THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS
(Ira Erastus(1839-1911) and William Henry (1841-1877))
Famous American demonstrators of claimed spirit medium-ship who performed before large audiences on the theatrical stage. Their father was a police official in Buffalo, New York, where Ira was born on September 17, 1839, and William on February 1, 1841.
In 1846—two years before an outbreak of paranormal activity at Hydesville, New York—”raps, thumps, loud noises, snaps, crackling noises” were reportedly heard at the Davenport home during the night. In 1850, in the wake of the widely reported events in Hydesville, the Davenport boys and their younger sister Elisabeth tried table-turning. According to their father, the table soon moved, raps were heard, messages were spelled out, and Ira’s hand began to write automatically. A little later a simultaneous levitation of the three children was witnessed by all present. On the fifth night of the experiments, to comply with rapping directions, Ira fired a pistol into a vacant corner of the room. At the instant of firing the pistol was taken from his hand and in the flash a human figure was seen holding it and smiling at the company. The apparition was the first appearance of “John King,” their self-appointed control. It lasted for an instant only, and with the extinction of the flash the figure vanished, the pistol falling to the floor.
A short time later a public rope-tying performance, for which the brothers became famous, was instituted on direction from the spirits. The brothers released themselves from the most complicated knots remarkably quickly. In due course both direct-writing and direct voice phenomena developed, and the brothers took to the road as performers, holding public séances amid challenging circumstances. Public committees were set up to examine the Davenports’ phenomena, and their rope tying developed into an art of torture.
In 1857 the Boston Courier offered a reward of $500 for the production of genuine physical phenomena. Dr. H. F. Gardner of Boston accepted the challenge and arranged, before a committee of Harvard professors (consisting of Benjamin Pierce, Louis Agassiz, B. A. Gould, and E. N. Horsford), a series of séances with the sisters Kate Fox and Leah Fish, J. W. Mansfield, Dr. G. A. Redman, and the Davenport brothers. The Davenports were tied in the most brutal manner, the ropes drawn through holes bored in the cabinet and firmly knotted outside to make a network; the knots were tied with linen. Pierce sat in the cabinet between the mediums. As soon as he entered, an invisible hand shot the bolt, and the din of musical instruments began. A phantom hand was thrust through a small, curtained opening near the top of the middle door of the wardrobe-like cabinet, and the professor felt it touch his head and face.
At the end of the séance, the mediums were found released, and (according to T. L. Nichols’s biography) the ropes were found twisted around Pierce’s neck. (The latter statement, however, was pronounced “shamelessly false” by the Boston Courier.) The committee issued only a brief negative report; a complete report was never published. It was countered by the report of Dr. Loomis, a professor of chemistry and toxicology at Georgetown Medical College, who also investigated the brothers. He concluded that the manifestations were produced through some new unknown force.
A Professor Mapes also had interesting experiences with the Davenports in Buffalo. He conversed with “John King” in direct voice for half an hour. His hand was seized in a powerful grasp, and when it was taken a second time, the phantom hand increased in size and was covered with hair. A large table on the elevated platform where the mediums were sitting was carried in an instant over the heads of the sitters and deposited in the most distant part of the room.
While some found the phenomena inexplicable, charges and evidence of fraud soon emerged. For example, a letter from Dr. John F. Gray, a well-known New York Spiritualist, to Epes Sargent (June 7, 1864) states: “I have not seen the Davenports this time here; but I entertain no doubt of the genuineness of the manifestations made in their presence. When they were here some years ago they were detected in making spurious manifestations when the genuine failed.”
As a means of control, investigators often filled the hands of the mediums with flour or placed pennies on their shoes after carefully drawing the outline of the shoes on a piece of paper beneath them. When the door of the cabinet was opened, the flour was found in the brothers’ hands as before, no white spots were on their clothes, and the pennies were in place.
The performance while sitting in the cabinet was called the light séance. There was a second part, the dark séance, in which the lights in the room were extinguished and the mediums sat tightly bound to their chairs between the other sitters. Tying and releasing occurred as in the cabinet. The swishing of rope was heard. The knots presented no obstacle. Sometimes every intermediate knot was left undone, with the seal at the end, yet the mediums were found free. As an additional amusement the rope was often coiled around the neck of some sitter. Then through the ropes, in some mysterious way, the coats of the mediums, or their waistcoats underneath, were whisked off and on again.
