The bloody, horrific battles of World War I ended in 1918, leaving battered nations and shattered families to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to continue on. As the 1920s began to roar, the Spiritualist movement, a pseudo-religion based upon making contact with the departed, came into prominence. The mediums who were the face of the movement offered reconnection with family and friends lost beyond the veil.
Into this tumultuous time period stepped two men, both rationalists at heart, yet destined to take very different paths through Spiritualism. The first was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle had lost his brother and cousin in the Great War, and his son to influenza shortly thereafter. Through several mediums, Doyle had managed to make convincing contact with his dead son and his brother, and hereafter became one of the most vocal proponents of the Spiritualist movement. The second man was Harry Houdini, world famous magician and escape artist. Houdini had never really recovered from the death of his mother years before, and had set out on a quest to speak with her again across the veil. Houdini’s trained eye and his experience with legerdemain exposed every medium he visited as nothing more than a fraud. Houdini would make it one of his life’s missions to expose fraudulent psychics.
The book focuses on the eponymous “Witch of Lime Street,” a woman named Mina Crandon. Unlike most psychics of the day, Mina was a member of the Boston Brahmin social elite, and pretty, vivacious, and charming. Multiple scientific researchers would declare her work genuine. Houdini’s quest to unmask her as a fraud would become an obsession.
This book is a well-written, immersive history of a fascinating period in American history. For the first time, modern scientific principles were being applied to old-school supernatural phenomena. Scientists and laymen were seeking the answer to the “ultimate quest”: could life after death be conclusively proven? Jaher handles the subject well, maintaining mystery while providing a scientific expose, no mean feat. Jaher used primary source material for most of the content of the book, and this shows in the vivid (and occasionally contradictory) portrayals of the major players.
I would highly recommend this book for any history buffs out there. But even for those who don’t usually take to nonfiction, Jaher’s writing is accessible and entertaining, making this a good pick for any interested in the subject matter.
A copy of this book was provided by Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. The Witch of Lime Street is currently available for purchase.
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