Exhibits in the Haunted
Museum are based on the work of Troy Taylor from his
book, Ghosts by Gaslight!
Click on the Cover for More About the Book!
Spirit cabinets appeared
during the heyday of Spiritualism and were used by mediums as part of the
trappings of the physical sťance. The "cabinets" as they were called were
often either actual pieces of furniture, a curtained off corner of a room or
even a doorway. They became the physical medium's work space and its purpose
was to "attract and conserve spiritual forces". Paranormal researcher Hereward
Carrington referred to a spirit cabinet as a "spiritual storage battery."
famous photo showing a spirit materializing outside of a spirit cabinet at
Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. The photo has been around for years but
questions remains as to its authenticity.
Although spirit cabinets
later became the standard for mediums, it was first introduced into the
American Spiritualist movement by the Davenport
Brothers in the middle 1850's. None of the earlier mediums in the
movement, including Spiritualism's founders, the Fox
Sisters, ever used such a device. The idea behind the cabinet was so be
able to section off the medium from the sitters so that they would be out of
direct view when producing strange phenomena. This would prove to be both
popular and astounding to audiences as the mediums were generally bound hand
and foot in the cabinet while seemingly impossible phenomena manifested around
The Davenport Brothers, Ira
and William, first got the idea for such a cabinet thanks to a suggestion from
an audience member. This person asked if they could produce their phenomena in
a sealed container to prevent any sort of collusion by accomplices. The
Davenport's, realizing the benefits to working in secret, quickly agreed and
even went so far as to create a myth as to how they realized the dimensions
needed for their cabinet. According to their publicity, they contacted their
family spirit guide, a ghost named John King (see
sidebar), who had already provided them with useful information, and he
instructed them as to the size and dimensions of the cabinet.
The wooden cabinet soon
became an essential part of their sťances and it would be widely imitated for
many, many years to come. The Davenport's cabinet was seven feet high, six
feet wide and two feet deep. It was always located on sawhorses that kept it
about 18 inches off the floor. A hole was cut into the middle door for air
(and for spirit hands to protrude). Behind the doors, the Davenport's were
bound hand and foot by audience members and musical instruments were often
placed on the floor. Once the audience was satisfied that the Davenport's
could not move about, the doors were closed.
Within moments, spirit hands
of men, women and children appeared in the hole in the door, the musical
instruments began to play and musical sounds were heard coming from within.
When the doors were opened though, the brothers would still be found tied up.
The act was an immediate
sensation and soon no practicing medium could continue his or her sťances
without a similar cabinet. Many of them just hung curtains over an alcove or a
section of the sťance room. The mediums were usually tied up but mysterious
faces continued to appear through the curtains, hands twisted about, musical
instruments played and even full-form apparitions materialized.
Spiritualists hailed the
Davenport Brothers, and many that followed, as genuine practitioners of spirit
phenomena but critics merely regarded them as simple stage magicians.
Interestingly, neither of the brothers ever claimed to be a medium, leaving
that up to the audience to decide. They did bill their act as a "sťance" and
most Spiritualists believed their manifestations to be authentic. It should be
noted however that one of their employees was once a young man named Harry
Kellar -- who later went on to become a famous magician and escape artist.
For fraudulent mediums, the
spirit cabinet was a great gift. With only a limited amount of skill as an
"escape artist", the medium could now amaze their sitters while hidden away
behind curtains and wooden doors. Ropes could be easily shed and then an
assortment of "spirit phenomena" could be produced. In most cases, the sitters
would be invited to inspect the cabinet ahead of time so that they would be
satisfied that no secret entrances or trap doors were present. (Note: Secret
entrances were usually located elsewhere in the room and accomplices would
simply slip through the room in the darkness).
The medium would then
enter the cabinet and be seated in a single chair, where they would often be
tied up to "prevent fraud". After slipping their bonds, the phenomena would
begin. There were several ways for the mediums to collect their materials
for the hoax as well. Often, "spirit forms" would appear and they would
usually be made up of soft cloth or chiffon, which is very compressible.
SPIRITED JOHN KING
Although various mediums came and
went throughout the Spiritualist era, the spirit of John King endured for
decades. He was said to be the spirit form of the Welsh buccaneer Henry
Morgan, who died in 1688. King made his first sťance appearance in 1852
and became a popular fixture at the seances of the Davenport Brothers and
Euspasia Palladino, although these were not King's first appearances on
the Spiritualist scene.
He was first
reported at the home of Jonathan Koons in Athens County, Ohio. Koons
and his family, who performed frequent seances, hosted not only King
but 50 of his relatives, including daughter Katie. The Koons family,
whose reputation was dubious at best, soon faded away but John and
Katie went on to greater fame in America and abroad. Katie gained
her greatest fame as the spirit guide of medium Florence Cook.
An alleged spirit photo
with John King
As for her spectral
father John, he made literally hundreds of appearances with different
mediums, but as best known for his manifestations with the Davenports.
Legend has it that he even dictated the size of the spirit cabinet that
brought the brothers greatest popularity.
It would easily
be secreted in the clothing and when unwrapped (or draped over the medium for
a full materialization) would appear "ghostly" in the dim light. The cloth
could also double for ectoplasm as well, a spirit
substance that allegedly exuded from the medium's body. If the medium allowed
himself or herself to be searched prior to the sťance, the materials could
also be smuggled in by the "cabinet attendant", who acts as the medium's
bodyguard. Spiritualists say that this person is present to protect malicious
intruders from touching the medium's ectoplasm (which could cause injury or
death) but in reality, they were merely accomplices in the fraud.
The medium would be dressed
completely in black and when they emerged from the cabinet with the "ghostly"
cloth, it would appear to be moving on its own. The ball of material would be
slowly unwound and in the near total darkness, would be eerily convincing. The
medium could also drape his body in the material and then, while standing in
front of the cabinet and moving the black curtains back and forth, he could
create the illusion that the spirit form was moving sideways and up and down.
Combined with music and chilling dramatics, it is no wonder that so many were
convinced of the reality of the spirit cabinet sťances.
© Copyright 2003-2008 by Troy
Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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