Mina Stinson Crandon (1889–1941) Better known as “Margery,” a Boston Medium at the center of one of the most bitter controversies in the history of psychical research. Her supporters believed she was one of the greatest mediums who ever lived; her detractors called her a fraud and held her responsible for very nearly ending American psychical research as a Scientific enterprise.
Mina Crandon was born Mina Marguerite Stinson in 1889 on a farm near Picton in Prince Edward County, Ontario. She moved to Boston when she was 16, and in 1910 she married a grocer named Earl P. Rand. She had a son by Rand and was happy with him until an operation brought her into contact with Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a prominent surgeon. She divorced Rand in 1918 and shortly thereafter married Crandon. It was her second marriage, his third. Crandon adopted her son, who became Dr. John H. Crandon (1912–2000). There was no hint in Crandon’s early life of what was to come, as there was with some other mediums, such as Eileen J. Garrett and Leonora Piper.
Her involvement in the psychic actually stemmed from her husband’s interest, which was sparked by a meeting with Sir Oliver Lodge and a reading of the works of William Jackson Crawford. Impressed by the Home Circle of the latter, Le Roi Crandon decided to set up one of his own. When the group he gathered in May 1923 succeeded in Table-Tilting, he suggested that they exit the room one at a time until they identified the person responsible. One by one the individuals left, but the table continued to tilt, until it was Mina Crandon’s turn to leave. She returned to great applause.
Mina Crandon may not have been as surprised as were the others at the Séance that night; a few days earlier, a psychic had told her she had mediumistic abilities. That same psychic had described seeing a “laughing young man” trying to contact her, a description Crandon recognized as corresponding to her brother Walter. She and Walter had been very close, but Walter had died in 1911 by being crushed to death by a train. Walter was to become Crandon’s Control as the home circle continued to meet, and his waggish personality was to become famous the world over.
The first of several investigations the Crandon mediumship was destined to endure was mounted by a team of Harvard graduate students and professors, including Gardner Murphy and William McDougall, in July 1923. This concluded, rather ominously, with McDougall trying unsuccessfully to get Crandon to confess to fraud, and it would probably have spelled the end of serious interest in the mediumship had it not been for a contest sponsored by the Scientific American.
The contest was the brainchild of J. Malcolm Bird, who was then an associate editor at the magazine. Two prizes of $2,500 each were to be given, one for a psychic photograph, the other for a Demonstration of physical mediumship. The judges were five persons well connected to Psychical Research—Walter Franklin Prince, considered by many to be America’s foremost psychical researcher; Hereward Carrington, a popular writer on the paranormal; Harry Houdini, the magician; Daniel F. Comstock, who brought technicolor to the movies; and McDougall. Bird made himself the committee’s secretary.
The Scientific American investigation got a good deal of play in the press, but it turned into something of a fi asco. Houdini stormed off the committee after a year, claiming that the Crandons had been trying to make it seem that he had been framing them, and accusing his fellow committee members of being blind to obvious fakery. The rest of the committee continued attending Séances for another six months, but eventually all except Carrington were satisfi ed that Houdini was right. The ruling went with the majority view, the contest was declared closed, and the prizes were never awarded.
The name “Margery,” by which Crandon was to be known for the rest of her life, was given to her by Bird in his articles in the Scientific American and in his book, “Margery” the Medium (1925). This book was a popular account of the mediumship and was very favourable to the Crandons.
Crandon had other supporters, many of them at the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). Prince, the ASPR’s research officer, however, was not a supporter, and when Bird was hired to share responsibilities with him, Prince left to head a rival society, the Boston Society for Psychic Research. The ASPR, with Bird as research officer, became a major promoter of the Margery mediumship. Bird and several members of the Board of Trustees were regular sitters at Séances.
Many hundreds of pages in the ASPR’s Journal and Proceedings were devoted to the mediumship, first under Bird’s editorship, later under the editorship of Frederick Bligh Bond. But although the ASPR was always ready to defend Crandon, the suspicion of fraud never left her. Bird himself, in fact, resigned in 1930 after admitting that he had known of fraudulent activity from the start; he had nevertheless defended the mediumship, he said, because there were genuine aspects to it as well. Bond later also resigned in disillusionment; the clinching proof for him as for many others were thumbprints supposedly impressed in wax by Walter, but shown to be exact matches for the thumbprints of Crandon’s dentist.
On her deathbed, Crandon is said to have been asked by Nandor Fodor to tell him what parts of her mediumship were fraudulent and how she had accomplished her tricks. She is said to have replied by telling him to go to hell, and then said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Why don’t you guess? You’ll all be guessing . . . for the rest of your lives.” The story may be apocryphal, but it captures the flavor of this strange case. Knowledgeable researchers today believe that there may have been some genuine psychic phenomena involved, but it is now impossible to disentangle this from the trickery that was certainly also present.
Mina Crandon and her husband seemed to revel in the cat-and-mouse game they played, and their only motive may have been to tweak the nose of Psychical Research. For all Walter’s waggishness, Crandon herself was a vivacious personality who was not opposed to holding Séances in the nude (the room was dark), and who was rumored to be having affairs with more than one of her would-be investigators. The long-awaited amalgamation of the ASPR and the Boston Society occurred after the death of L.R.G. Crandon in December 1939, and shortly before the death of Mina herself on November 1, 1941.
- Bird, Malcolm. “Margery” the Medium. Boston: John Hamilton, 1925.
