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Were the Davenport Brothers Mere Humbugs?

Posted on 30 September 2019, 9:06

Any person who has dug deeply and objectively into the history of physical mediumship will likely recognize that the seemingly unnatural phenomena emanating through some people referred to as “mediums” went well beyond the limits of trickery or fraud.  No doubt there were some actual fakes, but there were too many credible investigators attesting to the strict controls surrounding the production of the phenomena as well as the integrity and virtue of a number of apparently genuine mediums.  Some esteemed men and women of science observed a particular medium on hundreds of occasions under conditions completely ruling out deception of any kind.  And yet, other scientists concluded that fraud was the only explanation, primarily because everything they observed defied known natural law.  Their careers would have been endangered had they subscribed to an unnatural or “unscientific” explanation.  Most of this was at a time when science was vanquishing religion, when Darwinism had seemingly shown the falsity of the Biblical accounts of creation and had brought other religious beliefs into question. 

In some cases a magician was called in to debunk the supposed medium, and usually these magicians came up with ways they “could have” simulated the phenomena.  To admit that the “medium” was capable of an illusion or “trick” beyond the capability of the debunking magician was, as with scientists and academicians, to imperil one’s reputation, not to mention his strong ego. 

Journalists and historians, wanting to appear intelligent and scientific, not as gullible fools buying into ridiculous “religious” superstition and folly, usually aligned themselves with the debunkers, completely ignoring the controlled studies by some researchers and recording only the verdicts of the debunkers.  Modern historians have further distorted the accounts in favor of fraud.  Such appears to have been the case with Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, known as the “Brothers Davenport.”

If we accept Wikipedia as a reliable source, as so many people do, the Davenports “were exposed as frauds many times.”  The stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne supposedly discovered how their spirit-cabinet illusion worked and demonstrated to an audience how he could recreate, without supernatural methods,  the brothers’ claims of being able to contact the dead. The Wikipedia entry further notes that showman P.T. Barnum included the Davenport Brothers in his book, The Humbugs of the World, and that Ira, the older of the brothers, confessed to Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, that he and his brother William had faked their spirit contacts. Several other debunkers are given as authorities,  including one not born until 1896, long after the death of William, and another born in 1944, long after the death of Ira. 

It is difficult to reconcile all that with the first-hand accounts gathered by N. Riley Heagerty in his most recent book, Wizards of the North: The Brothers Davenport

“The Davenport Brothers, above and beyond any other mediums in all of recorded Spiritualism, put their gifts to the ultimate test, traveling thousands and thousands of miles, including many cities of Europe, to demonstrate the reality of spirit power,” offers Heagerty, possibly the most knowledgeable person in the United States on the history of mediumship. “At their own expense they rented public halls and challenged the world at large to come and witness phenomena which passed the bounds of ordinary belief.  In so doing, they gained the admiration of the majority, but aroused the vile poison of the medium-hating thugs, and they were everywhere, ready to pounce, ready to condemn.”

 brothers

If not mediums, the Davenports must have been greater illusionists than even Houdini, as they apparently pulled off their “tricks” much faster than Houdini did many years later.  One has to wonder why the Wikipedia writers preferred to offer only the arguments for fraud but then not recognize that the alternative was that they were perhaps the greatest illusionists or magicians of all time.

Ira was 16 and William 14 when their mediumistic abilities were first recognized in 1855. Their sister Elizabeth (Libby), only 10 at the time, is said to also have had the gift.  As recorded by two contemporary biographers of the brothers, Pascal B. Randolph and T. L. Nichols, M.D., various thumps, loud noises, cracks, and raps were heard around the Davenport house in Buffalo as early as 1846, before the advent of Spiritualism with the Fox Sisters of nearby Rochester, NY, but it wasn’t until after 1855 that the family began to recognize that some “invisible intelligence” was behind it all.  Once they recognized this and learned to communicate with the invisibles, there were many messages from deceased loved ones coming by means of both raps and automatic writing.  But it was the physical phenomena that seemed to impress everyone the most, including levitations, one in which Ira was seized by the unseen power and “was placed first upon the table, and then floated over the heads of all present, all around the room, coming in contact with the ceiling at the east end of the room, and in the twinkling of an eye, with the western end.  He floated nine feet clear of the floor, and every person in the room was offered the opportunity of feeling him while thus suspended in the air.”  Then, suddenly, both William and Libby were raised, “flitting hither and thither” in the air.

