Sunday, October 25, 2015

REVIEW: The Witch of Lime Street is no fraud

When The Witch of Lime Street was first announced back in 2007, there was some skepticism among Houdini buffs (myself included). The press reported a "high six figures" advance for a book by an author no one in the Houdini world had ever heard of. Indeed, David Jaher (spelled Jehar in the original reports) had never written a book before, and while he was said to be a screenwriter, he had no produced credits. Furthermore, he worked as a professional astrologer. It didn't help that the release date was continually postponed. Originally set for release in 2010, it jumped to 2012, 2013, 2014, and finally 2015. So you couldn't blame Houdini buffs for suspecting The Witch of Lime Street might turn out to be as fraudulent as, well, "the Witch of Lime Street" herself!

Having now read David Jaher's 436-page The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, I'm happy to report that all our fears were unfounded. The book is a triumph! It's exhaustively researched, beautifully written, and easily stands as one of the best books ever written on Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade. It is certainly the finest work ever produced on Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery" (admittedly, there have only been two others). It also might be one of the best books ever produced on the subject of Spiritualism itself. For those wishing to better understand Houdini's encounters with Margery and his participation in the Scientific American committee, this is now essential reading.

For me, the "test" of the book was in how the author handled the infamous ruler incident. This is the controversy over how a folding carpenter's ruler got inside the Margery control box during one of her seances with Houdini. Margery believers blame Houdini. Houdini supporters blame Margery. And informed magic historians -- especially those who don't care for Houdini -- quickly cite a damning quote from Houdini's chief assistant Jim Collins (which first appeared in Gresham) confessing that he "chucked it in the box" on the boss's orders. So which side would the author take?

Well, not only does David treat the ruler controversy objectively, describing all that occurred without inserting his own opinion (a relief in this day of opinions as fact!), he also reveals the source of the Collins quote as magician Fred Keating, a Margery convert who had been J. Malcolm Bird's select magician committee member during the seances preceding Houdini's arrival in Boston (the full extent of Keating's involvement was something I didn't know until this book). So not only did David pass my test with flying colors, he also took a step to debunk something that has been used to indict Houdini (and Collins) in the past. Bravo!

While there isn't a single momentous revelation in the book (no, Margery was not a government spy), there are dozens of small ones. Among these is the mind-blower that Margery channeled her spirit guide Walter during a radio broadcast in January 1934. That is one recording I'd love to hear! Jaher takes us a few more troubling steps down the road that suggests Margery's husband, Dr. Le Roi Crandon, may have been involved in child abductions -- maybe even murder -- which was first uncovered by Bill Kalush in The Secret Life of Houdini. This is weird and troubling stuff, and while it is still unclear exactly what was going on, it appears Houdini himself might have been pursuing the case via his English agent, Harry Day. Jaher also delves into the seductive side of Margery (a favorite topic), and even reveals that Margery did try to work her "applesauce" against Houdini in her own son's bedroom at Lime Street. (You can bet I'll be doing a post about that one soon.)

As to Houdini himself, Jaher's portrayal feels very similar to that of Ken Silverman in his masterful Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. It's not wholly positive or worshipful, but it feels honest and true, showing us Houdini at his best, worst, or usually somewhere in-between. One thing I didn't care for was the author's continued use of "The Great Houdini." Houdini himself never used this moniker, and it seemed like an unnecessary Hollywood flourish in an otherwise controlled and scholarly work.

For such a weighty topic, the book flows beautifully. I especially enjoyed the brevity of the chapters. Here I think Jaher's skills as a screenwriter came into play. Not for any ability to create fiction, but for an ability to condense information into packets of dramatic movements that carry the reader along. The book never bogs down or meanders. It's what one would call "a quick read."

