How Harry Houdini and Scientific American Fought the Fake Mediums of the 1920s

In Depth

The 1920s are associated with illicit booze and unsustainable stock market returns, but the decade was marked by another craze, as well—a fad for Spiritualism.

As World War I raged, fascination with the idea of life after death grew into a full-on movement. This was not some frowned-upon fringe phenomenon, with such eminent adherents and promoters as scientist Sir Oliver Lodge and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the relentlessly rational Sherlock Holmes.

But there were still skeptics. And so the Scientific American decided to tackle the issue, well, scientifically. Publisher Orson Munn and his editors James Malcolm Bird and Austin C. Lescarboura offered $5,000 to any psychic who could produce some sort of physical phenomenon in a setting rigorously controlled by the magazine. Getting the money required convincing several judges, including experienced investigators like Dr. Walter Prince, founder of the Boston Society for Psychical Research, and a famous enemy of fakers—none other than the great Harry Houdini. The story of the contest and Houdini’s very public battles with various Spiritualists are chronicled in David Jaher’s new book, The Witch of Lime Street. The title refers to Boston doctor’s wife and famous medium Mina Crandon, a polished, vivacious woman living in Back Bay, who impressed various seance sitters with her manifestations and gentility alike. (Except, of course, the ever-skeptical Houdini.)

This excerpt from Jaher’s book offers a peek at how the contest proceeded, with the story of a popular medium brought down by somebody else’s teeth.

Within two weeks the Cleveland seeress was forgotten. Now Mrs. Elizabeth Tomson of Chicago, the third aspirant for Munn’s prize, was the psychic in the spotlight, and she an old-time mystifier of the Anna Fay vaudeville variety.

The latest candidate produced from her cabinet myriad snowy white forms, all of which Houdini insisted were phony. Yet even he would admit that in her cunning way she was formidable. In London a decade earlier, the medium had been challenged by a skeptical inventor to manifest from a spirit cabinet in which he would restrain her. Sir Hiram Maxim was famous for inventing the prototype of the machine gun that would send thousands of bullet-riddled young men west. Was that not enough to break hearts, that he also had to deny the spiritist consolation of life after death? His draconian bonds had seemed more appropriate for one of Houdini’s escapes. He put the medium in a black body stocking to inhibit any access to fake ectoplasm. Then his people tied her, sewed her, taped her, chained her, and sat her within the inspected psychic cabinet. It took one hour before Mrs. Tomson cried that she was beaten. She had produced no apparitions and lost the competition. But when Sir Hiram parted the curtains to her booth, he received the fright of his life. Coiled above the medium was a large snake, poised as if to strike him.

Mrs. Tomson produced just the sort of dime-show spookery that attracted medium baiters. When she came to Manhattan in 1920 for a public test séance at the Morasco Theater, it was “all I could do to keep J. F. Rinn from breaking up the performance,” Houdini remembered. Before the days of the Scientific American contest, Joseph Rinn had been more of a nemesis to crooked mediums than the Great Houdini. And that evening the bellicose Rinn had an ugly exchange with the Broadway impresario Raymond Hitchcock, who defended the psychic after she claimed from the stage that Sir Oliver Lodge had endorsed her.

When later queried by Houdini, Sir Oliver said that Mrs. Tomson’s spook act had been rejected by his English SPR investigation. Undaunted, the Chicago psychic still sought the applause of scientists, and the highest stage for a publicity-seeking spook was now the Scientific American library. Mrs. Tomson had been the first medium to petition to be tested by Munn’s commission. She was reluctant, though, to return to the city where debunkers like Joseph Rinn had hounded her from the stage lights and attacked her in the newspapers. Aware of her dilemma, Bird tried to persuade her. Despite her detractors, Mrs. Tomson was the only notable psychic in the world willing to be tested by the jury, and as a materializing medium she would give them an opportunity to judge the most sensational of spiritistic effects—the fully formed apparition. This psychic produced visible forms—not raps, whistles, and vague messages from the departed.

What frustrated Bird was that the medium wanted publicity but feared judgment. She and her elusive husband, Dr. Tomson, kept themselves in the news by exploiting the public interest in the Scientific American challenge. There were features in Midwest papers that said she was off to conquer the committee in New York; one story even announced that she had already won the psychic honors. Bird suspected that the Tomsons were the source for these rumors. The medium told him that she couldn’t afford the trip to New York even though the Chicago Tribune, which supported the Scientific American investigation, offered to finance it. Months went by and still Mrs. Tomson wavered. Finally, around the time of Halloween, she came to New York and pronounced herself ready to be tested.

