The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World

David Jaher

October 1, 2015 
The following is from David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World. David Jaher received a BA from Brandeis University and an MFA in Film Production from New York University. At NYU, he was the recipient of the WTC Johnson Fellowship for directing. Jaher has been a screenwriter and a professional astrologer. A New York native and resident, this is his first book.

Occult Fever

Since the Great War, the peoples of the world have turned with a quickened interest and an almost insatiable curiosity to the unsolved problem of the ages—after Death, what?  —Baltimore Sun, August 24, 1919

Kingsley had been killed by a bug, not a bullet. Shortly after the Armistice, the Spanish influenza virus also felled Sir Arthur’s only brother, Brig. Innes Doyle. An apocalyptic war had led to a medieval plague, which took more lives than the fighting that had already devastated a generation in England, France, and Germany. The world appeared to be teetering on the brink of a new dark age. Yet, like many in his movement, Sir Arthur saw the calamity as an opportunity for spiritual renewal. The unprecedented losses would turn the bereaved away from decrepit religions, he hoped, and toward spirit communion.

“All the world is asking, Where are our dead boys?” he observed. During this time of scientific breakthroughs and growing secularization his Spiritualist testament, The New Revelation, addressed the pressing question: What is the outcome of death? The answers from both science and religion were “unsatisfactory.” The revolutionary work of Rutherford and Bohr, though few understood it, appeared to suggest a soulless return to our atomic source. As for the Church, it seemed to Doyle to offer no practical insight regarding the mystery. He considered the Bible a ceremonial relic— like the cavalry sword Kingsley had carried into a conflict that would be fought with machine guns and airplanes.

“A downright conflict between the old religion and the new” was reported in England. A reverend complained that “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is moving from city to city ministering to a popular craze. I challenge Sir Arthur to deny that Spiritualism is perilous to the mental, moral and physical health. Every second or third young lady one meets now imagines herself a modern St. Teresa!” Such zealous resistance only spurred Doyle’s campaign. Like a military commander, he kept a map of England and marked with pins those places where he had spoken of the New Revelation. “We must attack in the same bulldog spirit with which Foch faced the German lines,” he wrote his friend Sir Oliver Lodge.

In Lodge he had a formidable ally. One of England’s most honored scientists, Sir Oliver had spent a lifetime attempting to harness invisible forces. He had sent radio signals before Marconi; helped perfect X-ray tubes; done groundbreaking work on the discharge of electricity. And for some thirty years he had been experimenting with psychic phenomena. Where were the dead boys? Sir Oliver believed he had some insight into the answer. It had caused a great stir during the War when he claimed to be in touch with the spirit of his dead son, Raymond, who had fallen in Flanders. Lodge wrote a book chronicling their communications and explaining the science behind it. Raymond went through twelve printings in three years and was hugely popular at the front and at home in England. It was Sir Oliver who had incited the first wartime wave of Spiritualism. “The British soldier has certainly got religion,” bemoaned one chaplain; “I am not so sure, however, that he has got Christianity.”

While Doyle spoke to the heart, Lodge appealed more to reason. He was the president of the most respected group of ghost hunters in the world, the British Society for Psychical Research. During the Mons craze these investigators showed skepticism—their finding regarding the supposed miracle of the ghost archers was “negative.” Sir Oliver Lodge was known in America, however, for some remarkable descriptions of the spirit world that Raymond had purportedly provided from beyond the grave. The boy told his father that he lived in a place known as Summerland. There were laboratories there that produced, not material things but “essences, ethers, and gases.” All earthly things could be duplicated. It seemed there was even a celestial strain of whiskey available. And astral cigars. Raymond had seen a discarnate man smoke one.

