Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Medium and The Magician


Happy Halloween everyone! Recently, I watched a film that was released a few years ago called "Death Defying Acts" starring Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fake psychic named Mary McGregor.  According to the copy on the back of the DVD "it is the year is 1926, and Houdini is an international superstar. Yet behind Houdini's winning smile resides the restless heart of a tortured soul. Isolated by fame and drowning in regret over having not been present to hear his mother's last words, Houdini sets out in tour of Scotland and announces that he will pay 10,000 dollars to anyone who can prove spiritual contact with his deceased mother. But in his determination to prove that there is life after death, Houdini also becomes the target of countless charlatans, scam artists, and self-proclaimed spiritualists. Of course, stunning psychic Mary McGregor and her daughter/sidekick, Benji, seem remarkably sincere in their supernatural talents, yet that doesn't mean that the pair doesn't have their own ulterior motives for making a connection with the world-famous magic man."

Sounds intriguing doesn't it? Well the irony is that movie is based somewhat on fact. In 1924, Houdini set out to expose a medium named Mina Crandon who used the name 'Margery.' Margery wasn't Scottish; she was a Canadian who lived in Boston with her physician husband. And the prize money was $2,500 put up by Scientific American to anyone who could prove that they had psychic powers. The judges were Walter Franklin Pierce, an American psychical researcher, Hereward Carrington, an occult writer, Daniel Comstock who introduced Technicolor to film, and William McDougall, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

By 1924, Houdini was world famous as a magician, he'd even dabbled in the new medium of film, but his newest passion was debunking mediums. It wasn't that Houdini wasn't open to the idea of being able to contact the spirit world.  There had been moments in his life that he couldn't explain. Once in Berlin, Houdini was put in a box, tied up and handcuffed so tightly that he wasn't sure that he was going to be able to get out. His wife Bess had prayed to Houdini's late father Rabbi Mayer Samuel for help. Before he died, he had told Houdini that if he ever needed him, that he would be there. Within seconds after Bess's prayer, Houdini was able to escape the handcuffs. On another occasion, Houdini had seen a fleeting vision of his mother. The next day he learned that she had passed away.
Houdini had consulted spiritualists after his mother Cecilia's death in 1913. He was so distraught that he hadn't been there at the end, but he soon realized that these so-called 'spiritualists' were all con-artists. That they used illusion the same way he did on stage. Houdini was disgusted by how they were taking advantage of the grief of so many people, and he determined to expose them. He began to devote a large part of his act to debunking mediums across the country, by demonstrating no stage how they managed to fool their clients. He would go in disguise to séances, and then dramatically pull off his beard, shouting "I am Houdini and you are a fraud," as he exposed them.

Spiritualism had been on the rise again both in America and in Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Noted author and the creator of Sherlock Holmes; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer. It seems hard to understand how Conan Doyle, the man who created one of the most rational men alive could become so convinced that spirits exist. Conan Doyle had been raised Catholic, and had attended schools run by Jesuits, but as an adult he had become a confirmed agnostic. He came to spiritualism gradually over the years. After the death of his son Kingsley in the First World War, he threw his lot in with spiritualism wholeheartedly. However, like a lot of converts, he had a one track mind when it came to spiritualism; he was unable to see anyone else's point of view. “I consider the psychic question to be infinitely the most important thing in the world,” he declared. “All modern inventions and discoveries will sink into insignificance besides those psychic facts which will force themselves within a few years upon the universal human mind.”

Conan Doyle and Houdini became friends when Houdini came to England to perform. While he was there, he hoped to have Conan Doyle introduce him to various mediums who might have been reluctant to meet him given his position on spiritualism. As the two men got to know each other over the next few years, Conan Doyle became convinced that Houdini's gifts were psychic in nature, and not a carefully planned and rehearsed act, despite Houdini's protestations to the contrary. He wrote Houdini telling him that he didn't need to search for creditable medium, when he already was one. Houdini on his part tried to gently get Doyle to see that most mediums were actually fake by demonstrating how they achieved their results but Doyle refused to believe it. Houdini even sent him a copy of his book Miracle Mongers and their Methods, where he exposed the secrets of sword swallowers, snake charmers, and other side show entertainers.

