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Thursday, 31 March 2011

"I Regard Spiritualism As One of the Greatest Curses that the World Has Ever Known." Or: The Fox Sisters & The Davenport Brothers:

Continuing with the theme of ghosts and Spiritualism, I thought I would write a little about two of the most famous families associated with it. Firstly, the Fox sisters, whom, in 1848, effectively began the Spiritualist movement after an event in their New York bedroom attracted the attention of, first the neighbours, then the whole of America and the world.

Secondly, the Davenport Brothers, mentioned by the writer of the article from The Leisure Hour  in my previous post, who toured America and Britain with a supposedly spiritual show in the mid-to-late 1850’s and throughout the ‘60’s.

The Fox Sisters:
The Fox Sisters, from New York, are considered to be the founders of the Modern Spiritualist movement. At the very least they were crucial to its creation, but were they just young girls having a laugh and playing a game, or could they really communicate with the dead?

The sisters, Leah, (1814 - 1890), Margaretta, (also called Maggie, 1833 - 1893) and Kate (1837 - 1892) claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits of dead people.

On March 31, 1848 Kate and Margaretta (then aged 11 and 15) reported strange knocking sounds in their bedroom at night. Kate spoke aloud to the source of the knocking sound, and invited it to play a game. She would click her fingers a certain number of times and the spirit would repeat the number using knocks upon the wall. The sisters claimed that the source of the knocking was a spirit they called Mr. Splitfoot.

Locals were invited to witness the mysterious goings-on, and over the next couple of days, the spirits communicated with them as much as possible. A code was established for yes and no answers, and over time it was established through extensive questioning of the spirit, that the beings knew a lot about the Fox family.

The story spread that the girls were communicating with spirits and people were fascinated to see the strange phenomena. Leah, the oldest sister, also claimed to have the ability to communicate with spirits and soon the three found themselves touring the region and demonstrating their abilities.

Thus began the Spiritualist movement. In the late 1800s in America, many families would gather in their parlours for séances in which they would try, using Tarot cards and Ouija boards, to communicate with dead sons, brothers, or fathers lost in war. Many ‘mediums’ began to pop up, who (depending on your beliefs) preyed upon people's grief and desperation to extract cash from them in exchange for vague ‘facts’ and stories about their deceased loved ones, who were, of course, all having a great time in Heaven and waiting for their living relatives to come and join them.

The Fox sisters, meanwhile, became celebrities, and popular with the upper class and members of high society who would ‘hire’ them for an evening of after dinner entertainment, allowing their guests a chance to communicate with the spirit world. During this period of fame they were also studied, observed and their mysterious messengers probed by skeptics. This attention added to their notoriety, and the sisters turned their unique situation into a career, touring music halls and giving 'performances' both in the U.S. and overseas.

By the late 1880's, however, the sisters were beginning to quarrel. Kate and Margaretta argued and fell out with their older sibling Leah, who claimed to be a medium, and the three of them had fallen out of favour with the advocates of Spiritualism. They endured plenty of criticism and fell on hard times. The two younger Fox sisters had become alcoholics over the past few years and, perhaps tired of their situation, publicly confessed to the true source of the mysterious knocks.

So, what was the secret to their ability to communicate with the dead? Bizarrely, it was their toe joints, which the girls were able to crack loudly at will. They even did so before an audience of over two thousand people in 1888 at the New York Academy of Music. Upon the stage they denounced their ability to commune with spirits, and proceeded to show how they were able to make their toe joints produce the knocking sounds which reverberated around the theatre. Kate would even go so far as to say to a newspaper; "I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known."

Strangely, (though perhaps because they needed money and wished to tour again?) a year later, in 1889, they retracted that confession and dismissed their ‘toe joint’ performance.
Kate and Margaret continued to tour, only this time audiences came to hear about how the young ladies had earlier defrauded them. On the side, the sisters continued to give séances to those who still believed that they were contacting spirits.

Their alcoholism continued, however, and went on to reach alarming levels, and both sisters eventually became unable to tour. Within five years, both Kate and Margerita died in poverty, shunned by former friends, and were buried in pauper's graves.

