Bathtub gin appeared out of thin air in basement speakeasies, cars thundered down highways and electricity crackled into private homes. Jazz was everywhere.
But for all of the excitement and technological advancement, something was missing from 1920s America: about 100,000 people.
A ghastly number of soldiers didn't survive World War I. Deprived of closure, the home front looked beyond traditional religion and science for answers about the afterlife. And so the same era that gave the world the Charleston also ushered in a controversial fascination with the occult.
On one side of the controversy was Harry Houdini, then the most famous illusionist and ardent debunker of frauds. On the other was Mina Crandon, a Boston socialite with alleged access to the ethereal plane. She became the darling of the global Spiritualist movement. He became her most vocal detractor. Their rivalry — enchantingly chronicled in David Jaher's "The Witch of Lime Street" — would grip the nation.
At the time, the United States was overrun with psychic racketeers and phony conjurers, so Scientific American magazine offered a prize to anyone who could demonstrate the existence of paranormal forces. Houdini was the star investigator. One after another, the charlatans were unmasked by scientific tests or Houdini's raw skepticism.
Then, along came an uncanny woman.
"If ever a medium were baptized by fire," writes Jaher, "it was Mina Crandon." An unflappable wit, voluptuous charm and incredible talent for channeling the spirit of her dead brother Walter quickly earned her the nickname "The Witch of Lime Street." In addition to shaking tables, levitating objects and summoning otherworldly appendages to her séances, Crandon bound most of her investigators under a flirtatious spell.
The details of her trial are too circuitous, ribald and suspenseful to recount here, but Jaher's telling of the inquiry is so carefully paced that readers will still need to pinch themselves to remember the book is nonfiction.
Scientific American's conclusions upset nearly everyone. While Crandon's supporters (including "Sherlock Holmes" author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) still sought closure by any means, Houdini "channeled a wider impulse to purge the republic of something insidious." He devoted his last days to a public witch hunt, but ultimately it was the Great Depression that would burn the occult at the stake:
"Spiritualism, as it turned out, had more appeal for the bereaved than the bankrupt."
The supernatural moments of "The Witch of Lime Street" are balanced by the author's deft contextualization and inclusion of correspondence and other archival materials. Lurid and almost unbelievable, Jaher's debut is a fascinating and sensational chapter of U.S. history.
Will Wlizlo is a writer living in Minneapolis.