While the 1920’s are well known for flappers, jazz, and speakeasies, I wasn’t as aware that séances were so popular in both America and Europe, but it makes sense. Lots of people had lost loved ones to the double tragedies of WWI and the worldwide flu epidemic that followed, and modern spoken-word transmission wonders like the telephone and wireless radio made communication across distant planes of existence seem possible, even likely. So likely, the venerable Scientific American magazine held a contest offering a lot of money to any medium who could convince an investigative committee that their powers of summoning the dead were real. But though scientists were open-minded about the possibilities of contact with those now residing in the great beyond, the subject remained highly controversial because many religious people were horrified by the spiritualism craze.
Author David Jaher tells this intriguing history with such immersive detail that I actually started to feel a little creeped-out while reading about the dead rising in my dimly lit bedroom, an effect that was enhanced when the book’s cover literally glowed in the dark after I finally turned off the light (an unsettling but potent design choice). But along with its interesting historical insights, my favorite parts of the book involved its compelling portraits of the living, not the conversations of the dearly departed–though I did love picturing Summerland, reputed home of those who have passed on, where one no-longer-living young man claimed he could enjoy a celestial strain of whiskey and astral cigars.
I knew Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had some mystical interests, but I had no idea how consumed he became. He made several extensive tours of America promoting the “new religion” of spiritualism, the only religion, he believed, that could be proved true by science. Henry Houdini also plays a large role in the spiritualism controversies reported in this book. He hoped communication with the dead was possible because he longed to have contact with his beloved mother, but unfortunately the master magician could see through all the mediums’ very amazing tricks and slights of hand. Houdini became one of the judges of the Scientific American contest, and he made it his mission to debunk all spiritualist frauds, a relentless activity that put him at odds with his equally but oppositely obsessed friend Doyle.
The medium the book spends the most time with is the “witch” of the title, charming Mina Crandon who was known as “Margery”. She was the best hope of those running the Scientific American contest, because she was educated and never took money for exhibiting her powers, factors which made her seem more credible than the other mediums they tested, but there ended up being a lot of twists and turns to her story.
Jaher’s book is a fascinating and well told slice of history. Based on how vivid and readable the book is I was unsurprised to learn he’s a screenwriter. The fact that he’s also a professional astrologer did make my eyebrows raise just a bit.
I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.