Another Look at the Margery “Third Hand” Mystery: Believe It or Not!
Posted on 04 April 2016, 8:28
A recent segment of the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” series dealt with the “Margery” mediumship, previously discussed in my January 11 blog. The television presentation is an example of how history is distorted and mediums maligned by biased historians and journalists who know little of the subject. The program involved cherry-picking, hearsay, distortion of facts, sensationalism, misinformation, and most of all incomplete information.
Above: The Walter Hand
The program host, Don Wildman, began by saying that Margery, the pseudonym given to Mina Crandon for privacy purposes: 1) claimed that she can communicate with the dead; 2) that Spiritualism was “on the rise” during the mid 1920s when she was demonstrating her mediumship; 3) that she “desperately sought fame” by attempting to win the $2,500 prize offered by Scientific American Magazine for anyone able to prove mediumistic ability; and 4) that she was a mystic. All four statements are highly questionable, in that: 1) Margery never claimed she could communicate with the dead. The claim was that the dead could communicate through her with others while she was in a trance condition; 2) Spiritualism had peaked during the late 1800s and had a resurgence during World War I, but indications were that it was in decline during the 1920s; 3) Margery was the wife of a respected Boston surgeon who also happened to teach medicine at Harvard University. Thus, she was living comfortably and had no special need for the $2,500 prize or great fame. She was persuaded to enter the contest by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to prove the genuineness of mediumship and apparently agreed to give the prize money to charity. 4) True mediums are rarely mystics, although this is a matter of definition. Margery never claimed to be a mystic.
The focus of the program was an object called the “bell-box” now on display at the Salon De Magie in Loveland, Ohio. The box had a bell in it and ringing the bell was supposedly one of the ways the spirits showed their presence. The only person offering any commentary on the television program was a person identified as a “magic historian.” He explained that Harry Houdini, the great escape artist, sat next to Margery at one séance and detected movement by her, a sure sign that she reached out with her leg and rang the bell in the box. It was not explained why the box was so close to her feet that she could reach out with her foot and touch it, since the researcher protocol required that it be well out of her reach. Houdini also detected that when the large dining room table in front of them shook it was due to Margery putting her head under the heavy dining room table and lifting it with the back of her head. End of story: Trust Houdini. Margery was clearly a “con artist.”
It was also mentioned, at least implied, that Houdini built the bell-box, which I do not believe is correct. Indications are that it was in use before Houdini even came on the scene. He built a cabinet to restrain Margery, but I doubt that the bell-box was his idea.
Here is what was not mentioned in any way, shape, or form on the program:
1) The bell-box was usually at least nine feet away from Margery when it rang, well out of reach of her stretched leg and toes. In many cases, it was held on the lap of someone sitting at the table some distance from Margery or was on the table in front of the person, clearly out of Margery’s reach.
2) While the ectoplasm exuded by Margery was sensitive to light and required darkness, a red light was frequently used and Margery’s hands were always held by the person sitting next to her for test control purposes. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for her to bend over and get her head centered under the table to raise it without the persons holding her hands feeling the movement of her arms and entire body.
3) Various other phenomena were produced, including communicating raps, table-tilting, strange lights, telekinesis, trance-voice, direct-voice, trance-writing, automatic writing, and materializations of spirit forms. Communication came through in nine languages, including ancient Italian and Chinese. The most frequent communicator was Walter Stinson, Margery’s deceased brother. Walter would speak through his entranced sister and also independently of her through a trumpet, would carry on conversations with the sitters, joke with them, whistle tunes, and do automatic writing through Margery. The voice was masculine and in character with the Walter that some sitters had known. Moreover, Walter would sometimes provide information which Margery could not have known.
4) Photographs were taken of various phenomena, including Walter’s hand ringing the bell on one occasion and a “third arm and hand” extending from Margery’s pelvic area reaching out to bring about some phenomenon. (Below)
5) Thumb prints of Walter were taken, one of them matched up with the only print left behind by him (although another thumb print mysteriously turned out to be that of Margery’s dentist, from whom the wax was obtained).
