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Publisher's Summary

History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics - and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery's powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince...the acclaimed escape artist Harry Houdini.

David Jaher's extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation's most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other's orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: Is there life after death?

©2015 David Jaher (P)2015 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Jaher brings Harry Houdini's crusade against Spiritualism back into popular knowledge in his gripping first book...a fascinating look at the Spiritualist movement in 1920s America." ( Publishers Weekly)
"Jaher's narrative style is as engaging as his character portraits are colorful. Together, they bring a bygone age and its defining spiritual obsessions roaring to life. Fascinating, sometimes thrilling, reading." ( Kirkus Reviews)
"A beautifully written, deeply researched, and delightfully mysterious tale of grifters and ghosts in the Jazz Age. David Jaher writes about the battle between science and spiritualism with a charming combination of sympathy, skepticism, and suspense. Jaher has made a great debut as a historian and a story-teller." (Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America)

What listeners say about The Witch of Lime Street

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Houdini, Conan Doyle and Marjorie

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, to anyone who had an interest in history, famous people and alternative thinking. It is truly fascinating.

What other book might you compare The Witch of Lime Street to and why?

Occult America is quite similar, with a history of alternative approaches to the spiritual.

Which character – as performed by Simon Vance – was your favorite?

Simon Vance is one of my favorite narrators and I loved all the voices. But perhaps my favorite in this book would be the voice of Walter.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I think probably the most moving parts were the invasive, sometimes cruel, and character destroying attacks and investigations that Marjorie (and other psychics) endured. Proving herself a valid medium must have meant a great deal to her to allow it to go on for years and to endure so much with such an obliging attitude.

Any additional comments?

This is such a complex book that there is a great deal that one could comment on. First, it seemed to me that the rigid examination of alleged psychics was extreme and one wonders why the same kind of rigorous examination hasn't been used to question the tenets of most religions? Another thing that stood out to me is that "The Great Houdini" was really quite a petty and vindictive person who would not allow anyone to surpass him. Somewhat of a different view than is popular. Also, just the overall story of the famous people involved in the early Spiritualist movement both in the U.S. and Europe was intriguing. I suppose the question of whether life continues after death will continue to go on as it is human nature to want to know the unanswerable questions. This book was researched beautifully and gives one a feeling of being there as an observer and being part of a new way of thinking in a new century. Really brilliant!

6 people found this helpful

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Great History of a Fascinating Cultural Phenomenon

This book is a scholarly but entertaining discussion of one of the most curious cultural phenomena of the 20th century - the spiritualist craze that swept the country after World War I. The focus is on the climactic episode of this era, when the greatest psychic fraud of the movement finally met her nemesis in the Great Houdini. Indeed, the book reminded me of why I always admired him so much. In the last few years of his life he focused his talents and experience on relentlessly exposing those who were so successful at duping the most vulnerable in society. One of the most interesting side stories is Houdini's conflict with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife - both dedicated advocates of the spiritualist movement.

2 people found this helpful

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I thought it would never end. .

Way too long for the content. Vance superb as usual. Would have been more interesting with half the words.

1 person found this helpful

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Wonderful!

Would you consider the audio edition of The Witch of Lime Street to be better than the print version?

Hard to say because I haven't read the print version.

What other book might you compare The Witch of Lime Street to and why?

"The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis"

Another captivating book featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, years before the events of "The Witch."

Which scene was your favorite?

The seances with seemingly supernatural happenings..

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Too long. I like to go slowly and relish.

Any additional comments?

Glad I picked it. Great for those interested in American history, European history, religious studies (Spiritualism),and celebrities of days gone by.

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Really loved this book.

Gosh really loved this book. Such amazing characters, the times, the story. It helps I live in Boston and am familiar with the Beacon hill area. I listened to it twice, and may listen a third time.

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This Drags

I heard great things about this before listening. I expected salaciousness, scandals and sacrilege. What I got was an overly long reading of observational notes. How it's possible to make a topic like this dull is beyond me but this accomplished it.