Other eminent scientists, who weren’t Spiritualists, were also linking hands in the séance. In France, Charles Richet, a Nobel laureate in physiology, experimented with the matter from which ghostly apparitions were said to form. He called the stuff ectoplasm: an ethereal yet viscous substance that entranced mediums secreted from their orifices. Germany too was “gripped by an occult fever.” It was there that Baron von SchrenckNotzing, a neurologist, was conducting tests involving intimate scrutiny of Richet’s prized subject, the famed medium Eva C, who was thought to issue ectoplasm, the “miracle fluid,” from between her legs. In the meanwhile, Lodge, a devout physicist, was focused more on interdimensional experiments than a medium’s anatomy. If some quality of the human mind could be proven to transcend space and time, then it might, many psychic researchers felt, transcend death. Doyle maintained that Spiritualism was the only religion validated by science. And he, the movement’s de facto leader, believed the battle for mainstream acceptance would be won or lost in America. To America! he urged; and there Sir Oliver went to make his uncanny claims.

Madame Ouija

The Lecture tour of Sir Oliver Lodge in this country has undoubtedly aroused a new and large interest, not only in the question of immortality and survival of consciousness after death, but also in the more specific question as to whether it is really possible to communicate, or receive communications from the known dead. —Boston Globe, January 25, 1920

Sir Oliver arrived in New York in January 1920—as if to inaugurate the decade of the saxophone and spirit trumpet. At the time, the country was mad for the Ouija board, a crass version of the séance. If you had a question for the dead, the board would offer something! Songs were written about Madame Ouija. Moving pictures were made. Norman Rockwell painted a young couple experimenting with the Ouija for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Soon some of the most acclaimed American writers—Upton Sinclair, Hamlin Garland, and Theodore Dreiser—were caught in the psychic maze.

At Dreiser’s Greenwich Village apartment, the author of An American Tragedy and the arch-skeptic H. L. Mencken tried the Ouija together. Dreiser, the pioneering realist, was nevertheless an ardent believer in all things supernatural. He was sure that the spirits of his three dead siblings had guided him since childhood. He sat regularly with palm readers, crystalgazers, and spirit mediums. Mencken, by contrast, disdained the occult. He particularly derided spiritism as the stuff of dingy back parlors. The pursuit of immortality bored him. Mencken could imagine living happily for a century or two—but ten million years would be dreadful, he complained. All that night, at Dreiser’s place, he scoffed at Sir Oliver’s notion of the hereafter. As a rule he never trusted physicists. They spent too much time gazing into space, he said, and were far too eager to solve mysteries.

The Greenwich Village Ouija experiment was a farce for Mencken. He kept pushing the planchette to spell out his favorite obscenities.

Soon after Sir Oliver disembarked in New York for his lecture tour, a new play called Smilin’ Through opened on Broadway. The Times called it “a fair-to-middling spiritualistic fantasy.” But it was the smash of the season. “Such wonderful things are happening in the world now that you can’t shut your eyes to them, can you?” the star of the show, Jane Cowl, gushed. “And when men like Sir Oliver Lodge and Conan Doyle declare that something is true you must at least pay some attention to it.”

Sir Oliver himself disliked the theater. It was a new kind of science he preached; he had no miracles to deliver. Intrigued by his work, even a skeptical Thomas Edison joined the quest to establish proof of survival. Edison, no friend to the Spiritualists, would announce work on a mechanism to register the messages of those who had crossed over. “I can make an apparatus better than ouija for talking with the dead—if they want to talk,” Edison claimed. “He knows that many will quarrel with him, many will misunderstand him,” the Times reported. “But he knows too, that ten million men and women who have lost dear ones in the war are hungering for word or knowledge as to the existence of life after the life we know.”

The two most inventive minds of their respective nations, Edison and Lodge, were both now working on some means to contact the departed. Marvels like the telephone and wireless made access to any plane or across any distance seem possible. There was a sense in the New World of a new frontier opening.

The Ether of Space

Such was the buzz surrounding Lodge’s American tour that a distinguished surgeon felt compelled to attend Evidence for Survival at Boston’s Symphony Hall and indulge superstition one frigid January evening. Sir Oliver Lodge was the inventor of the coherer, a kind of radio detector that could receive electric waves. And fittingly, the doctor had never seen Symphony Hall so densely packed and charged with energy. Spectators were even seated onstage, right next to the podium. “It was a wonderful audience,” reported the Globe, “composed largely of the intellectuals of Boston, with probably a few more women than men.”