- Matlock, J. G. “Cat’s Paw: Margery and the Rhines, 1926.” Journal of Parapsychology 51 (1987): 229–247.
- Tietze, Thomas R. Margery. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
- ———. “The ‘Margery’ affair.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)79 (1985): 339–379.
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
Crandon, Mina (1888–1941) Also known as “Margery the Medium,” Mina Crandon was one of the most famous physical mediums of the early twentieth century. She also caused controversy among the most prominent psychical investigators of her day because some passionately believed that Crandon’s powers were real while others just as passionately believed she was a fraud.
Crandon began giving séances in 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts, at the urging of her second husband, LeRoi Goddard Crandon, a wealthy surgeon and instructor at Harvard Medical School, who suspected she had a talent for communicating with spirits. He hypnotized her in an attempt to see whether she could, while in this altered state, contact a spirit guide. She apparently did this easily, by connecting with the spirit of her older brother, Walter, who had died in an accident in 1911.
It seemed as though Walter was present during many of Crandon’s séances, and he would often speak to the invited guests, sometimes through Crandon; other times his voice apparently came from various places in the room. Meanwhile, Crandon’s guests, who assembled in groups of four or five, sat around a table with Crandon, who often appeared to be in a trance. While in this state, Crandon sometimes wrote in foreign languages, and there was no evidence that she could speak or write these languages while in a normal, conscious state. In addition, during many of her séances, the room was filled with strange knocks and other sounds or short bursts of light, or the table in the room moved or rose a few inches into the air.
Not everyone was convinced by such evidence. For example, sometimes an object or small animal would appear out of nowhere, and skeptics accused Crandon of sneaking them into the séance room concealed under her clothes. However, the medium typically wore such revealing clothing that any such trickery would have been unlikely.
As her notoriety spread through Boston society, Crandon drew the attention of Harvard’s Department of Psychology, which formed a committee to investigate her skills. After five months of study, they concluded that most, if not all, of the séance phenomena had been faked, though their evidence for this charge was far from conclusive by modern standards. Around the same time, Crandon visited London, England, where her talents came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A novelist best known for creating the character of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle believed in spiritualism and financially supported investigations into the paranormal. He immediately became one of Crandon’s biggest fans.
Doyle’s view apparently influenced his friend J. Malcolm Bird, an associate editor at Scientific American magazine, who wrote several articles extolling Crandon’s skills. At the time, Bird was also one of the judges of an ongoing Scientific American–sponsored contest that would award twenty-five hundred dollars to any medium who could produce a “visible psychic manifestation.” When Crandon applied for the prize in 1923, Bird so wanted Crandon to win that he neglected to tell the biggest skeptic on the judging panel, stage magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, the time and place of the panel’s investigation of the medium. Houdini, therefore, learned about the investigation only after it had begun—when he read in one of Bird’s articles that Crandon’s talents, as displayed during the judging, had baffled even the great Harry Houdini.
Outraged over Bird’s apparent lies and trickery and over the news that the committee planned to declare Crandon’s talents to be genuine and award her the prize, Houdini publicly condemned the committee’s efforts and took over the investigation himself. On July 23, 1924, he attended a séance at Crandon’s Boston home, during which a shouting match developed between Houdini and Crandon’s husband. Their argument revolved around an electric bell that was in the room so that spirits could ring it. When the bell did indeed ring, Houdini accused Crandon of using her foot to ring the bell and insisted that she be placed within a box so she could not touch anything in the room. But before the test could resume, Crandon’s husband found a long ruler in the box and accused Houdini of planting it there in order to make it look as though Crandon was going to use the ruler to reach the bell switch. (Years later, in 1959, author William Lindsay Gresham reported that Houdini’s assistant, Jim Collins, admitted that his employer had indeed planted the ruler.) Crandon’s husband ordered Houdini from the house, but the famous escape artist had the satisfaction of seeing Scientific American refuse to declare that Crandon was a true psychic.
Nonetheless, the public continued to believe in her, and Crandon continued to conduct séances. Soon these events featured a new element: a slimy, custardlike substance, which she said was ectoplasm (matter from the spirit world), that frequently oozed from her body, particularly her mouth, nose, and ears. Sometimes the ectoplasm then shaped itself into a pair of hands. Several witnesses thought that the ectoplasm looked like lung tissue, and skeptics noted that Crandon’s physician husband would have had access to such tissue, again suggesting that Crandon had sneaked foreign material into the séance room.
After the addition of ectoplasm to Crandon’s séances, several noted investigators of psychic phenomena, including J.B. Rhine, studied her supposed gifts. Most concluded that she was probably a fraud, though they could not prove it. Meanwhile, Doyle continued to praise her, and to sometimes attack her critics in print. But finally, in 1928, an event occurred that convinced most people that Crandon had indeed faked her psychic abilities. During one séance, the spirit of her brother, Walter, supposedly left his thumbprint in some wax, but upon later analysis the print proved to be that of Crandon’s dentist, Frederick Caldwell. That morning, Caldwell had provided Crandon with the wax impression after she asked him to demonstrate how wax might be used to preserve a fingerprint. Once this was revealed, Crandon’s reputation was seriously damaged. Though she continued to give séances, they were infrequent, and she became despondent and turned to drink. Her alcoholism eventually became so severe that it led to her death at age fifty-three.
- Famous Mediums
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Harry Houdini
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning