Voices In The Dark: the Margery mediumship

One of the more peculiar cases in our collections is that of the medium Mina Crandon, a.k.a. ‘Margery,’ which fell into the category of ‘materialisation’ or ‘physical’ mediumship.

Broadly speaking, this term refers to the apparently independent movement of physical objects in the séance room; production of ectoplasm (or teleplasm) from the medium’s body; manifestation of pseudopods (typically, a disembodied hand or other part of the body); appearance of objects (e.g. flowers, birds, coins) as if ‘out of thin air,’ otherwise being known as ‘apports.’ Naturally, the opportunities for fraud were great, so that mediums would be thoroughly and intimately searched on entering the séance room to ensure they were not concealing any objects upon their person.

Materialisation mediumship had been very popular in the nineteenth century, but following the exposure of several fraudulent mediums by Price, Dingwall and others, it had fallen into disrepute. Consequently, by the early twentieth century, the visitor to a séance was more likely to witness its counterpart, mental mediumship – which centred around telepathy, clairvoyance and other displays of mind power.

Dr Eric Dingwall, befitting his maverick and unorthodox outlook, chose to specialise in the study and investigation of this unfashionable form of mediumship. He was Director of the American SPR’s Department of Physical Phenomena.

The ‘Margery mediumship’ case was thoroughly investigated by Dingwall and other parapsychologists during the 1920s. Despite the medium being placed under close scrutiny, it had proved impossible to establish unequivocally whether she was a genuine or fraudulent performer.

Mina Crandon (‘Margery’).
SHL, HPG/1/5/2 (1926)

Mina Crandon, the wife of a Boston physician and socialite, used the pseudonym ‘Margery.’ The sequence of séances she gave in her home town of Boston, Massachusetts, and in London as guest of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), were notable both for the variety of phenomena produced, and for the fact that she divested herself of her outer clothing, appearing in “a thick woollen bath-robe and stockings.”

[A very extensive range of materials on this case – including published and unpublished articles, correspondence, and numerous photographs taken during the séances – are held here at SHL in both the Harry Price (HP) and the Eric Dingwall (MS912) archives, from which the accompanying photographs were sourced.]

The Margery case would have appealed to Dingwall on two grounds. Firstly, its being a case of materialisation mediumship – his specialization. And secondly,because of its somewhat bizarre sexualized elements. Dingwall, as well as being a paranormal investigator, is of course well-known as a sexologist, with a particular interest in the more unusual expressions of the sexual impulse.

One of the most striking aspects of the Margery sittings was the medium’s apparent ability to produce a ‘telesplasmic’ (aka ‘ectoplasmic’) hand-like form, from various parts of her body, including – allegedly – her vagina or belly-button.

‘Margery’ claimed to be in regular contact with her dead brother Walter. Her séances became highly popular amongst Boston’s high society, on account of the astonishing manifestations therein: direct voice, apports, ectoplasm, telekinesis and more. The voice, supposedly that of Walter, seemed to be heard from somewhere behind Mina. It would also appear to emanate from a weird, disembodied hand which Mina materialized, claiming it was her dead brother Walter’s hand.

‘Margery’ in the seance room, with pseudopod.
SHL, HPG/1/5/2 (1926)

In 1923, she visited Europe and gave a sitting at the SPR for Dingwall. He was impressed by what appeared to be the levitation of a (supposedly) fraud-proof table, and described the phenomena as “very striking and, if fraudulent, involved some skill in performance.”  [Dingwall, E. (1928). “A report of a series of sittings with the medium Margery. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 36 (part 98): 79-155. (p.80)]

Dingwall attended further sittings in Boston, in 1926. The reputed phenomena included: raps and knocks; lights; scents; sounds of musical instruments; trance-writing in nine languages; furniture moving around; apports – specifically of roses and of a live pigeon; the voice of ‘Walter’, the medium’s dead brother; appearance of teleplasm, and telekinesis of objects, moved by the teleplasmic ‘hand.’

This ‘hand’ can be seen in some of the photographs taken during the sittings, which were taken under red light. One of the Crandons’ conditions was that the lights not be switched on by any of the investigators, unless ‘Walter’ had given permission; another was that, during the series of 29 sittings, after each session, the investigators’ notes be passed to Dr Crandon. Still another stipulation was that the Dr Crandon could be involved in the physical ‘control’ of his wife’s hands and feet (holding tightly so that any movement – to simulate a phenomenon – would be either prevented or be noticed by the ‘controller. Thus, Dingwall writes that:

the control varied throughout the sitting; sometimes I had Margery’s left hand and both feet, sometimes both hands and both feet, or again both hands and one foot. [Dingwall 1928 (p.91)]

All of the above was somewhat unsatisfactory in terms of establishing ‘fraudproof’ conditions for the investigation. Indeed, Dingwall was criticized by his SPR colleagues for having acceded to the Crandons’ demands; however, he noted:

In accepting these conditions I was fully aware of their shortcomings and of the criticisms which could so easily be levelled against them. But it seemed better to accept what was offered than to commence the series by objections and refusals… [Dingwall 1928 (p.90)]

He argued that an insistence on the séances being conducted on his own terms would have resulted either in there being no sittings, or sittings – but no phenomena.

