Monday, 12 April 2010

Radio review - The Witch of Beacon Hill

This radio review appeared in The British & Irish Skeptic, Vol. 3, No. 5, September/October 1989, p.25. For some reason, perhaps to save a few lines, the published version ran several paragraphs together. Apart from reinstating the paragraph breaks, this is as printed then.

‘Margery’ revisited

The Witch of Beacon Hill, by Paul M. Levitt. Saturday Night Theatre, Radio 4, 30 September 1989.

The Witch of Beacon Hill purports to relate the events surrounding the investigation by the magazine Scientific American of the well known medium Mina Crandon, better known as ‘Margery’, in 1924. The best known member of the examining committee was Harry Houdini, and the play concentrates on the clash between him and Mina and her husband LeRoi, a noted Boston surgeon.

This was presumably done for dramatic emphasis, but as a result a misleading impression was conveyed. It was suggested at the end of the play that Mina won the battle with Houdini (though clearly by fraudulent means), and thereby achieved universal acceptance as being genuine. This was far from true: the phenomena she produced continued to be debated hotly. Rival interpretations were never reconciled, but merely faded away due to the new emphasis on laboratory experimentation in the 1930s, and the death of the protagonists (LeRoi in 1939 and Mina, by then an alcoholic, in 1941).

By concentrating on Houdini to the almost total exclusion of the role played by his colleagues, the listener is left with the impression that they did not play a significant part. This was not true. Also, no indication was given that the Scientific American investigation was one of a series carried out on Margery. Her fate in the play seemed to hang on Houdini's assessment, whereas in reality verdicts of fraud, including Houdini's, though numerous were always circumstantial. Whatever the outcome, she always bounced back.

Because this was not a documentary, it was difficult to know where attested facts stopped and the author's imagination began. For example, although rumours about Mina's sexual conduct circulated at the time, and her affair with Bird (the Scientific American's associate editor who was responsible for persuading the magazine's proprietor to put up the prize for which Margery was tested) seemed plausible, it was harder to believe that she attempted to seduce Houdini.

It was a pity that because of the concentration on Houdini and his particular motives for taking a keen interest in life after death, the furore over the famous thumbprints was totally ignored, occurring as it did from 1926 onwards. This scandal makes amusing reading, effectively killing scientific interest in Margery. The prints were supposed to belong to Margery's control ‘Walter’, but were attributed to Mina's dentist by her detractors in the Boston SPR, provoking claim and counterclaim which said more about the state of American psychical research than the merits of the Margery mediumship.

What were the results of the Margery episode? Basically there were two. Firstly, it hardened, although it did not cause, the rift in the American SPR which led to the formation of the Boston splinter group. Secondly and more importantly, J.B. and Louisa Rhine had attended some of Margery's séances, and were so concerned at the damage that was being caused to psychical research by the resulting internecine warfare that they decided to retreat into the laboratory, where results would be more clear cut. As it happened, interpretation there was just as difficult as it had been in the seance room, but at the time it must have seemed the only reasonable approach.

Alas the play failed to capture the pivotal nature of the Margery episode, although a flavour of the acrimony between the participants did emerge. It made a good radio drama, and any verdict on the play's value must hinge on one's attitude towards verisimilitude in fiction. The moral ambivalence of the Crandons was convincingly portrayed, so that it can be understood sixty years later why such passionate feelings were aroused by the case. It was a pity that the requirements of a good play and the demands of historiography did not coincide.