As their abilities developed, word spread of the “wonder boys” and people came from all over the country to witness the phenomena.  A Dr. Carter, who lived in their town, convinced them to tour the country and give exhibitions.  Unfortunately, entertainment was given priority over more evidential mediumship and the primary phenomena demonstrated at the exhibition involved the brothers being securely bound with cords or handcuffs, being placed in a cabinet, sometimes in a sack and nailed to the floor, and then freeing themselves almost instantaneously, seemingly something similar to the later “magic” acts of Houdini, although apparently much faster than Houdini. 

Another feature called for floating musical instruments, as many as six at one time,  playing popular music of the day.  Although audiences were amazed and awed, many assumed it was very clever conjuring, the work of illusionists. Newspaper reporters didn’t seem to know what to make of it.  “Independent of the high scientific mystery that attends this phenomena, there is a fund of amusement to those who do not aspire to look deeply into spiritual matters,” a reporter for the National Republican of Washington, D.C., wrote. 

“Their exhibitions have puzzled the brains and upset theories of some of our wisest men, and many have been constrained to admit that no human power could give such marvelous demonstrations, as have been witnessed the past week at Willard’s.”  So read the Washington, D.C. Chronicle in 1864 following their exhibition in the nation’s capital.

Their exhibitions took them as far west as San Francisco, south to Cuba and Puerto Rico, and then east to England, Ireland, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Egypt,  Saudi Arabia, India, and Australia.  They were touring in Australia when William died on July 1, 1877 at age 36.

The Brothers Davenport preceded more formal psychical research, but one of the scientists attesting to the genuineness of their phenomena was Professor James Mapes, a renowned chemist of the day and early investigator of psychic phenomena, who said that he conversed with the spirit John King, said to be a “control” for the brothers, for a half an hour through the mediumship of the brothers.  Mapes also claimed that his hand was seized in a powerful grasp by an invisible hand and that he observed a table levitated and carried over the heads of the sitters, then deposited in a distant part of the room. This information won’t be found at the Wikipedia entry on the brothers.

Drawing from Heagerty’s book and from several other references, I came upon the following information, none of which is mentioned in the Wikipedia article:

*Ira Davenport wrote the following to Houdini near the end of his life: “We never in public affirmed our belief in Spiritualism.  That we regarded as no business of the public, or 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.”  (By no stretch does that statement translate to “faking their spirit contacts.”)

*Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the great mystery writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes, befriended Houdini and exchanged many letters with him.  In one letter, Houdini wrote: “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….I know for a fact that it was not necessary for them to remove their bonds in order to obtain manifestations.”  (It should be noted that Houdini was born in 1874 and was only three-years-old when William Davenport died and their exhibitions came to an end.)

*Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, considered the “father of modern magic,” and the person who initially inspired Ehrich Weiss, aka Houdini, said: “The phenomena [of the Davenports] surpassed my expectations, and the experiments are full of interest for me. I consider it my duty to add they are inexplicable.”

*English scholar and explorer Sir Richard Burton said that he had been present at the performances of the clever conjurers Anderson and Tolmaque, but that they did not approach what he had observed with the Davenports.  “I have read and listened to every explanation of the Davenport ‘tricks’ hitherto placed before the English public,” he continued, “and, believe me, if anything would make me take that tremendous jump ‘from matter to spirit,” it is the utter and complete unreason of the reasons by which the ‘manifestations’ are explained.” (I assume he meant how they are explained by the debunkers.)

*Magician John Maskelyne, who, as noted above, supposedly simulated their methods to debunk them, is quoted as saying: “The Brothers Davenport did more than all other men to familiarize England with so-called Spiritualism, and before crowded audiences and under varied conditions they produced really wonderful feats.”

*A committee of four Harvard professors studied the Davenports in 1857, apparently with the intent of exposing them, but the committee never issued a report, probably because they were dumbfounded.  However, Dr. Silas Loomis, professor of chemistry and toxicology at Georgetown Medical College, also investigated them and wrote a long report saying that their manifestations were issued through some “new unknown force” with which he was not acquainted.

