Scientific American (Journal)
In the summer of 1922, this New York journal, known for
its outstanding presentation of scientific findings to the American
lay public, decided to investigate the subject of psychical research.
Contributions were invited, but as these proved to be
rather contradictory, a plan was worked out for first-hand investigation,
and the sum of $2,500 was promised for the demonstration
of an objective psychic phenomenon before a committee
of five.
The offer was to remain open from January 1923, when it
was published in the Scientific American, until December 31,
1924. The committee consisted of William McDougall, a professor
of psychology at Harvard; Daniel Frost Comstock, formerly
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then a
retired inventor; Walter Franklin Prince, principal research
officer of the American Society of Psychical Research; Hereward
Carrington, the well-known psychical investigator and
author; and Harry Houdini, the stage magician and escapologist.
J. Malcolm Bird, associate editor of the Scientific
American, was assigned to the committee as a non-voting member
to perform secretarial duties.
Psychics and mediums proved reluctant to appear before
the committee, some objecting to its composition. In fourteen
months, the committee had only three applicants. The verdict
in each case was fraud, conscious or otherwise.
The offer of the Scientific American was enlarged in April
1924. It comprised the payment of the expenses of any highclass
medium who would come forward, regardless of the verdict.
No response came, but Bird succeeded in making arrangements
with Mina Crandon, soon to become famous as
‘‘Margery,’’ the wife of L. R. Crandon of Boston, to sit for investigation
in Boston. In return for the change of scene, necessitated
by L. R. Crandon’s professional engagements, the doctor
waived the Scientific American’s offer to pay expenses and himself
undertook to pay the committee’s expenses in Boston.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Scientific American
1361
The ‘‘Margery’’ Sittings
The first séance was held on April 12. The committee witnessed
gradual development of interesting phenomena and
made good headway into the investigation by using scientific
instruments. Final judgment might have been reached; however,
friction, dissension, and distrust arose between the members.
One focus of tension was Houdini. He had established, at
that time, a reputation in the unmasking of fraudulent mediums.
In the end, possibly not without justification, he openly
accused Bird with confederacy in producing the mediumistic
phenomena. Other members of the committee had come to believe
that Bird was at best highly incompetent.
Houdini obtained no direct proof against ‘‘Margery,’’ yet
after two sittings in July, he published a document attacking
both the Crandons and Malcolm Bird. He began to give lectures
in which he claimed to have infallibly demonstrated that
the rest of the committee was duped.
Orson D. Munn, the publisher of the Scientific American, now
stepped in and, noting that the finality of the exposure was in
no way acknowledged by the committee itself, prevailed upon
Houdini to go back for further sittings in August and to make
an attempt to reach a final verdict. At that stage, since Carrington
had pronounced the mediumship genuine, he withdrew
from further sittings. McDougall was otherwise engaged, so
Comstock, Houdini, and Prince remained on the scene.
Houdini constructed a supposedly ‘‘fraud-proof’’ wooden
cage for the critical séance, but refused to sit with it in red light,
demanded total darkness, and categorically denied the request
of his colleagues for its examination. The committee yielded to
Houdini but some suspicion was present. In any case, after a
few minutes of the séance the entire top of the cage was found
open and Houdini at once stated that anybody sitting in it
could throw it open with her shoulders. It appeared, therefore,
that the problem at this point was Houdini’s design. This incident
was followed with confrontations between Houdini and
‘‘Margery’s’’ spirit control ‘‘Walter,’’ who demanded to know
how much Houdini was getting for stopping phenomena.
‘‘Walter’’ advised Comstock to take the bell box out into white
light and examine it. Sure enough, a rubber eraser, off the end
of a pencil, was found tucked down into the angle between the
contact boards, necessitating four times the usual pressure to
ring the bell.
At the next séance, when the top of the cage was properly
secured, Houdini, on some pretext, put his arm in through the
porthole at the last minute. ‘‘Walter’’ thereupon denounced
Houdini and accused him of putting a ruler in the cage under
the cushion on which ‘‘Margery’s’’ feet rested. The accusation
was proved. A two-foot jointed ruler, of the sort used by carpenters,
folded into four sections, was found at the designated spot.
After this, Houdini was delivered an ultimatum for handing
over the cage to the committee. Houdini refused to comply,
packed the cage up, and carted it away.
The attitude of the rest of the committee towards the mediumship
of ‘‘Margery’’ was also open to criticism. Prince sat ten
times, Comstock 56 times, McDougall 22 times; none of them
uncovered any fraud, yet they came increasingly to agree that
the phenomena were not genuine.
Malcolm Bird’s Role
The next crisis came with Malcolm Bird’s unofficial (and
very favorable) account of the investigation in the Scientific
American. In the press reproductions, the distinction between
the Scientific American and the committee was lost; headlines
shrieked across the country that ‘‘Margery’’ was about to win
the prize. Prince insisted that the Scientific American articles be
stopped until the committee was through with the case and
threatened resignation. Houdini sided with him. The articles
were discontinued, and Bird was pressured to resign from further
association with the committee.
When the August séances were over and still no verdict had
been reached, the Scientific American insisted on its rights and
demanded a statement from the committee or from its individual
members. These statements were published in November
1924. Carrington pronounced the mediumship genuine and so
proved, Houdini pronounced it fraudulent and so proved.
Comstock said he found it interesting and wanted to see more
of it. Prince disclaimed to have seen enough. McDougall could
not be reached, but later sided with Comstock. After this,
Prince and McDougall attended some more séances. Prince
witnessed bell ringing in perfect daylight with the bell box in
his lap; McDougall saw it ringing while being carried about the
room, yet they still refused to commit themselves. Thus ended
the investigation of the committee of the Scientific American.
In April 1925, O. D. Munn announced ‘‘The famous Margery
case is over so far as the Scientific American investigation is
concerned.’’ The question of the ‘‘Margery’’ mediumship was
now transferred from the Scientific American fiasco to the ASPR.
Bird left the editorial board of the Scientific American and became
a staff member of the ASPR. As a result the ‘‘Margery’’
question became central to the organization. Prince, who considered
Bird incompetent, resigned, and, with others who had
come to doubt Crandon’s abilities, he founded the Boston Society
for Psychical Research. He was joined by William MacDougall,
Gardner Murphy and Elwood Worcester. Bird’s book on
‘‘Margery’’ appeared in 1925.
The affair seemed to have reached a stalemate the ASPR
basically backed ‘‘Margery,’’ and the Boston SPR opposed her.
Then Bird submitted a confidential report to the ASPR board
in which he revealed that, contrary to his own book, he was
aware that at least some of the phenomena produced by Margery
were produced in a mundane manner and that he had
been approached to become the Crandons’ accomplice. Bird
soon resigned and dropped out of sight.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Bird, Malcolm. Margery the Medium. New York Maynard,
1925.
Tietze, Thomas R. Margery. New York Harper and Row,
1973.