9 Facts About Pioneering Lawyer and Activist Belva Lockwood

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

The first woman to argue before the Supreme Court and the first female presidential candidate to receive votes, Belva Lockwood was a trailblazer who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

1. AS A CHILD, SHE TRIED TO PERFORM MIRACLES.

Born in 1830 to a farmer and his wife in Royalton, New York, Belva Ann Bennett was the second of five children. Raised in a Christian family, she grew up taking the Bible literally. “I supposed faith only was necessary to the re-enactment of the miracles of Scripture,” she later explained [PDF].

Ten-year-old Belva decided to test this supposition by walking on water at the mill pond near her family’s home, but succeeded only in soaking her skirts and undergarments. Undeterred, she decided to try to raise the dead. She trooped to the local cemetery, where the child of a neighbor had recently been buried. But despite focusing with all her might, Belva was unable to resurrect the dead child. Believing that the fault lay with her concentration, and not the notion that her faith would give her supernatural abilities, she attempted a third miracle. Recalling the Bible verse that declares that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, she concluded that if an adult believer could move a mountain, she, a child, could presumably move a hill. “I selected a small hill and concentrated all my will-power upon it,” she wrote, “but the hill did not move.”

After this third failed attempt, Belva gave up trying to recreate Biblical miracles, but she did not lose her faith in God. As an adult, she would say "I have not raised the dead, but I have awakened the living ... The general effect of attempting things beyond us, even though we fail, is to enlarge and liberalize the mind. With work and school I soon abandoned the miracles, but few undertakings were so great that I did not aspire to them.”

2. SHE PURSUED HIGHER EDUCATION—EVEN THOUGH IT WAS "UNLADYLIKE."

As a child, Belva was educated in the one-room schoolhouses of local “common schools” (public schools [PDF]) in Niagara County, New York. At age 14, she graduated and was immediately offered a summer teaching job by the local school board. (During this period, men usually taught the winter school terms, when boys were freed from agricultural work and could attend, while women taught girls and younger children during the summer sessions.)

Belva used the money she earned teaching to spend one year attending the Royalton Academy, a local private high school meant to prepare students for college or business. Belva wanted to attend college, but her father vetoed the idea, telling her, “Girls should get married; only boys go to college.” So at 18, Belva married Uriah McNall, a 22-year-old farmer and sawmill worker, and less than a year later gave birth to a daughter, whom the couple named Lura.

But a few years later, Uriah caught his right foot in some machinery at the sawmill and was severely injured. He spent two years as an invalid and died of consumption in the spring of 1853. Belva was now a 22-year-old widow with a toddler. She believed that the best way to provide for her own and her daughter’s futures was through more education, so she used the little money left by her husband to enroll in the local Gasport Academy, a secondary school with a college-preparatory curriculum.

Belva’s family and neighbors scorned her decision to continue her education, saying it was “unheard of” for a married woman, even a widowed one. Her father denounced her desire for knowledge as unwomanly and backed up his assertion by quoting St. Paul, but Belva didn’t waver.

Midway through her second term at Gasport Academy, she was recruited by the local school board to take over the position of a male teacher who had been fired. She used her wages from teaching to save up for the next phase of her education. Leaving Lura with her parents, who moved to Illinois, Belva moved 60 miles away to attend the co-ed Genesee Wesleyan Seminary beginning in the fall of 1854. (Founded and run by the Methodist Episcopal Church, this “seminary” was essentially a high school, not a training for ministers.) Belva applied herself to her studies at Genesee, where she realized that while female students were pursuing acceptably “ladylike” studies such as rhetoric and fine arts (and, interestingly, science courses), male students were taking mathematics and classics courses to prepare for Genesee College, the institute of higher education then attached to the seminary. Yet from its opening in 1850, Genesee College had admitted both men and women, and allowed women access to all its classes.

Upon finishing her first term at the seminary, Belva applied to enter the college. The preceptress (head of women’s education) attempted to dissuade her, implying that it was unfeminine, while the Genesee College president seemed skeptical that Belva would actually complete an undergraduate degree. But Belva insisted that she was serious, and upon passing the entrance exams, was admitted to the scientific course of study.

During the 1850s, when Belva attended, women represented about 15 percent of the student body at Genesee College, there were no female faculty members, and female students attended separate classes from male students. The course of study was rigorous, and student life was heavily regulated—newspapers weren’t allowed, nor was most socializing between the sexes. But Belva buckled down, focusing on her studies. Around this time, she also developed an interest in law, attending lectures by a local attorney in addition to her Genesee classes. In June 1857, after three years of study, Belva graduated with honors, earning her bachelor of science.

