Scientific American (Journal)

views updated

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; Here-ward 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.

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.


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.

About this article

Scientific American (Journal)

Updated About content Print Article


Scientific American (Journal)