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From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini

by William J. Birnes and Joel Martin

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1381-2
Publisher: Forge

Intriguing but insufficiently skeptical account of the paranormal in American history.

The tone of this purported history is set by the introduction, in which the authors ask readers to consider “the provocative possibility of extraterrestrial intervention and influence” on Earth’s earliest humans, suggesting that various religions’ legends may have been real-life paranormal phenomena. Birnes and Martin, who have collaborated on two previous volumes (The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U.S. Presidency, 2003, etc.), parade a series of supernatural-themed events from the 1690s to the early 20th century. The stories are interesting enough and give the reader a taste of how widespread belief in the paranormal was at one time in American culture. However, the authors relate some rather dubious tales without passing judgment on their credibility, a disingenuous sort of neutrality that will drive away serious students of history. Several pages, for example, are devoted to George Washington’s vision of an angel at Valley Forge; only afterward, without much comment, do Birnes and Martin acknowledge that the story does not appear in any of Washington’s own voluminous journals and correspondence, but comes from a sketchy second-hand newspaper account by one of the general’s aides. In a long section that documents the Spiritualism fad of the 19th century, the authors strongly imply that medium D.D. Home, whose supposed achievements included levitation and clairvoyance, may have been the real deal, skating over considerable skepticism about him expressed then and now. Readers will find some diverting tidbits involving such famous figures as Abraham Lincoln, Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, but those who want a more critical guide to this subject should look elsewhere.

Shallow and unpersuasive.