3. SHE DEMANDED EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK.

Upon graduating, Belva was offered the preceptress position at a common school near her hometown of Royalton, a job that allowed her to reassume custody of her daughter. As preceptress, Belva supervised three teachers, handled discipline, and taught classes including rhetoric, botany, and higher math. But though the school board knew Belva was a widow with a child to support, she was paid $400 annually, while the male teachers she managed made $600, and male administrators made even more. Belva had been encountering gendered pay inequity since she started teaching at age 14 and discovered that male teachers were being paid twice her salary for the same work—“an indignity not to be tamely borne,” as she later said. The school board rebuffed 14-year-old Belva’s complaint, and 26-year-old Belva faced the same dismissive attitude. But Belva continued to teach for nearly a decade, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1866, where she would take her equal-pay fight to Congress.

Belva had become involved in the women’s rights movement, and while living in the capital she discovered that female government employees earned less than men, and that the civil service limited the number of female clerks who could be hired. Belva heavily lobbied Rep. Samuel Arnell, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, to introduce legislation to mandate equal pay for federal workers and outlaw discrimination in hiring based on gender. Arnell was sympathetic to women’s issues—he had previously submitted a bill to give married women in D.C. the right to own property—and in 1870 he submitted H.R. 1571, “A bill to do justice to the female employees of the government,” which had been drafted in part by Belva. Unfortunately, by the time the bill passed in 1872, it had become so watered-down that it merely “authorized” federal departments to appoint women to higher-level clerk positions and to offer them the same compensation as men—but it didn’t require departments to do so. The version of the bill that passed also lifted the cap on the number of female clerks who could be hired. While less radical than Belva’s original draft, the new law did help women: During the 1870s, the percentage of women working for the Treasury Department who were paid a salary over $900 increased from 4 percent to 20 percent.

4. SHE TRIED TO BECOME A DIPLOMAT.

Belva wanted to enter the consular service, and during the administration of President Andrew Johnson she applied for a position as a consular officer in Ghent, Belgium—an unheard-of position for a woman. Belva prepared dutifully for the civil service exam, refreshing her German and studying international law, but the State Department never replied to her application. In 1881, she requested that President Garfield appoint her head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Brazil, arguing that her facility with international law made her an appropriate choice, but her petition was ignored. A few years later, she pushed President Grover Cleveland to appoint her minister to Turkey. Cleveland instead selected a man rumored to be a womanizer; in response, Belva sent the president a biting letter, noting sarcastically, “The selection of S. S. Cox could not have been improved upon. The only danger is, that he will attempt to suppress polygamy in that country by marrying all of the women himself.”

With respect to her diplomatic ambition, Belva was way ahead of her time—no woman would become an American consular officer until Lucile Atcherson Curtis in 1923.

5. SHE OVERCAME REJECTION TO BECOME A LAWYER.

In 1867, 37-year-old Belva met a 65-year-old dentist named Ezekiel Lockwood. Within a year, she had married him and adopted his surname, though she would sign documents and letters “Belva Ann Lockwood” rather than “Mrs. Ezekiel Lockwood,” as was customary. Belva told her new husband that she was bored with teaching and fascinated by the law. She nursed this interest by helping Ezekiel in his side business as a veteran-pension claim agent. Having determined to become a lawyer, Belva spent her free time reading legal commentaries, but she could not find an attorney to take her on as an apprentice.

Then, in October 1869, an acquaintance of Ezekiel’s who happened to be the president of the law school at Columbian College invited the couple to hear him give a lecture. Belva was inspired to formally apply for entry to Columbian, located in D.C., but the response she received was a “slap in the face” [PDF]. The school’s president wrote to Belva saying that Columbian’s faculty had decided “that [her] admission would not be expedient, as it would be likely to distract the attention of the young men.”

Luckily, National University—which had just begun operating in Washington, D.C., in 1870—soon announced it would begin admitting female students to its law program. Belva and 14 other women matriculated in 1871; two years later just she and one other woman had completed the course. But faced with the prospect of having to grant law degrees to women, and receiving blowback from male students and alumni, National University administrators balked and refused to issue Belva or her classmate diplomas. Belva devised a way to force their hand.

