Margery Crandon physical medium

 

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The Mediumship of Margery Crandon

Mina Crandon (1888-1941), better known as 'Margery', was born and grew up in rural Ontario, Canada; significant in view of what would later transpire, 'her closest family tie...[was] with her elder brother Walter until, in 1911, he was killed in an accident'.(1) As events unfolded, it was to be seen that Walter's association with his sister continued after his death, and this produced one of the most impressive instances of physical mediumship. It is interesting to note that, as a boy, there were paranormal phenomena associated with him, e.g. tables tilting and levitating (NB. As Mina is usually known as 'Margery', the pseudonym adopted to shield her and her husband from public attention, that title will be used from hereon).

At the age of seventeen, Margery moved to Boston; after an unhappy marriage and divorce, Margery married Dr LeRoi Goddard Crandon, a successful Boston surgeon, in 1918. Dr Crandon became interested in the subject of Spiritualism after attending lectures about the subject, and through his own reading; it was on 27 May 1923, when both he and Margery were present with others at a seance, that Margery's mediumistic abilities became evident. However, sadly, as Beloff remarks, 'From that time on, the psychical research enthusiasts gave her no peace and the exertions to which she was driven may, in the end, have undermined her health and sanity'.(2) Margery's 'mediumship developed rapidly, involving complete levitation of table in red light, and then appeared in rapid succession all the varieties of phenomena'. After some months, the development was obvious with, 'an easily heard loud whisper, coming mostly from the cabinet but repeatedly, for special guests, being heard in other parts of the room, as far away as eight feet from the psychic'.(3)The significant feature of Margery's mediumship is that unlike most other mediums, her control could be identified: this was none other than her brother Walter.

Inglis notes that Walter's presence was unmistakable, i.e. he was 'in the spirit as in life: rumbustious, argumentative', and 'he instructed the sitters in what they must do and what they must not do...and provided an acerbic running commentary on the proceedings'.(4) There can be little doubt that Margery's mediumship was undoubtedly of a remarkable type: 'Walter's voice is reported as being heard directly while Margery's mouth was held shut or filled with liquid or marbles. 'Walter', so it seems, was even able on one occasion to penetrate a sound-proof box so as to activate a microphone which it enclosed'.(5)
What also distinguished Margery from other mediums was the impact made upon the world of psychical research; this resulted in various groups, all holding different opinions about her mediumship: 'Rival factions consequently developed, leading to internecine feuds'.(6) Margery also achieved something that no other medium had ever managed to do: as Beloff observes, 'Few mediums can have caused quite as much havoc in their time as did Margery. The American Society for Psychical Research split in two on her account'.(7)

Margery's mediumship included raps from different parts of the seance room, the voice of her control, levitation, the movement of objects, sitters being touched by unseen hands, and the production of ectoplasm that was filmed. The attitude of the Crandons also invited respect as they made no objection to thorough searches being made. The 'cabinet' that Margery used was open at its front so she could be monitored by either the red light that was allowed on some occasions or the luminous objects attached to her clothing and body. During a seance, her hands and feet would be fastened by wire to the cabinet, or held by those on either side of her. Although Dr Crandon was in close proximity to Margery, holding her hand and foot, the reality was that this would hardly account for what occurred, e.g. the raps, levitations, etc. Furthermore, Dr Crandon was also held by a person to his side, and as Margery's position was visible through the luminous markings on her body, any untoward movement by her would have been quite apparent to those who were present. Although seances were usually held in the darkness, there was often something available to provide the means by which sitters could follow the events occurring.
The independence of Walter was illustrated by the tests that were conducted: Besterman described how in 1923, Walter told all those present, including Margery, to fill their mouths with water, and no one, apart from one who could only say one word 'with manifest effort', was able to utter a sound. While this was happening, words came from the cabinet 'very distinctly'. The exercise was subsequently repeated with only Margery doing this, and yet Walter spoke.(8) In view of what Margery was producing, she drew the attention of a number of academics, and indeed, '"Margery" became the central issue of psychical research in the United States'.(9) A number of researchers investigated her, one being William McDougall, the head of the psychology department at Harvard.
Walter rose to the challenge and took great delight 'in laying on not only the usual effects, but others of a kind which would demonstrate to him [McDougall] that cheating by the medium was out of the question.(10)

Phenomena occurred and the best that McDougall could say was that the movement of objects was effected by someone pulling them, by a thread that ran through the ventilator shaft. Apart from the problem that no such thread was found in the searches made, the ventilator shaft had been blocked for some years.
The next investigation that arose was when the Scientific American became involved in the subject of Margery's mediumship. James Malcolm Bird had prompted the publication to offer five thousand dollars in December 1922, to anyone who could provide visible psychic phenomena; Margery responded to this, although she said that she would not accept the payment if she won.

