Book 9 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from January 9 - 20
I received a copy of this book via Blogging for Books and would like to thank the author and/or publisher for the opportunity to read and honestly review it.
The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
Summary (via Goodreads)
History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.
The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.
Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery's powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince...the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.
David Jaher's extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation's most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other’s orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: Is there life after death?
4 stars. Like most non-fiction, you must have an interest in the subject to enjoy this book but if you do, I would absolutely recommend this engrossing, informative book.
First, a note about the look of the book. The cover (I have a hardback book with a dust jacket) glows in the dark, which was a super cool touch for a book about magic and the paranormal.
I'm not sure how I feel about psychics. I definitely believe in intuition but not the full on mediums that can always get connections at will at any time. When I saw the author was a professional astrologer I wondered if he'd be biased against science but he wasn't. This was a well-presented book with the information from that time presented in an interesting and captivating way, and there wasn't much present-day speculation on the author's part. The book was divided into nice short sections that made it easily digestible and it wasn't bogged down as non-fiction can sometimes be. The author had great material; truth really is stranger than fiction.
Reading about a famous medium Eva C who released "ectoplasm" or "miracle fluid" from between her legs or from her nostrils was pretty gross. Sounds like Eva needed some antibiotics.
Seeing the pictures of Houdini surprised me. He looked nothing like I imagined. I also liked how the author used the words of the people who were actually there. The ways that they revealed fake mediums were fascinating.
Whether Margery was a fraud or not, she was immensely talented. I almost wanted to stop reading before the end because I didn't want to know if Houdini would be able to prove she was fake or if she would be found to be the real deal (no spoilers!). Once we found out how Scientific American voted it wasn't as interesting and the ending took a little longer to wrap up than I liked.
A Few Quotes from the Book
"Since the Great War, the peoples of the world have turned with a quickened interest and an almost insatiable curiosity to the unsolved problem of the ages - after Death, what" ~ Baltimore Sun, August 24, 1919
"When the lights were out and we sat around that table in pitch blackness or in the faint glow of a dim red light we witnessed some of the most strange phenomena ever seen by humans." ~ S. Ralph Harlow
"You call it death - this seeming endless sleep;
We call it birth - the soul at last set free.
'Tis hampered not by time or space -
Why weep at death. 'Tis immortality." ~ a poem by "Walter", one of the spirits that would appear at the seances
"Think of it a moment, you who doubt immortality! If Walter is a returned soul, consider what that is going to mean to the world. It will give positive proof that we, in our individuality, survive the grave." ~ Edward Cotton, Christian Register
"Few really believed the expected eclipse was an omen, yet there was something primitive in the sight of thousands staring trancelike at the heavens."
"Houdini was declared dead at 1:26 p.m. on Halloween, 1926. Even the date of his passing had linked him to the spirits, and some found it poetic justice that on the day the dead return to Earth, he left it."