The Witch of Lime Street

Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World
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History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery's powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.  Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified.  Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince...the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.

David Jaher's extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation's most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other’s orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: Is there life after death?

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise for David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street
 
“Jaher's narrative style is as engaging as his character portraits are colorful. Together, they bring a bygone age and its defining spiritual obsessions roaring to life. Fascinating, sometimes thrilling, reading.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A beautifully written, deeply researched, and delightfully mysterious tale of grifters and ghosts in the Jazz Age. David Jaher writes about the battle between science and spiritualism with a charming combination of sympathy, skepticism, and suspense. Jaher has made a great debut as a historian and a story-teller.”
—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America
 
 “A perfectly told mystery story involving a famed early 20th century medium, who thrilled her followers and puzzled even celebrity skeptics such as Harry Houdini. This compelling book by David Jaher is a genuinely lovely exploration of our belief systems, both magical and rational. I can promise you that once you finish it, you’ll want to sit down and read it again. That’s exactly what I did.”
—Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Ghost Hunters and The Poisoner's Handbook
 
 “A spectacular debut that is both a thrilling page-turner and an unforgettable tale of a high-stakes rivalry.”
—David King, bestselling author of Death in the City of Light and Vienna, 1814
 
“Reads like a collection of mysterious tarot cardsOuija boards, bizarre madame mediums, and yes our friend the Great Houdini. Read it if you dare.
—Lily Koppel, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Astronaut Wives Club
 
 “Jaher’s meticulously researched account of Scientific American’s infamous contest to find an authentic medium had me racing through the pages to find out how it all turns out. To keep this spoiler-free I’ll just say that the paranormal showdown of the early 20th century doesn’t wrap up how you may think.”
—Stacy Horn, author of Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory
 
“David Jaher's tale of the bizarre 1920s fever fad for spiritualism and séances is as gripping as a mystery thriller, as evocative of that post-Great War decade as a documentary, and as haunting as a ghost story. A fascinating piece of time travel to a forgotten era.”
—Kate Buford, author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
 
“In this meticulously researched and entertaining work, David Jaher explores a largely forgotten chapter in Anglo-American historythe post-World War I rise of spiritualism, born of a deep desire to commune with the spirits of slain soldiers. The cast of fascinating, masterfully drawn characters ranges from Harry Houdini, a supreme rationalist, to Margery Crandon, a self-proclaimed Boston medium with a huge following. This is, on a deep level, a cautionary tale of the bizarre, painful deception and self-deception associated with human unwillingness to accept the finality of deathespecially youthful death.”
—Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Welcome! We're glad that you decided to embark on this project, and we hope it turns out to be one of the most satisfying things you've ever done.

You will find in these pages many questions-- questions to lead you down the pathways of your own life. What you're going to be doing is putting together a personal history for your family. We're here to show you that it can be easy and full of pleasure for you--something intimate and special, the creating of a lasting and beautiful hand-me-down for your children, your children's children, and generations that will come along far in the future.

Your story will have much more resonance for your children and grandchildren than any biography or autobiography of a famous person. It's almost startling that making this kind of personal history hasn't always been an American custom. Older people are often able to leave property or money behind for their descendants, but this--a package of memories of a person's life--is what usually doesn't get passed along. The most precious commodities of all--people's own recollections of their worlds--seldom get preserved, at least in a proper and permanent way.

As you will see, the secret of all this is found in the particulars. The specifics of your own memories are what your family will treasure the most. The main thing for you to know is that you need not attempt to sum up your life in grand, sweeping historic strokes, but stick to the seemingly small basics.

Thus, a man in his seventies shouldn't try to tell his children what post-World War I America was like; he should answer for them the question "What did the neighborhood where you grew up look like?" Or "Who was your best friend when you were a boy, and what did the two of you do together?" Or "How did you get your first job, and what was it like on your first day?"

A woman in her eighties shouldn't try to reconstruct the political events that took place during her youth. She should reach into her memory to answer questions on richer topics "What was your schoolhouse like?" Or "What do you remember about going on automobile rides with your family?" Or "Describe what you would do on summer days when you were a girl."

The purpose of this book is to help you along the way. If you know what questions to ask yourself, the answers almost take care of themselves--you already know them, but you may not have thought about them in a while.

Maybe you have never considered that the stories from your life are important. But be assured that they will be cherished far beyond anything money could buy. Whether you write your history, or speak it into a tape recorder, your stories will be eagerly awaited by the most appreciative audience of all--your family. Far into the future, your family will read your words or listen to your voice and be grateful you took the time to put this gift together for them.