Dingwall, in his A Preliminary Report on the Margery Mediumship (1926) and the subsequent A report of a series of sittings with the medium Margery (1928), offered two hypotheses; the first being that the sittings presented some genuinely “supernormal” phenomena; with the second hypothesis being that trickery was involved. He seemed to vacillate between the two positions, and ‘Walter’ himself (!), during one séance, remarked:

Dingwall is sitting on the fence waiting to see which way to jump. Unfortunately, however, for Dingwall, the fence is rotten, and he is going to get a nasty spill.” [Letter, Richardson to Dingwall, 21 May 1926. SHL, MS912, Box 7, A-K]

['Margery' producing ectoplasm from nostril. SHL, HPG/1/5/2 (1926)]

‘Margery’ producing ectoplasm from nostril.
SHL, HPG/1/5/2 (1926)

The teleplasmic substance is arguably the most bizarre aspect of the Margery sittings – whether genuine or faked. Here are some of Dingwall’s notes from sitting number 7:

In ten minutes rustling in Psyche’s [i.e. Margery’s] lap. Thought a mass of substance was in Psyche’s lap. Walter then directed my palm to be put up on middle of table, near the edge. Then for five minutes – palm struck by cool, clammy apparently disc-like object; on repeated flicks being given to my hand. I noticed that the shape of the object was constantly changing. It appeared to lengthen and to widen, and occasionally parts appeared to be thickened, as if some internal mechanism was causing a swelling in parts of the mass. At times two distinct pressures at least were felt, the sensation being as if crude, clammy, unformed fingers were pressing both the lower portions of my fingers, and also the upper at the same time. This pressure was sometimes increased to 2½-3 pounds, and when the substance was drawn from the hand it always appeared to be slightly viscous… [Dingwall 1928 (p.107)]

Elsewhere, in Dingwall’s report on the sixth sitting, in which he saw the disembodied hand-like form with its “large, clumsy fingers”, and felt once again the “cold, viscous, clammy material” touch his hand – he first posits the validity of the first hypothesis, writing that the teleplasmic substance may be likened to that which had been observed with other mediums such as Kathleen Goligher, Eva Carrière, and most notably, with the “rude, claw-like terminals” been observed in Willi Schneider’s séances. But – adopting the second hypothesis – Dingwall insists that “we have no right to assume that all these appearances [i.e. of ‘Walter’s’ clammy hand] were the same object.” [Dingwall 1928 (p.105)]

Given that the Crandons had not been intimately searched, it was possible that either or both had brought certain objects into the room. The inference was that Margery had concealed the substance or substances internally. It was suggested by another of the observers, Professor William McDougall, that the teleplasmic hand or hands closely resembled animal lung tissue.

As if to demonstrate the hand to be a genuine human one, ‘Walter’ made numerous fingerprints in wax during the séances. However, upon examination, one of these, a thumbprint, proved to be identical to those belonging to a Dr. Frederick Caldwell, a Boston dentist who moved in the same circles as Mina and her surgeon husband.‘Margery’ in the seance room, ‘Walter’s hand making fingerprint in wax.
SHL, HPG/1/5/2 (1926)

Perhaps because of this suspicious evidence, Dingwall concluded that the Margery case was unlike those of noted mediums Willi Schneider, or Eusapia Palladino. Of these latter two, he wrote

I cannot conceive any normal explanation for what has been observed; and it is precisely for that reason that in these two cases I adopt the first hypothesis…[Dingwall 1928 (p.153)]

With regard to the Margery affair, since it was possible that normal means had been employed to simulate the phenomena, he was inclined towards the second hypothesis. This was not the same as saying that the Crandons had been caught out using trickery; merely, that their refusal to undergo more strict controls meant that the suspicion of imposture was impossible to rule out.

As for motive, Dingwall remained puzzled, suggesting only that Dr Crandon, as a man of science, might have wished to discredit Spiritualism by faking the phenomena over a period of time. But if this was the motive, Dr Crandon would presumably have revealed the truth at a later date; and he is not known to have done so. The case remains a contested one.

Blog post details