It was mentioned in the program that Sir Oliver Lodge had twelve children. One of them had famously died in the war. That loss had inspired him to make his first trip across the pond to speak in more than fifty North American cites. Because the doctor recoiled from anything pious, he was comforted in knowing that the clergy had spoken against Lodge’s tour. Priests warned that Christians were not permitted to seek knowledge from the dead. A prominent rabbi had called mediumship and the Ouija as nefarious an addiction as drugs. Both skeptical and curious, the doctor wondered if Sir Oliver might hold a public séance that very evening and summon before the stage lights that burning cross—the ghost of his son Raymond!

The doctor’s expectations were quickly dispelled. Sir Oliver had an august presence as he strode onto the platform. The Englishman had a massive domed head and a well-coiffed white beard. At six feet four inches, he towered over his listeners, appearing as stalwart as a Connecticut farmer. “He looks as Lincoln might have looked—had he lived,” wrote the Globe reporter. Sir Oliver began by saying that he could remember when the telephone was roundly jeered. Years earlier he had seen one of the first English demonstrations of Mr. Bell’s invention. The London crowd had dismissed it as a magician’s hoax. Sir Oliver asked the Boston audience to maintain a more open mind. For science, he declared, “has brought us close to the mystery of life.”

Lodge then spoke of the atom. An ounce of atomic matter had the force, he asserted, to raise the German fleet sunk at Scapa Flow and deposit it atop the mountains of Scotland. When the crowd murmured its disbelief, he assured them that few scientists would disagree with his statement. Was the possibility of spirit contact so much more outrageous? He prophesied a day when homes would be powered by atomic energy and each family would speak daily to loved ones in the other world.

He mentioned nothing that night about séances with his dead son but instead compared the human body to a kind of telegraph. Mind could act on mind; this he called telepathy. He and his colleagues at the Society for Psychical Research had studied the phenomenon for decades. He said that some psychics were able to communicate with discarnate minds. Such transmissions came through the Ether of Space: the supreme field that he knew to exist. We all have “etheric bodies,” he explained, which psychics see as bands of variegated light. When a soldier was cut down, he abandoned his physical body—like a shriveled cocoon—for his “perfect and permanent form.” Some called it the soul. But since we cannot dissect the soul—and here the surgeon felt that Lodge was speaking directly to him—we deny its existence. “Do not be afraid of death,” Lodge urged. “Death” was a barbarous word! It meant extinction. He preferred to see death as emigration. The boys going west.

After the presentation, Lodge met the doctor, who was handsome in a blue-blooded way—five foot eight, slightly stooped, and slender—naturally curious and well mannered. He told Sir Oliver that his fascinating oration had given at least one naysayer deep pause for thought. Could Lodge recommend how one might pursue further inquiry? It must be said that Sir Oliver had little respect for the intellectual depth of most Americans, but the doctor asked reasonably good questions. He was direct yet deferential. Cards were exchanged. He was Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, who lived in Beacon Hill with his wife, Mina, who had not attended the lecture.

Remembering that evening, Dr. Crandon later said, “I couldn’t understand it. It did not fit into any pattern I had previously known about scientists. So I asked to meet him after his lectures. We talked for some time that first night.”

“Sir Oliver Lodge has put the whole question of spiritism and survival after death in a somewhat new light—a light that appeals to many intellectual people,” the Globe reported. The inventor of the electric ignition had sparked interest in spirit contact in the naturally skeptical city of Boston. However, Dr. Crandon had not found the Ether of Space to be such an eccentric theory. Einstein had once entertained it. And so, he had much to consider during his cab ride to Lime Street.



From THE WITCH OF LIME STREET: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World. Arranged with permission of WME Entertainment, used with permission of Crown, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2015 by David Jaher.

More Story
The Writer's Shelfie: Porochista Khakpour While it may still be true that you can't really judge a book by its cover, we think it's certainly possible to judge people...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.