Mina "Margery" Stinson Crandon ranks as one of the most thoroughly investigated and controversial mediums of the twentieth century. Psychical researchers put the ever-cooperative woman in uncomfortable situations, encased her in awkward contraptions, and sometimes wound her in enough adhesive tape to make her look like a mummy. In spite of such laborious efforts to disprove the validity of her phenomena, Margery Crandon again and again materialized spirits and performed astounding feats of psychokinesis, or mind over matter.
Mina Stinson was born in Canada in 1888 and moved to Boston when she was quite
In 1923, Crandon became extremely interested in psychical research, and he convinced Mina and a number of their friends to begin to explore the possibilities of contacting the dead. The group began with the customary attempts at table-tipping and spirit raps, and Crandon was astonished when it became evident that Mina was a powerful medium. After a few sessions Mina's deceased brother Walter, who had died in a train crash in 1911, announced his presence as her spirit control and within a brief period of time he began speaking through Mina and demonstrating a wide variety of spirit phenomena. Walter, speaking in down-to-earth language, often colored with profanity, stated that it was his mission to perform the process of mind over matter, rather than delivering flowery inspirational messages from the other side.
Although Mina was regularly producing dramatic phenomena, attendance to the seances were by invitation only in order to protect Crandon's standing at Harvard. Within a few months after they had begun the private seances, the Crandons submitted to the first formal investigation of Mina's mediumship under the auspices of Professor William McDougall, head of Harvard's Department of Psychology, and a committee from the university. After five months of observation, the committee declared its opinion that the spiritistic mind over matter phenomena were produced through fraudulent means.
In November of 1923, J. Malcolm Bird (1886–1964) of Scientific American magazine attended one of the Crandons' seances and was impressed with the spiritistic manifestations he witnessed. At that time, Scientific American was offering a prize of $2,500 to anyone who could provide conclusive proof that psychic phenomena truly existed, and Bird asked Mina to submit to a series of their tests. The investigating committee for the magazine included Harry Houdini (1874–1926), Hereward Carrington (1880–1958), Dr. Walter Franklin Prince (1863–1934), Dr. D. F. Comstock, Dr. William McDougall (1871–1938), and J. Malcolm Bird, secretary of the committee. To protect Mina Crandon's social standing as the wife of a prominent Boston surgeon and Harvard professor, Bird gave her the pseudonym of "Margery," which is how she shall always be remembered in the annals of psychical research.
The tests began in January 1924 under the general supervision of Crandon. The strictest of control conditions were enforced to ensure that fraud of any kind, conscious or unconscious, on the part of the medium could not go undetected. The most controversial aspect of the tests has to do with the role of the famous magician Harry Houdini in the experiments. Houdini was outspoken in his declarations that he had exposed Margery as a fraud. The medium's defenders proclaim that the greatest myth in the history of psychical research is that Houdini caught Margery cheating and exposed her. On one point there is agreement: Houdini seemed determined to expose Margery as a fake by whatever means necessary.
During one night of tests, Houdini brought an electric doorbell into the seance room and said that he would challenge the spirit to ring it for the circle. Once Margery was in a trance state, a low voice, that of Walter, the medium's deceased brother and her spirit control, bemoaned the presence of Houdini. "Still trying to get some publicity by haunting seance rooms, eh?" the spirit voice taunted the magician.
Walter then directed Malcolm Bird, secretary of the committee, to take Houdini's doorbell out of the room so that he might examine it and see what kind of trickery the magician had planned. Bird hesitated for a moment, then picked up the apparatus and left the room. When he returned a few moments later, Bird frowned in displeasure at the magician, accusing him of having placed pieces of rubber on the contact points of the bell so that it could not possibly ring. Houdini offered no defense of his actions, and he was admonished that dishonesty would do the committee no service.
The words of admonishment were scarcely out of Bird's mouth when the electric bell began to ring in vigorous spurts of clanging sound, and Walter's booming voice filled the seance room. "How does that suit you, Mr. Houdini?" the spirit control mocked.
Houdini's tricks to confuse Margery were methodically uncovered by the all-seeing spirit guide Walter, and the magician's attendance at the sessions in the medium's seance room became more and more infrequent. When the committee demanded that the magician make good his boast that he could duplicate all the effects that the medium had manifested during her seances, Houdini found that he had suddenly been called away on business.
