Ghost-Grabbers: Tackling the Spirits Head-on

So far in this history we've already encountered a number of ghost-grabbers: Noah Brooks, the American journalist with the Sacramento Daily Union, who literally grabbed the trance medium Lord Colchester's hand at a séance instigated by Mary Todd Lincoln, and the English lawyer, William Volckmann, who seized the spirit of Katie King by the waist and refused to let go despite being tackled by two of Florence Cook's confederates who were stationed in the audience, one of whom she ended up marrying a mere four months later. Both instances were brutal and bloody. Brooks received a blow to his forehead with a drum that Colchester used in his performance; Volckmann, who was in league with the medium Agnes Guppy—one of Florence's rivals—had part of his beard torn away. Florence was ghost-grabbed again some years later, this time by the twenty-year-old Sir George Sitwell at the assembly rooms of the National British Association of Spiritualists in 1880. It spelled the end of her career. She was forced to retire and move to Wales.

Another victim to be caught out several times was the medium Henry Slade (1835-1905), who was noted for his chalked spirit messages that would "miraculously" appear on a conveniently-held slate. Having been twice unmasked as a fraud in America (first by John W. Truesdell in 1872, then by Stanley LeFevre Krebs), he came to Britain to ply his trade. Here he was thwarted by Ray Lankester (1847-1929), a twenty-nine-year-old professor of zoology at University College London, who in 1876 snatched the pre-inscribed slate from the medium's grasp. Slade was brought to trial and found guilty of fraud, but successfully appealed his conviction on a technicality, that the original charge had omitted the words "by palmistry or otherwise". Before fresh charges could be brought he'd fled the country and returned to America.

Ghost-grabber Lankester was one of a growing group of scientific men, as was William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885), a colleague of his who had recently been appointed Registrar of the University of London, and Lyttleton Stewart Forbes Winslow (1844-1913), an alienist (an early form of psychologist), all of whom were beginning to challenge the most basic precepts of spiritualism, possibly as a reaction to William Crookes's reviled report, Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual during the Years 1870-1873, published some two years before Slade's trial. Winslow (or Forbes-Winslow, as he eventually came to style himself) used red ink in pursuit of charlatans. He would squirt it in the faces of any spirits that happened to materialize in his presence. He's a fascinating character to whom I will return in the next post.

But it wasn't just scientists who worked to unmask frauds. It was often stage magicians who proved to be far more ruthless opponents. Even by the mid-1860s a professional hatred had emerged that separated stage magicians, who claimed no spiritual intervention for their illusions, from spiritualist mediums, who did. Such was the case with the two Davenport brothers, Ira and William, who like Maria B. Hayden and Daniel Dunglas Home before them, came to Britain from America at the end of 1864 or beginning of 1865.

The Davenport brothers seated in their spirit cabinet, with their associates Mr Fay and Mr Cooper in the foreground. Photographer unknown; 1870

The Davenport brothers seated in their spirit cabinet, with their associates Mr Fay and Mr Cooper in the foreground. Photographer unknown; 1870 [PD]

Ira Davenport was born in the September of 1839; his brother William was born less than two years later in 1841. They were the sons of a policeman and grew up in Buffalo, New York. During their professional career they claimed that they discovered their mediumistic abilities when Fox-style rappings broke out at their house in 1846, two years before those of the Fox sisters, when Ira was seven years old and William was barely five. By 1854, when both boys were still teenagers, they had already come up with the basic building blocks of their act. Managed by their father, tutored by a local amateur conjurer, William Fay, and introduced on stage by Dr J. B. Ferguson, a former minister of religion who truly believed in the brothers' spiritualistic powers, they started giving shows across America from which they earned their living for the next ten years.

While the séances of Maria B. Hayden and Daniel Home, pronounced Hume, may have relied rather heavily on creating a darkened, specific atmosphere where people's heightened senses would cause them to jump out of their skin at the slightest unexpected sound, the Davenports took the opposite view: they relied on overkill. Their act was designed as a public performance, where the people in the back stalls could see and hear everything that happened equally as well as those at the front—and see and hear it they did!

Bound hand and foot by ropes that were then sealed with sealing-wax, and shut inside their "spirit cabinet", the brothers would make a racket with whole array of musical instruments that had been placed on the cabinet floor. The two cabinet doors would alternately burst open and slam shut, revealing one brother or the other still tied up, while instruments went flying through the air, often being hurled directly into the audience.

In England the Davenports had some supporters. Richard Burton, the translator of the extremely racy (for its time) The Arabian Nights had this to say in their defence: "I have spent a great part of my life in Oriental lands, and have seen their many magicians. Lately I have been permitted to see and be present at the performances of Messrs. Anderson and Tolmaque. The latter showed, as they profess, clever conjuring, but they do not even attempt what the Messrs. Davenport and Fay succeed in doing…"

Unfortunately a number of amateur British magicians disagreed. Two of their ilk joined the tour in Liverpool in the February of 1865 and, upon "volunteering" from the audience, bound the brothers' hands so tightly with knots that couldn't easily be undone that their wrists bled. The Davenport brothers were eventually cut free but refused to continue. The audience, unimpressed by what they'd witnessed, stormed the stage and smashed their cabinet to pieces. The perpetrators of the knot-tying struck again at their gig in Huddersfield—then later at Leeds—and each time they did the violence escalated. Ira and William cancelled their remaining English dates and took their show to Europe.

Carte-de-visite of John Nevil Maskelyne, illusionist and magician (1839-1917). Photographer and date unknown

Carte-de-visite of John N. Maskelyne, illusionist and magician (1839-1917). Photographer and date unknown [PD]

But a twenty-five-year-old watchmaker named John Nevil Maskelyne, who had seen the brothers' act, had worked out how the trick was managed. He and his friend, George Alfred Cooke, built their own spirit cabinet and gave their own public demonstration—minus all spiritualist trappings—in June of 1865. Their success in unmasking the Davenports ignited their passion for stage magic, and the two went on to create many further illusions, some of which are still performed today.

As for the Davenports, the youngest brother, William, died in 1877 in Sydney, Australia, at the age of thirty-six. Ira moved back to America, where died in 1911. Before his death he wrote to Harry Houdini, who besides being famous as an escapologist was also noted for his unmasking of psychics, claiming that he and William had never publicly stated their belief in spiritualism. But the truth is probably best represented by his obituary in one American newspaper: "They made the mistake of appearing as sorcerers instead of as honest conjurers. If, like their conqueror, Maskelyne, they had thought of saying, 'It's so simple,' the brethren might have achieved not only fortune but respectability."

Next chapter: Mediumistic or mad? The precarious position of women who dared to be spiritualists