Harry Houdini, the world’s most famous magician, came to Boston in 1924 to expose as a charlatan a popular medium named “Margery.” He succeeded, but in the process he got drawn into a public battle that involved allegations of fraud, infidelity, academic malpractice and the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Houdini was no stranger to Boston. In 1908, he jumped off the Harvard Bridge with his hands handcuffed behind his back and chained to a collar around his neck. Then in 1911 he escaped from the belly of a dead, 1,600-pound sea turtle on the stage of B.F. Keith’s theater.
In addition to his death-defying escapes, Harry Houdini unmasked spiritualists who claimed to communicate with the dead. Which is how he ended up in a séance on Beacon Hill with “Margery,” the toast of Boston society and the wife of a well-known surgeon.
In Margery, Houdini almost met his match.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a rabbi. The family immigrated to Appleton, Wisc., in 1878. At nine, he performed publicly as a trapeze artist. He turned to magic as a teenager, getting his first big break at 25 to perform his escape act on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.
His escapes grew more dangerous and difficult. He escaped from locked, water-filled milk cans, from chains, ropes, coffins and jails. He escaped from straitjackets while hanging from a rope outside a building. In the Chinese Water Torture trick, he would hang shackled and suspended by his feet on stage, his head immersed in a tank of water.
Houdini’s mother died in 1913. He called it “a shock from which I do not think recovery is possible.” For years he attended seances hoping to communicate with her “beyond the veil.” But every time he discovered the medium to be a charlatan. The deceptions infuriated him, and he began to wage war on fraudulent mediums and psychics.
His training in magic made him well-equipped for the task. He called himself the “scourge of Spiritualism.”
For centuries people had tried to communicate with the dead, but in the United States Spiritualism took off in 1848 with the Fox sisters of New York state. They claimed to be mediums who talked to the dead through mysterious rappings during seances. After they won fame and fortune with their act, they admitted it was all a hoax. Spiritualism caught fire anyway, spurred in the United States by the carnage of the Civil War. Grieving families sought comfort in seances where they could communicate with their dead.
By the 1920s, interest in Spiritualism revived after the staggering loss of life during World War I and the influenza pandemic. And plenty of people believed in “Margery,” one of the last, best-known spiritualists.
Her real name was Mina Crandon, the third wife of a wealthy doctor and yachtsman, Le Roi Goddard Crandon. A Boston Brahmin, he was a Harvard Medical School graduate, surgeon at Boston City Hospital and commodore of the Boston Yacht Club. People described him as dour, autocratic and suave, with a morbid fear of death.
He also had an un-aristocratic nickname, “Button-Hole” Crandon, a reference to his appendectomies. He did them through the belly button to avoid leaving a scar. But his career cratered when he operated on a pregnant woman, having misdiagnosed her as having cancer. She lost the child and sued, so he quit abruptly.
Mina, born Mina Stinson on a Canadian farm, was the antithesis of her much older husband. She was pretty, vivacious, athletic and eager to hang on to her sugar daddy.
She had married once before, to a Boston grocer. Fearful that her second husband would tire of her, as he had of his previous wives, she began demonstrating her gifts as a medium. Mina rapped on tables, stopped watches, produced live pigeons and began talking to her dead brother, Walter. Walter sounded a lot like Mina only with a husky voice and a scatological vocabulary.
Brahmins and middle-class Bostonians came to her seances. Then her husband took her to London to see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a believer in spiritualism. Mina convinced Doyle of her paranormal abilities and he became her ardent supporter.
As her fame grew, she acquired her own nickname: The Witch of Lime Street.
On a hot July day in 1924, Harry Houdini and three other men climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of the Crandons’ Lime Street house on Beacon Hill. They belonged to a Scientific American committee that examined the claims of psychics and medium. In 1923, Scientific American offered a $2,500 prize to any medium who could convince the committee of his or her supernatural abilities.
Joining Houdini were Columbia University professor Malcolm Bird, parapsychologist Hereward Carrington and Scientific American publisher O.D. Munn.
Earlier that year, the magazine published an article by Bird claiming the committee was about to award the prize to the Boston medium, who he identified as “Margery.”
The article enraged Houdini, who called it “piffle.” He also demanded to sit in on a “Margery” séance. Thus he and the others traveled to Boston in July.