The investigating committee from the Scientific American never seemed to exhaust their list of inventive tests by which they might challenge the abilities of the patient Margery. For one experiment, the medium allowed herself to be encased in a wooden compartment which would permit only her arms and legs to protrude. With her limbs grasped firmly by the researchers, Margery was still able to ring bells, snuff out candles, and set in motion rocking chairs on the opposite side of the room.
In order to better investigate the spirit voices that seemed to be under Margery's control, the committee carefully measured an amount of colored water that would easily fill her mouth. With her mouth full of the colored water, the voices of Walter and other entities were still able to speak freely and to answer all questions put to them. After the experiment's completion, the water was removed from the medium's mouth and remeasured. The color remained the same and the amount of water withdrawn varied not more than a teaspoonful.
The water test had not adequately impressed all the investigators, however, so they devised a balloon which could be placed in the medium's mouth and inflated while the seance was in progress. Once again, the voices were able to engage in free discourse, even though Margery's larynx was completely blocked off. A number of the spirit voices expressed their scorn with the feeble attempts that the investigators were making in an attempt to mute them.
Although Margery was always remarkably patient and good-humored regarding the tests that the committee devised, there were some overeager members among the researchers who did not return her good will. Before the research seances had begun, each of the investigators had signed an affidavit stating that none of them would touch the ectoplasm that streamed forth from the medium's body, but on one occasion, a committee member seized the substance as it moved over his wrist. Margery emitted a terrible shriek of pain, and later she became ill and hemorraged for several days. Another time when she was in deep trance, a researcher drove a thick needle into her flesh. Although the medium did not flinch while entranced, she suffered greatly from the wound when she awakened. On still another occasion, Margery was badly burned by corrosive chemicals which a zealous investigator had designed for an experiment.
After six weeks of tests, the committee remained undecided as to the validity of the phenomena produced by Margery, but an enthusiastic J. Malcolm Bird began writing positive articles concerning the authenticity of the medium's abilities. When it seemed apparent that there was no general consensus accepting or rejecting Margery's mediumship as providing proof of survival, Houdini became furious, fearing that they were about to hand over the prize money of $2,500 to the Crandons. Because of his open and much publicized skepticism of spirit mediums and Spiritualists, Houdini felt that his very reputation as a master magician was being challenged and insulted, so he wrote his own report, Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium Margery, and had it published as a booklet in 1924. As should be obvious from the title, Houdini presented his own explanations of how each of the phenomena manifested by Margery had been accomplished through trickery. The angry magician even went so far as to accuse two of his fellow committee members, Hereward Carrington and J. Malcolm Bird, of having assisted Margery in perpetrating her fraudulent mediumship.
In spite of crude and careless acts on the part of certain members of the committee throughout the grueling tests, Margery Crandon retained her goodwill toward the persistent investigators and produced a remarkable variety of phenomena, ranging from breezes, raps, spirit writing in several languages, independent voice manifestations, apports, and the imprint of spirit fingerprints in paraffin. Many members of the committee made public declarations that Margery Crandon had control of forces beyond the present knowledge of twentieth-century science. Hereward Carrington went on record as stating that after attending more than 40 sittings with Margery he had arrived at the "…definite conclusion that genuine supernormal would frequently occur. Many of the observed manifestations might well have been produced fraudulently…however, there remains a number of instances when phenomena were produced and observed under practically perfect control."
Unfortunately for Margery and her many friends and supporters, it was discovered that a fingerprint that had been allegedly left in wax by Walter was found to be that of a Boston dentist, Dr. Frederick Caldwell, who admitted that he had given Margery a bit of wax in which his own print had been pressed. One such exposure of fraud could not prove that all of Margery's spirit phenomena had been produced as products of clever deception, as Houdini had declared, but the falsification of her spirit control's fingerprint caused the majority of researchers who had examined and tested her mediumship to decide that perhaps she had, after all, been too good to be true.
Mina Crandon herself remains a mystery. The most famous medium of the 1920s has become a martyr in the minds of Spiritualists, a courageous woman who submitted to test after complex test for the sake of demonstrating the truth of survival after death. For psychical researchers, she stands as a classic example of a talented medium who, though capable of occasionally producing genuine phenomena, from time to time resorted to trickery. For the skeptics, she is simply another clever fraud who deceived the gullible until she was exposed by the harsh light of scientific investigation.
Mina Stinson Crandon died in her sleep on November 1, 1941. Although she was said to have spent her final years unhappy and disillusioned, tending to her husband during a long convalescence, then succumbing herself to illness, her supporters never ceased to remind her that her fame as a medium was known throughout the world.