The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Genre: nonfiction biography
Secondary genre: history, spiritualism
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

In the wake of WWI, The Scientific American magazine announces a contest: $5000 to any medium who can prove before a panel of investigators that their powers were real.

And among those investigating was the master of sleight-of-hand himself, Harry Houdini.

After years of failure, one promising medium finally piqued the panel’s interest: Mina Crandon. Unlike most of the other psychics the SA had tried, Mina was not some stage performer hard up for cash. She was a society wife who performed seances for her friends. In fact, for the purposes of the investigation, Mina went by her middle name, Marjory, to protect herself in the articles the Scientific American published after her seances. Her “spirit guide” was her deceased brother, a sarcastic and ribald man who had died some years before. In her private seances, Walter told his friends secrets, made off-color jokes, whistled, played with a photograph and a selection of musical instruments, and played practical jokes on the sitters.

From the first, Houdini declared Mina was a fraud. While he repeatedly mimicked her act, he never made the attempt to catch her red-handed, as he did with all the other so-called mediums he examined.

The book chronicles roughly a decade of investigation into the phenomenon surrounding Mina. Though Houdini continued to declare her a fraud and mock her outright on stage, she only ever voiced the utmost respect for him.

I think Mina was a classy lady who pissed off a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it was straight up sexism. Some of it was prejudice against her vocation. But whether you think she’s an actress or really had conversations with the dead, there’s no denying she drew the short end of the stick after the investigation.

I do think the book was misleading, however. From the title, one would think it was about Mina, but about 2/3 of the book is dedicated to Harry Houdini, from his upbringing to his death, while Mina seems to arrive fully formed on the scene around the time the Scientific American prize is announced. Whether this is due to a lack of sources regarding Mina’s earlier life (it’s implied that she had a shady past) or the author’s choice is unclear, but the sexism that ultimately spelled her downfall in society can be felt in the author’s recounting of her story. It’s not overt, and in fact many will probably disagree with me on this point, but it was in the way the author spoke about her, and the quotes form those nearest to her. She was improper for a woman, and therefore could not be trusted or respected.

Have you read this one? Do you disagree?

Witches of America by Alex Mar

Genre: nonfiction
Secondary genre: sociology, religion
Format read: audiobook
Rep: WOC, Paganism, Wicca
Rating: planchet-3

It was supposed to be a simple research question, which became a short documentary, and then a full-on book: Are there still witches in America?

The short answer is yes.

Alex Mar, a New York City journalist, started her journey with a group of Faerie practitioners in California as a  simple observer, watching as a group of women called down the moon, cast blessings, and prayed to an unfamiliar goddess. Alex herself, of mixed Greek and Hispanic background, raised Catholic, had a professional curiosity and nothing more.

But as the documentary came to an end, her connections in the world of wicca and neo-paganism only grew and strengthened. This book documents her slow descent from high-brown journalist to supplicant as she begins not merely observing, but practicing, searching high and low for her personal path to divinity.

As a lapsed pagan myself, there were some parts of her observations that made me uncomfortable, but by and large her observations were treated with sensitivity. My one complaint was that most of the traditions she examined in this book were sex-centric, which certainly does not provide a good cross section of the pagan community. However, I did like that her explorations took her all over and she did try to keep it well balanced.

I did find the narrative to be somewhat meandering, with no real overall structure aside from Mar’s personal journey, which doesn’t become apparent until much later in the book. I wouldn’t recommend it as a book for someone who wants to learn more about paganism specifically, but perhaps if you have an interest in subcultures in general it would be a good read.