*The brothers were jailed at least twice, once for 30 days, for failure to obtain a magician’s license before their exhibitions.  They argued that they were not magicians and so didn’t require a license.  Heagerty wonders why they would be so principled.  If magicians, why not admit it?  Their exhibitions would likely have drawn just as many people, if not more, if they had advertised themselves as magicians. The idea that spirits of the dead were involved invited the disdain of the fundamentalist of both religion and science and likely discouraged many people from attending their exhibitions. 

There were also those who wondered why God, if “He” was attempting to offer evidence of a spirit world and man’s immortality, would choose such weird, bizarre and absurd methods as escaping from tight bondage and floating musical instruments in a vaudeville-like setting.  Couldn’t “He” come up with something more sensible and respectable?  That question will be discussed in the next post here.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

Next blog post: October 14


Comments

I received my copy of “Wizards of the North: the Brothers Davenport”  It appears to contain some interesting and entertaining reading.  I have appreciated Heagerty’s writing style and thorough research in his books about the Bangs sisters and Emily French. I anticipate that this book about the Davenport Brothers will be as good as the other two.- AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 9 Oct, 18:43

Karen,

Good point.  As I suggested some years ago, reading about William James is like reading about Wyatt Earp.  With Earp, you are never quite sure whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. With James, you are never sure whether he was a believer or non-believer.

Michael Tymn, Mon 7 Oct, 21:59

Michael your comment about James being one way and then another reminds me of a comment I heard in NYC at a Wm James symposium.  One lecturer said that Wm James’s father had been very hard on his children saying that he didn’t care what they became in life but to just be a good one - a very good one.  The speaker suggested that because of this Wm. James was ambivalent - because he was trying to decide which"side” of things were the best.  Even in Varieties one chapter he seems sure about religious expeirence and then another chapter he doesn’t Just FYI I think I might have mentioned this once before but you hear from so many of us you might have forgotten.  Blessings Karen

Karen Herrick PhD, Mon 7 Oct, 17:16

Amos, this all goes back to the story of Jesus being seen again after his physical body had been destroyed. When I physically met my “dead” father in 1983. This hit me like a punch in the face. What I, and Sir William Crookes, witnessed was exactly the same as this story about Jesus appearing in front of his disciples in his etheric body, which he was able to reproduce for recognition purposes. It is because of this story that the philosopher Jesus was turned into the 17th pagan saviour-god known to historians - Christ. This was officially confirmed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 of the Christian era.

Michael Roll, Mon 7 Oct, 09:36

Michael Roll,
I appreciate your comments.


Something is holding me back from accepting manifestations of physical phenomena during a séance.  I don’t understand the need for consciousness to do that.  For me, it seems obvious that consciousness has to inhabit a physical form to manifest in this reality and when it leaves a physical form it is no longer physical.  That form inhabited by consciousness is created through natural processes guided by genetics and biology (with perhaps spiritual guidance). I cannot accept that consciousness alone can generate a physical form with heartbeat, temperature and fingerprints during a séance.  I should say, that I have not seen or read good evidence that spirits can manifest as living people.


While I might accept spectral lights, apparitions, direct voices and thumping and bumping sounds, and perhaps table levitations, I have serious concerns about physical ‘voice boxes’ made of ectoplasm, self-playing musical instruments, apports, translocation of persons or objects, and spirits appearing in solid form and then dissolving into the floor not leaving a trace.  I don’t think that those phenomena are necessarily caused by ‘spirits’. There could be several other explanations for those effects and reports of such.  That is, there is always room for doubt and arguments abound when considering physical manifestations caused by spirits.


On the other hand, mental phenomena appeals to me and is less arguable as that seems to me to be the reality in which consciousness might exist and survive somewhere.  If consciousness is a first cause or primary, even before the ‘Big Bang’, then I think it can be nothing other than mental or non-physical.  Reports of mental phenomena resonate with me. I am accepting of some examples of automatic writing and channeling as evidence of spirit interactions with physical reality. Leonora Piper, Pearl Curran and Chico Xavier are good examples of people who exhibited mental phenomena which are very difficult to challenge.


