A screenwriter explores the little-discussed rivalry between master illusionist Harry Houdini and a much-publicized Boston spirit medium named Margery Crandon.
Houdini was considered the greatest escape artist of the early 20th century, but by the 1920s, he turned his energies to unmasking spiritist frauds who claimed to have contact with the dead. Set against a backdrop of Jazz Age excess and anxiety, Jaher, in his first book, tells the story of Houdini’s epic confrontation with a spiritist whose popularity rivaled his own. World War I and the Spanish influenza laid waste to a generation of young men in Europe and left the world “teetering on the brink of a new dark age.” Observers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who eventually became an ardent advocate of spiritualism (and friendly nemesis to Houdini), believed that the loss of so many loved ones would turn bereaved families seeking comfort “toward spirit communion.” While séances became all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic and Conan Doyle lectured on the “New Revelation,” reputable scientists began to explore the paranormal to determine the true nature of psychic phenomena. One particular group associated with Scientific American magazine put together a contest that would award $5,000 to anyone able to successfully prove his or her abilities. Among the judges was Houdini, whose career as a magician made him a formidable spiritist debunker. All but one medium tested by this group—the genteel Crandon—were conclusively demonstrated to be frauds. Through a combination of feminine seduction and illusionist skill that even Houdini admired, Crandon became the one psychic to almost win the respect of the scientific community and outshine Houdini as an entertainer. 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.