Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe by H.L. Mencken

The 2016 presidential election campaign has already begun, so let’s take a look at a book about elections of the past, shall we?  H.L. Mencken (1880-1948) was a newspaperman, most famously on the Baltimore, Maryland Sun.  For a number of years, he had a weekly opinion column published on Mondays.  These 69 essays are focused primarily on presidential politics between 1920 and 1936.

a Carnival of Buncombe

That covers Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and the first two elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Mr. Mencken skewers them all, as well as other politicians and public figures of the time.  He was famous for his barbs, and is eminently quotable.  For example “…going into politics is as fatal to a gentleman as going into a bordello is fatal to a virgin.”

It’s interesting to see what has changed about politics since the first half of the Twentieth Century, and what has remained the same.  It’s still amusing to watch a party’s primary candidates tear each other to shreds, then have to work together as best buddies once the party has an official nominee.  On the other hand, the Republican and Democratic parties of the time are barely recognizable as the organizations they are now.  (One can see the beginnings of the policy flips that lost the Dems the KKK vote.)

Mr. Mencken has a wide vocabulary and many useful words that may come in handy for your own writing.  But be warned that he also uses some ethnic slurs that were common at the time.  His views are progressive on some subjects, but highly reactionary on others, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  Mr. Mencken is particularly hard on Methodists and Baptists, who he feels bullied the country into Prohibition (which Mencken was against.)

H.L. Mencken did support some politicians on an individual basis, but was quick to edit his own memory of their performance when they disappointed him.  One also has to remember that he had a reputation as a curmudgeon to uphold.

To cover the major players, Warren G. Harding was a compromise candidate chosen for not having particularly strong views on anything; Calvin Coolidge was even less impressive (unless one takes the Jeffersonian dictum that “the government is best that governs least” in which case he is one of the greatest presidents.)  Herbert Hoover was sold to America as exactly the kind of person who could fix a financial crisis should one pop up–he wasn’t.  And FDR would have been better suited to the job of king.

Interesting historical perspective:  Mr. Mencken writes several times about the perception that Hoover was too close to the British, something that didn’t get any play in the little I heard about him in school.

This collection was put together in the 1950s with the aid of political history scholar Malcolm Moos; it already needed an extensive “glossary” of names mentioned in the columns to remind people of who they’d been.  Even with the glossary and index, some knowledge of early 20th Century American politics is vital to the reader getting anything but a few chuckles out of the text.  My copy is in bad shape, as you can see, but the book has been reprinted a few times, so check your library or used book store.

Recommended to students of American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...