Malcolm Bird

Malcolm Bird (1886-1964) was an American mathematician and parapsychologist, notable for his involvement in controversial investigations of the Boston medium Mina Crandon.

Early Life and Career

James Malcolm Bird was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1866. He studied mathematics and subsequently taught at Columbia University. He was appointed an associate editor of the Scientific American magazine in 1922, resigning in 1925 to take up an appointment as research officer for the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR).

Mina Crandon (‘Margery’)

In 1922 Scientific American offered a prize of $2500 to anyone who could convincingly exhibit an ability to produce a visible psychic manifestation. Bird was charged with choosing an applicant, and in November the following year he selected Mina Crandon, a Boston woman reputed to produce strong physical mediumship phenomena under the pseudonym ‘Margery’. He also recruited a six-man judging committee, including himself.  Some ninety investigative sittings were held, at which Bird was one of the most regular attendees.

Bird quickly emerged as one of Crandon’s most enthusiastic supporters, publishing articles in the American Journal of the Society for Psychical Research about the phenomena he said he witnessed during sittings.  In 1925 he published a book about Crandon titled Margery the Medium. A reviewer for the British Society for Psychical Research commented that it contained ‘an immense number of rather disconnected accounts of alleged supernormal events’, but few clues about how reliable they were or, if genuine, the mechanisms by which they were produced.1

As the investigation progressed, Bird increasingly came into conflict with more sceptical committee members, notably the stage magician Harry Houdini, who published allegations of cheating by Crandon. Bird contested Houdini’s claims and resigned from the committee, leaving Scientific American to work for the ASPR. The committee eventually declared that it was unpersuaded that Crandon’s phenomena were genuine, and the prize remained unclaimed.  

Bird continued to attend sittings with Crandon, and as editor of the ASPR journal published further laudatory articles about her, again arousing antagonism among more critical members. These included Walter Franklin Prince, one of the most sceptical of the original investigating committee, who resigned and set up a rival organization.  In an article published in Scientific American,2 Prince claimed that Bird had been asked by Crandon whether, in the event of no phenomena being forthcoming in a séance, he would be willing to produce something that might be accepted as being paranormal:

This proposal was clearly the result of Margery’s wrought-up state of mind. Nevertheless it seems to me of paramount importance, in that it shows her, fully conscious and fully normal, in a situation where she thought she might have to choose between fraud and a blank séance; and she was willing to choose fraud.3

Other Research

Bird was involved in the investigation of other spiritualist mediums: Ada Besinnet, John C Sloan, Gladys Osborne and William Hope. In My Psychic Adventures he made a case for the genuineness of some of the phenomena witnessed, while also taking into account the possibilities of hallucination, collective hypnosis and fraud.4

Bird abandoned psychical research after 1930 and little is known about his later activities.

Works

Books

Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and Gravitation (1921). New York: Scientific American Publishers.

My Psychic Adventures (1924). New York: Scientific American Publishing Company.1924).

‘Margery’ the Medium (1925). Boston; Small, Maynard and Company.

Articles

Our subconscious selves (1922). Scientific American, May 1.

Our psychic investigation (1923). Scientific American, January 1; February 1; March 1.

Our psychic investigation in Europe (1923). Scientific American, May 1; June 1; July 1; August 1.

Our first test séances (1923). Scientific American, July 1.

Psychic adventures at home (1923). Scientific American, September 1.

Psychic adventures on the continent (1923). Scientific American, October 1.

Another mediumistic failure (1923). Scientific American, December 1.

Psychic adventures at home (1924). Scientific American, January 1.

Our psychic investigation advances (1924). Scientific American, February 1.

30 years of psychical research (1924). Scientific American, March 1.

Telepathy and radio (1924). Scientific American, June 1.

Our next psychic (1924). Scientific American, July 1.

The ‘Margery Mediumship’ (1924). Scientific American, August 1.

Our psychic investigation (1924). Scientific American, April 1; October 1.

‘Margery’: A summary of my book on the celebrated Boston mediumship (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 177-90.

Dr McDougal and the ‘Margery’ mediumship (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 190-227.

Mr Dingwall and ‘Margery’ (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 309-14.

In reply to Dr Boring (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 536-38.

Dr Richardson’s voice-control machine (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 680-89.

The latest ‘Margery’ ‘exposure’ (1925). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19, 717-29.

Observations on the Moss Case (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 41-54.

‘Margery’ the medium (1926). Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 23, 140-41.

The slate-writing mediumship of Mrs Pruden III (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 352-64.

The ‘Margery’ mediumship (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 385-406.

The methodology of psychical research (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 531-33.

Observation on the Cazzamall experiments (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 87-93.

Correspondence: The Moss Case and A.C. Doyle (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 249.

The theoretical aspect of apport (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 86-99.

Some notes on dark séance fraud (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 201-15.

The Clark University Symposium (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 241-48; 301-12.

Some recent psychical activities in England (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 297-300.

A criticism of the philosophy of endless recurrence (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 523-36.

A message from a living communicator (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 166-69.

The ‘Margery’ mediumship (1928). Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research 20-21, 1926-27. New York: American Society for Psychical Research.

Teleplasmic thumbprints (also with E.E. Dudley, 1928). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 22, 7-15; 191-218; 453-69; 563-71; 684-707.

Probabilities and metapsychics (1928). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 22, 69-82.

Some theoretical aspects of psychical research (1928). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 22, 127-39.

Two striking cases of collective apparitions (1928). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 22, 429-32.

Some philosophical aspects of psychical research (1928). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 22, 580-90.

The Briarcliff pony (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 26-31.

Dreams: Previsional and otherwise (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 41-52.

A series of psychic experiments (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 209-32.

Layman’s survey of psychical research (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 278-86.

The crisis in psychical research (with E.J. Dingwall, 1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 323-36.

The current state of the Schneider mediumships (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 351-67; 407-27; 606-23.

‘Margery’’s Chinese scripts (et al, 1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 428-38.

Experimental telepathy (1929). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 23, 517-33; 672-81.

Current status of Schneider mediumship (1930). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 24, 19-28.

Translations

Telepsychic phenomena and cerebral radiations by F. Cazzamalli (1926). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 20, 1-17.

Book Reviews

An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne (1927). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 21, 454-74.

A Curious Life by G. Weher (1930). Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 24, 131-32.

Melvyn Willin

Literature

Brandon, R. (1983). The Spiritualists. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Fodor, N. (1934). Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press Limited.

Prince, W.F. (1933). The case against Margery. Scientific American 148/5. May, 261-63.

Tietze, T.R. (1973). Margery. New York: Harper & Row.

Woolley, V.J. (1926). Review: ‘Margery’ the Medium. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 23, 140-1.

Endnotes

  • 1. Woolley (1926), 140-41.
  • 2. Prince (1933), 261-63.
  • 3. Tietze (1973), 137.
  • 4. Bird (1924), 292-317.