Florence Cook: Materializing Medium or Mendacious Fraud?

Florence Cook

Although my novel The Bridge of Dead Things is clearly a work of fiction, it was suggested in part by the true tale of the respected Victorian scientist Sir William Crookes and his spirit-medium protégée Florence Cook.

Florence Eliza Cook was born on June 3rd 1856 in Cobham, Kent to parents Henry and Emma Cook, who moved to London when she was three and took up residence at 6 Bruce Villas, Eleanor Road, Dalston. She was the eldest of four children.

In 1870, at the age of fourteen, she began table-rapping experiments with her friends and family, surprising everyone when a violent burst of poltergeist activity ensued. A spirit responding to her questions through a system of yes-or-no raps informed her that she was indeed a medium and then directed her to the local Spiritualist Association. By the following year she’d started working for a pair of established mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams, and reports of her séances were beginning to crop up in the spiritualist press. Herne’s spirit-guide was an entity named John King, who rather confusingly claimed to be the ghost of Sir Henry Morgan, the famous buccaneering pirate. Florence Cook’s guide was Katie King, John’s daughter, who also claimed to be Annie Owens Morgan, the daughter of the pirate. At this point there was none of the bodily manifestations of Katie that came later; there were simply disembodied voices, messages written by unseen hands, and phenomena known as “apports”—objects that appeared to fall from the ceiling.

There is a truly fascinating story of one such occurrence: early in the June of 1871 Herne and Williams were conducting a séance together for eight sitters around a table at 69 Lamb’s Conduit Street when the voices of Katie King and her father were heard in the darkness. Katie offered to produce a gift for the group and one of the sitters suggested—half jokingly—that she bring them Agnes Guppy, an extremely stout medium famed for her own apports who lived some miles away in Highbury. Katie laughed—everybody laughed—and though her father protested she agreed to go through with it. Suddenly there was a loud thump; somebody screamed. When one of the company had the presence of mind to light a lamp, there on the table in front of them, apparently in some kind of trance, was perched the stout Mrs Guppy in a state of semi-undress, account book and pen still in hand. Now that’s what I call entertainment!

Katie King

By the beginning of 1873 Florence was performing her own séances at the Cook family home in Dalston, but by now there were full materializations. The audience, often comprised of highly respectable professional men and women, would sit in the dimly-lit parlour while Florence was bound by ropes. She then retired to an adjoining room screened off from view by a thin damask curtain. Presently the spirit of Katie King would appear dressed in white, and walk about the room telling the story of her former life as Annie Morgan, the buccaneer’s daughter. It was a charming tale. Annie had been twelve years old when Charles the First was beheaded; she’d married and had two little children; she’d committed more crimes than she cared to confess; she’d even murdered men with her own two hands; she’d died young. To questions concerning the reason of her reappearance back on earth, she claimed that it was part of the work she’d been entrusted with, to convince the world of the truth of Spiritualism.

In Spring of that year Florence Cook held a series of sittings designed to capture a photographic likeness of Katie. On the 7th of May, Mr W. H. Harrison, a reporter for the Daily Telegraph (who in later years went on to edit The Spiritualist, a London-based magazine dedicated to examining spiritualist phenomena from a scientific perspective), successfully managed to take the first four photographs of Katie. Florence also sat for the highly respected scientist William Crookes, who took a total of forty-four photos of Katie at his home in Regent’s Park, all the while performing tests on Florence as part of his on-going investigation into spiritualist mediums.

Katie King

Florence was fast becoming famous, but fame breeds jealousy. At a séance held on the 9th of December 1873 the lawyer William Volckmann seized Katie King by the waist and refused to let go. Some of those present claimed that the spirit “glided” out of Volckmann’s grip; others suggest that she defended herself quite vigorously (Volckmann lost part of his beard). Edward Elgie Corner, a ship’s captain from Dalston who was a neighbour of the Cooks as well as being a close family friend, together with another of her supporters rushed to Katie’s aid. The gaslights were rapidly extinguished, there was a great deal of scuffling and by the time peace was eventually restored and the room re-lit, Katie King had vanished and Florence Cook was discovered still secured by her ropes. As Volckmann was most likely in league with Agnes Guppy (the formidable medium from Highbury who’d landed on the table in a state of semi-undress—whom he in fact married after her elderly husband passed away barely a year later), it would seem that Florence’s relationship with her erstwhile colleague had soured considerably.

Volckmann’s attack damaged her reputation. Unfortunately Crookes’s report, Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual during the Years 1870-1873, published a month later in the Quarterly Journal of Science (January 1874) did little to restore it, despite his vehement assertion that Florence Cook, the American Kate Fox, and the Scotsman Daniel Dunglas Home, were all genuine mediums producing perfectly genuine results.