6) Margery was studied by a number of scientists and scholars, most of them testifying to the genuineness of her ability, although some sat on the fence and did not commit themselves, apparently for fear that their reputations would be damaged. Several had one sitting only and concluded it had to be fraud as what they observed was not possible. Like Houdini, Dr. Joseph Rhine, who lacked experience in physical mediumship, detected movement by Margery and concluded that she was a fraud, but others understood that slight movements by Margery was natural to such trance mediumship as earlier researchers with Eusapia Palladino and other mediums had observed “synchronies” between the medium and the movement of objects well away from her reach. That is, her fingers, hands, and feet seemed to be moving in harmony with activity producing a certain phenomenon out of her reach, something of a puppet effect, the ectoplasmic “strings” between the medium and the object not being visible.
7) There were indications that Houdini tried to plant incriminating evidence against Margery. On one occasion, an eraser was found in the bell-ringing mechanism and was believed to have been planted there by Houdini to prevent the bell from ringing, while on another occasion a fold-up six-inch ruler was found in a cabinet built by Houdini to restrain Margery, apparently a plant by Houdini to frame her by claiming she extended the ruler to reach out and effect certain phenomena. Jim Collins, an assistant to Houdini, is said to have later confessed to putting the ruler inside the box.
T. Glen Hamilton, M.D., perhaps the most competent and experienced researcher to study Margery, sat with Margery on eleven occasions, twice in his own laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada, under strictly controlled conditions, and was certain that the phenomena he witnessed were genuine. Margery was thoroughly searched beforehand and restrained during the sittings and several other scientists observed with Hamilton. “I have no hesitancy in again stating that I am quite convinced that the Margery phenomena are not only genuine but are also among the most brilliant yet recorded in the history of metapsychic science,” he reported.
Dr. Mark W. Richardson, a professor of medicine at Harvard, had dozens of sittings with Margery and even constructed a machine to verify that Walter’s voice was not Margery’s. He was equally certain that her mediumship was genuine. Dr. Robin Tillyard, a fellow of the Royal Society, called her mediumship the “most marvelous” in the history of psychical research.
The “Third Hand” Mystery
Clearly, the “third arm” or “third hand” is beyond science and one of the reasons mainstream science cannot accept such mediumship. It is not acceptable as a starting hypothesis and unscientific as an ending conclusion. However, there have been a number of respected scientists who have observed it with other mediums. Dr. William J. Crawford, a mechanical engineer and university lecturer, had considerable experience with physical mediums. “In the phenomenon of levitation of a table or other article a psychic arm extrudes from the medium – I do not mean an arm in the sense of the human arm, but a projection of some kind from her body,” he wrote of the medium Kathleen Goligher. “Now this projection or extrusion is practically invisible and impalpable – it is impalpable except just at its free end, where it grips or presses on the body it is levitating – yet it transmits throughout its length great stresses, as is obviously the case when it sustains at its free end, as it has done, a body (heavy table) weighing thirty and forty pounds. Again, this structure seems to contain within it quite a lot of matter temporarily borrowed from the body of the medium.” Crawford photographed the ectoplasm emerging from Goligher, both in the flowing stage and as it took shape.
As stated in that January 11 post, many researchers, including Dr. Charles Richet, a professor of medicine at the University of Paris, and Sir Oliver Lodge, a world-renowned physicist and pioneer in electricity, observed “extra” arms with the medium Eusapia Palladino. They called them pseudopods.
J. Hewat McKenzie, founder of the British College of Psychic Science, reported that such third arms are very common among physical mediums. He explained that when the ectoplasm is insufficient to create a full form “the spirit operators may solidify only a hand and an arm, or even a hand alone.” He described such limbs as “stick like” with anywhere from three to five fingers, and protruding from various parts of the body. “This part-projection of soul is manipulated by the will of the operating spirit, and is not under the control of the medium,” he explained, adding that the limb can extend out several feet and grasp objects, as may be necessary to produce phenomena.
But all this is above the boggle threshold of most people. “All just tricks which magicians understand better than scientists,” is the debunker’s usual response. And so it goes. I find it much easier to accept the observations of scientists like Richet, Lodge, Hamilton, and Crawford than those of some magician out to add to his fame and ego. It would be one thing if those scientists had observed the mediums only a time or two, but those men had countless sittings with various mediums under controlled conditions. Richet reported over 200 sittings with Palladino and Crawford recorded 87 sittings with Goligher. Keep in mind that Hamilton studied Margery in his own laboratory, where there was absolutely no opportunity for her to smuggle in objects to use as tricks, and Mrs. Hamilton strip-searched her beforehand.