Houdini and Conan Doyle's friendship, unfortunately couldn't survive their differing opinions about spiritualism, despite their mutual respect for each other.  On a trip to the US, Conan Doyle's wife, Jean had conducted a séance for Houdini and her husband (Bess was not invited) in which Houdini's mother's spirit was supposed to have come through, using automatic writing. Houdini tried to be tactful in his response to séance because he still needed Doyle's help and also out of respect but privately he admitted that the spirit couldn't possibly have been his mother. The first reason being the writing was in English, which was a language that his mother could neither speak nor read, she had made the sign of the cross on the pad, and Houdini's family was Jewish, and finally the day of the séance was his mother's birthday which she never mentioned.
When Houdini published an article with the statement, "I am willing to be convinced, my mind is open, but the proof must be such as to leave no vestige of doubt that what is claimed to be done is accomplished through or by supernatural power." Conan Doyle was pissed. He felt that the article was an insult to his wife. Doyle also knew that getting Houdini on spiritualism's side would have been a great coup for the movement. Houdini, on the other hand, was being pressured by his friends who were anti-spiritualists to come out once and for all against the movement.  It was only a matter of time before Mina Crandon came across his radar.

At first glance, Mina Crandon seemed an unlikely medium.  She was an exceedingly attractive woman who came across more like a light-hearted flapper than most mediums who seemed solid and serious.  Mina was the daughter of a Canadian farmer, who had moved to Boston as a teenager to play in various dance bands. When that didn't work out, Mina went through a serious of odd jobs including secretary, actress and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, by whom she had a son; Mina married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, twice married, and a former instructor of surgery at Harvard Medical School in 1918. Mina had met Crandon when she was admitted to the hospital, probably for an appendectomy. Crandon was famous for his technique of removing the appendix by going in through the belly button so that the scarring was minimal. At the time Mina was 30 and Dr. Crandon was in his early forties. Crandon adopted her son and changed his name to John Crandon.
Mina had never had a psychic experience in her life, and had no interest in spiritualism until her husband became interested. One evening in 1923, Dr. Crandon invited a few friends over to his house for what they called a ‘home circle’ meeting.  The group gathered around a small table, which soon began tilting in response to their questions.  Dr. Crandon suggested that they leave one at a time to see who might be responsible for the paranormal activity.  Surprise, surprise, it turned out to be Mina! Ironically just a few days before, a psychic had told Mina that she possessed supernatural abilities and that she sensed that a laughing man was trying to contact her from beyond the grave.  The young man turned out to be Mina’s late brother Walter, who died in a railroad accident in 1911.  Walter would turn out be Mina’s spirit guide, a quick-witted fellow who loved to use foul language.  Mina was so versatile that Walter would continue talking even when she appeared to be snoring or holding water in her mouth.

For a year, Mina only displayed her talents to sympathetic audiences who were all too ready to believe evidence that their loved ones were contacting them.   During the séances, mysterious things would happen, bumps and raps rang out, and strange flashes of light pierced the darkness, once a live pigeon appeared in the room, seemingly out of nowhere.  Convinced of her talents, Dr. Crandon took Mina abroad where she made the acquaintance of Arthur Conan-Doyle who was convinced that Mina was the real enchilada. He declared that she was “a very powerful medium” and that her gifts were “beyond all question.”

