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The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction,…

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit…

by David Jaher

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2566444,720 (3.65)39
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    The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Boston's Great Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo (asukamaxwell)
    asukamaxwell: Same era, certain locations (ex: Beacon Hill) and historical figures (ex: Comstock and Dr. Holmes) appear in both. They compliment each other very well.

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The title of this book is what immediately captured by attention---anything with Houdini and séances can’t be bad. The top of the inside dust jacket stirred my imagination: History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime street…”Not to mention the dust jacket glows in the dark which is really cool.

Before I even started reading, I was disappointed. Having been initially classified as fiction, I was bummed to learn that this was nonfiction. But I was intrigued, so I didn’t let a little thing like that stop me. I was ready to be whisked away to the 1920s: back to jazz, spiritualism, Prohibition, and the fascination with the occult.

I want to say upfront that this book is well-written. It’s not hard to follow and is not merely fact stacked upon fact, as many historical books are. It pulled me in, but I kept reading and reading, waiting for Houdini and Margery to go head-to-head. It took more than half the book to get there.
The book’s first half was about the rise in spiritualism in the United States and the role Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) played.

Fascinating background that a reader not well schooled in its complex history needs to know. Houdini was more like a bit player; he showed up near the end, and the biggest scene he played was his own death. I have to admit, that I felt cheated. And too, the book does not present conclusive evidence as to whether Margery was a fake or truly had a gift to communicate with her brother, who happened to be on the other side.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. ( )
  juliecracchiolo | Mar 12, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World is a book in which author David Jaher recreates the world of this true life story in remarkable factual and novelistic detail. The central conflict involves the great Harry Houdini and a medium called Margery who surprisingly resides at the center of high society Boston. Jaher goes to great lengths in telling his readers about the rise of Houdini and how he became obsessed, due to the loss of his beloved mother, with exposing fraudulent mediums. Equally Jaher illuminates how mediums like Margery where being taken seriously at a time scientific advances, technological change and the impact of the devastation of the Great War aka World War I. Most stunning to many readers will be the central roles played by the Scientific American magazine in sponsoring a contest for mediums as well as the involvement of the creator of Sherlock Holmes [Arthur Conan Doyle]] as a champion of mediums being pivotal in the new religion of spiritualism!

I have a long fascination with Houdini and the condensed biography (I would welcome a full biography on the magician from the author) offered here by Jaher was my favorite part of the book including learning he had a close, then fractious, relationship with Doyle. Honestly, for this reader the central conflict and approach of treating Margery's seances as possibly authentic goes on for far too long in far too much detail. Still this dense, detailed, deeply researched book brings to life a forgotten time when talking to the dead was deemed just as likely as one day visiting the moon! ( )
  ralphcoviello | Jul 30, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
“ 'The idea of the Scientific American, ' one columnist wrote, was 'to prove or disprove all the beliefs of spiritualists with one swishing swipe of its sword' “ p 74

I have an interest in reading about many forms of religion and the afterlife. I knew that the Spiritualism movement had been very popular in the early twentieth century, but not much beyond that.

After the millions of deaths in WWI, the spiritualism movement grew by leaps and bounds as the bereaved sought desperately to once more be in contact with their loved ones. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes series became a vocal proponent of the ability to reach those had passed on.

And so the young journal Scientific American put together a panel of experts – made up of spiritualists, scientists and the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini to award a monetary prize to any medium who could prove the veracity of their encounters. One by one, each medium was discredited as being a trickster. Often this was done by Harry Houdini who was a master of illusion and could reproduce any so called supernatural effect by physical means.

In 1924, enter Mina Stinson Crandon, who produced a variety of phenomena during seances, supposedly produced by her dead brother Walter. She had many devoted followers, including several of the supposed skeptics on the Scientific American panel itself.

Her story epitomizes the spiritualism movement as Harry Houdini worked to show that even her amazing feats could be reproduced.

However, not all her followers were convinced that all her phenomena had been explained, and even on her deathbed, she declined to give further explanations.

This is a very detailed and well-researched look at spiritualism. I found it well written, but the details worked against it for me and I got a bit bogged down in its 400 pages. I suspect it will work best for someone with a deep interest in Harry Houdini, the spiritualism movement and the debunking of so-called psychic phenomena. The detailed bibliography and index will make it a useful reference and easy to refer to specific incidents. ( )
  streamsong | Feb 17, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Here's where I start with the obligatory "I'm an American history nut and am constantly reading about it" ... but, well, I'm an American history nut and am constantly reading about it. :) For that reason, I went into this book thinking, this is perfect, Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1920s America and England, spiritualism, what more could you want? Well, it turns out that it wasn't a question of what "more" did I want, but what "less" did I want.

