10 Surprising Facts About Benedict Arnold

When the Revolutionary War broke out, Benedict Arnold became one of America’s first military heroes. But within a few short years, patriots were comparing him unfavorably to the man who betrayed Jesus. As a disgusted Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions [sic].”

That Arnold defected to the British army in 1780 is common knowledge. But before he switched allegiances, Arnold engineered some crucial victories for the colonist rebels and, by all accounts, led a pretty interesting life. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of America's most notorious traitors, who was born on this day in 1741.

1. HE WAS DESCENDED FROM RHODE ISLAND’S FIRST COLONIAL GOVERNOR.

Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut—the fifth person in his family to be named Benedict Arnold. Among others, he shared the name with his father and great grandfather, the latter of whom was the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the 1663 Royal Charter. A wealthy and respected landowner, he would intermittently remain governor until his death. He was laid to rest at a Newport cemetery that now bears his name: Arnold Burying Ground.

2. ARNOLD FOUGHT IN AT LEAST ONE DUEL.

Though he apprenticed at a druggists, and, as an adult, set up a profitable general store in New Haven, Arnold eventually decided to get into the shipping industry, purchasing three merchant vessels by the time he turned 26. He used the boats to trade goods in Canada and the West Indies. (The ventures would later give him a healthy disdain for British tax policies; to get around them, he—like many of his countrymen—ultimately turned to smuggling.) It was while traveling for business that Arnold would get into a disagreement that led to a duel.

On a trip to the Bay of Honduras, Arnold received an invitation to a get-together from a British captain named Croskie. Distracted by an upcoming voyage, Arnold forgot to respond and wound up missing the party. Hoping to smooth things over, Arnold paid Croskie a visit the next morning and apologized. The Brit was having none of it. Irked by Arnold’s apparent rudeness, Croskie called him “a damned Yankee destitute of good manners of those of a gentleman.” Now it was the New Englander’s turn to get offended. His honor impugned, Arnold challenged Croskie to a duel. In the showdown that resulted, the captain fired first—and missed. Then Arnold took aim. With a well-placed shot, he grazed Croskie, whose wound was taken care of by an on-site surgeon. Arnold called Croskie back to the field and proclaimed, “I give you notice, if you miss this time I shall kill you.” Not wishing to risk any further injuries, the British seaman offered an apology. This incident represents the only duel that Arnold is known to have participated in—although some historians believe he may have emerged victorious from one or two others.

3. HE INSPIRED A MINOR HOLIDAY BY COMMANDEERING BRITISH GUNPOWDER.

On April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord broke out in eastern Massachusetts, marking the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Three days later, Benedict Arnold led New Haven’s local militia—the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard—to the city’s powder house, where its supply of emergency gunpowder was stored. He was met at the front door by the local selectmen and demanded the keys. At first they resisted, but it soon became clear that Arnold would be willing to force his way into the building if necessary. “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” he warned. Faced with the prospect of violence, the selectmen handed over the keys. The Second Company then rounded up all of the available gunpowder and began a march to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rendezvoused with other rebel troops.

Since 1904, New Haven has been commemorating this chapter in its history with an annual Powder House Day celebration. Every spring, a reenactment of the standoff between Arnold and those selectmen takes place on the steps of City Hall. There, members of the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard (which still exists) arrive in historically accurate regalia led by a member who plays Arnold himself.

4. HE TOOK PART IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE CANADA.

Arnold made a name for himself by joining forces with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to capture Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain in May 1775. That fall, George Washington tapped him to lead a military expedition into Quebec. At the time, many Americans believed—falsely—that their Canadian neighbors would be willing to help them overthrow the British. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery and his men were sent to Montreal by way of the Champlain valley. Meanwhile, Arnold (by that time a Colonel) was given command of a second force that was to proceed upwards through Maine before attacking Quebec City.

This campaign wasn’t exactly Arnold’s finest hour. For starters, he’d been given a wildly inaccurate map of the area which led him to underestimate the distance between Maine and his destination. Since the trek took more time than Arnold had bargained for, his force inevitably depleted its food supply along the way. As a result, many of the men resorted to eating dogs, squirrel heads, and even leather. Severe storms and equipment-destroying flash floods did not help matters.

