A Conversation with David Jaher
Author of THE WITCH OF LIME STREET

Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World
Crown; October 6, 2015


Q. How did you first come to hear about Margery, the so-called Witch of Lime Street?
A. Margery makes an appearance in virtually all Houdini biographies, and I believe the first time I heard
about her was in Ken Silverman's book Houdini!!! She came across as such a colorful and controversial
figure, the most well-known medium at a time when there was a mainstream fascination with Spiritualism,
séances, and psychic research. Then I read a short book about her psychic work, written by the late Thomas
Tietze, called Margery, which seemed to be all the information that was available.

Q. How did Harry Houdini come to find a place on the Scientific American committee?
Can you tell us a bit about the other members?

A. When Houdini was a young magician on the medicine show circuit, he briefly made a living doing what
was called a spook show‹a theatrical display of spiritistic effects. He knew all the tricks of false mediums.
Later, after the death of his mother, he became more interested in attending séances, and by the1920s he was
considered the world's expert on psychic fraud. In addition, he was a friend of Orson Munn, the publisher of
the Scientific American. The producers of the Scientific American contest felt that they needed someone like
Houdini in case the scientists were stumped. Houdini's inclusion also assured that the investigation would
be popular to readers, though the Scientific American intended a serious inquiry. It was designed to be an
investigation disguised as a contest. Other judges on the committee were William McDougall, chairman of
the Harvard Psychology Department; Daniel Comstock, a notable physicist who left MIT to found
Technicolor; and two famous psychic researchers, Hereward Carrington and Walter Prince.

Q. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed author of the Sherlock Holmes series,
plays a large role in The Witch of Lime Street. What was his involvement in the contest?

A. Doyle was the de facto leader of the Spiritualists, a religious movement devoted to communication with
the dead. He was the one who urged the Scientific American to launch an investigation of mediums, as he
wanted to prove that psychic phenomena, and thus his religion, could stand up to scientific scrutiny. His
challenge inspired the Scientific American to award a cash prize to a genuine medium, if one could be found
and tested. The committee needed Doyle to convince test-worthy candidates to participate, and it was he
who first brought Margery to the attention of the magazine and encouraged her to enter the contest.

Q. Mankind has always had questions about the afterlife.
How is it that Spiritualism gained such momentum (both in the U.S. and abroad) in the 1920s?

A. This was right after World War I, when England, France, and Germany had lost a generation. Late in the
war, there was a devastating influenza epidemic that also took a disproportionate number of young people.
The entire Western world seemed to be bereaved‹and there was a universal yearning to know if the dead
survived the grave and if it was possible to communicate with discarnate souls. Séances and Spiritualism
became very popular in Europe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a prominent English scientist named Sir Oliver
Lodge, who was also a Spiritualist and psychic researcher, were largely responsible for bringing the
Spiritualist revival to America during their respective tours in the early 1920s.

Q. Are there experts in the world today who are still seeking ways to scientifically validate
supernatural phenomena?

A. Yes, but the difference is that in the 1920s you had respected, mainstream scientists who were also ghost
chasers. Lodge may have been England's most revered scientist. William McDougall was the most well-
known psychologist in America. In France, the scientist Charles Richet, a Noble laureate, had essentially
given up his mainstream work to focus on mediumistic research. Joseph Rhine, who was largely responsible
for taking psychic research out of the séance room and into the laboratory, was probably the last well-known
researcher of psychic effects. He founded and then ran the parapsychology lab at Duke University until his
death in 1980. Princeton also had an ESP lab that closed in 2007. Today, the Division of Perceptual Studies
at the University of Virginia actively investigates paranormal phenomena. And there are still private
institutions that are dedicated to these studies: the English SPR, the Parapsychology Foundation,
Windbridge Institute, and the Parapsychological Association are agencies that come to mind.

Q. If a contest, like that of the Scientific American's, were launched today, are there any modern-day "Margerys" that warrant investigation?
A. Most mediums today are mental mediums, meaning they channel messages and information. However,
the Scientific American contest was interested in studying physical mediums, which meant the kind of
psychic who could levitate tables, cause objects to float and move, and manifest spirit lights, voices, and
apparitions. Physical mediumship is something of a dying art today, at least in terms of those willing to
stand up to public and scientific scrutiny.

Q. On Halloween each year, there is a Houdini séance in which a group of devotees
attempt to contact the spirit of Harry Houdini. Have they ever had any success?

A. No. Houdini did make pacts, most famously with his wife, to try and communicate from beyond the
grave. But there have been no convincing spirit messages from Houdini.

Q. What was your process for researching The Witch of Lime Street? Was there anything you
discovered in the course of your work that you found particularly surprising or intriguing?

A. I had two main sources of research: letters between the various characters and scientists, which involved
a thorough search of various archives in the United States and England; and a trove of major newspapers
and magazines of the day. What particularly surprised me was how famous Margery, now largely forgotten,
was in the 1920s. There are periods, such as the summer of 1924, where she is a front page fixture on the
major newspapers in New York and Boston. Another aspect that surprised me was the level of interest at
that time in the supernatural. Most people don't associate the Jazz Age with psychics and séances, but it was
a time when there was an occult renaissance.


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