It's when Jaher moves outside of his area of core research (1920-25) that he falls into a few familiar traps and errors do creep into the text. He says Houdini appeared in the Welsh Bros. Circus as the "Wild Man of Borneo." It was actually the "Wild Man of Mexico." (Borneo comes from the movies.) He suggests the sea monster challenge took place underwater. It was a stage escape (but Houdini sometimes told an underwater version). And the provider of Houdini's last meal of Farmers Chop Suey was Dr. Daniel Cohen, not Dr. Kennedy. But these types of forgivable errors appear in all Houdini biographies. I spotted no whoppers, nor did David indulge in any wild speculations. Instead, the author finds his story -- which is as thrilling as any Hollywood fiction -- in the facts.

So while it may have taken a few years longer than we expected and, yes, it's a skeptical work written by an astrologer, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher is a major contribution to the world of Houdini scholarship and a gift for all Houdini buffs.

Oh, and the dust jacket glows in the dark! That alone makes it a must for your Houdini bookshelf.

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World can be purchased at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK). It's also available as an Unabridged Audiobook.

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15 comments:

  1. Hey, thank you for that incisive review John! Whew! I'm glad this book is passed your rigorous test. I also read somewhere that Fred Keating was behind the ruler accusation.

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    1. Thanks. I believe I first read that the quote came from Keating in The Houdini Code Mystery. Kalush also reveals it in Secret Life.

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  2. Actually, Milbourne Christopher, on page 198 of "The Untold Story," mentions Keating as the source. He notes that Gresham reprinted the supposed quote from Collins about planting the ruler, but that Gresham got it from Keating himself, who had recently read some "unflattering" comments in a manuscript of Houdini's in Christopher's collection which derided Keating's abilities as a psychic investigator.

    -Meredith

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    1. Ah, good job, Meredith. And good on Christopher!

      The point is the quote should never be used without explaining that it came from dubious source. One thing I like is that Jaher only brings it up in a footnote, which is really where it belongs.

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    2. i got the impression that Margery planted the ruler herself, as well as the eraser in the bell box, just so that she (or Walter) could accuse Houdini of trying to sabotage her.
      Really liked this book and especially appreciated how it put the spiritualism movement into historical context. Could have used a few more pictures though.

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  3. This is a little off topic but I fail to see anything attractive about this woman-I actually thought she looked much older than she was at the time/ Sorry , just my thoughts! Will be reading the book soon though as it sounds interesting-by the way does anyone know what became of the millionaire supportor Joseph de Wyckoff? Sorry if I misspelled the name.

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    1. I think she's attractive, although I think a lot of her appeal was more about her energy and personality. She appears to have had IT.

      The book talks about Wyckoff, but I don't recall if it says what became of him. A lot players in the Margery story. Hard to remember them all.

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  4. John, I have no doubt your review is right on the money. I had to stop myself from reading it after the eraser part because I don't want to ruin any parts of the book before I read it. I have one of the early editions, but want to pick up the finished book to read. When I'm done, I'll come back and see how many points we agree upon....probably all :)

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    1. Yeah, don't read the proof as it is missing some Houdini material. Read the final book.

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  5. We can see from the jacket photo that Margery was much prettier when she was younger. By 1925, she was 37 years of age and seems to not have aged well. Time also caught up with HH the last several years of his life. Some age better than others. As John mentioned, she must have been quite a charming woman, and that may have offset her fading beauty.

    Wyckoff is listed in the 1927 Who's Who in Occultism:

    http://www.think-aboutit.com/whos-who-in-occultism-new-thought-psychism-and-spiritualism/

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  6. Nice review! Currently reading it in Maui. So far it is glowing, literally. See you at Séance in SF.

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  7. Excellent review!

    So sorry to be missing you & all the festivities in SF - gotta take care of my aged parents elsewhere.

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  8. I have been a fan of Houdini for most of my 54 years and have read almost every possible book on him, this is one of the best books I thought on his involvement in the Ghost Busting years, Agreed some minor flaws but overall very well researched.

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  9. I absolutely agree with your review John. I just had the pleasure of driving, all alone, from Toronto to NYC and back. I really wasn't looking forward to it...until I found the audiobook of The Witch of Lime Street. Couldn't have asked for a better couple of days!

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    1. Thanks Marc. Glad you enjoyed it. I don't have the audiobook, but I should get it. I enjoying have some HH in the car to always turn to.

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