By the time Arnold finally reached Quebec City on November 8, 1775, the force of around 1100 he’d started out with had been whittled down to less than 600. That December, Montgomery and his men—who’d already captured Montreal—met up with Arnold’s demoralized group outside of Quebec City. On the final day of 1775, the Americans attacked. Montgomery was killed in the fray, more than 400 American soldiers were captured, and a splintering musket ball nearly cost Arnold his left leg. Despite this and other setbacks, the invaders from down south remained in Quebec until 10,000 British troops—accompanied by German mercenaries—arrived to force them out in May 1776.

5. AN ARNOLD-LED NAVAL FLEET THWARTED A MAJOR BRITISH ADVANCE.

Having driven Arnold and company from Canada, the Brits decided to go in for the kill. After advancing down to the northern shores of Lake Champlain, General Sir Guy Carleton ordered his men to construct a fleet of new ships from existing parts and available timber. Meanwhile, Arnold and General Horatio Gates set up shop in Skenesborough, located at the lake’s southern end. The Americans got to work building new ships of their own, which would sail alongside four vessels that Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys had captured in 1775. The stage was set for a naval clash that would have profound implications for the rest of the war.

On October 11, 1776, Arnold led the 15-ship American fleet into battle against Carleton’s newly-finished squadron of well-armed war vessels, which was making a beeline for Fort Ticonderoga. Concealing his forces in the strait between Valcour Island and the lake’s western banks, Arnold was able to catch the British off-guard—momentarily, anyway. Despite this sneak attack, Carleton’s superior weaponry took out 11 of Arnold’s ships, killing or capturing 200 rebels. But from a strategic standpoint, the confrontation worked out well for the colonies because it thwarted the General’s primary goal: recapturing Ticonderoga and then funneling Royal troops across the Champlain. The Battle of Valcour Island—along with all the ship-building that had preceded it—kept him busy until winter arrived. By November, the lake had started freezing over, which prompted Carleton to head back to Canada, where he and his men would remain until spring. His temporary retreat gave the Americans some desperately-needed time to prepare for Britain’s next invasion from the north.

In 1777, General John Burgoyne led 8000 troops down the Champlain Valley. At the Battles of Saratoga, the American forces were able to overwhelm them, forcing the General to surrender his army. More than anything else, it was this surprise victory that inspired France to enter the fray on the rebels’ behalf.

According to Alfred T. Mahan, a naval historian, “That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.” Arnold was injured at Saratoga when a bullet went through his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on and crushed the injured limb—the same one that had been wounded in Quebec. The Major General spent three months in the hospital; his leg never fully recovered and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

6. HE SIGNED A LOYALTY OATH AT VALLEY FORGE.

In 1778, the Continental Congress made an attempt to weed out any closet loyalists that might be in its midst by forcing the army’s enlisted men and officers to sign standardized loyalty oaths—which they were also expected to read aloud before a witness. Arnold was presented with a copy when he visited Washington in Valley Forge that May. With no reported hesitation, Arnold recited and signed the document; the event was witnessed by Henry Knox, Washington’s future Secretary of War. Today, the signed agreement can be found at the National Archives.

7. ARNOLD SWITCHED SIDES IN PART BECAUSE HE FELT DISRESPECTED.

On June 18, 1778, after a nine-month occupation, British General Sir Henry Clinton and 15,000 troops withdrew from Philadelphia. (By relocating, Clinton hoped he might avoid any French ships that might visit the area.) Philadelphia, back under colonial control, needed a military commander; Washington picked Arnold, who would presumably be grateful for a post that wouldn’t tax his bad leg too much.

Philadelphia was a city known for its radicals, and Arnold was never able to make peace with them. Instead, Arnold found himself gravitating towards the more pro-British upper classes, where he met a charming young woman named Margaret “Peggy” Shippen. Although she was half his age and the daughter of a wealthy judge with strong connections to the British, he married her in 1779. (It was his second marriage; Arnold's first wife, Margaret Mansfield, died in 1775.) The marriage didn’t make Philadelphia’s new military commander the most popular guy around town. Arnold’s extravagant lifestyle also aroused the suspicions of many, and some suggested that he’d been using his position to fatten his wallet with black market goods. In 1779, he was court-martialed twice, largely on accusations of misusing government resources and illegal buying and selling.

