At the height of the 1920s, two forces were on the rise: science and spiritualism. In his book The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher chronicles how spiritualism, the belief that you could communicate with the soul after death, came to the United States. Jaher focuses on a contest held by Scientific American that set skeptical famed escape artist Harry Houdini against the compelling spirit medium Mina Crandon, nicknamed Margery. Scientific American wanted to use the contest to determine if there was any science that supported spirit mediums. Contests were hugely popular at the time, and readers relied on Scientific American’s findings to determine the truth of the matter. The magazine had already exposed fraud by exposing Albert Abrams’ electric healing cure-all machines as a total hoax. Would spiritualism hold up to the same scrutiny?
After the devastation of the First World War and an especially deadly flu pandemic in 1918, people were desperate to know what happened after death. The contest, proposed by the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sought to once and for all differentiate between scientific fact and fiction.
Scientific American spoke to Jaher about this clash between skepticism and spirit mediums, and how the magazine played a central role in investigating the legitimacy of the so-called psychic force.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
What brought spiritualism to the United States?
In the 1920s there were very well-known scientists supporting spiritualism. Sir Oliver Lodge, a frequent contributor to Scientific American and one of England’s most renowned scientists, was a spiritualist. And the leader of the spiritualist movement was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who seemed to personify rationalism with Sherlock Holmes and deductive thought. These Englishmen came over to America in the 1920s and essentially started an occult craze.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proposed a contest to Scientific American to find one scientifically vetted spirit medium or psychic. Why was it so vital to spiritualists that their religion be scientifically validated?
One of the reasons spiritualism really sought scientific validation was that in the 1920s, if a religion was going to become mainstream it, like everything else, had to have a scientific progenitor. Science was encroaching on religion in the sense that science was considered the final authority on just about everything.
The panel of judges for the contest included a Harvard psychology professor, a MIT-trained engineer and physicist, two researchers who focused on so-called psychic phenomena, and, curiously enough, magician Harry Houdini. Why was Houdini involved?
He had a friendship with Conan Doyle and everybody could see he was genuinely interested in the possibility of spirit contact. A part of him really wanted to believe it was possible, but part of him was just so skeptical and he’d been disappointed so many times that ultimately he became the world’s expert on psychic fraud. That’s why Scientific American wanted to recruit him for their contest. They wanted a magician, someone who was really familiar with all the tricks of mediums.
Why would Scientific American get involved in proving or disproving the legitimacy of spiritualism?
In those days, the theory was that spiritualism and psychic phenomenon had some sort of undiscovered force that was causing these effects. It fell under the purview of physics and psychology, and Scientific American thoroughly covered these subjects. With all the controversy over whether or not there was indeed a psychic force, and whether or not these scientists were truly in touch with the soul, people relied on Scientific American to know whether or not this stuff was legitimate.
What’s the distinction between a spiritualist, like Conan Doyle, and someone who researched psychic phenomenon as a possible scientific force?
Spiritualists believed there was an afterlife, that it was possible to communicate with the soul, and that this could be scientifically validated. You could be very interested in psychic phenomenon, you could be a scientist who studies psychic phenomenon and even believe in it, and not be a spiritualist. Most of the scientists who studied this were not spiritualists. Some of them believed that what was happening was an undiscovered physical force like other physical forces that seemed magical at a time and then became quantifiable the more it was investigated.
Spiritualism in the United States was only popular for about a decade, but in that decade it was everywhere. Why did its popularity drop off so dramatically?
In the 1920s, the mindset of the people was still in the previous century, so you still had these powerful superstitions. By the end of the Jazz Age in the 1930s, the mindset of the people had caught up with technology and wasn’t imbued with this supernatural quality that it was before. The telegraph, the telephone and the radio made it seem like communication to any distance was possible. Although these were still considered marvels by the late 1920s, they lost the kind of magical resonance that made it seem like, “Well, those things are possible, why can’t we communicate with souls?”