Lovely, lively, and fashionable, Mina Crandon held seances as a hobby. However, her alleged power started a battle about the existence of ghosts.
We’ve recently discussed the story of Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, who spent her life taking advantage of the Spiritualist movement in every way she could find. However, this medium – Mina Crandon, the wife of Le Roi Crandon from Boston, Massachusetts – was the opposite of Debar in every way. Where Debar was a crook, Crandon was a wealthy doctor’s wife who only used one alias. Where Debar relied on charisma and spiritual mumbo jumbo, Crandon and her collaborators went to great lengths to seem realistic.
Finally, where Debar made Spiritualism her career, Crandon began it as a hobby. What began as a lighthearted attempt at entertaining her husband’s friends soon turned into a scam that mystified the likes of Conan Doyle and Houdini.
“Spiritualism is a fraud and a deception. It is a branch of legerdemain, but it has to be closely studied to gain perfection.”Margaret Fox, 1888
By the late 1880s, America’s obsession with Spiritualism was waning. 1888 was the year that Margaret Fox, one of the renowned Fox sisters who started the movement, came out and said that her feats of ghost-whispering were all a massive hoax. Fox went so far as to call the whole movement “a fraud and a deception.” Some of the Foxes’ followers were skeptical. Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent Spiritualist, claimed that nothing Margaret Fox said could change his mind. Still, her confession severely damaged the public trust in Spiritualism.
The next year, Mina Margeruite Stinson was born on a farm in Ontario. We can presume that Mina was rather bored with farm life; at sixteen, she moved to Boston on her own. She became a secretary at a local church, where she met Earl Rand, her first husband. While volunteering as an ambulance driver in World War 1, Mrs. Rand met Le Roi Godard Crandon, a local surgeon. Less than a year later, in 1918, she divorced Rand and married Dr. Crandon. She and her son moved into his house in Beacon Hill, and the new Mrs. Crandon quickly became popular in the Boston social scene.
In the wake of the Roaring Twenties, America’s fading interest in Spiritualism had come back with a vengeance. With so many dead after World War 1 and even more from the recent Spanish flu pandemic, thousands of grieving families were looking for ways to connect with dead loved ones. The national consciousness was preoccupied with death – and so was Dr. Crandon, who was still coming to terms with his own experience in the war. Some historians believe that Mrs. Crandon’s seances began as a way to distract her husband from his morbid preoccupations. If this was the case, it soon got way out of hand.
The Blonde Witch of Lime Street
“Hell is now completely up-to-date. We burn oil!”Walter Stinson’s Ghost
Mrs. Crandon’s first audience was a group of her husband’s friends, during a table-tilting seance. After the lights were blown out, the table began to move seemingly on its own: first slightly, then violently. Looking for the source of this phenomenon, Dr. Crandon told his guests to remove their hands from the table. As they did so, the source of the shaking was revealed – Dr. Crandon’s wife. Group seances and table-tilting to impress the dinner guests were Mrs. Crandon’s first foray into Spiritualism, but she had reasons of her own to be interested. In 1911, Walter Stinson, her older brother, had died during a train accident; spiritualism provided answers to questions that could not be answered and gave weight to the idea that Walter, somehow, might still be out there.
In time, he would become a regular fixture in the Crandons’ seances; he shook tables, made lights flicker, and spoke in a gruff, deep voice about the state of the afterlife. “Hell is now completely up-to-date,” he said during one seance, “We burn oil!” For some audience members, the shock of hearing a demure doctor’s wife say such things was enough to convince them that it was a real ghost. Moreover, it was near impossible to identify how Mrs. Crandon might have produced that voice. It clearly wasn’t her own voice, and it didn’t always speak through her mouth.
Aside from Walter’s antics, Mrs. Crandon’s greatest trick was creating ectoplasm. For Spiritualists, ectoplasm was spiritual energy trapped in material form. Seance artists found a variety of ways to create convincing spirit-matter, including cheesecloth, wire, and bedsheet puppets. During seances, Mrs. Crandon’s hands and mouth would exude a substance that was, by all accounts, gruesomely realistic. A skeptic compared it to animal lung tissue or offal. Mrs. Crandon’s skill at performing soon made her famous among Spiritualists and infamous among nonbelievers. Some of her detractors called her the Blonde Witch of Lime Street.
The Witch and the Wizard
In 1923, the Scientific American magazine offered a prize to any medium who could demonstrate telekinetic ability under scientific controls. Mrs. Crandon seemed like a likely winner. She had been recommended to the magazine by Arthur Conan Doyle himself. She was married to a respected doctor, who had the means to replicate the control conditions required for the contest. Besides, she seemed like an honest person, and she clearly wasn’t in it for the money; despite her success as a medium, it was still a hobby. However, as the investigation began, it became clear that something was wrong.
