When Harry Houdini tried to talk to the dead

Harry Houdini
Magician Harry Houdini performs a rope escape, left, and a card trick in these undated photos.

When you think of Harry Houdini, you likely think of magic shows and daring escapes. The vaudeville star could break free of any set of handcuffs. He once made a full-grown elephant disappear.

But he also had a strong interest in the occult — mediums, séances and spirits. He wanted to talk to the dead.

And he wasn't alone. In the 1920s, spiritualism was sweeping the country. The craze started in Europe during World War I. The combined tragedies of the influenza epidemic and the war took an estimated 70 million lives, a disproportionate number of which were young people. It left survivors desperate to communicate with the dead — to know they were at peace.

Houdini himself was eager to communicate with the spirits of his parents, and he made a very famous friend who claimed he could help him do just that: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle "was maybe the most famous English man in the world" at that point, according to author David Jaher. Jaher's new book, "The Witch of Lime Street," chronicles Houdini and Conan Doyle's unlikely friendship, and their dramatic showdown over the spirit world.

Though Conan Doyle's famous character Sherlock Holmes is best known for his rationalism, Conan Doyle himself was a steadfast proponent of spiritualism. His son had died during the war, and he fervently believed he could communicate with his spirit through mediums.

When Conan Doyle visited the U.S. in 1922, he helped launch the country's obsession with supernatural communication.

"It's a very interesting historical paradox, because the 1920s are a time when science and technology are becoming so pervasive — the airplane, the automobile, the radio — and yet you have this fascination with occultism and communication with the dead," Jaher said.

Conan Doyle and Houdini quickly became good friends — such good friends that Conan Doyle arranged for Houdini to sit for a séance with his favorite medium, his own wife.

"Lady Doyle assures Houdini that she's in touch with Houdini's mother," Jaher said, but Houdini did not believe it. He told several major New York newspapers that he did not think the séance was successful. "He didn't outright call Conan Doyle's wife a fraud, but he thought she was delusional."

Houdini wanted to believe, but he knew too many of the tricks from his own early career. Before becoming a world-famous magician, he had performed false spiritualistic performances around the country.

"He would pretend to be leading séances, he would manifest all this physical phenomena that was supposedly channeled by spirits," Jaher said.

Floating tables, flying objects, unexplained voices — Houdini knew all the tricks, which made him the ideal judge when one of the most prominent magazines of the time offered a prize for any truly verifiable psychic medium.

Conan Doyle was the one who inspired the prize. He challenged the Scientific American to mount its own investigation into spiritualism. The magazine recruited an impressive array of judges, including scientists from Harvard and MIT, as well as Houdini, and offered a large cash prize for proof.

Jaher's book focuses on the one woman who came close to clinching the prize: Mina Crandon of Boston, Mass.

She was young. She was beautiful. She could float tables — or so said those who believed in her powers. She was called "The Witch of Lime Street."

"She convinced a number of these judges. She was put on the cover of The New York Times and essentially declared 'the first scientifically verified psychic medium in history,'" Jaher said. "But Houdini had not yet sat with her, and in order to receive the prize, the last judge she had to pass was Houdini."

That's where the showdown between spirits, Conan Doyle, Houdini and Crandon plays out. Houdini traveled to 10 Lime Street in Boston to see for himself.

"When Houdini goes to Boston, it begins of the great rivalries in American history," Jaher said.

A magician, an author and a self-proclaimed witch were left to answer the question: Is there life after death? Jaher's book unpacks the twisty, tabloid-ready events that unfolded.

We won't spoil the ending for you.

The Witch of Lime Street The Witch of Lime Street

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