The Two Faces of Margery

Her name was Mina Crandon, but the world knew her as Margery – a pseudonym adopted to protect her from publicity. She lived with her husband, the successful surgeon LeRoi Goddard Crandon, on Boston's affluent Beacon Hill. It was there, in their house on Lime Street, in 1923, that she purportedly discovered she had psychic powers – specifically, the ability to levitate objects, generate occult noises, and materialize "spirit" forms. These phenomena were controlled, she said, by the spirit of her deceased brother, Walter, who would speak through Mina in a gruff, decidedly unspiritual manner, his no-nonsense comments liberally laced with profanities.

Before long, Mina's talents came to the attention of researchers, and she was closely studied, on and off, for the ensuing ten years. A thorough examination of the claims and counterclaims of the various researchers would require a book-length essay. I'm not that ambitious. Instead, what I'd like to do is compare and contrast the accounts of the initial investigations, as presented in two influential books: Science and Parascience, by Brian Inglis (1984), and Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult, by Milbourne Christopher (1975), with only occasional forays into other sources, when necessary. In the process we may not learn anything conclusive about Margery, but we will learn something about the hazards and frustrations of studying the paranormal.



Photos: Mina Crandon ("Margery") in a casual pose, and laughing when the cabinet collapses around James Bird during a seance.

Each author no doubt strives for factual accuracy and relative impartiality, but people's preconceived opinions always interfere with their quest for objectivity to some extent. Inglis admits as much in the postscript to his book: "In trying to clear away the debris of misconceptions and misinterpretations I have found it difficult not to slip into the role of counsel for the defence, and for that reason my own interpretation must be treated with reserve; but the records are there, for anybody who cares to check on them."

Inglis, then, is sympathetic to the claims ofical researchersand their subjects, whom he sees as embattled underdogs oppressed by a hostile, closed-minded establishment. Christopher, an accomplished professional magician, brings a very different perspective. He regards claims of psychic phenomena with a skeptical eye and sees mediums and psychics as frauds playing tricks on the gullible. "Scientists who are convinced that human beings have extrasensory powers rarely take the proper precautions to rule out the possibility of trickery," he writes. "Indeed, unless they are experts in the subtle techniques used by magicians and mentalists, or have someone who is to assist them during their experiments, it is almost impossible for them to detect ingenious deceptions."

The battle lines are drawn -- Inglis, the counsel for the defense; Christopher, the prosecuting attorney.

Inglis begins his case by indicting the competence of Margery's investigators. "Few of the researchers had any experience in this field ... Those who were experienced, too, tended to bring their preconceptions and prejudices along with them."

He then makes a preliminary argument for the genuineness of the phenomena. "The Crandons were not the kind of people whom it was easy to suspect of trickery ... They allowed precautions to be taken: investigators were encouraged to search the rooms in which the séances took place. Mina also allowed herself to be searched, before she put on a kimono, silk stockings and slippers, and made her appearance. Her 'cabinet' [a standard accessory for many mediums – an enclosed space in which Mina would sit] was open at the front, and large enough for an investigator who wanted to check on her to sit beside her ... And although the séances were normally held in darkness, apart from an occasional flash of 'red light,' the outline of Mina's body was picked out by luminous pins stuck into her kimono, and luminous bands round her wrists and ankles. Or, sometimes, her wrists and ankles were attached to the cabinet with picture wire."

Christopher makes no mention of picture wire or of luminous pins. He mentions the luminous bands only in connection with later séances, indicating that this method was not used during the earlier sessions.

Both Christopher and Inglis point out that Mina was "controlled" (held) on her right side by her husband, who could have been in cahoots with her. Inglis mitigates this damaging admission by adding, "The fact that Crandon was sitting beside her, and was himself controlled on the other side, meant that he could not be held responsible for the distant raps, the music, the luminosities and the movements and levitations of objects rendered visible with luminous paint, which continually featured -- unless the Crandons were using some gadget such as a telescopic 'arm,' with a 'hand' and 'fingers,' and no such elaborate contraption was ever found."

Inglis might have added that in some séances, an investigator "circled with one of his hands the fingers of both the medium and her husband" (Harry Houdini, "Margery" the Medium Exposed, excerpt here), although it seems that this "control" was not maintained perfectly throughout a séance.