The judges for the contest were J. Malcolm Bird, the psychologist William McDougall, the physicist Daniel Comstock, Harry Houdini, Hereward Carrington and Walter Prince, both members of the Society of Psychical Research. Five members of the group had been willing to accept Margery as a real medium, but Houdini – who had plenty of experience with fraudulent psychics – insisted on seeing Margery perform up close. The committee headed to Boston to get more information. Houdini joined them a little while later, along with O.D. Munn, a publisher for the Scientific American.
On the evening of July 23, 1924, Mrs. Crandon greeted them in a flimsy dressing gown and silk stockings, allegedly to show that she had nothing to hide. Houdini had worn a tight bandage on his right leg, which made even the slightest touch painful; this would pay off later in the evening. During the seance, he sat down next to Margery in a circle, their arms and legs touching. He felt her ankle slip past his leg – she was attempting to reach a bell-box underneath his chair. Later he felt her twitching and shifting in her seat, conveniently right before the Chinese screen behind them tipped over. Houdini was thrilled. He’d caught his fraud.
After the July 23 seance, Houdini admitted that Margery had impressed him – not as a medium, but as a con woman. Unfortunately for Houdini, catching Margery in the act would be harder than it looked. After days of being with the Crandons and enjoying their hospitality – not to mention meeting the very charming Mrs. Crandon – Bird and Carrington were less than enthusiastic about calling Margery a fraud. For another, it was Houdini’s word against that of Margery, her husband, and her followers in the Spiritualist community. The local press was already declaring victory for Margery, coming out with articles like “Boston Medium Baffles Experts” and “Houdini the Magician Stumped.”
While Houdini was in Boston, he and Margery went to war. During the second seance at the Crandons’ house, he introduced a “fraud-preventer” cabinet, which would restrict Margery’s movement during the seance – therefore preventing her from moving anything with her feet. Houdini and Dr. Crandon got in a fight so dramatic that Walter felt the need to intervene. In the same seance, Dr. Crandon found that someone – probably Houdini – had sabotaged the bell-box by jamming it with a pencil eraser. Crandon called foul, but Houdini denied the accusations – and the experiments continued.
In another attempt, he found a ruler—which Margery might have used to reach the switch while trapped in the fraud-preventer—at the medium’s feet. Houdini saw this as conclusive evidence that she was a fraud. Margery and her followers, and especially Dr. Crandon, saw it as a cowardly attempt to discredit her. That was the night that Walter directly challenged him, saying “Houdini, you god damned bastard, get the hell out of here and never come back!” In the end, Houdini’s efforts to expose Margery did little to diminish her in the eyes of the other committee members. However, the controversy surrounding the medium was enough to ruin her chance of winning the contest.
Having fought the great Houdini to a stalemate, Margery grew more ambitious. She went from flipping switches with her feet to actively manifesting the spirit world in the middle of a seance. Attendees at her later seances were treated to the sight of their hostess exuding a strange, fleshy substance called ectoplasm out of her hands, nose and ears. She could even create a whole hand out of ectoplasm, which usually came from the area of her stomach. These hands, the medium explained, were responsible for tipping the screens, shaking the tables, and reaching under Houdini’s chair during seances. A few people noticed that Margery’s “ectoplasm” looked remarkably similar to offal. Others noticed, through careful examination of photos, that these hands seemed to be hanging by very slim threads.
Margery was confident and unconcerned; she had already beaten the skeptics once. Besides, she still enjoyed the support of most of the Spiritualist movement. Conan Doyle went so far as to attack her detractors in the newspaper. Her next advancement turned out to be her undoing. In 1928, Walter had claimed that it might be possible for him to leave a fingerprint in the material world. Margery procured hot wax from the dentist and proudly produced a real fingerprint at her next seance. It was a remarkable feat of psychic power – at least until somebody noticed that the fingerprint was identical to that of the dentist. Without a skeptical investigator to pin the blame on, Margery lost most of her supporters. The scientific community had no more interest in her.
She continued giving seances for years after that, but her supporters had dwindled down to her husband and a few diehard Spiritualists who refused to believe she was a fraud. After her husband’s death in 1939, she fell into a deep depression. She began drinking heavily, and gradually lost the beauty and charisma that had captivated her audiences. Nevertheless, she kept performing, even as she grew more and more unstable. During one seance, she climbed on the roof of her house and threatened to throw herself off.
Mina Crandon died on November 1st, 1941, at the age of 54. On her deathbed, a reporter asked her how she had managed to fool Houdini. He suggested that, after a lifetime of hiding her secrets, she might feel better if she got it off her chest. She only laughed at him. “Why don’t you guess?” she asked. “You’ll all be guessing… for the rest of your lives.”