As always though Simon Vance is sublime.

3 people found this helpful

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A true story that couldn't be told until now

David Jaher’s “The Witch of LIme Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World” is an insightful, witty, and ironic look at a story that uncovers previously unknown details of the story.

According to the About the Author page, Jaher is a graduate of Brandeis University with a MFA in film production from New York University, where he received a fellowship for directing. His biography at Penguin Random House says he is a screenwriter and is writing his next work on American history.

I hope that screenwriter Jaher is working on a script for “The Witch of Lime Street,” which IMDB lists as “in development.”

A screenplay could capture the scope of the book, which goes far beyond the seance room. For example, the book starts with Doyle at the close of World War I. From there, it examines Doyle’s first introduction to Spiritualism and his personal losses that made that belief so urgent. Then Jaher examines Houdini’s history. Sideshow freak. Phony medium. Escape artist. Grief-stricken son. Houdini forged relationships with just about every luminary of his time, but he bonded with Doyle over their polar-opposite interests in Spiritualism.

The two men represented the prevailing schools of psychic research of their time: believers and debunkers. Scientists, scholars, psychologists, and publishers such as Scientific American magazine set out to find The Truth. And that made great fodder for controversy–the kind that drives readership. When Doyle challenged Scientific American to get serious about psychic research, the magazine offered two $2,500 prizes for anyone who could prove genuine psychic phenomena.

The rest is history.

Jaher takes his readers through the Scientific American’s disappointing tests of candidates for the prizes before focusing on the most promising one: a society woman from Boston who wanted neither the publicity nor the prize money. By then, the Crandons had a wide circle of friends and followers.

The magazine had a committee of more than a dozen regulars and alternates. Add to that the researchers: Harvard. M.I.T. The London-based Society for Psychical Research. The American Society for Psychical Research. The Boston Society for Psychical Research. The list goes on, and Jaher does a good job of keeping track of them all.

The Scientific American committee sat with Margery about 100 times, of which Houdini participated in only a handful. J. Malcolm Bird of the Scientific American, and later the ASPR, chronicled most of them in detail in his 1925 book. Jaher hits the highlights, and then does what neither Bird nor Houdini could do: He gives the epilogue. We learn how each of the characters met their end.

The author poses as many explanations for the phenomena, and their motivation, as any contemporary investigator ever did. But in the end, there are no answers except perhaps Houdini’s: Margery was a magician and an escape artist. Like any successful magician, she never performed the same effects twice for the same audience under the same conditions. Readers who are disappointed at not finding out The Truth will just have to enjoy the mystery. That’s what illusionists are all about.

About the audiobook
I enjoyed listening to the Random House Audio book on Audible. Narrator Simon Vance’s distinctive voice seems remarkably appropriate for a story that starts out with Conan Doyle (Vance has also narrated “The Complete Sherlock Holmes:The Heirloom Collection” among many others.) His inflections and bring out the irony and turns of phrase that make this an enjoyable listen.

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A little everything of mysticism, showmanship,

I found this while referencing Houdini. The Marconi wireless of the 1890s, opened minds to spirituality with a Quija board in the 20s. Mediums tend to be fringe interests, but gained a peak interest about 1925. From his own failed efforts to contact the other side, Harry Houdini developed contempt and wanted to bust the tricksters. I enjoyed this and learned how the game was played. You may like the book if this is your understanding of where the story wanders.

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It's hard to imagine...

To think this happened. Even though the mediums were phony, the fact they would treat the women like lab rats and not like people disturbed me the most. Sure, they should have been unmasked as frauds but all the inappropriate exams? No wonder the newspapers liked to report about them. Scandal at every meeting! Should have been a spiritual brothel movement. I'm glad this story from history was retold. We should always remember humanity can be completely fooled and ridiculous.

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Suspenseful and entertaining

I enjoy books about magicians and the metaphysical. The author delivers a suspenseful and entertaining book. He had me on the edge of my seat til the end.