THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
THE MEDIUM AND THE SCIENTIST
SIR WILLIAM CROOKES, FLORENCE COOK AND THE ENIGMATIC GHOST, KATIE KING
During the heyday of Spiritualism, Florence Cook became one of the movement’s most famous mediums. She was noted for her ability to produce full-form spirit materializations, especially those of her spirit guide, Katie King. Katie already had a long history before being forever attached to the persona of Florence Cook. She first appeared during the initial Spiritualism craze of the 1850s and often graced the séances of the Davenport Brothers, the Koons family and others. Her early appearances reported that her voice was shrill "like that of a person of lower walks of life" and she had an endless supply of chatter.
Like her spectral father, John King, "Katie" was not her real name. In life, she was said to have been Annie Owen Morgan, the daughter of the pirate Henry Morgan, who had been knighted and appointed governor of Jamaica. He preferred to be known as "John King" in the afterlife though and his daughter adopted his name. In life, Annie Morgan had been a self-professed liar and cheat, as well as a thief and an adulteress -- and all this before she died in her twenties. Her new mission in death, was to prove to the world the truth of Spiritualism and of course, to prove the talents of a few mediums in particular. One of these was Florence Cook...
Florence (or Florrie, as her mother called her) was born in the east end of London in 1856 and as a child claimed that she could hear the voices of angels. Her mother would later state that she had always been aware of the presence of spirits but her psychic gifts only began to manifest at age 15, when she levitated a piece of furniture during a table tilting session with friends. When she was still an adolescent, she began conducting séances in her home, where she became known for being able to manifest “spirit faces”. As a cabinet, Florence would sit inside of a large cupboard in her family’s breakfast room. A hole had been cut high up on the door and it was here where the faces would appear. Florence would climb into the cabinet and would allow herself to be bound to the chair with ropes about her neck, waist and wrists. The door would be closed and the sitters would sing a hymn to create the proper mood. The cabinet door would be opened again to show that Cook was still tied to the chair, then closed again. A few moments later, the faces would appear in the opening. When they finally vanished, the doors would be opened again and Florence would be revealed, still tied to her chair and apparently exhausted from allowing the spirits to use her energy and appear.
A few people noticed that the faces, which were draped with a thin white cloth, looked an awful lot like Florence. They suggested that the girl simply slipped her ropes, stood on the chair to stick her face through the hole, then tied herself back up again. Nevertheless, the audience loved her performances and she soon gained a following. Many were impressed by the fact that she never charged a fee for her séances and others came merely because she was an attractive young lady.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the pretty young girl quickly became famous. In addition to her looks, her séances had other appeals as well, including the fact that the spirits had a habit of tossing Florrie into the air and -- on at least one occasion -- ripping her clothing off. While Florence basked in the new found attention, some of her friends and her employer was becoming unsettled by her new gifts. Miss Eliza Cliff for one, in whose school Florence worked as an assistant teacher, was reluctantly forced to discontinue her employment. The girls in the school were unsettled by the strange happenings that seemed to occur around Miss Cook and their parents were afraid that the young ladies might become affected themselves. She was quite fond of Florrie but was "compelled to part with her."
THE COMING OF KATIE KING
By 1872, full form materializations had become very popular at séances and one night, in that same year, a white face appeared in the darkness outside the curtains of Florrie's cabinet. The floating mask was announced to be that of "Katie King", who was already a spirit to be reckoned with in America. But Katie was not the mysterious and ethereal figure of Spiritualist writings -- she was a proof of the resurrection of the dead, a spirit made flesh and a young woman who could walk and talk among the sitters. Her new body was almost indistinguishable from that of a living girl --- a beautiful young lady in fact, and unfortunately very close in resemblance to Florence Cook.