There were a few other debating points Inglis might have used, but didn't. For instance, Walter's voice was said to manifest even when Mina's mouth was filled with water or marbles (John Beloff, Parapsychology: A Concise History, 1997), or even when everyone at the séance table, including her husband, filled his or her mouth with water (Theodore Besterman, Some Modern Mediums, 1930). Some reports claimed that the voice did not come from Mina's direction at all (Daniel Stashower, "The Medium and the Magician," American History magazine, August 1999; online here).

A more complex argument in Mina's favor is made by Nandor Fodor in his Encyclopedia of Psychic Science (1933; online here). He describes a so-called "Voice Control Machine, designed by Dr. Mark Richardson, of Boston, for use in the Margery séances." This device "consists of a U-shaped tube in which small luminous floats were placed on the surface of the water. By means of a flexible tube which had a specially constructed mouthpiece the medium blew into the tube and caused, by the pressure of air, the second column of water to rise. This position was retained as long as the mouthpiece was tightly held by the medium's lips and tongue. The collapse of the column of water could be immediately detected in the dark by means of the luminous floats." Thus, Richardson was allegedly able to ascertain that Mina was not speaking when Walter's voice was heard. Whether Dr. Crandon was in the room is not mentioned.

Fodor continues, "Yet an even more satisfactory control was devised by B. K. Thorogood; a cubical box, made of layers of seven different materials, completely soundproof, closed and padlocked, containing a large, very sensitive microphone, connected by two wires emerging from the box to a distant loudspeaker. While sitters in the séance room heard nothing the voice of Walter issued from the loudspeaker in the distant room, proving that the voice had its origin through the 'mike' in the box. Under such conditions the independence of the voices in the Margery séances was completely proved."

Finally, Inglis could have observed that the Crandons were able to produce their phenomena even when they were far from home, in an environment that presumably they could not have rigged for special-effects tricks. Here is part of a letter written by psychic investigator T. Glen Hamilton in 1927:

"During three days' stay in Winnipeg, Mrs. Crandon kindly gave three sittings at all of which brilliant phenomena were observed by over forty well-known people of this city. As these phenomena took place under entirely new surroundings, I think they should be carefully reported ... I am prepared to state most emphatically that the 'Margery' phenomena are absolutely genuine; and a number of other medical men who were privileged to be present at the 'Margery' sittings have reached the same conclusion. Furthermore, I know of none who witnessed the phenomena here who have been able to suggest any worthwhile criticism. In a word, they are astounded at the simplicity of conditions under which these amazing phenomena occur." (Quoted in the "Introduction to the Second Edition" of Dr. T. Glen Hamilton's Intention and Survival, 1942; onlinehere)

Hamilton, a medical doctor, examined Mina during some of her séances and was impressed to find that her respiratory rate could fall to only five or six breaths a minute. (Intention and Survival, Chapter 3; online here.) It is certainly possible to induce such slow respiration via breath control exercises or meditation (I've done it myself), but it might be difficult to maintain such control while pulling off elaborate sleight-of-hand and sleight-of-foot tricks, as Mina's detractors alleged.

Interestingly, Mina's brother Walter supposedly served as a spirit control for two other mediums tested by Hamilton in Winnipeg. This purported Walter seemed to know intimate details of the Margery séances in Boston, including the peculiar and little-known claim made by one investigator that Mina fraudulently produced Walter's voice by speaking "with her ears" instead of her mouth. (Margaret Lillian Hamilton, "An Introduction to the Researches of Dr. T. Glen Hamilton," in Is Survival a Fact? (1969); online here.) Some sense of the lengths to which skeptical researchers were driven to explain the voice phenomena may be suggested by this unlikely hypothesis.

I include these points, even though Brian Inglis does not, because I want to make the best possible case for Mina Crandon (who will come under some heavy fire later), and because I want to show that Inglis does not overstate his facts. It may be worth mentioning that Milbourne Christopher makes no mention of any of the above details, either.

As word of Mina's séances spread, Harvard psychologist William McDougall obtained the Crandons' permission to investigate the phenomena. In discussing McDougall's initial investigation, Inglis tells this story: "When McDougall elected to sit in the cabinet with the entranced 'Margery,' the better to watch her, the cabinet was quietly dismantled around them, the screws being removed and put in a heap outside the circle."