A committee was therefore formed to investigate her claim and this included various prominent figures, e.g. William McDougall, Hereward Carrington, Walter Prince, Daniel Comstock and Harry Houdini. One interesting feature of attitudes at the time is noted by Inglis; he observed how, because Carrington had accepted the genuineness of Eusapia Palladino's phenomena, his contribution was seen as being questionable as 'he ceased to be impartial'. With further disdain due to his lack of academic qualifications, despite his extensive knowledge of the subject, 'His opinion, would count for little, unless it was critical'. To make the situation even more irregular, McDougall and Prince were 'deeply suspicious' of physical mediumship, apart from the fact that Prince was also profoundly deaf. Therefore, the decision-making became the responsibility of Bird.(11)
Despite the composition of the committee, Margery, having returned from Paris and London where she had given demonstrations, began to exhibit her mediumship to the group in a series of seances in 1924. In these, she produced marvellous phenomena, e.g. lights, object movement, touches from materialized hands, the manipulation of scales and the ringing of a bell in a specially-designed box. On one occasion when Margery was seated inside a sturdy crate, Walter decided to show what was possible when he pulled off the side next to Bird who was also placed inside it, and then dragged 'the remains around the room, carrying the two of them in it'.(12) Additionally, Margery was able to facilitate the materialization of a hand that the investigators could feel and be sure was not being controlled by Margery.

An interim report, favourable to Margery, was produced by Bird, but hardly surprising, Houdini who had not been present, then decided to become actively involved. Houdini was undoubtedly a sad and complex character: he fought against mediums and was determined to expose them all as frauds, or 'vultures' as he termed them; and yet there was always a clear hint that he earnestly desired evidence of survival in respect of his mother who had died in 1913. However, his personal crusade always eclipsed his inner yearning.
Houdini saw his involvement in trying to find fraud in Margery's mediumship as a personal matter. Apart from his own embarrassment if he had to declare her genuine, he had also offered a thousand dollars if he was unsuccessful. Moreover, he had just finished a tour denouncing Spiritualism with every derogatory accusation possible, and he therefore could not investigate Margery with any objectivity.
After being unable to prove Margery was using fraudulent means, Houdini demanded that Bird be kept away; Carrington of course had already 'burned his boats' by his view concerning Eusapia Palladino. Houdini insisted that Dr Crandon should not be in control of Margery's hands and she be placed inside a cabinet that he had designed; this only allowed Margery to place her head and two arms outside. As soon as the seance began, on 25 August 1924, with Houdini holding one of Margery's hands, and Prince the other, the lid of the cabinet came open, apparently of its own accord. Houdini claimed that Margery had done this, but it was obvious she could have hardly done so, without the two men realizing what she was doing as they were holding her hands. She was placed inside the cabinet again and Walter then exclaimed in rather colourful terms that Houdini had meddled with the bell-box. When one of the other investigators examined it, there was indeed an item inserted that would have made it difficult to ring. Houdini naturally denied being involved or having any knowledge of it: this was somewhat remarkable as he had been the very person who had checked it earlier.

On the next occasion of testing Margery, the top of the cabinet was strengthened. Walter then communicated once again in colourful terms in relation to Houdini, whom he accused of placing a rule within the cabinet. If this had been found after the seance, it would have been possible to accuse Margery of using it to produce fraudulent phenomena. When the cabinet was opened, there was indeed a rule as Walter had said. Needless to say, Houdini denied any involvement with this, which again was rather strange as he was the only person who had control of access to the area. Later, James Collins, Houdini's assistant, said that Houdini had instructed him to place the rule within Margery's cabinet as he wanted 'to fix her good'; Collins also stated that despite Houdini's denials, the stark reality was that the truth, for Houdini, was 'what 'e wanted it to be'.(13) Obviously, as so often happened in such cases, each side accused the other, but what is interesting is that Milbourne Christopher, a magician and sceptic who rejected Collins's story, admitted that Houdini had taken photographs of Margery, and one of these showed a strange marking, resembling a halo-shape above her head. When Houdini published material in which he accused Margery of fraud, he chose not to include this particular photograph.

