out the possibility of being able to talk with the dead. Indeed he wanted to do so because his mother, to whom he was very devoted, had died and he would have dearly loved to communicate with her. As a result he visited numerous mediums in the US and Europe to try and make contact but in each case, being the expert magician he was, was able to deduce that they were merely using trickery to achieve their effects since he was able to replicate everything they did. He became convinced, although he still believed in the afterlife, that the spirits of the dead could not communicate with the living and he spent the rest of his life debunking the mediums and others whom he was convinced were perpetrating frauds on gullible people.
In 1922, Scientific American magazine decided that the time had come to determine once and for all whether spirit communications were real or fraudulent and they announced a prize of $5,000 (the equivalent of close to $100,000 now) to anyone who could convince their panel of five judges (all men), one of whom was Houdini., that they had true telekinetic powers, i.e., they could get spirits to move objects. Various candidates came forth but on examination were found to be wanting.
Enter Mina Crandon, who was born Mina Stinson in 1888 on a farm in Ontario, Canada. After a failed marriage in which she had a son, in 1918 she married a wealthy Boston surgeon Le Roi (Roy) Crandon who was about fifteen years older than her, and became his third wife. She thus entered the society of the Boston elite, leaving her humble origins behind and transitioning easily into a world of rich sophisticates consisting of academics at elite universities like Harvard, and other professionals and intellectuals and artists. The Crandons would frequently entertain members of high society at their home in Lime Street.
In 1923, Mina said that on a lark, she visited a medium with a friend and at the end the medium gave her a startling message, that she had ‘the gift’ and would be famous some day. She and her husband then started staging seances at their home where she claimed to channel her brother Walter Stinson who had died young in an accident. While she was refined, Walter spoke through her in a hoarse voice and could be quite crude and vulgar in his speech, not afraid to throw insults at the people around the table. He would move tables, throw things, ring bells, shine lights, and otherwise exhibit spirit phenomena. These regular evening seances were much enjoyed by those who attended who were convinced that Mina had genuine psychic powers. As was the custom with seances, they were conducted in almost total darkness so that the sitters could not see what was going on apart from shadowy blurs, though they could hear things and were sometimes touched by clammy objects or felt a sudden chill in the air, that were taken as evidence of the spirit’s presence. Margery became the great hope of the spiritists, the one who would convince even tough skeptics like Houdini that we could communicate with the spirit world
In 1924, the attention of the Scientific American judges was called to Mina as the most hopeful candidate for their contest. The reason she was well thought of was because of the highly educated upper-class people (including Doyle) who vouched for her abilities as well as the fact that, unlike almost all other mediums, she was wealthy and did not charge money for her services. Indeed, the Crandons spent their own money to put on the dinners that preceded the seances and even offered to pay the expenses of the judges to come to Boston to test her out and to accommodate them in their home. There seemed to be a class bias in the fact that she moved in elite circles and that seemed to sway them in her favor. She was no vaudeville act.
There was also another factor that seemed to be at play. Margery was by all accounts an extremely attractive, charming, and vivacious young woman and she seemed to flirt with the judges who seemed quite smitten with her and there were rumors that she slept with some of the them. She also sometimes did seances wearing just a kimono and many times even naked and was even reported to throw herself onto the laps of male sitters.
Many mediums were women and one feature that I was surprised to learn about was the major role played by vaginas in seances. This happened in two ways. Believers thought that ‘ectoplasm’, the label given to the ethereal but viscous substance that was supposed to appear at seances and form itself into shapes in the air or even tangible objects, emanated from the orifices of the mediums, including their vaginas. On the other hand, skeptics suspected that some female mediums secreted objects in their vaginas prior to the seances (which as I said were held in almost total darkness) and then secretly expelled them during the performance. As a result, mediums were sometimes subjected to examinations that required them to remove all their clothes and even have their vaginas examined. It was a weird time indeed.
The judges (except Houdini who was on tour) took part in a series of seances with Margery to see if she was a candidate worth pursuing and the preliminary verdict was in her favor. In order to preserve her anonymity during the highly publicized contests, she adopted the name ‘Margery’. But later on, her identity was divulged when a newspaper reporter followed one of the judges to her home and deduced who Margery really was.
When Houdini eventually turned up for a demonstration of her powers, he was not convinced and soon concluded that she was just another fraud, although he admired the skills she used in getting the effects that so impressed others. He thought she was one of the best at this game and she too seemed to like him. Over time, others too came to the conclusion that she was faking it and Scientific American eventually declined to award her the prize.
Much of this information I gleaned from the book The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World (2015) by David Jaher. It is a frustrating book in some ways. One quibble I have is that the chronology of events is unclear since he mentions the months when things happened but rarely the years and seemed to jump around in time, making the sequence hard to follow. Jaher goes into great detail about what happened at the many seances conducted by Margery as reported by those who were there. The accounts given of the phenomena are truly fantastic with participants claiming that tables tilted over and in one case a table pursuing one of the sitters out of a room and down the hall. They said that they saw lights and ectoplasmic apparitions, heard bells being rung, and objects being hurled around. If you took those accounts at face value, you would be hard-pressed to deny the reality of telekinesis.