The university’s charter named the current president of the United States as its chancellor ex officio, so in January 1873, Belva wrote to then-President Ulysses S. Grant, explaining her situation in a polite, supplicating manner. After receiving no reply over the summer, in September she wrote another letter, much shorter and blunter, saying, “I desire to say to you that I have passed through the curriculum of study in this school, and am entitled to, and demand, my diploma.” The White House never responded directly to Belva’s letters, but around two weeks after her second note she received her diploma. A few days after that, she was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Belva became a prolific attorney, practicing in multiple areas of law, including government pension claims, criminal defense, marriage and divorce, and patent law.

6. CONGRESS PASSED A LAW SO SHE COULD PRACTICE BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT.

When she began practicing law, Belva found a small number of supporters among judges and fellow lawyers, but she primarily faced scorn and discrimination. David Kellogg Cartter, chief justice of what was then the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia (now the District Court for the District of Columbia), told her frankly, “Madam, if you come into this court we shall treat you like a man.” Associate Justice Arthur MacArthur commented, “Bring on as many women lawyers as you choose: I do not believe they will be a success.” And while she was able to practice in the D.C. courts, she did not have access to the federal courts.

In 1873, the widow of the inventor of a torpedo boat used by the Union during the Civil War engaged Belva to sue the federal government, charging that they had infringed upon her late husband’s patent and demanding $100,000 in damages. Belva needed to argue the case before the United States Court of Claims, but her bid for admission was unanimously rejected by the court—the judges argued that allowing women to become attorneys would harm their families as well as society at large. Belva continued to work on claims cases, but unable to argue them in court, she had to hire another attorney to plead before judges. This was a poor solution, especially after one male lawyer that Belva hired took “three days to say very badly what I could have said well in an hour,” she fumed. He lost the case. Belva filed an appeal to the Supreme Court and set about obtaining admission to the nation’s highest court so that she could argue the case herself.

A male colleague nominated Belva for admission to the bar of the United States Supreme Court in October 1876, but she was rejected by a vote of six to three, with Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite speaking for the majority when he declared that “none but men are admitted to practice before [the Supreme Court] … in accordance with immemorial usage in England and practice in all of the states.” The court would not change this unless “required by statute.” So Belva decided to change the law.

In 1874, at Belva’s urging, Rep. Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts drafted and submitted a bill to the House allowing the admission of qualified female attorneys to the bar of the Supreme Court, but while it passed the Judiciary Committee, the bill died on the floor. A second bill was introduced a few months later, but didn’t make it out of committee. At this point, Belva decided to draft her own bill, which became known as “An Act to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women.” Rep. John M. Glover of Ohio introduced “the Lockwood Bill,” and after Belva testified at a committee hearing, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the measure unanimously. On February 26, 1878, the House passed the bill with a vote of 169 to 87. It then spent a year winding its way through the more-conservative Senate, facing considerable opposition. Belva lobbied hard for her bill, presenting Congress with a petition supporting it signed by 160 prominent D.C. lawyers. After passionate speeches by three senators who advocated the bill, the Senate passed it 39 to 20. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Belva bill into law on February 15, 1879 [PDF].

Less than a month later, on March 3, Belva became the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States—and “no objection was raised,” reported The New York Times. In 1880, she became the first female lawyer to argue before the nation’s highest court in the case Kaiser v. Stickney. In 1906, she represented the Eastern Cherokee before the Supreme Court and won a $5 million settlement.

Her problems weren’t over, however. Each time Belva had a case in a new jurisdiction—a new state or county—she had to convince a new set of judges to allow her to practice. She became the first woman to practice law in Maryland in 1880 when she argued a case in the Frederick County Circuit Court, but the next year she was blocked from appearing in court in Charles County in the same state. She also became the first female attorney to practice in the federal courts of Virginia and Massachusetts, but when she attempted to argue for her admission to the state bar of New York, the presiding justice snapped at her to sit down and be quiet. Despite successfully lobbying Congress to pass a law on her behalf, Belva’s fight was not over.

7. SHE USED A SEXIST LAW TO HER ADVANTAGE.

In one criminal case, Belva was acting as the defense attorney for a woman who had shot a police officer. The defendant confessed to her actions on the stand, to Belva’s dismay. Now she had to defend someone who had already admitted to the crime, a seemingly impossible task. But Belva knew something important: The woman’s husband had told her to do it. Belva explained to the jury that the woman’s husband had done something that put him in fear of law enforcement, leading him to instruct his wife to “load a gun and shoot the first officer that tried to force his way into the house.” Belva argued that since 19th-century common law legally obligated a wife to obey her spouse, the husband had, in effect, actually been the one to shoot the police officer. The wife was simply his instrument for performing the violence. “You would not have a woman resist her husband?” Belva asked rhetorically. She urged the court to bring the husband from out of state and try him for the crime instead. The jury found her argument convincing, and pronounced her client not guilty.