And still the séances continued. Florence teamed up with another girl, Mary Rosina Showers. The pair gave a séance at the Crookes home in March of 1874 which was attended by a number of witnesses, among them the barrister, Serjeant-at-law Edward William Cox. Cox took a deep—though not uncritical—interest in spiritualism; it was he who had first hosted and championed Daniel Dunglas Home on his return from America. He published his observations some weeks later in The Spiritualist, the leading newspaper in its field, which the reporter W. H. Harrison would go on to edit. Of the materializations he wrote: "They were solid flesh and blood and bone. They breathed, and perspired, and ate…Not merely did they resemble their respective mediums, they were…alike in face, hair, complexion, teeth, eyes, hands, and movements of the body…"

Katie King

As regards proof that they were not simply the two girls themselves, he wrote: “…no proof whatever was given or offered or permitted. The fact might have been established in a moment beyond all doubt by the simple process of opening the curtain and exhibiting the two ladies then and there upon the sofa, wearing their black gowns. But this only certain evidence was not proffered, nor, indeed, was it allowed us…”

On the 29th of April 1874 Florence Cook married Captain Edward Elgie Corner, the neighbour who had rushed to Katie’s aid the previous December. Though their marriage was blessed with two daughters, Kate and Edith, it was not a happy one.

The final appearance of Katie King was a truly sad occasion. She had often stated that she could not appear on this earth beyond the month of May, 1874, and so, on the 21st, she assembled her friends together to bid them all goodbye. This eye-witness account was written by the stage actress and internationally successful author Florence Marryat:
“Katie had asked Miss Cook to provide her with a large basket of flowers and ribbons, and she sat on the floor and made up a bouquet for each of her friends to keep in remembrance of her. Mine, which consists of lilies of the valley and pink geranium, looks almost as fresh to-day, nearly seventeen years after, as it did when she gave it to me. It was accompanied by the following words, which Katie wrote on a sheet of paper in my presence: ‘From Annie Owen de Morgan (alias “Katie”) to her friend Florence Marryat Ross-Church. With love. Pensez à Moi. May 21st 1874.’ The farewell scene was as pathetic as if we had been parting with a dear companion by death. Katie herself did not seem to know how to go. She returned again and again to have a last look, especially at Mr. Alfred [William] Crookes, who was as attached to her as she was to him.”

Katie King with William Crookes

Of that final parting, this is what William Crookes himself wrote: “Having concluded her directions, Katie invited me into the cabinet with her, and allowed me to remain there to the end. After closing the curtain she conversed with me for some time, and then walked across the room to where Miss Cook was lying senseless on the floor. Stooping over her, Katie touched her and said, ‘Wake up, Florrie, wake up! I must leave you now.’ Miss Cook then woke and tearfully entreated Katie to stay a little time longer. ‘My dear, I can’t; my work is done. God bless you!’…For several minutes the two were conversing with each other, till at last Miss Cook’s tears prevented her speaking. Following Katie’s instructions, I then came forward to support Miss Cook, who was falling on to the floor, sobbing hysterically. I looked around, but the white-robed Katie had gone…”

It would be impossible not to compare Cox’s statement with that of Crookes’s, or Florence’s likeness with that of Katie’s. But I will tell you this: I am absolutely convinced that William Crookes was not lying about what he saw.

Though Katie was never to appear again, Florence went on to host two further spirit-guides during her lifetime: firstly Leila in 1875 (the same year that Frank Herne, the medium who’d set Florence on her career-path was debunked as a fraud), and then later a French girl who called herself Marie, who was said to have “danced and sung in a truly professional style”.

Five years on, Florence was ghost-grabbed for a second time, on this occasion by the young Sir George Sitwell, a 20-year-old Oxford University student, at a public séance being given at the rooms of the National British Association of Spiritualists in 1880. The debacle ruined her, and she retired and moved to Wales. The incident brought Sir George some noteriety too and he soon left Oxford without taking a degree. He ended up fathering a daughter, the future Dame Edith Sitwell, truly England’s most eccentric poet who became something of an entertainer herself. In 1923 she alienated her audience by standing out of sight behind a starkly-painted screen while shouting her poems at them through a megaphone, all in time to William Walton’s carefully arranged score of Façade – An Entertainment.

Mrs Edward Elgie Corner

In 1899 Florence tried to revive her career when she was invited to Berlin to undertake a series of séances under test conditions by the Sphinx Society. She died of pneumonia in relative poverty at 20 Battersea Rise, London, on the 22nd of April 1904 at the age of 48. Her husband outlived her by a quarter of a century and died in 1928.

William Crookes received his knighthood in 1897 and the Order of Merit in 1910. He died in 1919. Towards the end of his life he sought out mediums to help him communicate with his beloved wife, who had predeceased him by two years.

I’d like the last words to go to the fifteen-year-old Florence Cook herself. In a letter to Mr W. H. Harrison (the Telegraph reporter who would later take the first photographs of Katie), dated May, 1872, she writes: “From my childhood I could see spirits and hear voices, and was addicted to sitting by myself talking to what I declared to be living people. As no one else could see or hear anything, my parents tried to make me believe it was all imagination, but I would not alter my belief…”

Piecing this history together in a way that makes Florence come alive has been no easy task, but I am especially indebted to four particular sources of information: Wikipedia (the French article is superior to the one which appears on the English site), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the website www.randi.org, run by James Randi, the professional psychic debunker, and the website psychictruth.info an extraordinary spiritualist resource where I found many of the direct quotes that have been used here. Discover other fascinating Victorian mediums in my series of articles: Why the Victorians Saw Ghosts.