A further test was held, and this time, there were no phenomena, and no further ones were conducted in relation to this specific exercise. It simply became a farce, as it was destined to be from its inception; it also became headline news with wild claims being made: 'it was just a glorious free-for-all, a farrago of personalities, of challenges and counter challenges, in many ways startlingly childish'.(14)
By this stage, 'Carrington pronounced the mediumship genuine, Houdini fraudulent, Comstock wanted to see more, Prince said he had not seen enough, and McDougall was non-committal. Malcolm Bird...was satisfied. Prince and McDougall, however, even after further sittings, refused to give a definite statement'.(15) It is hardly surprising that Walter's terminology sometimes became rather colourful with such people.

Tests recommenced with the appearance in 1925, of Dr E. J. Dingwall of the SPR; he had already witnessed phenomena produced by Margery in London on an earlier occasion. On conducting the tests, there was a considerable amount of phenomena, and although light appeared to cause problems for Walter, luminous paint was used that allowed the sitters to monitor each other and the objects in the room. As trust developed, Walter allowed Dingwall and the others to feel the ectoplasmic forms and use a camera; the photographs that were taken showed the ectoplasm emanating from Margery. Although some believed that Dr Crandon might be fraudulently producing the phenomena, this suggestion was shown to be invalid as the phenomena were still manifested when he was not present, e.g. in a seance on 5 January 1925.
After a series of twenty-nine sittings, Dingwall was undoubtedly impressed with what he had seen: there was no indication of fraud in the accounts made of the sittings, and he presented Margery with a copy of Revelations of a Spirit Medium (1891), with an inscription that praised her 'undaunted courage and unfailing good humour', and 'remarkable medium-ship'. When he wrote to Schrenck- Notzing, he reported: 'The teleplasmic masses are visible and tangible...in excellent red light. I held the medium's hands: I saw figures and felt them in good light'.(16) However, Dingwall, was to run true to form, i.e. he behaved with Margery as he did with Willy Schneider; when he later submitted his report, he included afterthoughts that showed that he had changed his opinion to one of uncertainty.

Dingwall's conclusions were not only astonishing, but appeared even more suspect as they had not been written during the actual seances, or shortly afterwards, but six months later. Dingwall advanced two contrasting hypotheses for the phenomena: (I)Margery was genuine, or, (II)Margery was involved in fraudulent behaviour. He concluded that (II) held more weight for him than did (I). Details of Dingwall's reasons, and a discussion of these are included in Inglis's Science and Parascience. Equally unsettling was the fact that Dingwall lacked the courage to inform Margery and Dr Crandon of what he was to say until he forwarded the proofs of his report that was published in the SPR's Proceedings.
Dr Crandon's response to Dingwall's report, that appeared in the same Proceedings, is very enlightening and well worth reading. In view of Dingwall's discussion of the 'two hypotheses', Dr Crandon obviously saw it necessary to conclude his response with his own two hypotheses; these related to Dingwall himself, and Dr Crandon drily concluded that his treatment of the matter was because: '(I)The author is a nut. [or] (II)The author is a nut'.(17) Dingwall's report is certainly rather bewildering: in the introduction, Dingwall admitted that if Margery's mediumship was fraudulent, 'there is little, if any, direct evidence in support of such a supposition'.
However, he went on to propose his two hypotheses saying that he could cite a dozen incidents in favour of both, but the greatest support for the second hypothesis, i.e. that Margery indulged in fraudulent mediumship, was that 'the phenomena witnessed by me, could, I think, be duplicated by normal methods'.(18)

It was hardly surprising that Margery and her husband must have been astounded to read the report, although this oscillation was absolutely typical of Dingwall; if he proposed two alternative explanations and favoured the more cautious one (that would be found to be more acceptable by his peers), then he could be sure that he was in no danger. He also followed the general trend of investigators in the period who had numerous sittings, but inevitably pleaded they had not had sufficient number to allow them to form an opinion. The conclusion of Dingwall's report wavers between the two hypotheses and he admitted that he had not been 'persuaded to accept the second hypothesis with all its implications'.(19) It was no wonder that Dr Crandon, when replying, and saying that Dingwall's inaccuracies were too many to list, also said that Dingwall was simply a case of someone who 'had eyes and saw not'.(20)
Surprisingly, Margery was still prepared to submit to further investigations; in the next series, the investigators were Hudson Hoagland and S. Foster Damon, who were amateurs in the field of psychical research. Phenomena were produced that included Walter amusing himself by sometimes pulling Hoagland's hair. The investigators were then joined by Dr Edwin Boring and Grant H. Code, and they concluded that fraudulent activity was taking place. However, they were shocked to have Walter telling them that he knew of their conclusion and repeating something of what they had said. Following this, they were in for a rather dramatic enlightenment as spectacular phenomena occurred when Margery and her husband were being carefully monitored. This now caused considerable problems for the investigators, and Code suggested a fantastic tale to account for what had happened: this was the explanation that while Margery was in a state of auto-hypnosis she produced fraudulent phenomena, but without actually realizing it. Of this, Inglis rightly comments, 'It is difficult to think of a more ludicrously implausible story; but...[the] committee needed some excuse, any excuse, to escape from what had become an acutely embarrassing predicament'.(21) Both Code's account and Margery's reply, sworn before a public notary, denying what he had said, appeared in the SPR's Proceedings. Nonetheless, Hoagland published his report that was included in the Atlantic Monthly (November 1925); an interesting review of this by Everard Feilding (one of the SPR members who investigated Eusapia Palladino), was given in the SPR's Proceedings (36, June 1926), and this questioned a number of significant points in the report.