8. SHE MADE NEWS BY RIDING A TRICYCLE.

Belva caused quite a stir in the early 1880s when she purchased a tricycle and began riding it around Washington, D.C., covering several miles a day as she conducted her business. (It was, at the time, still unusual for women to ride bicycles or tricycles.) In 1882, The Washington Post declared the sight of “Mrs. Lawyer Lockwood” on her tricycle to be one of the “objects of greatest interest to the visiting stranger and curiosity seeker” in the capital, alongside the Washington Monument and Ford’s Theatre. Newspapers and magazines across the country noted Belva’s passion for pedaling when she ran for president in 1884, with the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal publishing a sketch of her “awheel” to publicize her visit to town and The New York Times mocking public interest in the matter as the “tricycle scandal.”

9. SHE RAN FOR PRESIDENT—AND RECEIVED SEVERAL THOUSAND VOTES.

A black-and-white engraving of a satirical parade of the Belva Lockwood Club in New Jersey
A satirical Belva Lockwood parade in New Jersey around 1884.

In 1884, Marietta Stow, a California women’s activist and publisher of the newspaper Woman’s Herald of Industry and Social Science Cooperator, was leader of the new Equal Rights Party. Stow wished to nominate a woman for president, and Belva caught her attention when the lawyer wrote a letter to the Woman’s Herald, stating her belief that women should run for office and expressing her frustration with the Republican Party. Prominent suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated support for the Republicans, in hopes that a GOP president and a Republican-majority Congress could be influenced to pass a women’s suffrage amendment. But Belva was tired of this approach. During the summer of 1884, she had attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago and appeared before their Resolutions Committee to request an equal rights plank in the party’s platform—a request that was essentially ignored. Instead of trying to ingratiate themselves with the established political parties, Belva argued, suffragists should form their own, writing in her letter that “It is quite time that we had our own party; our own platform, and our own nominees. We shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.” Stow had found her nominee.

The Equal Rights Party officially nominated Belva Lockwood to the presidency at an August 1884 meeting. Belva did not know of their plans to do this but soon received a letter informing her she’d been selected as the party’s nominee, something she later said took her “utterly by surprise.” After spending a few days thinking it over, Belva wrote a letter accepting the nomination and laying out her platform, which advocated temperance, revision of divorce and inheritance laws, equal representation for women in politics and government, and the establishment of an international court of arbitration to resolve disputes between countries, among a number of other positions. Her acceptance letter was mailed to Stow and also published in newspapers across the country (Stow would later become her running mate).

Belva took campaigning seriously. Her second husband, Ezekiel, had died in 1877, and her daughter, Lura, was grown, so she put her law career on hold and traveled the country campaigning. She gave speeches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Louisville, Cleveland, and a number of other cities from September to November 1884. Newspapers covered her rallies, while humor magazines like Puck and Judge poked fun at her as they did the male candidates from both major and minor parties—though in her case the ribbing focused primarily on gender. Meanwhile, men across the country, amused by the idea of a woman running for president, formed Belva Lockwood Clubs, which held faux rallies in which cross-dressing men pretended to be Lockwood and her supporters, giving fake speeches and holding satirical parades.

In addition to this pretend support, Belva also found real supporters, and come election day, she became the first woman to receive votes for president. (In 1884, three territories had fully enfranchised women, but only states could vote for president, so all the votes Belva received came from men.) In an election in which over 10 million votes were cast, Belva received several thousand votes—she claimed the number was 4711—but the official count is difficult to establish, and Belva claimed that many of her votes had been either destroyed or assigned to the majority candidates. (At the time, rather than marking one’s chosen candidate from a standard ballot, as we do today, each party printed its own ballots—clearly distinguishable by color and design—and each voter slipped the ballot of his chosen party into the ballot box, making it much easier to toss out votes for a specific candidate.) Belva petitioned Congress to look into apparent voting anomalies, but they declined.

Still, Lockwood was not discouraged, and she ran for president on the Equal Rights Party’s ticket again in 1888. That race was her final bid for an elected position, though she remained active in women’s rights and anti-war organizing in the following years. She also kept practicing as an attorney into her early 80s. Belva died at age 86 on May 19, 1917—a month after the first woman was sworn into the House of Representatives and three years before the 19th Amendment gave women across the country the right to vote.