I have had no experience with physical manifestations of spirits.  I have never seen or experienced a materialized spirit that I am aware of.  So, until I actually experience a materialization of a spirit I will forever question whether or not such reports reflect reality.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 6 Oct, 18:52

Amos, the exciting thing about a physical (materialisation) medium is that the etheric people who materialise are just as solid and as natural as we are. They are able to reproduce their old physical bodies so that we can recognise them. I was very angry in 1983 when I met my “dead” father. Not that he had proved to me that he had survived, but the fact that hardly anybody in the world knew what I had just found out. This is solely because the enemies of survival have total control of mainstream media and education. I have only been reported on local radio stations and the local press. However, this is not the case in the USA, thanks to their written constitution. I have done 13 nationwide radio broadcasts across the USA giving a balance to the materialists who rubbish the very idea of survival. You can listen to these USA broadcasts at the top of my website:
http://www.scsad.afterlifeinstitute.org
I am too old to broadcast now. However, the latest USA broadcasts have been carried out by the professor of geophysics from Cambridge University - Peter Wadhams

Michael Roll, Sun 6 Oct, 09:50

Amos and Michael,

Thanks for the additional comments.  I just want to be sure I am not misunderstood.  There is not that much of mental mediumship in the Davenport book.  It is mentioned in a few places, but I was referring primarily to D. D. Home and the comments made by Myers and Crookes, although I don’t remember off hand where I read that Myers said Crookes should have recorded all the mental mediumship with Home and Crookes agreed, saying that he wasn’t really looking at it as science or psychical research at the time, even though controls were tight.  He was simply so taken with the physical stuff that he didn’t think to record the mental.  Moreover, they didn’t have tape recorders then and he probably didn’t think to invite a stenographer.

But even where reference is made to Home saying this or that, it is never made clear that Home was entranced and the spirits were saying it, not Home.  There was one sitting with home in which Crookes or one of the sitters asked who was talking and the reply came that it was not one spirit but the combined thought of several spirits as one spirit could not control Home.

I recall a complaint by William James that Phinuit, one of the early controls for Leonora Piper, had nothing to offer but trivial stuff, but then in another place he says he had hour-long conversations with Phinuit about philosophical matters.  James never seems to acknowledge all the “teachings” that came through to Judge Edmonds, Allan Kardec, William Stainton Moses, etc. before the SPR was formed.

Michael Tymn, Sat 5 Oct, 21:16

Michael,

You identify an important point about some of those who investigated mediums of old, one that I hadn’t considered, that is, physical phenomena were more interesting to those investigators so that they failed to devote much time to recording mental phenomena of the mediums. I can understand this and I suppose that physical phenomena would overshadow the mental today too. My weakness is that I tend to discount much of the physical phenomena and give greater weight to the more spiritual mental.

I guess I will have to purchase Heagerty’s book.  I am interested in the sources of his information.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 5 Oct, 15:04

Amos, just one more point. A séance is connected with the one-god religion of Spiritualism. Their first principle is “The fatherhood of God”
As a secularist I have only taken part in experiments. As we think and behave then so we attract from the etheric wavelengths. At the experiments that I, and the astronomer Professor Archie Roy, have taken part in there was nothing whatsoever to do with religion. At all the experiments with the materialisation medium Rita Goold from Leicester her team immediately tuned into the part of the etheric universe where the secular scientists are. Hence my father proving to me that he was still very much alive in 1983.His body packed in in 1967.

Michael Roll, Sat 5 Oct, 11:16

Amos Doyle, I wonder how much Beatrice Houdini was paid to renounce her written statement that Houdini had indeed made contact with her. What I wrote appeared in the medium Arthur Ford’s autobiography. It’s all to do with money. If people ever find out that it is a scientific fact that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body, who is going to pump money at the Vatican and all the priests who start from the base that only believers survive, but this is only after they have all rested in peace in the ground waiting for a God to arrive on a far off Judgement Day.

Michael Roll, Sat 5 Oct, 11:03

Michael (Tymn) Sir William Crookes, as a scientist who ended up as the president of The Royal Society, was more interested in physical mediumship because the type of medium he worked with, Florence Cook, was a materialisation medium. This type of medium is able to provide the crushing scientific proof of survival. This is because at one of these experiments all five senses are working. Sir William Crookes carried out repeatable experiments over three years with Florence Cook starting in 1870. He published the results of his experiments in 1874 in The Quarterly Journal of Science. Some of the photographs that Sir William took in electric light can be seen at the top of my website:
http://www.scsad.afterlifeinstitute.org
John Logie Baird, in his memoirs, Sermons, Soap and Television reports that one of his contacts took the finger prints of a “dead” person who materialised. Those prints were identical to those on the dead physical body. In all future experiments we will also be able to take DNA.