“Yes, it is absurd,” said Richet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance, “but no matter – it is true.”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I. His forthcoming book Why the Afterlife is Beyond Science will be published later in 2016 by White Crow Books.
Next blog post: April 18
I think we agree 100 percent. Thanks.
Michael Tymn, Tue 26 Apr, 06:34
Thanks for recommending ‘The Witch of Limestreet”, it is eloquently written and painstakingly researched. It isn’t clear to me how the investigators failed to eliminate fraud as a possible explanation for the phenomena that they witnessed. For instance, the darkness of the seance room works just as well against fraud perpetration as it does fraud detection. Simply design a series of exercises to be performed in pitch darkness that can’t be accomplished by any human, even if they have full freedom to move about. Instead of raging against the darkness, a reasonable skeptic would exploit it. My confidence in the investigators is shaken by their admission that despite all efforts by them, a Boston housewife was able to regularly outwit them and parade fraud beneath their noses.
A rational motive for the alleged fraud is never offered. Why did the Crandon’s subject themselves to an investigation that predictably would lead to accusation of fraud? Were they gluttons for punishment? Did they take perverse pleasure in having their reputations sullied in the press? The most logical explanation is that they sincerely believed that the phenomena were genuine and would be of interest to the scientific community. Evidently, science preferred skepticism to even a grudging acceptance of inexplicable fact.
Supposedly, explanations were given as to how fraud might have been accomplished. Unfortunately, the committee seems to have failed to employ Houdini’s masterful fake medium skills to duplicate Mina’s “tricks” with the same controls and lighting/darkness that she was subjected to. The half baked explanations of creative footwork, masterful ventriloquism, etc. seem implausible to this skeptic. In the end, the investigators didn’t offer up unambiguous evidence that fraud was even occasionally, let alone regularly, committed by Mrs. Crandon or any identified conspirators.
David Chilstrom, Sun 24 Apr, 20:55
Ah, Michael Darnton, how true, how true! - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 18 Apr, 01:19
To add to my earlier comment, let me quote Walter Meyer Zu Erpen from his article “Fact or Fraud?” in the current issue of the SPR’s “Paranormal Review.”
“Unfortunately, the founder of modern parapsychology, Joseph Banks Rhine (1895 -1980), was not above poorly informed comment. As early as 1943, Rhine claimed that the Hamilton research looked fraudulent. Given that he neither participated in the seances, nor communicated with the Hamiltons, Rhine’s opinion is worthless as evidence.”
Michael Tymn, Sun 17 Apr, 18:59
The four years I worked on a newspaper were a revelation to me. I saw firsthand how writers would attend events with the story already written in their minds, then search for things to illustrate that point of view. Many times I came back from photographing something to discover that the writer had written about something that was completely different from what I had seen.
From there on I NEVER trusted anything again that wasn’t information from a primary source, from a participant, not an observer. I particularly recommend that approach to people who are interested in the type of topic you write about here, and will follow up reading one of your articles by looking for primary sources if the topic interests me. In my own field, I never do a thing without running my own tests to confirm results I have read about, because I can. If you can manage it, the farther you get from an experience the more likely it is that the information you have gotten is bad.
My TV consumption is, of course, zero hours per week. I can’t think of a worst source for information on any subject.
Michael Darnton, Sun 17 Apr, 13:54
Thanks for your comments and questions. I agree that there are many uncertainties connected with the Margery case, but the debunkers do not seem to have accepted the hypothesis that Mina’s spirit vacated her body and Walter took it over. That would have been very unscientific on their part. I don’t think Rhine had much experience in physical mediumship at the time, and I am not sure Prince did.
James Hyslop, one of my favorites, thought Pearl Curran (Patience Worth) was a fraud, even though he never really witnessed her, while Prince thought she was the real deal. And so it goes. I cannot believe that Dr. Hamilton, who tested her in his own lab in Winnipeg after a thorough search, could have been duped, or that Dr. Richardson, who probably had close to a hundred sittings with her, could not have caught on to the “tricks.” Yes, Richardson was a close friend and associate of Dr. Crandon’s, which can be viewed favorably or unfavorably, but there is no reason to believe he was not a man of principle. I have read all his reports in the ASPR Journal and it seems clear that he ruled out any trickery.