Christopher does not mention this event, but he does describe a memorable episode witnessed by McDougall and his student Harry Helson. "[One night] the most exciting manifestation occurred on the ground floor. [In near darkness] a piano stool ... glided down the hall; it stopped abruptly about seven feet away from the men. They leaped up and examined the stool. They were able to see well enough to tell that no mechanical device was attached to its base." This phenomenon was later repeated. Helson "thought he knew how the trick was done. It had glided toward a register [i.e., a grill-like device allowing heated air into a room] in the floor of the corridor. This grillwork was a remnant of an old hot-air heating system that had been replaced by steam radiators throughout the house. He reasoned that if a string were attached to the base of the stool, with the free end extending down the hall and through one of the small openings in the register, someone in the cellar by pulling on the string could tug the stool toward the register."

Helson and McDougall later found a short length of string and accused Mina of trickery, but the string was satisfactorily explained as piece of the fringe from a rug. Christopher accepts this explanation but comments, "There is another possible explanation for the mysterious moving stool. If someone had passed one end of a long strong thread up through the register, along the hall, around one leg of the stool, back down the corridor, and through the register, this secret operator could have drawn the stool down the hall by hiding in the cellar and pulling on both ends of the thread. Whenever he wished the stool to stop, he could have released one end and rapidly hauled in the other. By the time an observer reached the stool, the motivating force would be in the cellar."

Now see how Inglis describes the same events: "Eventually, following a séance in which a piano stool danced to music, moving several feet in the process, Helson found an eight-inch piece of string on the floor. McDougall summoned Mina to his office, and told her they had caught her out at last: the movement of objects in the séances, they now knew, had been contrived by attaching string to them, which an accomplice could tug at through the ventilator in the wall. By her own account Mina left him in a fit of the giggles. Even if so obvious a device had not been detected in careful searches which the investigators had invariably made of the room, she knew that the ventilator had been blocked up years before."

Soon other investigators became involved, in connection with a much-publicized prize of $2500 offered by the magazine Scientific American for any "visible psychic manifestation" (as opposed to exhibitions of mental telepathy, say). As this was the kind of thing at which Mina Crandon excelled, the magazine's investigating committee was promptly invited to the Crandons' house. Inglis writes, "To show that she bore McDougall no grudge, too, [Mina] raised no objection to his being one of the Scientific American's team."

Christopher differs mildly: "The Crandons regarded Professor McDougall as an antagonist after the string episode."

Inglis describes one member of the investigating team, Hereward Carrington, as having an "encyclopedic" knowledge of the tricks used by mediums. Carrington was a believer in psychic phenomena and eventually endorsed Mina as genuine. To Christopher, his credentials are suspect. "Widely read in both occultism and conjuring, [Carrington] has been called an expert magician. This is not quite true. Though he studied the standard texts and subscribed to conjuring periodicals, he rarely performed and then usually for friends."

Christopher casts additional doubt on Carrington by writing, "Carrington found the medium to be a fascinating woman. In later years he reminisced with old friends about his amorous adventures with her." Inglis makes no mention of any amorous adventures.

Further, Christopher says Carrington later admitted to a friend that he had only pretended to believe in Mina's powers: "He hoped to get Crandon's financial backing for a psychical research foundation." There is no mention of this in Inglis's book, and the alleged admission, like the one about romantic episodes, seems to be purely anecdotal. (Christopher doesn't mention it, but Stashower's American History article, cited above, includes the further claim that one of the investigators had actually borrowed money from Crandon - another report that cannot be verified, as far as I know.)

Just as they disagree in evaluating Carrington, the authors offer contradictory estimations of the more skeptical members of the team. In Christopher's treatment, Walter Franklin Prince comes off as a brilliant and intrepid investigator, deftly exposing one ruse after another. Inglis is less kind: "Prince attended few sittings; in any case, he should not have accepted the role of referee because he was very deaf, and as the séances would be largely in darkness, he would be deprived of the use of two senses." Elsewhere, paraphrasing a later report favorable to Mina, he says, "Prince was so deaf that he could not hear [a] bell ... ringing even when it was ringing in his lap."

The investigators sat through a number of séances. According to Inglis, "The sitters witnessed phosphorescent lights and movements of objects at a distance from the medium, as well as feeling touches from invisible hands while both Crandon and 'Margery' were under their control."

Christopher only briefly mentions the lights, but does not discuss any touches of spirit hands when the Crandons' locations were accounted for.

Inglis: "In addition, 'Walter' made good his boast that he could manipulate a pair of scales which [physicist Daniel] Comstock had brought along as a contribution to the tests, in light just good enough to show that nobody was touching them."

