Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fall Reading 2015 The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World


An intriguing look at the worldwide popularity of mysticism and mediums following World War I, The Witch of Lime Street goes into incredible detail about the period and the key players. Among the stars of the era were Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mina Crandon (a.k.a the Witch of Lime Street). It may seem strange to those who have not read any other accounts of Houdini's life, but the famous escape artist was very involved in exposing frauds who posed as psychics. Even stranger, Doyle was a major proponent of speaking with spirits through seances - something you wouldn't expect from the creator of the ultra-logical Sherlock Holmes.

Author David Jaher has researched many existing museum and archival collections of journals, letters, and other papers from the main characters of his book, as well as reading innumerable articles and interviews from the time period. He has managed to reconstruct a story spanning from 1918 to 1941 (even including background and important events from earlier in the lives of the principals), and ranging across the U.S., England and Europe. He shows how Houdini and Doyle met, how Houdini became involved in the contest sponsored by Scientific American magazine to find proof that psychic phenomena were real, and the various competitors for the prize money.

More than just recounting the facts, Jaher manages to convey the emotional atmosphere of the times. First there is the weary feeling after the war, with so many missing their loved ones who died during the fighting. Then he captures the almost manic gaiety of the Roaring 20s with the dance marathons, speak-easies, and flappers. And finally he shows the gradual decline of the giddiness as the 20s gave way to the Great Depression. Those eras were important in creating a climate where thousands were desperate for contact with the deceased and eager for new breakthroughs, and then the change of focus from the great beyond to daily subsistence as the economy collapsed.

The use of extensive quotes from the primary source material helps to preserve the voice of the individuals involved in the quest to prove or disprove the question of mediumistic powers. Readers will also appreciate the way in which the author lets us know the fates of Houdini, Doyle, and Crandon, rather than abruptly ending the story with the end of the competition.

Excellent reading for those interested in the historical periods covered, or in the famous personalities involved. 

I received an e-book from the publisher through NetGalley.

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