Those who entered the cabinet to sit with the brothers in the light séance were usually victims of strange pranks. Their handkerchiefs were taken, their breast pins removed and stuck into their coats, and their spectacles transferred to the face of one of the mediums.
“I have, at different times,” wrote Robert Cooper, who spent seven months with the Davenport brothers in England and on the Continent, “seen at least three hundred persons enter the cabinet, all of whom certified that there was no movement on the part of the Brothers.”
The Davenport brothers arrived in England in 1864. They were accompanied by the Rev. J. B. Ferguson, a former pastor from Nashville, Tennessee, who was famous throughout the South; D. Palmer, their operatic manager, who acted as secretary; and William M. Fay, another physical medium. Their stay in England was strenuous. Public opposition was violent, but interest in their feats was tremendous, and the Spiritualists reaped rewards of favorable press.
Their first séance in London was held privately at the residence of Dion Boucicault, the famous actor and author, in the presence of scientists and members of the press. In a report on the séance, after describing the babel generated by the musical instruments playing in the light and dark séances, a correspondent for The Times continues: “A new experiment was now made. Darkness having regained its supremacy, one of the brothers expressed a desire to be relieved of his coat. Returning light showed him in his shirt-sleeves, though his hands were still firmly bound behind the chair. It was now stated that he was prepared to put on the coat of any one of the company willing to ‘loan’ that article of attire, and an assenting gentleman having been found, the coat, after a short interval of darkness, was worn in proper fashion by a person for whom it had not been designed by the tailor. Finally, the brothers desired a release, and one of the company, certainly not an accomplice, requested that the rope might fall into his lap. During the interval of darkness a rushing sound as of swiftly-drawn cords was audible, and the ropes reached the required knees, after striking the face of the person in the next chair.”
The Times correspondent said he was not sure that he had witnessed simple conjuring. An account in The Standard says the knots were tied by a sailor who was “profound” at knot tying, and the reporter of the Daily Telegraph was not certain whether the feats were “the annihilation of what are called material laws” or a display of some extraordinary physical dexterity. He was unsure whether to regard the believers in Spiritualism as “the embodiment of a mutual and colossal self-deceit, or the silent heralds of a social revolution which must shake the world.”
The Davenport public séances began in October 1864 at the Queen’s Court Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, London. They continued almost nightly until the end of the year. No committee could pinpoint the brothers’ fraud, though a group of stage magicians attempted to prove that the performance was fraudulent.
It is probable that a sailor could tie a magician so that he could not free himself. “But no person,” declares T. L. Nichols in Supramundane Facts in the Life of the Rev. J. B. Ferguson (1865), “of all the hundreds who have tried, has ever tied the Davenports or Mr. Fay so that they were not freed in a few minutes, nor so that the manifestations, which must have been made either by them or by an intelligent, invisible force attending them, did not occur in two seconds.”
Although their stay in London was somewhat successful, the Davenports and Fay met with open hostility in the countryside. In Liverpool, for example, two members selected from the audience tied the mediums with a peculiarly intricate knot. The mediums protested that it was unfairly tight and injured their circulation. A doctor from the audience made an examination and pronounced against them. The Davenports refused to sit and asked Ferguson to cut the knot. The next night a riot broke out and the party left town. At Hull, Huddersfield, and Leeds they found a hostile public, inclined to lynch them. Since they did not find the police protection sufficient, they broke off their engagements. In a letter to Ferguson, the Davenports later wrote: “Were we mere jugglers we should meet with no violence, or we should find protection. Could we declare that these things done in our presence were deception of the senses, we should, no doubt, reap a plentiful harvest of money and applause. As tricks they would transcend, according to the testimony of experienced observers, any ever exhibited in Occident or Orient. The wonders of the cabinet, or still more, of the dark séance, surpass all pretentions of conjurers. We should safely defy the world to equal them, and be honoured for our dexterity. But we are not jugglers, and truthfully declare that we are not, and we are mobbed from town to town, our property destroyed and our lives imperilled.”
