I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Today’s audiences know that the rabbit did not “magically” appear inside the top hat; that it was concealed before the performer produced it. Similarly, we know that the illusionist is not actually sawing his assistant into two pieces.
However, there was a time when people believed that what they were witnessing was an apparition from the ghostly world and not some sort of clever deception.
Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters
Ira and William Davenport were born in 1839 and 1841 respectively in Buffalo, New York just before the spiritualism movement reached its peak of popularity.
The Davenport boys’ father, a policeman, was interested in spiritualism, a movement that started in Hydesville, New York.
In 1848, Margaretta (Maggie) Fox, 14, and her sister Kate, 11, shared a bedroom in a farmhouse near Hydesville. They told of hearing knocks on walls and furniture. A skeptical neighbour heard about the claims and she went to the house to look into the frightening events.
Karen Abbott (Smithsonian Magazine) relates how the youngsters' mother, Margaret, worked to convince the neighbour that there were spirits in the house. She “began the demonstration. ‘Now count five,’ she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.
‘Count fifteen,’ she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age; thirty-three distinct raps followed.”
Obviously, a tortured spirit was communicating from the other side.
The fame of the Fox sisters spread and they were soon joined by their older sibling Leah. They started holding spiritualism sessions and some prominent people attended. The belief that it was possible to communicate with the dead took hold and spiritualism gathered huge numbers of adherents, among them the father of the Davenport brothers.
Levitation and the Davenport Brothers
The Davenport family started to hold some spiritualism sittings in their home. They claimed some remarkable effects in contacting the spirit world, including levitation.
A contemporary biographer wrote that first one Davenport boy “was floated in the air above the heads of those in the room at a distance of nine feet from the floor. Next, the brother and sister were influenced in the same way, and the three children floated high up in the room. Hundreds of respectable citizens of Buffalo are reported to have seen these occurrences.”
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According to the American Ghost Society, a spirit guide named John King urged the family to start “giving public performances of the Davenport brother’s reputed powers. The boys were only 16 and 14 when they went on stage for the first time in 1855.”
The early shows were tame stuff such as table tappings, “But soon the Davenport brothers began to introduce other phenomena into the act, like musical instruments which floated in the air, playing under their own power, and spirit hands that touched and pulled at sitters and audience members.”
At each show the Davenport brothers were given the stamp of approval by the Reverend J. B. Ferguson, a believer in spiritualism. The Victorianist records that he “assured the audience that the brothers worked by spirit power rather than deceptive trickery. Ferguson was apparently sincere in his belief that the Davenports possessed spiritual powers.”
The Spirit Cabinet: A Crowd-Pleasing Invention
The brothers soon became famous for their Spirit Cabinet.
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The box illusion involved a wooden structure into which they were both placed and then tied up by members of the audience. When the doors of the box were closed the show began.
Disembodied hands poked through holes in the structure, “spirit” music would be played on instruments, and objects would come flying out of the top of the cabinet. But, when the doors were flung open the Davenport brothers would be there, tied up just as before.
The show toured the United States to great acclaim and then went to Britain.
Mistake Unmasks Davenport Brothers
It’s not spiritualism, it’s trickery.
In March 1865 the performers pulled into the English town of Cheltenham. Cabinet Magazine reports that the illusion was proceeding as usual during a midday performance but it ran into a hitch “when a tiny square of drapery fell from one of the room’s high windows, the unrestrained figure of Ira Davenport was momentarily seen throwing ‘spirit-animated’ musical instruments by hand from the cabinet’s interior.”
A local amateur magician, John Nevil Maskelyne, witnessed the slip up and figured out how the illusion was created.
Writing for Cotswold Life Steve Knibbs says that Maskelyn “later performed the effect, as a magic trick … to great fanfare in front of the press and hundreds of spectators. The Davenports were discredited.”
Numerous sources say the members of Britain’s Ghost Club, an organization that investigates paranormal events, examined the cabinet but the results of their analysis were never released. Since then, numerous magicians, such as Britain’s Paul Daniels, have performed the illusion (see video below).
Years after launching the spiritualism religion, Maggie and Kate Fox fell into the clutches of alcohol abuse. They grew disenchanted with the spiritualism culture they had created. Maggie confessed the whole deal was a hoax. She showed how she and her sisters had manipulated audiences into believing they were in touch with the spirit world.
Despite the exposure of many spiritualists as fakes and charlatans there are still spiritualism churches around the world. The spiritualismlink.com claims there are 15 million followers of spiritualism in the world today.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was an ardent spiritualist.
- “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Karen Abbott, Smithsonian.com, October 30, 2012.
- “A Biography of the Brothers Davenport.” T.L. Nichols M.D., Saunders, Otley and Company, 1864.
- “The Davenport Brothers.” Troy Taylor, American Ghost Society, undated.
- “ ‘I Regard Spiritualism as One of the Greatest Curses that the World Has Ever Known.’ Or: The Fox Sisters & The Davenport Brothers.” The Victorianist, March 31, 2011.
- Jonathan Allen.
- “Sleight of Light,” Cabinet Magazine, Winter 2006-07.
- “Now, That’s Magic.” Steve Knibbs, Cotswold Life, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 20, 2018:
Interesting that after the Fox sisters confessed, people continued the fake practice. Seems like most anything and everything can find a following. Thanks for this informative article.
brian from uk on December 19, 2018:
I also noted you mentioned sir arthur conan doyle did you know he was president of the college of psychic studies in kensington london from 1926 to 1930
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 19, 2018:
Yes, Harry Houdini spent a lot of time debunking the spirit medium business and got into some highly publicized battles with spiritualists.
brian from uk on December 19, 2018:
Did not that escapolist Harry Houdini expose this type of thing when he was alive basically a money making racket