THE STRANGE CASE OF "MARGERY"
The Mystery of Houdini's Greatest Nemesis
Mina Crandon, best known as “Margery”, was a Boston medium who found herself embroiled in one of the most bitter controversies in American psychic research. Her followers claimed that she was one of the greatest mediums who ever lived, while her critics called her a fraud and blamed her for almost bringing paranormal research in America to an end. Her heyday came about during the decline of mediumship in America and perhaps for this reason, more blame has fallen on her than she deserves. Regardless though, she was perhaps the greatest rival of magician Harry Houdini as he was involved in his crusade against fraudulent mediums and their bitter sparring and debates almost damaged his career beyond recognition as well.
Mina Crandon was born in Ontario in 1888 and moved to Boston when she was 16. A few years after that, she married a local grocer named Earl P. Rand, with whom she had a son. They remained happily married until a medical operation introduced her to Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a prominent surgeon. She divorced Rand in 1918 and married Crandon a short time later.
Crandon had no psychic experiences early in life and in fact, had no interest in the spirit world at all until her husband became interested in the early 1920’s. One evening in May 1923, Dr. Crandon invited a number of friends to his home for a “home circle” meeting. The group gathered around a small table and soon had it tilting in response to the sitter’s questions. Crandon suggested that they each exit the room, one at a time, to see which individual was responsible for the paranormal activity. One by one, each of them left and the table continued to tilt -- until it was Mina Crandon’s turn to leave.
Mina "Margery" Crandon
Surprisingly, a few days before, a psychic had told Mina that she possessed supernatural abilities and that she sensed a laughing young man was attempting to contact Mina from the spirit world. The young man turned out to be Mina’s brother, Walter, who had died in 1911 in a railway accident. He would soon become Crandon’s spirit guide and, along with his sister, would become famous all over the world.
In addition to the celebrity gained by Crandon’s ethereal brother, Mina herself became well-known for her risqué and sometimes bizarre séances. It was not uncommon for her to hold sessions in the nude and according to some, she was especially adept at manifesting ectoplasm from her vagina. It was also rumored that she had affairs with some of her would-be investigators, thus silencing a few of her most vocal critics.
The first test of Mina’s psychic abilities took place in July 1923 under the guidance of Gardner Murphy, William McDougall and a group of Harvard graduate students and professors. When it was over, McDougall tried unsuccessfully to get Crandon to admit to fraud. She refused.
An Obviously amused Mina Crandon looks on as researcher J. Malcolm Bird is knocked to the floor by an allegedly spirit controlled panel.
The panel questioned the reality of Crandon’s abilities and it is likely that she would have faded into obscurity if not for the contest that was sponsored by Scientific American magazine. The contest was conceived by J. Malcolm Bird, an associate editor of the magazine, and it promised a prize of $2500 to any medium who could show genuine psychic ability. The judges were Walter Franklin Prince, an American psychical researcher; Hereward Carrington, a popular occult writer; Daniel Comstock, who introduced Technicolor to films; William McDougall, a professor of psychology a Harvard University; and magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
The investigation, while it got a lot of press, was essentially a disaster. It was soon noticeable to everyone that there was a lot of friction between Houdini and the supporters of Margery, including J. Malcolm Bird, who had been assigned to observe, organize and record the investigation. Bird wanted Houdini disqualified from the panel and proceeded to start the investigations without him. Soon, the committee was deadlocked. Carrington and Bird believed that some genuine phenomena was occurring in Margery's presence but the others refused to commit without Houdini's opinion. At Bird's urging, they eventually relented and began to consider awarding Margery the $2500.
Houdini was shocked and traveled to Boston to witness a séance for himself. What happened next remains shrouded in mystery -- although it is clear that Crandon did not trust Houdini and the magician himself had stated that he was determined to expose the medium as a fraud. During the sessions, Houdini claimed to have seen Margery performing a number of tricks like making noises with her feet and lifting objects which were said to have moved on their own. In spite of this, he did not expose her publicly and asked that more stringent tests be performed. It was rumored that Margery had somehow outwitted Houdini -- and rumors also flew that perhaps her powers were genuine after all.
The following month, Houdini placed the medium in a wooden box with a hole in the top for her head and holes on each side so that her hands could be held during her entire séance. According to reports from the session, Margery’s spirit control, Walter, took such a dislike to Houdini that the top of the box was allegedly ripped off by an invisible force.
The séance continued the next evening and Margery was placed back in the box. Shortly after she went into her trance and her spirit guide came through, the committee asked that she ring the bell which had been placed in the box with her. Immediately, Walter (the spirit guide) exclaimed that Houdini had done something to the bell so that it would not ring. An examination of the bell revealed that a piece of rubber had been wedged against the clapper so that it would not ring! However, there was no proof that Houdini has tampered with it.
A short time later, Walter also said that Houdini had placed a ruler inside of the box so that he could later accuse Margery of cheating. The ruler too was found and later, Houdini’s assistant would say that he had been instructed to place it there in case Houdini could not find another way to prove she was a fraud. It certainly appeared that Houdini had been caught cheating and he was widely discredited for it, leading many to doubt the integrity of some of his earlier investigations. In this case, the committee scheduled further tests of Mrs. Crandon but they were later cancelled. The decision on Margery’s abilities was split and because of this, the money was never awarded. Houdini further outraged the Crandon's and their supporters when he published a small book called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium Margery. He was as adamant about the fact that Margery was doing nothing more than offering clever tricks as her supporters were that what she was doing was genuine.
In 1925, J. Malcolm Bird published a book which supported Crandon and as research officer of the American Society for Psychical Research, he was able to sway many other ASPR members to her side. They became her greatest supporters and devoted hundreds of pages in the ASPR journal to her séances.
It was during this period that Margery began to develop a highly unusual manifestation that made her even more widely known in Spiritualist circles. On the table in front of her during a séance would be placed two dishes, one containing hot water and the other cold. In the first dish was a piece of dental wax. When the wax was softened, it was claimed that Walter (spirit guide again) would make an impression of his thumb on it -- then the thumbprint was put into cold water to harden. While it could not be proved that the prints were actually those of Margery's dead brother, it was proven that they did not belong to anyone present at the séance.
Thumbprints allegedly left by "Walter" turned out to be a match for Margery's dentist.
Believers were enthralled by this new manifestation. It was almost as if the spirit was leaving a calling card, even better. This, along with the whole question of Margery's mediumship, caused a major upheaval in Spiritualist circles. Unfortunately though, the suspicion of fraud never left her and many became disillusioned when thumbprints supposedly impressed in wax by Crandon’s ghostly brother Walter, were shown to be exact matches for the thumbprints of Crandon’s dentist, Dr. Kerwin. Police experts testified that there could be no mistake in this. The ruse was discovered when E.E. Dudley, a former officer of the ASPR, began collecting thumbprints from every individual ever known to have attended one of Margery's séances. Thanks to this, "Walter" was demoted to the status of a disembodied voice only.
Many researchers today believe that some elements of the paranormal were present in Crandon’s séances, but just what was genuine and what was not remain unknown. Crandon and her husband were known for baiting investigators and trying to fool them if possible. The ASPR sustained the greatest amount of damage in the case, as the Crandon’s never seemed to care who believed them and who did not. Just what secrets did Mina Crandon hold? We’ll never know, because she took them to her grave in November of 1941.
©Copyright 2003 - 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.