The Medium and the Magician

"You want to know what it feels like to be a witch? You know that's what they would have called me in Boston 150 years ago. And they would have hauled me before the General Court and executed me for consorting with the devil. But now they send committees of Professors from Harvard to study me. That represents progress doesn't it?"

Mina "Margery" Crandon, Collier's, May 8, 1925

Unidentified photographer, Houdini and unidentified man in faked spirit photograph, circa 1920, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the Estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Photography Collection, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin


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One evening, in the spring of 1923, a small séance was held in the Beacon Hill home of a prominent surgeon at 10 Lime Street, Boston. Dr. Le Roy Crandon darkened the room and all present joined hands—until the table began to move. One by one, each participant left, in order to determine who might be the clairvoyant, until all but Dr. Crandon's wife, Mina, remained. Mina Crandon, neé Stinson, was in her mid thirties and by all accounts a fascinating and charming woman. Nicknamed "Pysche" by her physician husband and later known to the public as "Margery," she seemed to channel the ghost of her dead brother Walter, who had been crushed to death twelve years earlier under a railroad boxcar. For the next 18 years, Margery and Walter fascinated and perplexed audiences all around the world.

That summer, Dr. Crandon penned an enthusiastic letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the well-known author of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and avid proponent of Spiritualism. Conan Doyle had had the opportunity to sit with Margery in his London flat that winter, at which time Walter spoke, a bell rang without a known agent, and a dried flower fell before Lady Doyle. Without hesitation he recommended her to J. Malcolm Bird, an editor for Scientific American, who invited her to enter a $2,500 contest to prove psychic ability sponsored by his magazine.

One of the most famous members of the Scientific American committee was the magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. Initially interested in Spiritualism, Houdini, had attempted to contact his deceased mother several times. During the séances, he realized that many mediums used the same slight of hand as he did in his magic act. He subsequently created a touring exposé and wrote several books and pamphlets debunking them. It was Spiritualism that ultimately brought the enigmatic figures of Conan Doyle and Houdini together. They developed a strange friendship that lasted until irrevocable rifts over certain cases erupted. Their exchange and debate played out publicly in the press and privately in letters.

The first of what would be a handful of Houdini sittings occurred in July 1924. With each sitting, Walter presented new abilities, until Houdini produced an elaborate box for the last séance, an almost anti-"Medium's cabinet," that restricted Margery's hands and feet. The outcome was a blank séance, yielding no happenings. As a capstone to the examination, in 1925, Houdini challenged Margery to appear at Boston's Symphony Hall for $10,000 in bonds and produce phenomena that he could not replicate. She did not show. Instead, for two nights Houdini reenacted all of the Margery séances, entertaining the packed house. A month later on February 11, 1925 the committee issued their final report denying her the prize. Nonetheless, they did explain, "We have observed phenomena the method of production of which we cannot in every case claim to have discovered. But we have observed no phenomena of which we can assert that they could not have been produced by normal means."

Over the course of the next few years, Margery was the subject of numerous investigations, many of which were documented photographically. Even today, this story continues to captivate and brings to light cultural and philosophical issues surrounding Spiritualism and photography, art and science, belief and proof. Like most photographs of mediums and séances, those presented here seem to mimic and recast aspects of performance art, magic shows, scientific demonstrations, as well as the photographic process itself. Overtly scientific apparatus and accoutrements were used in examinations, along with special photographic equipment. Accordingly, Margery acted as camera and photographer—working in the dark chamber of the medium's cabinet as well as producing ectoplasmic "positives"—while Walter often performed tricks specifically for the camera.

Houdini died on Halloween day, 1926 from a ruptured appendix, apparently a result of a blow to the stomach incurred as part of a dare. Four years later, Conan Doyle passed away, succumbing to a cold after a lecture on Spiritualism. Doyle's family duly attempted to contact him after his death and several supposed spirit photographs and writings exist (two of which are displayed here). Before Houdini died, he pronounced that if there were any truth to Spiritualism, he would attempt to make contact from the other side. Each year, for the next ten years, Houdini's wife Bess held séances in the hopes that he would come through and present her with a pre-arranged secret message. Houdini enthusiasts continue the tradition now, holding a séance each year on Halloween. Margery outlasted them both, dying in 1941, and took her secrets with her to the grave.

The archival materials presented here are largely from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini Collections of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. The Doyle holdings represent one of the largest collections of spirit photography in the world.

Copyright © 2002, Photographic Resource Center, Inc.