Dr Crandon with Bird, who was by now an officer in the American Society for Psychical Research, carefully went through the report and dismantled its contents in their pamphlet, Margery Harvard Veritas: they took the opportunity to also deal with the earlier investigations and could not resist commenting upon the more ludicrous aspects of some of those who had been involved, e.g. McDougall who made different statements about Margery that were wholly inconsistent, and Price who, through his deafness, could not hear the bell ringing during the seance, even when it was on his own lap. In their review of the whole matter, Dr Crandon and Bird came across information that demonstrated the unsavoury behaviour that had taken place in the attempts to discredit Margery.
There followed claims, accusations and various answers to these from both sides, with other parties becoming involved. Inglis remarks of this, the second Harvard investigation, 'that it was a put-up job' with one member who 'successfully deceived both his colleagues and the Crandons'.(22)

It was about this time that, 'the Society [American Society for Psychical Research] was split from top to bottom by the Margery dispute; many of its officials resigned'.(23) It did not recover from this division until 1941 when it was reorganized. Nonetheless, despite the problems that had emerged, Margery and her husband agreed to submit to yet further tests. Henry McComas, a Princeton psychologist set up a team with Prof. Dunlap and Dr Wood and began their investigation in 1925. Unfortunately, it seemed that Wood was intoxicated when he attended the seances, and it transpired that Dunlap had previously stated that physical mediumship was produced through fraud. Therefore, this particular investigation came to a premature end, although even in this short time, McComas had witnessed phenomena that impressed him and he told Houdini of this. Houdini was taken aback and said that he would need time to deal with the matter: he never fulfilled this as he died on 31 October 1926, following a mishap during one of his stage performances. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with whom Houdini had been in contact for a number of years, despite their very different viewpoints concerning Spiritualism, reported that only months before Houdini's death, a message was received in his circle saying that, 'Houdini is doomed'.
Margery continued to demonstrate her mediumship, but the event that damaged her reputation was the response to the suggestion that attempts be made to obtain the fingerprints of Walter. To facilitate this, Frederick Caldwell, Margery's dentist, offered Kerr, the required wax, and in 1929, the experiment was conducted in London whereupon fingerprints were obtained.

In the same year the Crandons met Harry Price, and being somewhat bemused - and amused - at the manner in which Price worked, they decided not to submit to his tests (although he was allowed to attend a seance with Margery in the December). In view of Price's treatment of Rudi Schneider and other physical mediums, their decision not to become involved with Price was obviously a wise decision on their part.
After this, the event that severely damaged Margery's reputation as a medium occurred. In 1931, a check of the fingerprints obtained earlier, was made by E. E. Dudley, and after comparing these with the prints of every person who had attended Margery's seances, they were found to be that of Margery's dentist. This incident 'cast a permanent shadow over her mediumship'.(24) This 'was a bombshell indeed'.(25)
Nonetheless, the incident did not deter Walter from seeking ways to demonstrate his continuing existence and his sister's mediumship. In 1932, he interlocked two rings, of two different wood types, that had been made by a carpenter; further occurrences of this feat followed. Unfortunately, the rings would eventually fracture, clearly having only a limited lifespan. Nonetheless, the feat was important as the 'PPO' (Permanent Paranormal Object) is extremely rare and has obvious value in providing lasting evidence of next- world activity beyond the seance room.
Beloff refers to the feat as 'a manifest topological miracle' and notes that while the interlocked rings no longer exist, 'We have a photograph of one intact linkage that is said to have been on display at one time at the offices of the American S.P.R. in New York and we have the text of a letter from an outside expert affirming that the linkage had been X-rayed but that "nothing resembling an artificially concealed cut or break could be detected"'.(26)
In addition to all that has been detailed above, instances of apports occurred in Margery's mediumship, apart from fascinating tests of cross-correspondence that were devised by Dr Mark Richardson. These involve