The Tomsons promptly invited the committee to a Sunday-evening séance at Raymond Hitchcock’s estate in Great Neck. Given such short notice, only Bird and Dr. Prince could make it. They arrived to find the sitting attended by about thirty individuals, mostly theatrical people. Despite that, Dr. Tomson wanted the demonstration to be an official Scientific American test; he was upset that the full commission was absent. Bird explained that he and Prince were there as guests, not judges. This wasn’t a sitting that would satisfy the rigors of their program, he protested. A respected surgeon searched Mrs. Tomson prior to the exhibition, but Bird remarked that he only inspected her vagina and not her rectum or esophagus—orifices that could conceal the gossamer material from which fake ghosts are fashioned.

Not long after the usual hymns and hand clasping, Mrs. Tomson manifested spirits in glowing robes that were recognized by some in the circle who were led to the cabinet. Hitchcock identified a white-bearded face as either his uncle or grandfather, Bird noted incredulously. Then “a woman was reduced to a condition of emotional crisis by her very positive recognition of her mother’s face and voice.” The sitter was kissed and embraced by the astral form of her dead mother. Yet when Bird and Prince had their respective turns to approach the cabinet—their hands clasped by Dr. Tomson to prevent them from touching the ectoplasm—and the curtains were dramatically parted, they thought their ghost looked suspiciously like the medium who was supposed to be sleeping inside it. One face that Bird saw hovering in front of the cabinet was so unformed that it might have been anyone a sitter imagined. Could it be that the medium provided the etheric clay, Bird wondered, with which the observer mentally molded a loved one?

Three days later Dr. Tomson showed up at the Scientific American offices to inspect the premises in which his wife was to perform that evening. He found the arrangements unsatisfactory, complaining that there was no place for the medium to disrobe and be examined. Bird took him to a room sequestered for that purpose, which had running water. Upon further discussion, it was clear that the library itself was the source of Dr. Tomson’s unease. A law library apparently lacked the psychic atmosphere. When Bird responded that it would be impossible to find another location at the last minute, “the doctor very kindly offered to take the load off my shoulders; Mme So-and So, a friend of his, he was sure would offer a room in her apartment.”

Resisting the urge to laugh in the occultist’s face, Bird insisted that the séance take place on Scientific American ground and according to its regulations. In reply, Dr. Tomson grumbled that both the journal’s conditions and its choice of judges were not to the liking of Mrs. Tomson’s spirit operators. “I finally reminded him,” Bird wrote, “that we weren’t submitting ourselves to his test, he was submitting to ours; that if he didn’t like our rules, he needn’t play the game at all.” Dr. Tomson took umbrage at Bird’s hard line. He issued an ultimatum: the sitting was to be where he determined, or not at all. Consequently, a few hours before her test séance, Bird called up the committeemen to inform them that Mrs. Tomson’s test sittings were canceled.

The next day the doctor reappeared at the Woolworth to see if Bird had changed his mind. As a compromise, the editor said that he would allow Mrs. Tomson to be tested at Orson Munn’s apartment in the Waldorf. The offer did not satisfy Dr. Tomson, however. Not only did he still want to choose the location, there would only be one demonstration, he stated, after which a verdict would be expected from the commission. Exasperated, Bird accused the Tomsons of wanting to avoid the apparatus concealed behind books and in the walls and floors of the library.

Dr. Tomson did not deny it. His wife, he said, was pretty tired of dubious scientific trials and uncouth physical examinations. Then why, Bird asked, had she entered the Scientific American contest? The doctor said they hadn’t. Then what was he doing in Bird’s office? He didn’t seem to know exactly. Moments later the angry spiritist walked out, accusing Munn & Co. of running a scheme, financed by the Catholic Church, to defame genuine mediums. The editor rose and followed him out into the hall. The Tomsons had never intended to face the committee! Bird shouted. He later reported that “aside from these minor items, we agreed perfectly upon all points.”

Soon Bird was thankful that the Tomsons had backed out and not tainted the psychic tests with their vaudeville apparitions. Two days after the confrontation he had with her husband, Mrs. Tomson was invited to give a séance at the Church of Spiritual Illumination. There she walked into a more severe trap than anything the Scientific American would have laid for her. The congregation were Brooklyn Spiritualists who suspected humbug. When one in their flock was led up to Mrs. Tomson’s cabinet, his arms securely clasped by the doctor, he proceeded to take a bite out of a ghost and came away with a mouth of white gauze rather than ectoplasm. A scuffle broke out between parishioners and the medium’s party. Mrs. Tomson fled in her bathrobe; she and the doctor departed the church without making a collection. The next day they beat it back to Chicago.

Reprinted from THE WITCH OF LIME STREET. Copyright © 2015 by David Jaher. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Photo of Houdini via Getty. Screencap of the Ogden Standard-Examiner, via

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