I'm not usually one to write reviews about "this book was too long", but, this book was too long. It was obviously well-researched and was full of facts and information, but I just felt a lot of the times that this was filler facts and information. Good information, interesting information, but information not always germane to the story. Kindof like when you read a book about Edison (or anyone) and it says, "Edison absolutely loved oranges. At the turn of the century, oranges were one of the main cash crops in Florida. Florida is made up of 45 counties, each of which has an orange farm. There are three types of oranges. The first type, known for it's tartness, is commonly referred to as .................................... and now back to Edison", etc.

So, a paradox. I enjoyed myself while reading it, because I enjoy reading about these subjects and this time period. But I also didn't always enjoy myself while reading it because I found my mind wandering. And there were a lot of ponderous sentences. I don't doubt the author can write, he is obviously intelligent and writes well. It's just that sometimes I wanted to tell him, stop the dissertation and get back to the book. You don't have to prove how smart you are.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. And I think if you're interested in these subjects, you will, as well. But keep in mind that you may read it and think, "Hm ... I think this would've been a perfect article for the Smithsonian Magazine, but maybe not for an entire book."
1 vote setheredge | Jan 31, 2017 |
In his book The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher paints a picture of a lesser-known aspect of the Roaring Twenties: its obsession with the occult. Many families lost loved ones in the Great War’s trenches. A growing number of them, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, took solace in Spiritualism, which taught that death was not an end but a new beginning. This interest brought the concept of seances into the public eye. Even Scientific American did a series on occultism, eventually hosting a contest to find a true spirit medium. Their intent was—using scientific means—to either debunk spiritualism as a widespread hoax or to ground it in fact. Unlike Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Harry Houdini was not convinced. A master of smoke and mirrors, Houdini became Scientific American’s go-to fraud spotter. He easily exposed countless charlatans, until he finally met his match: Mina "Margery" Crandon, the eponymous Witch of Lime Street.

So many of the things I find fascinating intersected in this book: the Roaring Twenties, Spiritualism, science, mystery—and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Please. I was all over it. But ultimately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations. What it came down to was not the subject matter—that was just plain cool—but the way it was related to the reader. To me, the author seemed disinterested. Sure, there is a battle for the fate of our souls going on (the question: is there scientific evidence to support the existence of an afterlife?), but it seems like Jaher has no skin in the game. He doesn’t care if Houdini outsmarts the Crandons; so ultimately, neither does the reader.

Jaher’s reportage-like tone comes in part from his attention to detail—too much detail, actually. He has tried to fit too much research into the story, so that this reads like an overview of occultism in the 1920s instead of what would be more compelling: the lives of the characters involved, specifically Mina Crandon and Harry Houdini. If Jaher had fleshed out his narrative with dips into their psyches, using their thoughts from personal correspondence and diaries, the story would have had a greater depth, and it would have been more meaningful. He could have even told the story closer to their perspectives by using more free indirect discourse. (Jaher makes a few attempts at this, like on page 241, but the brunt of the narrative does not make use of this close of a perspective, and it suffers for that lack.) If Jaher had told the story from a narrative perspective closer to the characters, he would have elevated the story from the level of a textbook and grounded it in the realm of biography, drastically improving the story without changing any of the important details, because what really matters here is not the whats but the whos. The people in The Witch of Lime Street had the potential to be more compelling than the events. Their beliefs were at stake, their views of the world, their very existence. But Jaher just didn’t make it happen.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t like parts of the story. Many of the descriptions were interesting, and I commend Jaher’s thorough research and attention to detail. If the 1920s and occultism interest you, definitely read this book. But if those aren’t your bag, I’d say skip it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
( )
  beckyrenner | Dec 29, 2016 |
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Magick...is the most perfect and chief science. - Marcus Agrippa
For my grandmother, Henrietta Jaher, and the memory of her son, my father, Frederic Cople Jaher
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A woman in a black velvet coat pushed through the revolving doors of the Grosvenor Hotel and waving a miniature Union Jack in each hand waltzed slowly around the marble hall.
Then he put a bullet through his own temple and joined them in that place where the big tent is struck and the barkers are silent.
Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and mustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood's gaze? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. - George Orwell
You were once wild here! Don't let them tame you!
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in their graves shall hear his voice.
One did not summon men like Comstock and McDougall from Boston or pull Houdini from whatever skyscraper he was hanging from...to test some quack just off the train from Lily Dale...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307451062, Hardcover)

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?

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 01 Jul 2015 20:29:38 -0400)

In 1924 the wife of a 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 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. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince... the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini. Jaher captures their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other's orbit.… (more)

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