The truth of these wonders was solemnly promulgated by Ferguson: “I have in their presence had articulate and audible conversation with a voice which was not theirs, nor that of any living person. With this I have conversed as a man talks with his friend, while the power or being from which the voice proceeded made its presence and reality known to me by other physical manifestations. In railway carriages, when in company with the Brothers Davenport and Mr. Fay, in passing through dark tunnels, I have been manipulated all over my body by hands seemingly human, sometimes unexpectedly, others at my request, when no one present could have touched me without my knowledge.”
Robert Cooper’s Spiritual Experiences (1867) thus sums up seven months’ of close observation: “I can truly say that during the whole time I was with them, extending over a period of seven months, I never saw aught to indicate that they were anything but passive instruments, the manifestations being produced by a power outside themselves. Indeed, I feel quite sure they could not accomplish these things by natural means without being detected every week of their lives; and I give it as my deliberate conviction after all the opportunities I have had of forming an opinion, that their manifestations are a reality; if they are not, then all creation is a myth and our senses nothing worth.”
In France, where the Davenports travelled after their misadventures in England, they could not get the necessary permit to exhibit in public for some time, since the authorities feared similar disturbances. When the time finally arrived for their first performance, an emissary of a conjurer named Robin stepped onto the platform. Under pretence of examining the cabinet, he tore off the rail that supported one of the seats and, holding it up before the excited crowd, asserted that he had discovered a secret spring. Because of the confusion that arose, the police cleared the room. A few days later the séances continued, but by order of the prefect attendance was restricted to 60 persons.
Some magicians were more friendly, however. The famous conjurer Hamilton, and one Rhys, a manufacturer of conjuring implements, state in letters to the Davenports published in the Gazette des Etrangers (September 27, 1865) that the phenomena were inexplicable and could not be attributed to fraud. In later years a Professor Jacobs similarly testified that the phenomena seen in Paris “were absolutely true and belonged to the spiritual order of things in every respect.” Before they left Paris, the Davenports were summoned to appear before the Emperor and the Empress Napoleon at the palace of St. Cloud. A party of 40 witnessed their demonstration with astonishment. They were well received in Belgium and appeared in St. Petersburg before the Czar in the Winter Palace. Their first public séance in St. Petersburg was attended by a thousand people.
In 1868 they returned to England. At Cooper’s initiative the Anthropological Society appointed a committee to investigate their phenomena. A trial séance was held, which the committee considered a failure. The conditions they proposed were found unacceptable by the mediums, and the investigation was broken off.
In 1876 the Davenports visited Australia. The following year William Davenport died in Sydney on July 1, 1877. His brother had the cabinet, ropes, and so forth engraved on William’s tombstone. Ira returned to Mayville, New York, and continued to give stage demonstrations with another partner in Boston, Washington, and Pennsylvania. In 1906 he toured Jamaica and Cuba. His last performance was on November 19, 1906, for an American regiment near Santiago de Cuba. He died on his farm in Mayville, July 8, 1911.
The general conclusion regarding the Davenport brothers’ phenomena is that their performance was simple stage conjuring. Trick cabinets and rope tying were standard items of stage magic at the time, and Harry Houdini and his students demonstrated feats equal to and surpassing those of the Davenports. The brothers’ refusal to continue with a performance in England when their wrists were tied too tightly argues against spirit agency, since this should have operated even in such unfavourable circumstances considering other marvels that were demonstrated. They escaped any exposure of trickery though, in spite of observation by alert and intelligent investigators (which other mediums also accomplished only to be caught later), and their release from binding with strong ropes was phenomenally rapid—often taking only two or three minutes.
Furthermore, during their long and chequered career the Davenports never claimed to know how their phenomena occurred. In a letter he wrote to Houdini, Ira Davenport declares, “We never in public affirmed our belief in Spiritualism. That we regarded as no business of the public, nor did we offer our entertainment as the result of sleight-of-hand or, on the other hand, as Spiritualism. We let our friends and foes settle that as best they could between themselves but, unfortunately, we were often the victims of their disagreement.”
In A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) Houdini claims that Ira Davenport admitted that he was a fraud and described how the rope trick was performed. There is no independent confirmation of this admission, however, and Houdini privately voiced different opinions to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Edge of the Unknown (1930), Doyle asserts, “I was an intimate friend of Ira Erastus Davenport. I can make the positive assertion that the Davenport Brothers never were exposed…. I know more about the Davenports than anyone living.”