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Were the Davenport Brothers Mere Humbugs?

Posted on 30 September 2019, 8:06

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


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How the Eiffel Tower is Like the Spirit World

Posted on 16 September 2019, 8:48

“Why can’t a medium find out what happened to Flight 370?”  That was the question asked not long ago by a reader of one of my books. He was referring to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014 with 227 passengers and 12 crew members presumed dead.  To this day, the final resting place of Flight 370 remains one of the greatest air mysteries of all time.

The reader was suggesting that someone should be able to go to a good medium and make contact with one of the pilots or passengers to find out what happened to them.  I inferred from our discussion that the reader assumed that spirits are omniscient, or all-knowing, which psychical research reveals, is clearly not the case. Some spirits, we are told, don’t know any more than they did when in the material world.  Nor are they sitting on some heavenly perch able to peer down and see all events taking place in the physical realm.  Quite a few don’t even know they are “dead.”  As I understand it, the spirit world is shaped something like the Eiffel Tower, (below) having a broad base and gradually narrowing to the top. As spirits advance toward the top, it becomes more and more difficult for them to communicate with the physical world.  This is because such communication is a matter of vibrational frequency.  To put it another way, the less-advanced, or less-evolved, spirits are closer in vibration to those of us in the physical world and therefore can communicate more effectively with us than advanced spirits.

 tower

If the Eiffel Tower is a valid simile, most spirits, or souls, it seems, are hovering, not far above the esplanade at ground level.  Earthbound souls are in something of a stupor, struggling to keep their feet on the ground, while slightly more developed souls are striving to make it to the first-floor observation deck at 187 feet. Those who are have reached the first deck have a better view of things than those below them, but it is mostly a local view and certainly does not extend to the Indian Ocean. They are within shouting distance of those still on the esplanade, but it requires a loud voice and harmonious wind conditions for those on the ground to hear them.  Only a few of them have voices strong enough to be distinctly heard by those on the ground and often those on the ground catch only a few words and just get the gist of the message. 

The more evolved souls – those who have reached the second observation deck at 377 feet – have an even better view of things but it is still far short of the Indian Ocean, and they are well beyond shouting distance from those on the esplanade.  Indications are, however, that they are sometimes able to communicate with humans on the esplanade by using souls on the lower deck as intermediaries, i.e., having the lower-level souls relay the messages to humans. It often happens that the soul on the first deck does not completely grasp the message from above and the person on the ground receives a distorted message or even a completely different one.

“All should remember the parlor game in which a few words are whispered into the ear of the one near you and from him to a third and a fourth person and so on, to find at the end that there is no resemblance to what was started,” explained Professor James Hyslop, one of the foremost psychical researchers of the last century, referring to the game charades.  “The same is likely to take place in spirit messages. The control (spirit intermediary) must put the message through and it will take the color of his or her mind.  Then it is doubly colored by the subconscious, sometimes by the normal consciousness of the medium as well. The fact that the incidents prove the personal identity of a deceased person and are not known by the medium suffices to justify the spiritistic hypothesis, though this origin does not prove the purity of the message, or that it came from the communicator directly.  It may have been subjected to all sorts of modifications, phonetic, visual, or interpretative.”  Hyslop (below) further explained that much communication between spirits and as received by human mediums is by means of thought-transference, or “pictographic” in form, not in language as we know it.  Such pictographic communication is subject to frequent misinterpretation.

 hyslop

The lessons of psychical research suggest that the very advanced, or high spirits – those metaphorically on the highest deck of the Eiffel Tower, at 907 feet – see much more of what is going on in the physical world than those on the lower decks.  They have easy access to the antennae above them and can tune in to pretty much anywhere. Their focus, however, is no longer on individuals, as may be the case with lower-level spirits, but on humanity as a whole.  While they apparently try to influence humanity in a positive direction, they are not permitted to interfere with our free-will challenges and lessons, fully recognizing that overcoming adversity is the best way to learn and spiritually evolve. 

“It is necessary that afflictions come,” said the obviously advanced spirit with the name Imperator, who communicated through the mediumship of William Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest, during the latter part of the nineteenth century.  “Jesus knew and taught that. It is necessary for the training of the soul.  It is as necessary as physical discipline for the body.  No deep knowledge is to be had without it.  None is permitted to scale the glorious heights but after discipline of sorrow.  The key of knowledge is in spirit hands, and none may wrest it to himself but the earnest soul which is disciplined by trial.”

Moses was told that Imperator headed up a “band of 49 spirits” – apparently a “group soul” – and that his messages were actually relayed through lower-level spirits making up the group soul.  We might infer that Imperator was on the top deck of the Eiffel Tower, while others in his band, elevated but not so advanced, were on the middle deck, perhaps some on the lower deck in order to facilitate communication with those still on the esplanade.  It may also be that Moses was able to raise his vibration rate to something approaching the lower deck of the Eiffel Tower, thereby receiving communication directly from the middle-level spirits.  The messages handed down through the Imperator group were not bits and pieces of information coming from a recently departed loved one to a human, as is more common in today’s clairvoyant-type mediumship; they were teachings aimed at helping humans better understand the meaning of life and see the bigger picture.