As with most Spiritualist mediums of the day, Florrie preferred to enter her trances within the confines of her spirit cabinet, where her psychic energies would be built up. After as long as 30 minutes might pass, the curtain would part and a figure, dressed all in white and looking quite pale, would emerge as Florrie continued to lie unconscious in the cabinet. Occasionally, while Katie was present, Florrie could be heard sobbing and moaning inside of the cabinet, as if the manifestation was draining the energy from her. During Katie’s first appearances, the spirit would simply smile and nod at the audience, but later, she began to walk amongst them, offering her (strangely solid) hand and talking to them. She was fond of touching the sitters and allowing them to carefully touch her as well. After Katie returned to the cabinet, Cook would be found, still tied up and drained of energy.
It was believed that spirit forms, like Katie, were actually made up of a mysterious substance known as ectoplasm, which emitted from the medium's body and took on unexplained shapes. It was generally regarded during the heyday of the movement that interfering with ectoplasm, or with the body of the entranced medium, could be dangerous to the medium's health. If this is true, then on one occasion, Florence Cook had a very close call...
While it was highly improper for sitters to grab at the spirits, or the medium, during a séance, it did sometimes happen. On the night of December 9, 1873, one of the sitters at a Cook séance was a man named William Volckman. Although an invited guest, he apparently became quite agitated by the "obvious" similarities between the medium and the ghost. In a fit of anger, he jumped up and grabbed Katie by the wrist, announcing loudly that she was Florence in disguise. For a spirit, Katie put up quite a fight and managed to succeed in leaving several bloody scratches on the man’s nose! Katie was finally rescued by Edward Elgie Corner, Florence’s fiancée, and by the Earl and Countess of Caithness and barrister Henry Dunphy, who were friends of the Cook family and aware of the inherent danger in interfering with an apparition. They seized Volckman and a scuffle ensued, allowing Katie to make her escape. According to Dunphy, she disappeared, dissolving from the feet upward. Volckman was determined to follow up on his assault though and he rushed to the cabinet. Her, he found no sign of Katie but he did find Florrie with her clothing in disarray, but still tied up.
Was this a case of a skeptical investigator gone berserk, or something else? It is significant that shortly after this incident, Volckman married another famous London medium named Mrs. Samuel Guppy, who was very jealous of Florence and her fame. The incident with Volckman did not immediately harm Florrie's career as a medium, but it did shake the faith of some. She suffered a slight reversal of fortune for a time and began looking for a new angle to pursue to garner some much needed good publicity.
At about this same time, medium Daniel Douglas Home was undergoing testing by the eminent scientist Sir William Crookes. Florrie quickly got in touch with Crookes and offered to add her own contribution to psychical research. Crookes was delighted to investigate the now famous partnership of Florrie and Katie King and happily agreed to a series of private séances. Shortly after, what many consider to be the most problematical investigations of the Spiritualist era began...
THE CROOKES INVESTIGATIONS
Once the investigations began, Crookes invited Florence, and occasionally her mother and sister, to come and stay with him at his home on Mornington Road in northwest London. Mrs. Crookes was in the house, but was not around much, as she was expecting their tenth child at the time and was usually confined to her room.
The first time that Crookes had experienced Katie had been when Florrie had first approached him about the investigations. He had visited the Cook home and took part in a séance. During the sitting, Katie had appeared from behind the spirit cabinet curtain and had asked Crookes to accompany her behind it. According to his account, he saw Katie standing over the unconscious form of Florence Cook, still bound with sealed tape. According to Crookes' account, he checked three different time to be sure that the woman on the floor, illuminated by a dim gas light, was actually Florence and he was convinced that she and Katie were separate individuals. Was this proof that Katie really was a ghost?
Perhaps -- but not all of the sitters at her séances were completely convinced. Many of them insisted on extreme measures to prevent Florence from practicing trickery. Customarily, before the séance would begin, Florrie would be bound with a cord or sealed with tape. Each time, the bindings were found to be still intact at the end of the evening. And although the indignities that were later inflicted on mediums, such as filling their mouth with fruit juice to prevent ventriloquism and checking all of their orifices for secreted ectoplasm, were never pressed onto Florrie, her hair was nailed to the floor on at least one occasion. Believe it or not, Katie still appeared.
Was Katie King a spirit manifestation created by Florence Cook? Don't too sure of that just yet...