Michael Roll, Sat 5 Oct, 10:50

Amos,

I appreciate your comment, as well as those of Michael and Keith.  I might have agreed with you to some extent before reading Riley’s book on the Brothers Davenport. The only thing I could recall reading about them before was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chapter on them in his classic, “The History of Spiritualism.”  Like so many others, I struggled to understand the purpose of such physical mediumship.  Unfortunately, there seems to have been considerable mental mediumship involved, but it was not recorded.  The same goes for D. D. Home.  Frederic Myers lamented the fact that so little of what came through Home was recorded and Sir William Crookes admitted that he was more interested in the physical than the mental and neglected to record much of it.  However, I have gone from about 50/50 to about a 95% belief that Davenport Brothers were genuine mediums since reading Riley’s book and digging into a few other old references. It’s too bad that Professor James Mapes didn’t record more of his experience with the brothers. 

My next blog will explore the purpose of the physical mediumship.

Michael Tymn, Fri 4 Oct, 21:09

It is reported that Mrs. ‘Bess’ Houdini made several written statements related to her efforts to contact her dead husband Harry Houdini.  Eventually she renounced her previous belief that she had received coded messages from her dead husband and released a statement that she did not think he had contacted her.  There was and continues to be a lot of controversy about this case and questions concerning whether or not Mrs. Houdini was honest about what had occurred and what she truly believed.  Nevertheless, for one reason or another she continued to hold séances for 10 years to contact Houdini every Halloween.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 4 Oct, 20:48

I don’t know much about the Davenport brothers.  They never interested me because I think that there is no solid evidence that they were anything other than stage illusionists.  They themselves disclaimed being spiritualists.  If I am unbiased to reports that document that the Davenport brothers were caught performing illusions on stage and reports that praise their abilities to act as mediums, then I don’t think that one side outweighs the other.  There is not a long running history of investigations by respected psychic investigators that is available to consider.  I am comparing the Davenport brothers with the years of documentation of Leonora Piper’s skills as a medium, writings left behind by Patience Worth and Chico Xavier, or Eusapia Palladino, and many others.  This is not including all of the spiritually related cases of NDEs, OBEs, reincarnation and possession and not excluding very good TV mediums like John Edward.  The Davenport brothers are uninteresting to me and when I do read about them, they seem to ‘come off’ as stage magicians/illusionists not much different from Houdini.
I vote for ‘humbug’, Michael.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 3 Oct, 16:58

Any support for mediumship is immediately censored, especially the fact that the “dead” Houdini made contact with his wife via the New York medium Arthur Ford. Here is her statement:
New York City, Jan. 9th, 1929.
“Regardless of any statements made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message, in its entirety, and in the agreed upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford, is the correct message prearranged between Mr. Houdini and myself.”  Beatrice Houdini

Witnessed by:
H.R. Zander, representing the United Press.
Mrs. Minnie Chester, life-long friend of Mrs. Houdini.
John W. Stafford, Associate Editor of Scientific American.

This may seem fantastic back in 1929, but not now that we know we are all made of invisible stuff. Therefore it is no longer so fantastic to have an invisible soul separate from the dead physical body. Especially now, that all scientists agree that 95% of the universe is missing. The full story is on my website: http://www.scsad.afterlifeinstitute.org

Michael Roll, Thu 3 Oct, 10:46

I found this piece fascinating Mike, not least because their spiritual feats seem in many respects to surpass those of Daniel Dunglas Home, the renowned Scottish physical medium who charmed and impressed the crowned heads of Europe at the end of the 19th century. I have just completed a 40 minute documentary on the life of Daniel Dunglas Home and it will appear on Youtube very shortly.  Perhaps I should have made my doc on the Davenport brothers instead !

Keith P in England, Mon 30 Sep, 11:51


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After a Suicide by Sylvia Hart Wright – Now Rita's a very spiritual woman, very religious, and this kind of thing has happened to her a lot. She finally decided she's not crazy, she just sees people after they've died. What she does in response is she prays for them. So she was telling me, "Laura, I really think Dave needs our prayers. I think he's stuck." And that word jumped into my head. I'd completely forgotten my nightmare but that word "stuck" jumped in my head and it really disturbed me. Read here
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