Thursday, April 7, 2022

Houdini vs. Margery II: The rematch that wasn't

It's not generally known that Houdini and Margery almost had a second seance room encounter--a rematch, if you will--in September 1926 when Houdini brought his 3 Shows in One to Boston. But the seance didn't happen, and as with everything Houdini-Margery, both sides blamed the other.

Recently our good friend Jessica Jane Peterson lent me a book she happened upon, Margery Mediumship, Vol. 2 (1933), that contains the original correspondence between the parties. I think I can read between the lines and suss out what really happened to Houdini vs. Margery II.

On September 17, 1926, Dr. Henry Clay McComas, professor of experimental psychology at Princeton, visited Houdini in his dressing room at the Majestic Theater in Boston. McComas and several fellow investigators had attended two recent seances at the Crandons Lime Street home and had been impressed. Margery, via her dead brother Walter, was now able to identify random objects placed in a basket that would also freely levitate. The old bell box was still in use, but this time Walter could ring the bell while the box was held in the laps of the sitters, even with their backs turned.

Key to the new manifestations was that Margery was placed under strict control (i.e., restrained). Control is what brought her down during the Scientific American seances. When properly restrained by Houdini's "Margie box" and later Dr. Comstock's device, Margery/Walter could not produce any phenomena. Now she was restrained with wire and marked surgical tape and enclosed in a new glass cabinet. It seemed impossible for Margery to be responsible for any of the seance room phenomena witnessed by the committee.

McComas wanted to know if Houdini would be interested in attending a seance to observe Margery's latest manifestations. Houdini suggested a cut to the chase approach. As long as McComas provided him with a detailed description of Margery's seance, he would go in and reproduce her every effect sight unseen. The men worked up a memo to this effect:
Memorandum of conference with Houdini at his room in the Majestic Theater.
(1) Houdini stated that he could, and would be delighted to repeat the "Margery" phenomena for a group of gentlemen to be selected by Dr. McComas of Princeton.
(2) He urged that the apparatus used be the same as that used by "Margery" and to this Dr. McComas and Dr. Brown agreed.
(3) Houdini suggested that the same committee wire "Margery" into the cabinet that later wires him, and to this Dr. Brown and Dr. McComas agreed.
The Crandons agreed to the challenge. On Saturday, September 18, McComas once again attended a seance so as to provide Houdini with an exact record. A stenographer was brought in for the occasion to record every moment. Extraordinary detail was given to the process of examining and controlling Margery. The seance lasted over two hours, with Walter being his usual boisterous self and going through the same routine as before. After the seance, Margery was again painstakingly examined and all the controls where still in place.

McComas gave Houdini the record of the seance and Houdini replied with a letter back. This is when things took a turn. While Houdini agreed to the seance the following day, Sunday, September 19 (when he did not have an evening show), he said he wanted to bring along "three or four college professors" as a committee. He also wanted the option of observing Margery in action before his own attempt at duplication, which he admitted could take a few days to prepare. Houdini wrote:
You might think she does certain things in a certain way and describe it to me, whereas it will be entirely different before my eyes. [...] The lady is subtle and changes her methods like any dexterous sleight-of-hand performer or any medium I have examined. [...] It must be borne in mind that secret paraphernalia may have to be contrived to perform some of the tests. If so, I will explain these tests until I have time to get the same made.
McComas showed the letter to Margery's husband, Dr. Le Roi Crandon, who felt Houdini was now changing the conditions of the test he himself had conceived. But I think Crandon saw something else in Houdini's response. I think he saw that Houdini was on to them.

What I believe Houdini recognized in the seance transcript was that Margery had overcome her issues with control in a very simple way; she now employed seance room confederates. Hence Houdini's new requirement that he be allowed to bring along three or four of his own men. What do you want to bet those "college professors" would be named Collins, Vickery and Williamson? But Houdini was asking for a change and this allowed Crandon to balk.

The seance proceeded the next day as planned, but without Houdini. When Margery went into her trance it was Walter who seemed the most disappointed, stating:
What are you doing here? I thought I was going to have a night off and watch Houdini get tied up… He was afraid to come. He wouldn't have liked to be tied up in that cabinet; I would have talked to him.
Houdini was held over in Boston for an additional week and continued to express his interest in attending a seance. On September 20 he wrote to Crandon directly:
In view of the many rumors, some not so complimentary to me, have heard that you are perfectly willing for me to attend a number of séances during my stay here in Boston. Am inquiring whether this is the truth as I hear a great many things that may be distorted. If you would permit me to come to the séances, I would be very glad to do so, after any of my performances this week.
Crandon wrote back three days later:
In as much as the only value which could possibly be attached to your presence at Lime Street would be because it would afford some amusement to watch your attempts to duplicate these phenomena, and since this you very wisely decline to do, there seems no other compelling reason for your coming again to Lime Street.
On September 24, his last day in town, Houdini sent another message to Crandon:
Please don't use the usual tactic of waiting until I leave and then grant me permission to come to a seance. I am sending this to you special delivery, registered, and will be at the theater all day waiting your reply.
Crandon wrote back that if Houdini wanted a seance he should make arrangements through Dr. McComas. But by this time the professor was back at Princeton.

The next day Houdini left for Worcester and the great Margery rematch never occurred.

Thanks again to the magical Jessica Jane Peterson for helping unlock this story.

1 comment:

  1. Margery is sporting a mondo fur coat in that photo. The kind of coat that would upset PETA. Great new info on the HH/Margery bout!!! Crandon and HH communicating under veiled diplomacy.