Mediums and magicians know that the audience is their biggest aid in fooling people because people aid in their own deception. Believers tend to unconsciously exaggerate what they saw to make it seem more amazing, while skeptics who cannot explain how things happened also unconsciously exaggerate to justify why they were mystified. Mediums and magicians are aided by the fact that people are generally bad at three things: observing (accurately noting what they saw), remembering (their unreliable observations further degrade with time and get mixed up with other memories), and reporting (they introduce further distortions when recounting the events, because of the human tendency to want to present a coherent and interesting story). This is why people generally make poor witnesses to crimes. One can mitigate some of these deficiencies by practicing close observation techniques and making details notes of events as they occur.
But if people who had initially seemed sympathetic to Margery’s abilities eventually concluded that she was not genuine, what convinced them? How were the phenomena produced? Presumably, the skepticism arose because they either caught the medium in the act of trickery or they themselves could produce the same effect without magic. Houdini and others suspected that some of the supposedly impartial judges had been seduced, literally and metaphorically, by Margery, as a result of staying at the Crandons’ home and even having sex with her. They suspected that some of the psychic investigators had, along with her husband, become confederates in the performances and were doing things on her behalf in the dark, enabling her to act as if there were disembodied forces at work in the room.
While Jaher describes the scenes in the seances in great detail, he is frustratingly a little vague about what persuaded the skeptics that there was nothing there in Margery. It is as if he wanted to leave the reader with some doubt as to whether there was truth in the phenomena or not. It turns out that he is also a professional astrologer , so maybe he personally thinks that it is possible to communicate with the spirit world.
But there are other accounts that reveal how the tricks were done, such as this article by Massimo Polidoro, and the Wikipedia page on Mina Crandon, that go into some detail of how the debunking came about.
Another mystery that has not been satisfactorily explained is why the Crandons, pillars of Boston high society, would engage in such a fraud. They were not doing it for the money. They were not doing it to gain notoriety, at least initially, since they used the pseudonym Margery to avoid having their involvement with the contest publicly known. One speculation is that Mina initially used tricks in seances to amuse and please her husband but that over time they both got carried away and welcomed the attention they got and felt the need to continue the deception.
Another theory has also been suggested.
The seances were a sort of marital charade. Margery’s audience being not Houdini or the Scientific American group or the other investigators but her husband, whom she helped to delude himself in order to save their collapsing marriage. They were too different one another, and Crandon got quickly bored by her after marriage; however, he also had a strong fear of death. In trying to keep him by his side, Margery hit on the idea of manifesting spirits for him and it worked. He now felt like a new Galileo for the half a million followers of Margery, and demanded always new phenomena . He came to force her wife for new demonstrations with downright brutality.
What is undeniable is that Mina was able to, seemingly on her own, develop these considerable magical trickery skills to so convincingly fool people
The peak period of spiritism were the so-called ‘Roaring 20s’ where people indulged in all manner of frivolities but the end of the decade saw the Wall Street crash followed by the Great depression of the 1930s and people’s attention may have turned from the spiritual to towards more material matters such as living through difficult times. The spiritism craze faded by the end of the 1920s and Mina’s star faded along with it. She became an alcoholic but continued to conduct seances for people in her home even after she and her husband started living separate lives. Roy Crandon died in 1939. Mina died in 1941 without ever admitting that she had been a fraud.
Fun fact: “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” -- although nowadays viewed as a bizarre non-joke, this joke dates back to the days of spiritism, and made perfect sense at the time. The chicken crosses the road in order to be killed by a car/carriage, and thus to reach the Other Side, the spirit world. I mean, I’m not saying it’s funny, but it’s at least got an element of actual wordplay that appears to have been lost on most people over the intervening century.
Also: Roy Crandon married a woman 15 years her junior, then held parties at which his wife gained the attention of gentleman visitors, cavorting semi-naked or naked, and apparently on occasion having sex with them. This sounds like a textbook example of a man with what would today be called a cuckold fetish and a wife indulging him, willingly or otherwise.
Marcus Ranum says
If the ability to communicate with the dead was real, it would have revolutionary scientific consequences, implying the existence of new forces of nature.
It would have revolutionary theological consequences, too. But organized religion kind of collectively shrugged and looked the other way.
Rob Grigjanis says
If the days of spiritism were after WWI, that doesn’t work, since the joke can be dated to no later than 1847.
It doesn’t make sense anyway, since the question should be “why did the chicken try to cross the road?”.
My favourite response is the supposed one that Ernest Hemingway would give (perhaps via seance): To die. In the rain.
I don’t think we need to come up with elaborate explanations for why she did it. In our entertainment-soaked world today it is hard to imagine just how boring life could be back then. There was no TV and radio was just a weird hobby for nerds. Mina must have been quite intelligent and she was probably pretty outgoing in order to meet and marry an older man who was so far outside her own social class. Once she was ensconced as a wealthy society lady she would have been very limited in ways she could catch the attention of other people and express herself. She may have had a personality very much similar to Houdini himself, but she couldn’t possibly try to join the Vaudeville circuit. But she could do this.
Rephrased, the question becomes: Why did the chicken CROSS the road?
Because it was too far to walk around it.
Great , now I’ve got Friends On the Other Side as an earworm after reading that chicken joke . 🤣
@Rob Grigjanis -- thank you. I read that somewhere and it seemed credible -- cheers for the debunk! 🙂
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
Why did the punk rocker cross the road?
They were safety-pinned to the chicken.