Arnold was cleared of all significant charges, but the experience left him embittered and humiliated. The court-martials were just the latest entries in a long list of perceived slights. Throughout his military career, Arnold felt underappreciated by the Continental Congress, which seemed to constantly ignore him when doling out promotions or praise. On a deeper level, he’d grown increasingly pessimistic about the rebellion’s chances. So before 1779 ended, he used his new wife’s social circle to contact Clinton and the British spy John André. At some point in their correspondence, Arnold let it be known that he’d had enough of the colonies; he was now willing to switch sides—if the price was right.

Arnold started lobbying Washington to grant him command of West Point. On June 29, 1780, the founding father caved and handed over the post. The very next month, Arnold offered to surrender the fort to Clinton for the low price of £20,000 (about $4.7 million in 2017 dollars).

8. WHEN ARNOLD MADE HIS ESCAPE, WASHINGTON WAS EN ROUTE TO HIS HOUSE FOR SOME BREAKFAST.

Arnold arranged to meet with André face-to-face on the night of September 21, 1780. André arrived on the British sloop the HMS Vulture and was rowed to shore. At a location later known as Treason House, Arnold handed André papers that exposed West Point’s weaknesses and the two planned to part ways. But during the meeting, the Vulture had been bombarded by Americans and was forced to move, stranding André in rebel territory. He decided to make his own way to the British-occupied city of White Plains, New York, but along the way he was seized by American militia men who discovered the West Point plans tucked away in his shoe.

André was brought before Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson. Following the dictates of protocol, Jameson sent a letter about this strange man who’d been found with incriminating documents to ... Benedict Arnold. Meanwhile, the documents themselves were mailed to George Washington.

In an amazing coincidence, Washington had arranged to have breakfast at Arnold’s residence in southern New York on September 25, 1780. That very same morning, mere hours before Washington arrived, the turncoat received Jameson’s letter. In a frenzied panic, he dashed out of the house, found the Vulture, and hopped aboard. When Washington learned what had transpired, the normally reserved general shouted, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”

9. HE SAW PLENTY OF ACTION AS A BRITISH GENERAL.

Arnold’s involvement with the Revolutionary War didn’t end when he embarked on the Vulture. The British made him a brigadier general, and he captured Richmond, Virginia with 1600 loyalist troops on January 5, 1781. Amidst the carnage, Virginia’s then-governor—Thomas Jefferson—staged a massive evacuation. Arnold wrote to the exiled Sage of Monticello, offering to spare the city if the governor agreed to surrender its entire supply of tobacco. When Jefferson refused, the general’s men burned a number of buildings and looted 42 vessels’ worth of stolen goods.

Later that year, Arnold laid siege to his own home colony. Recognizing New London, Connecticut as a refuge for privateers—who routinely plundered British merchant ships—Arnold ordered his assembled force of British and Hessian soldiers to put over 140 of its buildings to the torch, along with numerous ships. For the rest of the country, this devastating assault became a rallying cry. At the battle of Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette fired up his men by telling them “Remember New London.”

But if Arnold thought these raids would earn him Great Britain’s respect or acclaim, he was sorely mistaken. When the war ended, this Connecticut Yankee-turned-redcoat general moved to London with his second wife and their children. To his dismay, Arnold learned that his adopted country distrusted him almost as much as his homeland now did. Although Britain continued to recognize him as a general, the U.K. repeatedly declined to give him any sort of major role in the military. Desperate for work, Arnold then attempted to join the British East India Company only to strike out yet again—a high-ranking employee turned him away by saying, “Although I am satisfied with the purity of your conduct, [most people] do not think so.”

10. HE’S BURIED NEXT TO A FISH TANK IN ENGLAND.

Arnold died on June 14, 1801. His body was laid to rest inside a crypt in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, where Arnold and his family had been parishioners; Margaret and their daughter, Sophia, would also eventually be interred there. Strange as it may sound, their tomb is embedded in the wall of a Sunday School classroom. Right next to a whimsical goldfish tank, you can read the protruding headstone, which has an inscription that reads: “The Two Nations Whom he Served In Turn in the Years of their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”

The headstone was financed by the late Bill Stanley, a former state senator and proud native of Norwich, Connecticut who defended Arnold throughout his life. “He saved America before he betrayed it,” Stanley said. Heartbroken by the underwhelming elegy that for many years marked the general’s final resting place, Stanley personally spent $15,000 on the handsome new grave marker that sits there. When this was completed in 2004, the ex-state senator flew out to London with his immediate family and more than two dozen members of the Norwich Historical Society to watch the installation.

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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