Or did he? Christopher: "Periodically Walter attempted to tip [the scales]. They were broken one night when the table on which they rested was overturned in the dark, and this testing device was discarded."

Inglis: "Scores of times, too, 'Walter' managed to ring an electric bell in a box designed by the investigators, so that it sounded only when the telegraph-type key was pressed down, the key being out of the Crandons' reach -- sometimes when sitters were actually holding the box in their hands."

Christopher mentions the electric bell box but does not report that it was out of the Crandons' reach or that it would ring when sitters were holding it.

Inglis: "And when [Scientific American associate editor James Malcolm] Bird decided to satisfy himself that Margery could not be responsible for the effects, by sitting in the 'cabinet' alongside her, 'Walter' laid on an impressive demonstration for his benefit by ripping off a whole wing of the cabinet on the side where Bird was sitting, and then dragging the remains around the room, carrying the two of them in it."

Christopher does not mention this episode.

Inglis: "Eventually 'Margery' began producing a pseudopod which felt like an extended arm, with a hand and fingers capable of touching and gripping objects ... It emerged while her hands were controlled -- and could be seen to be controlled, from the luminous bands round her wrists."

Christopher has still not mentioned the luminous bands at this point. If one were to judge by his account, the bands were not used until later. (I can't say when they were first used.) But he does devote a good deal of space to a test that Inglis does not mention -- an attempt to get "Walter" to manipulate some items inside a sealed bottle. The attempt was a failure.

It appears that at least some members of the Scientific American committee were impressed. It was at this stage that the committee's most famous member, the great stage magician Harry Houdini, became involved. Inglis writes, "Houdini's commitments prevented him from attending the early sittings." Christopher presents a different version: "Until Houdini ... received a letter from Bird in June -- three months after the preliminary investigation started -- the magician had not been informed that one was under way."

Christopher's version seems to accord with the facts as presented in Houdini's own pamphlet on the subject, an except of which can be readonline. The pamphlet includes the above-mentioned letter from Bird indicating that Houdini had not been informed of the Margery research.

In any case, Houdini was a late arrival to the investigation. Even so, he quickly took charge – and sowed the seeds of further controversy. To this day, the famed magician's degree of impartiality remains a hotly contested topic, and predictably Inglis and Christopher differ in their interpretation. Christopher presents Houdini as a model of investigative rigor and rectitude, while Inglis says Houdini "could be unscrupulous in twisting evidence" and "was by this time incapable of separating fact from invention." Houdini, according to the Inglis, "by 1924... had ceased even to pretend to himself that he could conduct a dispassionate investigation... He had been on a lecture tour of the United States as advance publicity for his book [condemning spiritualism], and on it he had vehemently announced spiritualism as the cause of distress, madness and suicide." He allegedly told the publisher of Scientific American: "I will forfeit a thousand dollars if I do not detect her if she resorts to trickery."

Christopher says nothing about the thousand-dollar challenge. If he had mentioned it, he might have noted that Houdini, according to his self-published pamphlet, added immediately, "Of course if she is genuine there is nothing to expose." By omitting this part of the quote, Inglis gives the impression that Houdini was more biased than his own account would suggest.

Christopher, who authored a well-reviewed biography of Houdini, celebrates the magician as the person who unmasked Mina. Inglis, on the other hand, says that upon Houdini's arrival, "the investigation began to fall apart."

Both accounts agree that during their first séance together, Houdini sat to the left of Mina, holding her left hand and pressing his leg against hers to act as her control on that side. The bell box, placed on the floor between Houdini's feet, rang more than once. A megaphone was picked up in the darkness and hurled to the floor. The table was tilted upward. The cabinet behind Margery fell over.

Christopher goes on to recount Houdini's explanations. Houdini had felt Margery's leg slide down his as she reached behind his chair to press the button on the bell box with her foot. She had slipped the megaphone on her head during a moment when control was lax and then had tossed it with a shake of her head. She had eased her head under the table to push it upward while her hands and feet were held. She had slipped a foot under the lightweight cabinet and pulled it down.

Inglis finds fault with these explanations: "[Houdini's] argument took no account of the possibility that the motive force might be supplied by pseudopods."