The group soul called “Silver Birch,” which communicated through the mediumship of Englishman Maurice Barbanell, said much the same thing as Imperator:  “You do not develop the spirit when everything is easy and smooth, but when you have difficulties.  But there are times when we feel justified in interfering with your judgment.  I would interfere if a very vital principle were involved.  If it meant that my work through my medium would be interrupted, then I would interfere so that the channel would still be free.  But when the problems only involve my medium’s own evolution, then they are his responsibility and he must work them out for himself.”
The afterlife hierarchy described above does not suggest that the lower-level spirit is earthbound or evil in any way, only that he or she is not all that spiritually evolved. On the other hand, there are indications that advanced spirits can temporarily come down to a lower vibration to do missionary work with those who those who have “spiritual ears” and to assist in communication. It has been recorded that a spirit coming down from a higher level is much like a human trying to hold his/her breath under water.  The spirit can hold on to the lower vibration for only a short period. 

Back to Flight 370, the research indicates that even a gifted medium cannot simply dial up a deceased person. There must be a sympathetic link of some kind – a living loved one or some person with a special connection to the spirit present with the medium in order to make contact.  However, if such a link were made between a victim of Flight 370 and a living person, there is no reason to assume that the communicating spirit, especially if just a passenger, would know where the plane went down.  Why would we expect the communicating spirit to know the coordinates of the final resting place of the plane or how the plane went astray?  If a pictograph message were to come to a medium (or to a psychic) showing a body of water, it would be meaningless.  It is not nearly as simple as the skeptics think it should be.

To again quote Imperator:  “We are not permitted to interfere in the chain of cause and effect; to save man from the consequences of his sin; to pander to idle curiosity; to change the world from a state of probation.”

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:  Sept. 30


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Explaining the Death of a Parent to a Child

Posted on 02 September 2019, 7:56

When my friend Dave was asked by his nine-year-old granddaughter what happens to us when we die, he struggled and stumbled in his response, realizing that it required an answer that went beyond the trite, “we go to heaven and live with the angels.”  Fortunately, Dave’s daughter came to his rescue and explained that people have many beliefs about the afterlife, leaving the door open for her to learn about them and explore her own understanding of what happens when we die, at which point Dave told his granddaughter that he would be happy to talk to her about the subject anytime. 

My discussion with Dave was prompted by a movie in which a young girl, about five, lost her mother to an auto accident and was told by her grandmother that “she will live on in your heart.”  I had heard that hackneyed expression more than a few times before and wondered how a child is to interpret it.  It does not necessarily imply that the parent had survived death in a larger life and was still with her, and it might well be interpreted to mean that the parent was now totally extinct and nothing more than a fading memory.

I can still remember the anxieties and fears I experienced 76 years ago when my step-grandfather died.  My parents didn’t know what to tell me, and I, just six at the time, didn’t know what questions to ask.  It was all hush-hush. The trepidation multiplied 100-fold when we visited the crematorium and I struggled with grasping that what was left of my grandfather was now contained in a little metal box, one surrounded by hundreds of other little metal boxes with “people” in them. 

Is there a comforting response concerning death for a child? After discussing it with Dave, I decided to put the concern to other friends and to limit it to children under seven (the generally accepted age of reason), leaving the older children for another discussion.  I hypothesized a situation in which my friend could go back in time with his or her present experience and knowledge and attempt to explain to a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son the death of the other parent in a traffic accident. 

I began with my most skeptical friend, Dale, who rejects all the psychical research suggesting survival that is often discussed at this blog, as “unscientific.”  “Kids, I’ve got some really terrible news,” Dale thought out his reply. “Your mommy was killed in a traffic accident. I don’t understand how or why it happened but it did. Come here and let’s hug. (We would all break down and cry). I’d answer that Mommy wouldn’t want us to see her and how she was hurt as it would only make us more sad. We will cremate her body as those were her wishes. Nobody really knows what happens when you die; maybe she’ll go to heaven and we’ll see her again some day. Meanwhile, remember all the nice things she did.”

Dale said that such reflects his belief and he doesn’t see it as giving the children false hope, like telling them there is a Santa Claus. Moreover, he would want them to think about all the good things their mother did and not dwell too much on the loss, at the same time realizing that thoughts of their mother would come back to them from time to time, when they’d just have to be strong and be grateful for the time they had with her.

Dale’s approach seems in line with that of mainstream psychology, as I was able to gather from the Internet. It avoids any discussion of consciousness surviving death.  “Kids this young often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it’s final and they won’t come back,” we read at KidsHealth.org. “So even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.”  More bluntly, as I interpret it, tell the child that the loved is extinct and to get on with life.