Skeptics claim the sisters were frauds who made a living out of pretending to talk to the spirits of the dead, whilst believers still maintain the truth of the sisters' original story, claiming that they were forced into ‘confessing’ that their ability was merely a prank.

The Davenport Brothers:
The Davenport Brothers, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839 - 1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841 - 1877) were American magicians in the late 19th century and sons of a New York policeman.

The brothers became famous by performing illusions that they claimed to be supernatural.

They began their careers in 1854, six years after the first instance of supposed spiritualism occurred in the Fox sisters’ bedroom. By now, the Spiritualist movement had taken off in America and after hearing the stories of the Fox sisters, the Davenports began to report similar occurrences. Their father took up managing his sons and the group was joined by William Fay, a Buffalo resident with an interest in conjuring.

Their shows were introduced by a former Restoration Movement minister, Dr. J. B. Ferguson, a follower of Spiritualism, who assured the audience that the brothers worked by spirit power rather than deceptive trickery. Ferguson was apparently sincere in his belief that the Davenports possessed spiritual powers.

The brothers' most famous effect was the box illusion. They were tied inside a box which contained musical instruments. When the box was closed, the instruments would begin to ‘be played’, but upon opening the box, the brothers would be observed still tied in the positions in which they had started the illusion. Those who witnessed the effect were made to believe supernatural forces had caused the trick to work, and spirits had been playing the instruments.

The Davenports toured America with their performances for ten years and then traveled to England where Spiritualism was beginning to become popular. Their "spirit cabinet" was investigated by the Ghost Club, who were challenging the brothers’ claim of being able to contact the dead. The result of the Ghost Club investigation was never made public.

Magicians including John Henry Anderson and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin tried to expose the Davenport Brothers, writing exposés and performing duplicate effects without the aid of spirits. Also trying to expose the brothers’ as frauds were a pair of amateur magicians who followed them around Britain, tying the Davenports into their box with a knot that could not be easily removed.
By doing this, they exposed the trick to audiences who demanded their money back.
The Davenports embarked on a final American tour before younger brother William Henry's death in 1877. William Fay settled in Australia and elder brother Ira Erastus lived in America until the two reunited in 1895 and toured with a show that failed.

Ira told famous escape artist Harry Houdini – a skeptic of Spiritualism – that he and his brother had never confirmed belief in Spiritualism to their audiences and that announcements by Dr. Ferguson were part of the act. Houdini made clear to audiences that his escapes were feats of skill, not supernatural, and that performances by others were likewise, regardless of claims to the contrary.

Today Spiritualism continues to have hundreds of thousands of followers all over the world.


  1. The Victorian public seem very naive - preferring to believe in a spiritual solution rather than assuming trickery. We're so much more sceptical these days!

  2. Yes, whilst writing these I always tend to think that, and chuckle at their 'charming' naivety, but then (to stick up for them a little bit) I suppose this was a fairly new phenomenon to a lot of them.

    Skepticism has certainly increased since, and especially in these modern times as science and knowledge have come on in huge leaps, but I often wonder if, in a hundred and forty years from now people will look back and us chuckle at our naivety for something like our excessive mobile phone use or our celebrity worship.

    Its difficult to 'place' spiritualism when its looked back on. it would have been interesting to be there when it was new and cutting edge, such as Derren Brown, who continues to amaze the public today with his 'mind tricks'.

    You're quite correct in what you say about a willingness to believe in something spiritual, though. I mean, look how Darwin's work was received. We look back and scoff at the people who said evolution was heresy now.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Well, most of us look back and scoff at the Darwin-deniers. Sadly there are those (especially in the USA) who still deny the facts of evolution.

    I suspect our descendants will laugh at our obsession with reality TV, most. Derren Brown's a good modern version of the Victorian spiritualists.

  4. Mr. Brown is very, very clever, but at least does not pretend to be something he is not. I suspect that we will be laughed at for many things which, in hindsight, will look like charming and naive little ways!

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