I have also read Dr. Crandon’s reports and find it extremely difficult to believe that he would have been motivated to take part in this on-going “scam.” I’ve read the theories as to why he might have encouraged such fraud, but they just don’t make that much sense to me.
Bottom line: I find it easier to believe men like Hamilton and Richardson than someone like Rhine, who had only one sitting with Margery and immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was a fraud because he saw movement. That clearly suggests that he did not consider the spirit possession aspect. As stated, the very same thing took place with Eusapia and all those researchers who sat with her over and over again were convinced she was the real deal. The only researchers who rejected her were ones who sat with her a time or two and gave no consideration to the spirit possession aspect.
As Eusapia’s unconscious movements (made by John King or her spirit control) were assumed to be fraud on her part, so it was, I believe, with Margery and Walter. At the same time, there may have been some earthbound spirits involved who influenced Margery, but, of course, that is a laughing matter for “intelligent” researchers, since they all know that spirits don’t exist in the first place.
Also, keep in mind that “Walter” communicated through other mediums with Dr. Hamilton. Much of it was photographed and documented.
Check out the latest issue of the SPR magazine. The whole issue is devoted to Hamilton’s research
Michael Tymn, Sun 17 Apr, 04:55
Certain people demonstrate a remarkable ability to reject what they cannot accept instead of simply reading and accepting the evidence of experienced researchers. What a useful sanctuary it must be to have someone like Houdini proclaim that the medium rang the bell with her foot, thus giving a “way out” to the challenged materialist (no matter that the actual testimony puts the “bell box” nine feet away)!
Adeimantus, Tue 12 Apr, 13:12
I myself have experienced several physical phenomena that simply cannot be explained in mechanistic terms…but I don’t tell friends because I know they would be heading into their own sanctuaries where they could safely conclude I had lost my marbles!
Walter Franklin Prince who attended many séances with Crandon considered her to be a fraud, as did the psychologist William McDougall. In fact, Prince resigned from the American Society for Psychical Research because of Crandon and formed a splinter group (Boston Society for Psychical Research). You have cited Prince favourably on his work with Peal Curran, so what do you think about his opinions on Crandon? How can they be easily dismissed?
You also say Joseph Banks Rhine was an inexperienced investigator but he wasn’t he sat with many psychics and conducted many experiments even with famous psychics such as Hubert Pearce and Olof Jonsson. Rhine was the author of one of the first books to put extrasensory perception in a scientific setting, and a later book he wrote in 1940 was probably the first book in existence to ever use a meta-analysis.
But even if Rhine was inexperienced with mediums, Prince had sat with hundreds of mediums so he was not.
You can read Prince’s paper, it is “A Review of the Margery Case”, in the American Journal of Psychology. Like Houdini, he suspected Malcolm Bird of secretly working with Crandon in faking the phenomena. Bird later resigned from the ASPR and admitted Crandon had requested for him to ring the bell-box.
Frederick Bligh Bond, an infamous psychic known for his work at Glastonbury Abbey also considered Crandon to be a fraud (despite originally endorsing her). Bond resigned as secretary from the ASPR. This was over the fingerprints which were supposed to be from Walter, but turned out to be from her dentist Frederick Caldwell. E. E. Dudley reported this in the ASPR journal, it is obviously evidence of conscious fraud.
I think this case is a lot more complicated than is usually reported. You have not mentioned any of these details. I have not seen the documentary in question, but we are all guilty of cherry-picking.
As for J. Hewat McKenzie in his book “Spirit Intercourse”, he wrote that Houdini had psychic powers and was a medium, this was something that Houdini strictly denied and poked fun at.
Eric Dingwall also reported that McKenzie had supressed some fraudulent apparatus that the spirit photographer William Hope had used. He did not choose to make the exposure public, and it only came out many years later. Do these things not call his reliability into question?
As for the Walter Hand, it was actually examined by Harvard biologists and said to be a piece of carved animal liver. In the other photographs it looks like a stuffed cleaning glove. William McDougall suggested this. What do you think about these suggestions? Thanks for your article.
Edwin, Tue 12 Apr, 12:23
Another wonderful post Mike. Fabulous material. Such great examples of prior beliefs affecting perception.
Wendy Zammit, Mon 4 Apr, 21:53
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