Pseudopods or not, the committee as a whole had not been persuaded that Margery was a fake, so Houdini designed a special box in which Mina would be kept during the séance. Only her hands and head would protrude from the box, obviously limiting the extent of any shenanigans she could perform. Christopher reports that Dr. Crandon objected to this device on the ground that it might prevent the pseudopods from emerging. Nevertheless, Mina consented to the experiment.

There is now an important discrepancy between the accounts of Inglis and Christopher. Inglis says that for this test Houdini and Prince acted as Mina's controls on the left and right sides. But Christopher says that Dr. Crandon continued to act as his wife's control on the right side until a later session, when Prince took over.

Christopher: "The test session ended abruptly after the hinged front of the box clattered down in the dark. Crandon said Walter must have forced it open; Houdini claimed the medium had used her shoulders to loosen the narrow brass strips that held the panels closed."

Inglis: "Houdini's explanation ... invited the question how she could have used such force without Houdini and Prince noticing any change in the tension of her hands."

But of course, if it was Houdini and Crandon -- as opposed to Houdini and Prince -- exercising control over Mina, then it would have been considerably easier for her to move her shoulders, or at least the shoulder on her right side (the side controlled by her husband).

The box was re-secured, and another controversy ensued. Inglis: "'Walter'her came through and denounced Houdini in unprintable terms for interfering with the bell-box. Examining it, Comstock found that a small rubber eraser had been wedged into it to make it harder to ring. Houdini disclaimed responsibility; but as he had been responsible for checking it, 'Margery' had clearly won the first round."

Christopher reports things differently. After the lid had opened, "the committee left the room, and the Crandons [and some friends] returned for [a] private session. Only they know what was said while the magazine's investigators were closed off in another room. This much is certain: when the members of the committee again entered the room and the séance resumed, Walter went on the attack [against Houdini] ... Eventually Walter told Comstock to examine carefully the bell box under a light. Comstock did, and found a small round eraser ... wedged under the lid ... Houdini made a statement for the record that he had not put the eraser there."

So was Houdini the last one to have checked the bell box? Or was there ample opportunity for the Crandon's and their friends to insert the eraser themselves?

A larger controversy was to follow. The next time Margery was enclosed in the now-reinforced box, Walter accused Houdini of putting a ruler inside the box with her. Inglis: "The [box] was opened, and there was a rule which, if her hands and been released, 'Margery' might in theory have been able to convey to her mouth and use to ring the bell in the box, and perhaps play other tricks. Again, Houdini denied that either he or [his assistance James] Collins was responsible; but as only they had had access to the [box], he was reduced to blaming the woman he had employed to search Mina before the séance."

Christopher has a somewhat different take: "Soon Walter spoke up and implied Houdini had put a ruler under the cushion on which the medium's feet rested. While the magician had not been in the room prior to the sitting, Walter said Houdini's assistant had been ... when the box was unlocked, a new carpenter's ruler, a two-foot length folded in four six-inch sections, was discovered under the pillow. Comstock suggested that it might have been left behind when the box was being strengthened ... Collins said his ruler was still in his pocket. He took it out and showed it." Houdini swore an oath that he knew nothing of the ruler, and made his assistant do the same.

There is a famous postscript to this story. Some years later, after Houdini's death, James Collins allegedly confessed that he did indeed plant the ruler on Houdini's orders. "I chucked it in the box myself. The boss told me to do it."

Christopher argues that Collin's alleged confession was concocted by a former friend of Houdini with an axe to grind. He adds, "I knew Collins, too. He idolized Houdini, and would have been the last person on earth to implicate him even if there had been some sort of a plot to set up Margery. Thus, the story falls of its own weight."

Inglis, addressing Christopher's arguments for the only time in his account, writes, "Milbourne Christopher, himself a magician -- and a sceptic -- has since dismissed the story [as sheer fiction on the ground that it had been reported by somebody who felt he had been disparaged by Houdini." Inglis then goes on offense, reporting that Christopher himself admitted that Houdini withheld a photo of Mina from publication because it appeared to show a blurred halo around her head. Inglis's point is that if Houdini was so implacably hostile to Mina as to be unwilling to disclose any evidence that might bolster Mina's case, then he may have been willing to frame her with a planted ruler, as well. Tacitly dismissing Collins' alleged confession, Inglis writes, "Houdini would have been rash to entrust the rule to his assistant. The more probable explanation ... is that he himself, certain that she was 'a fake' but impressed by her skill, had put the rule into the [box] as a form of insurance, so that even if she did succeed in impressing Prince and Comstock during the séance, he would have a let-out."

Such were the tensions between the Crandons and Houdini that Walter pronounced the magician's doom. Christopher: "Walter had predicted during a Margery séance the previous December that the magician would die in less than a year. He failed to oblige and continued to denounce the medium and duplicate her tricks during his performances."

What Christopher doesn't mention is that while Houdini outlived the prediction, he didn't outlive it by very long. He died on October 31, 1926 - within two years (not one) of Walter's pronouncement.

Whatever the truth of the ruler episode may have been, the controversy surrounding the ruler brought an end to the investigation. Margery did not get the Scientific American prize (nor did anyone else), but she continued to be the subject of other investigations, which became the focus of new disputes too arcane to be explored here.

Another curious postscript to the early investigations involves an accusation published by Scientific American's James Malcolm Bird in 1930. Rather unexpectedly, given his earlier support of Mina, he now claimed that she had tried to gain his cooperation in fooling Houdini. "She sought a private interview with me and tried to get me to agree, in the event that phenomena did not occur, that I would ring the bell-box myself, or produce something else that might pass as activity by 'Walter.'" He also said he'd found Mina cheating on some occasions in 1924, although he thought some of the phenomena were genuine. Inglis focuses on the damage this admission did to Bird's own credibility: "If he had noticed cheating, why had he not said so that time? For propagating this heresy, Bird was sacked from his job as [a parapsychology society's] research officer [and] faded from the scene." Christopher does not mention any damage to Bird's own career, instead focusing on the accusation itself: "Even Bird, in his book 'Margery' the Medium, admitted she could deceive investigators, if she wished. No other medium, Bird said, was more alert or could 'get more fun' from doing this. Even so, he insisted that she produced genuine phenomena."

Inglis doesn't explain why Bird changed his mind, but Christopher presents a theory. "Thomas Tietze in his biography Margery ... says that an allegedly true account of how this came about is in the files of the [American Society for Psychical Research]. Bird, who had been drinking heavily, arrived at the Crandon house with a woman, whose presence the surgeon and his wife would not tolerate. Bird, infuriated, retaliated with a few barbed comments charging Crandon and Margery with bizarre sexual interests." This argument turned Bird against the Crandons, Christopher suggests. Of course there is no way to verify this anecdote, and even if it is true, it would not prove that Bird's allegations about the Crandons were factual.

Bird's revelations, whatever their truthfulness, were overshadowed by a new development which was said to have discredited Mina Crandon once and for all. Mina had developed the technique of impressing ghostly thumbprints in wax during her séances, these prints allegedly belonging to her dead brother and spirit control, Walter. But in 1934, it was proved that one of the thumbprints was actually identical with that of Mina's dentist. "All except the most rapid Crandon supporters," Christopher writes in obvious satisfaction, "eventually admitted that ... Mina had stamped with a die the dentist's prints on hot wax ... Time and truth were on the side of" Mina's critics.

Inglis puts the best possible spin on the embarrassing developmenta: "This discovery brought Margery's career to an end, for investigative purposes. Yet ... it did not in itself discredit her mediumship.... Discoveries about the identity of the thumbprint did nothing to explain how [this and many other prints] had been imprinted on the wax at a time when Margery was supposed to be firmly controlled ... It was not easy to see how Margery escaped from control time after time to produce [thumbprints] without ever being detected."

Inglis then proceeds to his summation. "What has tended to be forgotten is that during ten years of séances, night after night, week after week, the Crandons were never actually detected in fraud. On the few occasions when individuals claimed to have seen how the tricks were done ... they claimed only to have seen her do what ... might be done by a pseudopod, if such psychic limbs existed. In any case, the kind of trickery which Houdini ... claimed [he] had witnessed could not begin to account for the staggering range of phenomena which 'Margery' or 'Walter' produced; a range which can only be appreciated by a study of the transcripts ... objects moved at a distance, tables turned somersaults, apports [materializations] came and went, and 'Walter's' voice boomed out from different directions -- even when, as Comstock testified, he had his hands over the mouths of both Crandons."

And he questions motive. "If [the Crandons] were prestidigitators, cunning enough to have won Houdini's admiration, why should they have gone on giving private séances, as they were to do even after they had ceased to be involved in the investigations? There was no money in them; and if fame was what they were after, they could have had it far more easily ... by performing as conjurers."

Christopher offers a rebuttal suggested by Joseph Banks Rhine and his wife Louisa, who were to become the two most prominent parapsychologists of the second half of the 20th century. After sitting in on one of Mina's séances, the Rhines were convinced she and Dr. Crandon were conniving at fraud. But why? They "investigated the surgeon's background, and ... offered a possible explanation for his sponsorship of Margery as a medium. He had suffered 'a decided loss of position and prestige' before he turned into the study of psychic phenomena. Knowing that he was a materialist and dreaded dying, his wife deceived him during the early table-tilting experiments with sleight of foot and hand. When he found she was cheating, he cooperated with her, enjoying his new prominence as a 'martyr to the cause of science' and an authority on modern mediumship."

It should perhaps be pointed out that the Rhines, despite their credentials as psychologists, had no special claim to understanding the Crandons' psyches. They had never treated the Crandons as patients and, as far as I know, were hardly acquainted with the couple. Further, J.B. Rhine later showed himself to be somewhat hostile to the very idea of scientific investigation of life after death, regarding it as a useless field of endeavor. Discrediting Mina Crandon had the effect of diverting attention from mediumship and focusing it instead on ESP - which was, providentially, the Rhines' own area of study.

Christopher ends his account on a somber note: "In 1939, Dr. Crandon slipped and fell down the stairs that led to the séance room; he died several weeks later on December 27. By then the medium, whose sensuous appeal once excited the men who sat with her in the dark, was drinking excessively.... On November 1st, 1941, the ravages of alcoholism took their toll. Margery, the most versatile psychic in history, died as she slept in the house on Lime Street, where eighteen years before, to please her husband, she became a medium." The impression he conveys is that grim justice was finally served. The Crandons paid for their deception, or so he implies.

In Inglis's account there is no mention of Mina's alleged alcoholism or of the circumstances of either Crandon's death. Instead there is a final expression of indignation at the researchers. "The responsibility for their failure must rest chiefly with the investigators themselves; Prince in particular ... He should never, in view of his deafness and his incurable antipathy to the physical phenomena, have allowed himself to become involved in the actual investigations ... Unluckily the physical phenomena were his blind spot -- as they were McDougall's -- at the very time when unprejudiced investigation was needed."

I cannot resist adding another strange postscript, this time from 1994, when, at a séance, Walter was allegedly summoned up. Sixty years after the thumbprint debacle, Walter explained what had really happened, saying that Dr. Crandon "himself in desperation to gain credibility for my sister's mediumship resorted to what you call fraud." Mina's prolonged exposure to the hostile skepticism of various researchers had drained her powers, and Crandon had been driven to his "foolish" trick. (Ark Review, July-August 1998, citing Psychic News, 5 January 1994) Of course there is no way to verify this, and since it was Mina, not her husband, who obtained her dentist's thumbprint, the explanation doesn't seem very satisfactory.

So ... was Mina Crandon a fraud, acting in collusion with her husband to fool gullible investigators? Or did she have genuine paranormal abilities, and was she framed by Houdini, the archenemy of all professed mediums?

If you read only Christopher's account, you will come to one conclusion. If you read only Inglis's account, you will reach the opposite verdict.

Christopher lionizes the more skeptical researchers. The others, those who were convinced of Margery's genuineness, were lovesick fools or amateurish bunglers. Inglis admires the researchers who fought to convince the public that Margery had psychic gifts. To him, the skeptics were prejudiced, narrow-minded, unscrupulous. In Christopher's book, if a researcher accepts the existence of psychic phenomena, he is branded as credulous. In Inglis's book, if a researcher rejects the existence of psychic phenomena, he is branded as reactionary. Houdini, the most famous debunker of mediums in history, is a stalwart hero in Christopher's version and a duplicitous egomaniac in Inglis's account.

And here we have the big problem for anyone who wants to seriously research these long-ago events. Most writers in this field have an agenda, either pro or con. Like skillful lawyers, they pick out those pieces of evidence most useful to their case, while ignoring or dismissing inconvenient facts and unhelpful allegations. Anyone seeking to reach an impartial conclusion will be hampered by the biases exhibited on both sides.

At this late date, seventy years or more after Mina Crandon's heyday, it may well be impossible to reconstruct what really took place. Different authors, reviewing the same essential facts, come to mutually exclusive conclusions. Objective certainty remains forever elusive.

William Blake stated the problem more poetically:

Both read the Bible day and night

But thou read'st black where I read white.

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