A Woman to Know: Mina Crandon

She certainly was clever in her maneuvering to pull the wool over the eyes. — Harry Houdini

(image via The Library of Congress)

She'd conjure up the "ghost" of her dead brother, Walter, and ask him to speak at séances. She'd ooze a ghostly substance known as "ectoplasm" from her ears and eyes, then photograph the "evidence." She'd even brandish a limp hand supposedly belonging to Walter's ghost — and all these powers persuaded tons of people, including celebrities like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that Mina "Margery" Crandon could actually communicate with the spiritual realm.

Mina's success as a medium tapped into a nationwide obsession with "Spiritualism," a movement popular in the 1920s. She'd previously worked as a secretary and as an actress, but once she married a prominent Boston surgeon, she took her otherworldly "gifts" to the public, opening her home to séance guests and Spiritualist devotees. Soon, locals knew her as "The Blonde Witch of Lime Street."

But after Mina entered a contest with Scientific American — one that would have netted her a whopping $5,000 in prize money — the famous magician Harry Houdini demanded an audience with the Boston medium. He was convinced he could debunk her act and expose her as a fraud. And sure enough, after a year's worth of sessions with the medium — and an entire panel of experts brought in to investigate alongside him — Houdini prevented her from accepting the Scientific American prize money. He claimed that in the midst of a séance, he witnessed her rifling under the table for tools to orchestrate her illusions. From there, her star power dimmed.

Mina would continue to assert her innocence for the rest of her life. Until her death in 1941, she kept her house on Lime Street open to the spiritually curious, calling on "Walter" whenever she had a captive audience.

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