Mina’s first real test came in late 1923 in front of a group of Harvard professors and students.  When it was over, one of the participants William McDougall tried to get Mina to admit that she was a fraud.  The Scientific American contest was going to be her crowning achievement as a medium.  All she had to do was win the $2,500. The Crandon’s’ didn’t need the money, what they wanted was the seal of approval winning the contest would confer. It seemed like a slam dunk.  J. Malcolm Bird, an associate editor at Scientific American who had come up with the idea, also believed that Mina was the real deal, and had written articles extolling her ‘gifts.’ It was Bird who gave her the stage name ‘Margery’ to protect her privacy.
By the time Houdini got involved, the judges were almost ready to award the prize to Mina.  Houdini offered to pay $1,000 of his own money if he failed to expose Mina as a fraud. Traveling to Boston, he reviewed the findings of the judges and came to the conclusion that the whole matter had been mishandled. Not only had the committee availed themselves of the Crandon’s hospitality but one of the investigators had borrowed money from Dr. Crandon.

On the night of July 23, Houdini arrived at the Lime Street for another séance. Mina greeted her guests in a flimsy dressing gown, bedroom slippers, and silk stockings which left little to the imagination.  The idea was to rule out the possibility that she was concealing anything on her.  It also had the desired effect of sending the judges pulses racing.  At 36, Mina was still a good-looking woman with a girlish figure, and sparkling blue eyes.  By the time Houdini left the house, he was impressed by Mina although not her supernatural powers.  At the hotel that night, Houdini detailed just exactly how Mina had produced the supernatural effects that had them so mesmerized.  He told them Mina had used her foot underneath the table to make the bell ring during the séance.  He also demonstrated how she had managed to make a megaphone crash to the floor.
Another séance was arranged and this time Houdini came prepared. He’d designed a special cabinet with openings for the medium’s head and arms. Once inside, Mina’s movements would be restricted.  Reluctantly Mina agreed to conduct the séance from within the cabinet.  The séance was not a success, ‘Walter’ tipped off Dr. Crandon that an erase had been wedged into the bell box to prevent it from ringing.  The next séance, a collapsible ruler was found inside the cabinet.  Mina’s defenders claimed that Houdini had planted both items to discredit Mina.  Houdini, on the other hand, believed the items had been planted to impugn his testimony.

Houdini outraged Mina and her supporters by publishing a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium Margery.  He was adamant that Mina was a fake while her supporters were just as adamant that she was genuine. Scientific American decided to cut its losses and declined to award the prize to Mina after all. No doubt, in large part, to Houdini.  From the grave, Walter weighed in with a prediction that Houdini would be dead within a year.  He was off by a year, Houdini died on October 31, 1926, of complications following a blow to the stomach.   In an interview with the press, Mina praised Houdini’s virile personality and great determination.

Mina continued to give séances.  By this time, Mina had moved on from just channeling Walter, she was now able to produce physical evidence such as ectoplasm from various body parts.  Sometimes the ectoplasm even formed into hands.  It was the ectoplasm that was responsible for the ringing of the bell and other phenomena.  When another investigator named Eric Dingwall asked to examine the ectoplasm, Dr. Crandon claimed that it could only be seen with a special red lamp.  When Dingwall touched the ectoplasm, he described it as feeling like ‘a piece of cold raw beef or a possibly a piece of soft wet rubber.’  Dingwall became suspicious as did other investigators but Mina was unconcerned.  By 1928, ‘Walter’ was now able to leave behind a fingerprint.  This time, Mina had gone too far.  When the fingerprint was examined, it turned out to match the fingerprints of Mina’s dentist! Even Mina’s most staunch defenders began to back away. 
In 1939, Dr. Crandon died, and Mina began to turn to alcohol to ease her depression, although she continued to hold séances in her house on Lime Street. Mina Crandon died in 1941 at the relatively young age of 54. In the end, she was worn down by her own success, having to produce more and more ‘miracles’ to satisfy her supporters.  Was Mina a real medium or an out and out fake? Many researchers believe that were some elements of the paranormal present in Crandon’s séances, although no one could tell what was genuine and what was not.  

Sources:
Houdini - Kenneth Silverman
The Secret Life of Houdini - William Kalush and Larry Sloman
Final Séance - Massimo Polidoro
 

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