Additional Sources:

Belva Lockwood—That Extraordinary Woman,” New York History, Vol. 39, No. 4; “Socioeconomic Incentives to Teach in New York and North Carolina: Toward a More Complex Model of Teacher Labor Markets, 1800-1850,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1.

Britain Is Forming a Modern Version of the 'Monuments Men'—and It's Recruiting

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
Claudette Barius, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

During World War II, an international group of Allied art scholars, museum experts, archivists, and other conservationists known as the Monuments Men were sent to the front lines, tasked with locating and protecting cultural artifacts at risk of being lost to the ravages of combat. They were responsible for saving tens of thousands of priceless works of art in Europe—like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—from being destroyed by bombs or stolen by Nazis during the last years of the war.

Now, a new generation of experts will be tasked with doing the same in the face of modern wars. The British military is putting together a 15-person Cultural Property Protection Unit to protect art and archaeological artifacts in war zones from destruction, according to The Telegraph.

Recent wars in places like Syria and Iraq have put a huge number of priceless artifacts and artworks in danger. Smugglers use the chaos of war as cover to loot and sell ancient artifacts and other cultural heritage items stolen from from archaeological sites and museums on the international black market. The Islamic State finances at least part of its operations through the sale of stolen antiquities pillaged from sites under the group’s control, including the Mosul Museum, where militants reduced a huge number of rare artifacts to rubble and sold off others in the two years before Iraqi forces were able to take back the city.

The new group will investigate looting, prosecute smugglers, and gather information about endangered cultural heritage sites for the British government and its allies (to ensure that military forces don’t knowingly drop bombs on them). The Cultural Property Protection Unit is still in the nascent stages, though. It’s currently comprised of just one member, Tim Purbrick—a lieutenant colonel in the British Army—and is seeking to add experts on art, archaeology, and art crime.

There are already a few special forces dedicated to preserving art and cultural heritage items elsewhere in the world. Britain’s new task force will add to the work of groups like Italy’s Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TCP), which has been investigating smuggling, forgery, damage to monuments, and other art crimes in Italy and beyond since 1969.

[h/t The Telegraph]

The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Boston Public Library // Public Domain
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People were looking for answers and comfort after the Civil War, so they turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Despite its popularity, many debunkers argued that it had little legitimacy—alleged mediums were con artists who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable and drained them of all their funds. Perhaps most surprising of all is that what turned into an enormous religious following started out as a simple prank pulled by two preteen girls.

1. THE FOX SISTERS

The Fox Sisters
Emma Hardinge Britten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. These knocking sounds, she decided, could not have been human and certainly were not produced by her children. The mysterious banging became so maddening that she invited her neighbor in to hear for herself. Although skeptical, the neighbor humored the woman and huddled into a small room with Margaret and her two young girls, Maggie and Kate. The mother would ask questions that would be answered with a series of knocks, or as they would later be called, “rappings.” By the end of the night, both the mother and neighbor were convinced that Maggie and Kate were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side.

Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. Their act took off, and soon the girls were touring the country. Maggie eventually found love while on the road, and settled down with an adventurer named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane convinced her to give up spiritualism, which she did until his untimely death in 1857. Meanwhile, Kate married a fellow spiritualist and fine-tuned her act. She was so successful in her deception that respected chemist William Crookes wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874 that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were true occurrences and not a form of trickery.

The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery prior to a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music. “I have seen so much miserable deception! Every morning of my life I have it before me. When I wake up I brood over it. That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” she wrote.

She then explained that the mysterious thumping was the result of an apple tied to a string that the sisters would drop to torment their mother. At the New York Academy of Music, with her sister Kate in the audience, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a raucous crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the stool with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise. The Spiritualist world took a hit, but continued to persist. The same could not be said for the Fox sisters' careers. Although Maggie recanted her confession a year later—likely due to her poverty—the sisters were never trusted again and they both died penniless.

2. THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS

Photograph of the Davenport Brothers in front of their spirit cabinet
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Fox sisters may have burned out by the end of their career, but that didn't stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, were inspired by the rappings of the Fox sisters and decided to try a session of their own with their father. Their session was so chilling (they would later claim their sister actually levitated) that they decided to make a show. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their professional careers. After William passed away in 1877, Ira gave up the medium business for a quieter life.

He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks, including one called "The Tie Around the Neck" that not even Ira’s children knew. The surviving Davenport told Houdini all about the tricks and trouble that went into keeping their secret, including reserving the front row for their friends and hiring numerous accomplices. Interestingly, some of their greatest tricks didn’t involve any work. Reports of flying instruments and mysterious sensations were purely delusions of the audience members. “Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads,” Davenport told Houdini.

