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!
The Davenport Brothers were instrumental in building the
popularity of the American Spiritualist movement prior to the Civil War. They
created a sensation all over the country and in Europe and continued
mystifying audiences for years. William Henry and Ira Erastas Davenport
introduced the spirit
cabinet for mediums to use
during a sťance. These cabinets, or enclosures, would section the medium off
from view while they were producing their strange phenomena. This would prove
to be both popular and astounding to audiences as the mediums were usually
bound hand and foot in the cabinet while the seemingly impossible phenomena
manifested about them.
Ira Davenport was born in 1839 and his brother William came
along two years later in 1841. Their father, a Buffalo, New York policeman,
was intrigued by the stories of the spirit rappings in Hydesville, so the
family decided to try their own sittings at home. Immediately, they got
chilling results and Ira would later tell friends that his younger sister,
Elizabeth, actually levitated about the room.
after, the family got in touch with what would become the Davenportís
spirit guide, a phantom named John King (who would go on to become the
busiest spirit guide in the Spiritualist movement). King allegedly told
the family to begin renting a hall and giving public performances of the
Davenport brotherís reputed powers. The boys were only 16 and 14 when they
went on stage for the first time in 1855. The initial performances
contained tricks also in use by the Fox sisters and by other mediums in
the growing Spiritualist movement, including table tipping and rapping.
But soon the Davenport brothers began to introduce other phenomena into
the act, like musical instruments which floated in the air, playing under
their own power, and spirit hands that touched and pulled at sitters and
end of the year, they were performing in New York City and had introduced
not only the spirit cabinet into their sťances, but complicated escapes
from ropes and knots as well. This would become a signature for their act.
At the suggestion of an audience member during a
performance, a box similar to a small closet was assembled on stage. The
brothers would now be able to work, not only in total darkness, but away from
prying eyes as well. Part of the brotherís act was to look for volunteers from
the audience who would then tie them up inside of the cabinet. Overeager
skeptics often tied the Davenports with elaborate and painful knots that
sometimes drew blood. In spite of this, once the cabinet doors were closed,
wondrous spirit music filled the air from inside and disembodied hands would
appear through apertures that had been left open on the exterior walls.
On occasion, a spectator from the audience would be invited
on stage and would be seated between the brothers in the cabinet. A few
moments after the doors were closed, the man in the center would be often
tossed out of the box with his coat gone, his necktie around his leg and a
tambourine seated on his head. Someone would fling open the doors and the
Davenports would be found tied up, just as they were before.
The Davenport's also performed a dark sťance on stage,
asking members of the audience to be present to insure that no trickery was
involved. The brothers were securely tied to a table on the stage and the
lights were turned out. Soon after, ghostly forms began to float about on the
stage. Of course, when the lights were raised again, the brothers would still
Their act created a sensation. Spiritualists hailed it as
genuine proof of spirit phenomena, while critics regarded the brothers as mere
stage magicians. Interestingly, neither brother ever claimed to be a medium,
leaving that up to the audience to decide. They did however bill the act as a
sťance and most Spiritualists believed their manifestations to be genuine. The
men began as entertainers and allowed a gullible public to think them to be
more than that. Harry Kellar, the master magician, was employed by the
Davenport's for a time and afterwards learned to do tricks that altogether
surpassed even the brother's skills at rope-tying and escapes.
The great secret of the Davenport's success lay in their
uncanny (albeit natural) ability to extricate themselves from complex knots
and ties and them return to them in record time. The most important part of
the procedure took place during the binding, when they managed to obtain
plenty of slack in the ropes by twisting, flexing and contorting their limbs.
Once they relaxed, the ropes could be easily slipped out of.
The last photograph of Ira Davenport was taken in 1911, shortly before
his death. He is pictured here with Houdini
after they retired from the business, surviving brother Ira was
interviewed and befriended by magician Harry Houdini. Davenport told
Houdini that they never intended to become known as mediums but their
almost supernatural powers came along during the early heyday of the
Spiritualist movement and rather than turn down the money and appearances,
they allowed the public to think whatever they wanted to about them.
Davenport taught Houdini some of their best escapes and Houdini later used
them and found them to be very effective and clever. He also discovered
that the brothers rubbed oil into their hands so that they could slip out
of the ropes more easily.
also employed as many as ten accomplices at a time and took great pains to
hinder investigators and debunkers by placing traps in the aisles of the
theater. That way, no one could sneak onto the stage during their sťance
and surprise them. One of the tricks that they used during private
performances was to run a string through the buttonholes of the sitters.
The reason for this, they said, was to "prevent collusion" but in reality,
it prevented anyone from approached the Davenport's spirit cabinet.
In spite of this, many people refused to believe that the
brothers could be anything other than spirit mediums. Even newspaper accounts
gave them credit for producing miracles. This report appeared in the
conservative London Post:
"The musical instruments, bells, etc., were placed on the
table; the Davenport Brothers were then manacled, hands and feet, and securely
bound to the chairs by ropes. A chain of communication (though not a circular
one) was formed, and the instant the lights were extinguished the musical
instruments appeared to be carried about the room. The current of air, which
they occasioned in their rapid transit was felt upon the faces of all present.
"The bells were loudly rung; the trumpets made knocks upon
the floor, and the tambourine appeared running around the room, jingling with
all its might. At the same time sparks were observed as if passing from south
to west. Several persons exclaimed that they were touched by the instruments,
which on occasion became so demonstrative that one gentleman received a knock
on the nasal organ which broke the skin and caused a few drops of blood to
With the press taking such a remarkable view of the
brothers, it's no wonder that spectators were even more impressed and amazed.
And while the Davenport's never made any claims of being mediums, they
continued to thwart investigators until the end of their careers. In all of
those years, they were never caught cheating!
The Davenport's careers came to an end in 1877 when William
died suddenly. In honor of his brother, Ira ordered a magnificent memorial for
him on which was carved a representation of their ropes, cabinet and other
sťance props. William had died in Australia and cemetery officials in Sydney
would not allow the monument within the cemetery grounds. It was placed
outside instead. Ira himself died in 1911.
© Copyright 2003
- 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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