Keith remembers that when he was about four-years-old his great-grandfather died and he was told that it is like “falling asleep.”  He feels that this euphemism is still effective with the younger children.  “You know your mom was in her car, don’t you?” he provides his possible explanation.  “On the way a lorry did not stop at the traffic lights, and it hit your mom’s car and she was knocked out.  That is like falling asleep when you get a bang on the head.  By the time she arrived in hospital she had gone to sleep forever.  We all do that sooner or later.  So now she is at the hospital and won’t be coming home again, so you won’t have the chance to see her until you also fall asleep forever, when you are very old.”

When the children are a little older, Keith, who does not subscribe to any accepted religion nor accept the standard Christian version of heaven and hell, would use the word “died” instead of falling asleep and would explain that death is not the end of us, and that Mom is quite possibly living with her family on the other side and waiting patiently for her children to join her.

Glenda recalls the time she was working as a hospice social worker and made a call to a home where a young father fatally shot himself.  The man’s three-or four-year-old son kept asking what was wrong and was told by the police and others that everything was fine and not to worry.  “I thought it was doing a disservice to the child to lie to him and make him distrust his own observations and fears,” she says, adding that her advice in that case was not accepted and she was not allowed to follow up on it. 

“They also need assurance that they will always be cared for and safe,” Glenda continues. She does not agree with Keith in suggesting that death is like falling asleep, as it might cause the child to fear wanting to go to sleep. 

“My answer is pretty simple,” Mike replies.  “If they haven’t reached the age of reason, and assuming they still have the other parent, I would say to them, ‘God called Mommy home to help Him in Heaven. She still loves you and thinks of you and watches over you from Heaven; and you can talk to her every night before you go to bed when you say your prayers. And she will hear you. And you’ll will see her again when you someday go back to Heaven. In the meantime, I will take care of you   Talk to me any time you want. I always have time to listen to you, and help you. And I love you very much.’”

Like Mike, Norm does not accept the humdrum heaven of orthodox religions, but he believes in keeping it simple for children of that age and expanding on it when they become a little older.  “[I would] explain that an accident is like falling down and scraping your knee, but sometimes more serious because the person will not get better,” Norm states. “God wants her to live with him to make her feel better until all of us can be together again and happy forever.  Meanwhile, she sees you and knows what is happening to you, and she will be at all your birthday parties.”

When the children do indicate that they can comprehend a somewhat more complex idea, Norm would expose them to the evidence for survival as developed over the past 170 years by psychical researchers.  “In other words, I would guide them along the way as far as they might want to go, not indoctrinate them. If they chose a traditional religious faith after all that, I would not attempt to proselytize them. However, I would be happy to discuss the ridged dogmas of both organized religion and materialistic science.”

Getting back to Dave, he would tell the children that their mother has gone to a very special place where she is living with God, who is taking care of her.  “In her new home, she lives in a Spirit body that we can’t see, but she can see us, and she will be living with us and watching over us to give us all her love,” he explains it.  “It’ll be sad for us because we can’t see her anymore, but anytime you want to talk to her you can and she will hear every word you say and she will try to find a way to answer you.  When we die, we will all go see and live with God and Mommy forever.”

Like Norm, Dave would later introduce them to the evidence “that explains and reinforces this belief, educating them on the context of the world’s major religions, including reductionism and the role of science in explaining our unknowns.”

Lewis would tell the children that their mother “had gone to a better world, a happier world, the place we’ll all go to when we leave this one.  I’ll tell them she did not want to leave early and that she had no control over what happened, and that she’ll miss them and think about them for as long as they are alive. And they should talk to her, for she will pay them visits from time to time even though they probably won’t be able to see her.  She will always love them and help them in every way she can.”  Lewis adds that he would be in steady contact with his deceased wife, “sending her my love and assuring her that we love her and wish her every happiness where she is.”

Richard would explain to the children that their mother was killed in a terrible auto accident.  “She can no longer be with us,” he would continue, “but she would want us to be very strong and help each other understand.  She is actually in a ‘wonderful place’ called heaven and her “spirit’ is watching over us every day.  She loves and misses us very much.”  To support his statement, Richard would familiarize them with the stories of Colton Burpo (“Heaven is for Real”) and Akiane Kramirik’s “Portrait of Jesus.”  I would add Karen Herrick’s “Grandma, What is a Soul,” to the list of books that might help children understand death. 

All of my friends had more to say on the subject, including how they would explain it to the children at an older age, but space does not permit more here. Readers are invited to share their thought on the subject in the comments section below.

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:  September 16


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Excerpt from A Course in Miracles. IX. The “Hero” of the Dream – 74 The body is the central figure in the dreaming of the world. There is no dream without it, nor does it exist without the dream in which it acts as if it were a person, to be seen and be believed. Read here
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