3. EVA CARRIÈRE

A photo of Eva Carrière regurgitating ectoplasm
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. He had initially believed that although it was all fake, it didn't harm anyone. The death of his mother made him realize the harm these fraudsters were really doing, and so Houdini set out to reveal their tricks. One such huckster was Eva Carrière.

As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. Carrière, with the help of her assistant and alleged lover Juliette Bisson, would be stripped down and searched to prove there was nothing on her person. She would then let Bisson put her in a trance, where Houdini said he was certain she was truly asleep. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth that looked “like a colored cartoon and seemed to have been unrolled.” Houdini left feeling underwhelmed and unconvinced.

Still, Carrière seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing spent several years—1909 to 1913—working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialisation. Ironically, this book ended up being Carrière's undoing: A skeptic named Harry Price wrote that the pictures proved that the faces seen in the medium’s ectoplasm were actually regurgitated cut-outs from the French magazine Le Miroir.

4. ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini [PDF], she started as Editha Salomen, born in Kentucky in 1849 (others claim she was named Delia Ann Sullivan and born in 1851). She left home at 18 and somehow convinced the high society of Baltimore that she was of European aristocracy. “Where the Kentucky girl with her peculiar temperament and characteristics could possibly have secured the education and knowledge which she displayed through all her exploits I am at a loss to understand,” Houdini wrote. Regardless, Salomon was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollars. Claiming that funds were tied up in foreign banks, it was easy to drain potential suitors out of money and luxury.

After a quick stint at an insane asylum for trying to kill a doctor, Salomen took up hypnotism and married a man of slow wit named General Diss Debar. As Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and a general’s wife (although modern scholarship says that he wasn't a general and they weren't ever actually married), she found that people were eager to trust her. She took advantage of this trust when she met a successful lawyer named Luther R. Marsh, who had just lost his wife. After convincing him that she was a skilled medium, Diss Debar persuaded him to turn over his home on Madison Avenue, which she then turned into a spiritualistic temple and successful business. The swindler created spirit paintings, which, through sleight of hand, seemed to appear out of nowhere on blank canvases, as if the spirits painted them.

These paintings eventually landed Diss Debar in legal trouble when Marsh invited the press to come and see them. In 1888, the so-called medium was hauled into court for deceiving Marsh and swindling him out of house and home. Many testified against Diss Debar, including her own brother, but the most convincing participant was professional Carl Hertz, who was called in to disprove her trickery. With ease, he replicated each of Diss Debar’s tricks, and performed some that not even she could do. Satisfied that the woman was a fraud, the state incarcerated her for six months at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Despite all this, Marsh continued to believe in spiritualism. Unfortunately for Diss Debar, he seemed like the only one—she attempted to resurrect her career, but was unsuccessful, later being hauled back into court for charges of debt a year after her release. She traveled between London and America for years, going in and out of prison, before finally disappearing for good in 1909.

As Houdini put it harshly:

“Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s reputation was such that she will go down in history as one of the great criminals. She was no credit to Spiritualism; she was no credit to any people, she was no credit to any country—she was one of these moral misfits which every once in awhile seem to find their way into the world. Better for had she died at birth than to have lived and spread the evil she did.”

5. MINA CRANDON

Mina Crandon in 1924
Malcolm Bird, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Born in Canada to a farmer, Margery moved to Boston and took up a number of careers, working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a surgeon who studied at Harvard. It was the doctor who introduced her to spiritualism and eventually led her down the path to becoming a medium.

Margery was a friendly, pretty woman, but the ghost of her brother Walter was much less charming. The medium would conjure his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. The mysterious substance sometimes took the form of a hand and supposedly rang bells or touched the participants. Her performance was so convincing that it attracted the Boston elite and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As her popularity soared, her prayers were even read by the U.S. Army.

In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston.

When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Despite his confidence, the rest of the panel remained uncertain, putting off the decision. By October, The Scientific American published an article explaining the panel was hopelessly divided. The hesitation angered both Houdini and Margery’s spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter screamed. "Get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don't, I will."

By November, Houdini circulated a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium "Margery." He then put on performances recreating Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Humiliated and without prize money, Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31 from peritonitis.

Margery and her prickly ghost brother may have gotten the last laugh, but by 1941, her reputation was in ruins from Houdini’s mockery. Still, she never confessed to her trickery, even on her deathbed.

Additional sources: Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno, 1972.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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