In 1874, Crookes began test Florence and he produced a number of photographs of Katie King and was allowed to test her appearances with Florence in plain sight. During the test, Cook laid down on a sofa behind a curtain and wrapped a shawl about her face. Soon, Katie appeared in front of the curtain. Crookes checked to be sure that Cook was still lying on the sofa and he saw that she was -- although incredibly, he never moved the shawl to be sure that it was really her.
Crookes created 55 photographs of Florence and Katie but only a handful of them remain today. The rest were destroyed, along with the negatives, shortly before his death in 1919. Crookes used five cameras, two of them stereoscopic, operating simultaneously during the sessions. Many of the photos were both poorly shot and questionable in authenticity and while many of them purported to show both Katie and Florence at the same time, they mainly played right into the hands of the debunkers.
In one of the remaining photos, we see Crookes walking arm in arm with the spectral Katie but even the most casual observer can see the obvious facial similarities between Katie and Florence. In another, we see Katie standing in the background while Florence is slumped (apparently in a trance) over a chair in the foreground. Unfortunately though, Katie's face is hidden by an "ectoplasmic" shroud. In a third, very strange photograph, we see a blurred Katie staring directly into the camera and an odd sitter on the left who is actually a reflection in a mirror. On the right side, we see one half of a medium who is supposed to be Florrie but could be anyone. Strangest of all though is the fact that Katie is kneeling, or appears to be, on some article of furniture that covered to look like an extension of her dress. Katie was said to be four inches taller than Florence but if this was to create some extra height, it was badly done. It resulted in making her dress bunch at the knees and legs appear ridiculously long.
Crookes was called into question about his testing but he rushed to the defense of his subject. He stated that Florence agreed to every test that he submitted without question and that he had never seen the slightest inclination on her part to try and deceive him. "Indeed, I do not believe that she could carry on a deception is she were to try," Crookes wrote, "and if she did she would be certainly found out very quickly, for such a line of action is altogether foreign to her nature."
The Photos Explained:
1. This photo shows Crookes walking arm in arm with Katie. Many have wondered about the black garment that seems to be coming out of the top and sides of Katie's "spirit robe". Could this be Florence's black dress underneath?
2. This photo was supposed to prove that Florrie and Katie were two separate beings but unfortunately, Katie's face is completely obscured by an "ectoplasmic" shroud.
3. The strangest of the Crookes photos shows a mirror image of a sitter on the left, half of what is apparently Florence on the right and Katie standing atop a piece of covered furniture.
Crookes may have been convinced of the genuineness of the Cook-King collaboration but his critics were not. Katie looked so much like Florrie simply because that's who she was, the skeptics said. It was not simply good enough to cite Crookes' integrity and his stature as a scientist to convince someone of the authenticity of the séances. Crookes' defenders cited this however and they still do today. They also say that it was impossible that Crookes might have had a sexual relationship with Florrie, which would explain his willingness to help her perpetrate fraud, just because his wife was in the house. And while no evidence of this exists, it would be naive of us not to consider the possibility of it.
There are four possible explanation for the seemingly unexplainable events that occurred between Crookes, Florence and Katie:
1. That the scientist became embroiled in an affair with Florence under his wife's nose and that he colluded with her to manufacture fraudulent results for the Katie King investigation.
2. That Crookes was enamored with the girl, or her alter ego of Katie, and that he kept up the pretense that he believed her act to save face and to keep her close to him.
3. That Florence employed a double to pretend to be Katie King. This is not as outrageous as it might sound. During the investigations, a young medium named Mary Showers stayed in the Crookes' residence while Florence was there. She performed a double act with Florrie as the two of them would go into trances together and would create two materializations, one of Katie and one of "Florence Maple", who bore more than a passing resemblance to Mary. Would it not have been possible for Mary or for Florence's sister to have simply stepped in to pretend to be an unconscious Florrie, slumped over and usually covered, while Florrie walked about as Katie King?