Bird and Carrington had stayed overnight with the Crandons, which shocked Houdini. “It is not possible to stop at one’s house, break bread with him frequently, then investigate him and render an impartial verdict,” he wrote. Their verdict was anything but impartial – they’d attended 20 seances with Margery and wanted to give her the prize. What Houdini didn’t know (yet) was that Carrington was sleeping with her, and Bird very much wanted to.
Houdini Unmasks Margery
For her séance, Mina wore a filmy dressing gown, bedroom slippers, silk stockings and nothing else. Before it began, she hiked her skirt above her knees and then asked for darkness. Her husband sat to her right, and the others, all sitting around a wooden table, held hands. Houdini easily exposed one of her tricks. She sat at a table, “immobilized,” between the men who held her hands and feet. Then she made a bell ring inside a “spirit bell box” – a locked wooden box on the floor.
Houdini described what happened:
All that day I had worn a silk rubber bandage around that leg just below the knee. By night the part of the leg below the bandage had become swollen and painfully tender, thus giving me a much keener sense of feeling and making it easier to notice the slightest sliding of Mrs. Crandon’s ankle or flexing her muscles.
… I could distinctly feel her ankle slowly and spasmodically sliding as it pressed against mine while she gained space to raise her foot off the floor and touch the top of the box. …When she had finally maneuvered her foot around to a point where she could get at the top of the box the bell ringing began and I positively felt the tendons of her leg flex and tighten as she repeatedly touched the ringing apparatus.
Houdini exposed her other tricks. When the table “levitated,” Houdini reached out and felt her head as it lifted the table.
When she made a megaphone fly through the air, Houdini figured out she ‘d put it on her head during a momentary diversion that freed her hand. She then jerked her head to make the megaphone drop at his feet.
Houdini insisted that Scientific American publish an expose of Mina Crandon, but the editors held off. Houdini then published a 40-page pamphlet, Houdini Exposes the tricks used by the Boston Medium “Margery” to win the $2500 prize offered by the Scientific American.
He also took to exposing Mina Crandon’s tricks during his stage show.
His denunciations didn’t hurt Mina Crandon – in fact, the publicity helped her. She continued performing, adding new tricks to her repertoire. For example, she produced “ectoplasm” from a bodily orifice. It turned out to be an animal liver she hid in her lap.
She also claimed “Walter” could leave a fingerprint in wax. Upon examination, it turned out to belong to her dentist.
Her husband tried to discredit Houdini in Spiritualist periodicals. He clearly hated the magician. Crandon wrote a letter to A. Conan Doyle, complaining, “this low-minded Jew has any claim on the word American.” Doyle, for his part, published a defense of Margery in the Boston Herald. Houdini then threatened to sue Doyle.
Back and forth they went, Houdini and the Crandons attacking each other in the press. Houdini had the advantage of the stage and his own showmanship. He returned to Boston and posed for photographers in front of City Hall holding $10,000 in bonds. He promised to give the money to charity if he failed to duplicate every spiritualist manifestation. “This is especially aimed at Mrs. L.R. G. Crandon,” he said.
Walter, from beyond the veil, predicted Houdini would die within the year. He wasn’t far off. Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, from sepsis, which resulted from a blow to the stomach. He promised his wife he’d try to contact her from beyond the grave.
Margery denied to the press that she’d put a curse on him.
The Real Story
Why did she do it? To save her collapsing marriage. Her husband had begun to tire of her and treat her harshly unless she gave him a good séance.
Houdini believed Crandon aided and abetted his wife in the ruse. He hit the nail on the head. Her husband discovered her fraud, but he enjoyed the attention and excitement. Plus, he’d lost prestige in recent years because of the lawsuit. The Spiritualist business was a way of getting it back.
Malcolm Bird, the Columbia mathematician, later admitted that Mina had approached him and asked him to help in her deception. Houdini also learned that her other ardent supporter, Hereward Carrington, not only slept with her, but borrowed money from her husband.
Dr. Crandon died in 1939, and Mina fell into a deep depression. She began to age quickly, put on weight, drank heavily and lost her looks. She died Nov. 1, 1941 — the day after Halloween.
As she lay on her deathbed, a paranormal researcher Nandon Fodor asked her if she would confess to the tricks she’d used. Mina told him to go to hell.
With thanks to The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.