THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
MEDIUMS OR MAGICIANS?
EXPLORING THE MYSTERY OF THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS
The Davenport Brothers were instrumental in building the popularity of the American Spiritualist movement prior to the Civil War. They created a sensation all over the country and in Europe and continued mystifying audiences for years. William Henry and Ira Erastas Davenport introduced the spirit cabinet for mediums to use during a séance. These cabinets, or enclosures, would section the medium off from view while they were producing their strange phenomena. This would prove to be both popular and astounding to audiences as the mediums were usually bound hand and foot in the cabinet while the seemingly impossible phenomena manifested about them.
Ira Davenport was born in 1839 and his brother William came along two years later in 1841. Their father, a Buffalo, New York policeman, was intrigued by the stories of the spirit rappings in Hydesville, so the family decided to try their own sittings at home. Immediately, they got chilling results and Ira would later tell friends that his younger sister, Elizabeth, actually levitated about the room.
Soon after, the family got in touch with what would become the Davenport’s spirit guide, a phantom named John King (who would go on to become the busiest spirit guide in the Spiritualist movement). King allegedly told the family to begin renting a hall and 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 initial performances contained tricks also in use by the Fox sisters and by other mediums in the growing Spiritualist movement, including table tipping and rapping. 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.
By the end of the year, they were performing in New York City and had introduced not only the spirit cabinet into their séances, but complicated escapes from ropes and knots as well. This would become a signature for their act.
At the suggestion of an audience member during a performance, a box similar to a small closet was assembled on stage. The brothers would now be able to work, not only in total darkness, but away from prying eyes as well. Part of the brother’s act was to look for volunteers from the audience who would then tie them up inside of the cabinet. Overeager skeptics often tied the Davenports with elaborate and painful knots that sometimes drew blood. In spite of this, once the cabinet doors were closed, wondrous spirit music filled the air from inside and disembodied hands would appear through apertures that had been left open on the exterior walls.
On occasion, a spectator from the audience would be invited on stage and would be seated between the brothers in the cabinet. A few moments after the doors were closed, the man in the center would be often tossed out of the box with his coat gone, his necktie around his leg and a tambourine seated on his head. Someone would fling open the doors and the Davenports would be found tied up, just as they were before.
The Davenport's also performed a dark séance on stage, asking members of the audience to be present to insure that no trickery was involved. The brothers were securely tied to a table on the stage and the lights were turned out. Soon after, ghostly forms began to float about on the stage. Of course, when the lights were raised again, the brothers would still be bound.
Their act created a sensation. Spiritualists hailed it as genuine proof of spirit phenomena, while critics regarded the brothers as mere stage magicians. Interestingly, neither brother ever claimed to be a medium, leaving that up to the audience to decide. They did however bill the act as a séance and most Spiritualists believed their manifestations to be genuine. The men began as entertainers and allowed a gullible public to think them to be more than that. Harry Kellar, the master magician, was employed by the Davenport's for a time and afterwards learned to do tricks that altogether surpassed even the brother's skills at rope-tying and escapes.
The great secret of the Davenport's success lay in their uncanny (albeit natural) ability to extricate themselves from complex knots and ties and them return to them in record time. The most important part of the procedure took place during the binding, when they managed to obtain plenty of slack in the ropes by twisting, flexing and contorting their limbs. Once they relaxed, the ropes could be easily slipped out of.
Years after they retired from the business, surviving brother Ira was interviewed and befriended by magician Harry Houdini. Davenport told Houdini that they never intended to become known as mediums but their almost supernatural powers came along during the early heyday of the Spiritualist movement and rather than turn down the money and appearances, they allowed the public to think whatever they wanted to about them. Davenport taught Houdini some of their best escapes and Houdini later used them and found them to be very effective and clever. He also discovered that the brothers rubbed oil into their hands so that they could slip out of the ropes more easily.
They also employed as many as ten accomplices at a time and took great pains to hinder investigators and debunkers by placing traps in the aisles of the theater. That way, no one could sneak onto the stage during their séance and surprise them. One of the tricks that they used during private performances was to run a string through the buttonholes of the sitters. The reason for this, they said, was to "prevent collusion" but in reality, it prevented anyone from approached the Davenport's spirit cabinet.
In spite of this, many people refused to believe that the brothers could be anything other than spirit mediums. Even newspaper accounts gave them credit for producing miracles. This report appeared in the conservative London Post:
"The musical instruments, bells, etc., were placed on the table; the Davenport Brothers were then manacled, hands and feet, and securely bound to the chairs by ropes. A chain of communication (though not a circular one) was formed, and the instant the lights were extinguished the musical instruments appeared to be carried about the room. The current of air, which they occasioned in their rapid transit was felt upon the faces of all present.
"The bells were loudly rung; the trumpets made knocks upon the floor, and the tambourine appeared running around the room, jingling with all its might. At the same time sparks were observed as if passing from south to west. Several persons exclaimed that they were touched by the instruments, which on occasion became so demonstrative that one gentleman received a knock on the nasal organ which broke the skin and caused a few drops of blood to flow."
With the press taking such a remarkable view of the brothers, it's no wonder that spectators were even more impressed and amazed. And while the Davenport's never made any claims of being mediums, they continued to thwart investigators until the end of their careers. In all of those years, they were never caught cheating!
The Davenport's careers came to an end in 1877 when William died suddenly. In honor of his brother, Ira ordered a magnificent memorial for him on which was carved a representation of their ropes, cabinet and other séance props. William had died in Australia and cemetery officials in Sydney would not allow the monument within the cemetery grounds. It was placed outside instead. Ira himself died in 1911.