To most modern readers, the accounts of Katie's manifestations contain many clues about the nature of Florence and her possible alter ego. Katie flirted and teased, wandering about the darkened room and sitting on laps, touching and being touched and on one occasion even stepping out of her robes to reveal her naked form. "Now you can see that I am a woman," she said. Could Katie have been a way for the repressed young lady of the Victorian era, as Florrie undoubtedly was, to act out her innermost desires? And if so, was she doing it consciously -- or had she actually convinced herself that the manifestation of Katie was real?
4. And our final explanation -- that Florence was a genuine medium, that Katie was real and that Crookes' investigations were completely genuine. Although Crookes behaved strangely for a man with a scientist's regard for detail -- such as omitting names and addresses of witnesses from his record -- this may have been in regard for Florrie's strict rules of secrecy.
In addition, we can look to the eyewitness accounts of the séances that survive. According to Mrs. Ross-Church, who was better known as the novelist Florence Marryat, Katie resembled Florrie in some ways but was remarkably different in others. She stated that Katie was taller and heavier than Florence and that Katie had red hair, while Florrie's hair was dark and almost black. Crookes had also noted a number of differences between the two young women. Katie was taller, heavier and broader in the face, had a fairer complexion and longer fingers. Florrie had pierced ears, Katie did not. One one occasion, Florence had a large blister on her neck but when Katie appeared, her neck was as fair and smooth as usual.
Unbelievably though, as when he failed to check under the shawl, Crookes took no comparison photographs to show that the pierced and unpierced ears or the length of the girls' fingers. Or if he did, he left no record of them. This seems amazing in that Crookes was investigating a phenomenon that could theoretically change the way the world believed!
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
In 1875, Katie sadly announced that she would soon be leaving Florence and that her time on Earth would soon be at an end. Crookes later wrote of a scene that he witnessed when Florence and Katie said their final goodbyes. According to his account, Katie made one last appearance in the séance room and then walked over to where Florrie was lying on the floor. She touched the medium on the shoulder and implored her to wake up, explaining that she had to leave. They talked for a few moments until "Miss Cook's tears prevented her from speaking". Crookes was asked to come over and hold Florence in his arms, as she was falling to the floor and sobbing hysterically, and when he looked around, the white-robed figure of Katie was gone.
With Katie now gone, there was no point in Florrie staying on for further investigations. In fact, she told Crookes for the first time, she had married about two months before to Edward Corner. Florence went into a sort of retirement for six years but then returned to the Spiritualist scene manifesting a new spirit, this one named Marie. This new spirit partner managed to provide even more entertainment that Katie had, singing and dancing for the sitters at her séances. There was something about "Marie" that was beginning to bother people though...
At a séance in 1880, Sir George Sitwell noticed that Marie’s spirit robes covered corset stays, so he reached out and grabbed hold of her. He held on tightly to her and when he pulled aside Florrie's curtain, he found that the medium's chair was empty. He was not surprised to discover that he was holding onto Florence, clad only in her underwear.
After that, Florence would only perform if someone were tied up in the cabinet with her. On at least one occasion, a woman named Florence Marryat participated and she later testified that during Marie’s appearance, she was firmly tied to Florence in the cabinet. This wasn't enough to keep her audience though and Florence vanished into relative obscurity as a housewife in Monmouthshire. She gave her last séance in 1899 and passed away in 1904.
William Crookes was stunned by the overwhelming criticism from his fellow scientists over his investigations of Florence Cook and he soon gave up active investigations, although he remained a staunch supporter of psychical research until his death. He was knighted some 20 years after his work with Florence for during his long and distinguished career he discovered the element thallium and his experiments with vacuums led tot he discovery of the cathode ray tube and x-rays.
As for Katie, well -- who can say? Whether or not Katie King ever really lived and died on earth, she refuses to go away. In 1903, she appeared at a séance conducted by Dr. Glen Hamilton in Canada and appeared again in Rome in 1974. It's likely that she will be back again someday too, just as she has always been, bearing a striking resemblance to her medium, slipping out of the hands of her audience and appearing strangely elusive in photographs. Her story has not yet come to an end!