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: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

One hundred years ago this month, May 7, 1915, the Cunard Lines ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, the U-20, killing over a thousand crew and passengers (and three German stowaways whose true identities were never determined.)  123 of the dead were American citizens.

Dead Wake

With this centennial, it’s not surprising that there’s a new book out on the subject, by the author of The Devil in the White City, among other non-fiction bestsellers.  This book weaves together the story of the Lusitania and those aboard with that of the U-20 and its crew, and the background of World War One.  The sinking was a confluence of many factors, including the German realization of how best to use their submarines, even though it violated maritime customs of war.

There’s a lot of material available about the Lusitania, some of which is only relatively recently available, such as the role of Room 40, the British Navy’s codebreaking division.  Mr. Larson has done his research, and this may be the most complete book on the disaster.

We learn of the many factors that slowed or sped the fateful encounter.  Wartime conditions that took one of the Lusitania’s boiler rooms offline, the U-20’s frustration as its torpedoes failed to explode on other targets, confusing instructional telegrams from the British Admirality, a sudden break in the foggy weather.

There is the testimony of the survivors that gives glimpses of life aboard ship on the trip, during the sinking, and the long wait for rescue…too long for many.  One of the passengers, Preston Pritchard, apparently was quite memorable.  He did not survive, and his body was never found, but many letters to his mother describe him and his activities.  “…as though he resided still in the peripheral vision of the world.”

There are many odd factoids; Captain von Trapp (of later musical fame) was a U-boat commander.  We see romance blossom for President Woodrow Wilson even as the nation moves closer to war, and Winston Churchill plots against the stricken ship’s captain to conceal British secrets.

The endpapers are maps of the area of the sinking, and there’s one photograph of the Lusitania, but there are no other illustrations.  The end notes are extensive and contain more factoids that Mr. Larson was not able to get into the main narrative.  There’s an extensive bibliography and index.

I found the narrative compelling and well-written.  Recommended to history fans, especially those who haven’t already read a  book on the subject, or one of the ones published before the release of classified material.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from “Blogging for Books” for the purpose of reviewing it.  No other compensation was involved.

And here’s a video of the Lusitania launching on that final voyage…

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