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.
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.)
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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