Florence Cook

Florence Cook

          THE FAMOUS materialisation medium with whom Sir William Crookes investigated. The story of her mediumship opens in 1871. She had seen spirits and heard voices in her childhood but this was put down to vivid imagination. When she was 15 years of age at a tea party with friends table-turning was proposed. She refused to participate, but the second time, with her mother's permission, consented to the experiment. Extraordinary things happened. The table became unmanageable and Miss Cook was levitated. Next she and her mother began to sit at home by themselves. Miss Cook's hand began to write. A message came through in mirror writing that she should go to a certain bookseller and there inquire about the Dalston Association as a meeting would take place in a few days and there she would be able to make the acquaintance of the editor of The Spiritualist. For some time afterwards she gave sťances for the Dalston society.

She attended a few materialisation sittings of Frank Herne and Charles Williams and sat with Herne in her father's house. She soon gave up the Dalston sťances as the manifestations became too strong and embarrassing for a public assembly. She was carried over the heads of the sitters, invisible hands stripped her of her clothing and replaced it so that Mrs. Cook decided to allow her only to sit at home with herself. She often became entranced and in this condition a different personality, calling herself "Katie King," the daughter of John King, alias Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer, spoke and promised to remain for three years and reveal many strange things. The promise was generously kept.

The Hackney circle, consisting of the parents, the two sisters of Florence, who were also mediums, and Mary, the maid, soon became famous and Mr. Charles Blackburn, a wealthy citizen of Manchester guaranteed an annual retaining fee for Miss Cook so that she should be free to give her services when required.

She was the first British medium who exhibited full materialisations in good light. The first attempt by Katie King was made in April, 1872. A face like a death-mask was seen between the curtains of the cabinet. It is curious to note from a letter of Miss Cook to Mr. Harrison that previously in the afternoon Katie "told us that we must give her a bottle of phosphorescent oil because she could not get the phosphorus that was necessary from my body because my mediumship was not sufficiently developed." The bottle of oil was employed in the place of psychic light and lit up Katie's face. At this stage of development the medium was still conscious. Later she passed into trance. As time went on increased facility and practice enabled Katie King to show herself more clearly. Her face was felt and found hollow at the back. Later it filled out, the drapery became less abundant and in a year's time she walked out of the cabinet. Not long afterwards she withstood the first ordeal of flashlight photography. Her resemblance to the medium in the materialisation attempts was soon noticed. She could not help it. To prove that she was distinct from her she changed the colour of her face to chocolate and jet black. As a further proof the medium was tied by the sitters or sometimes by the spirits in the cabinet. Moreover, Katie King was different in stature, manner and personality.

It was reserved for Sir William Crookes to furnish the decisive proofs of Katie's separate existence. The report of his long series of experiments, conducted in the Cook home and in his own laboratory was published in 1874 and aroused a storm of ridicule, sarcasm and protest. Previous to this he felt prompted to come before the public in defence of Miss Cook in a curious incident.

On December 9th, 1873, the Earl and Countess of Caithness and Count de Medina Pomar were the guests of Mr. Cook; Mr. W. Volckman, one of the other guests present, became suspicious of Katie King, rushed forward, seized her hand, then her waist. A struggle ensued in which two of the medium's friends went to Katie's help who - in the testimony of Mr. Henry Dumphy, a barrister - appeared to lose her feet and legs and made a movement similar to that of a seal in water. According to his version Katie glided out of Mr. Volckman's grip, leaving no trace of corporal existence or surroundings in the shape of clothing. According to Volckman she was forcibly freed. The incontestable fact, however, was that five minutes later when the excitement subsided and the cabinet was opened Miss Cook was found in black dress and boots with the tape tightly round her waist as at the beginning of the sťance, the knot sealed with the signet ring of the Earl of Caithness and untampered as at first. She was subsequently searched but no trace of white drapery was discovered.

As a result of the ordeal the medium became ill and Sir William Crookes came forward, in three letters in the Spiritualist press, with his experiences with Florence Cook. In his first letter he said that when Katie was standing before him in the room in the house of Mr. Luxmoore, he had distinctly heard from behind the curtain the sobbing and moaning of Miss Cook from the pangs of trance. The second and third letters contained accounts of sťances held in Crookes' own house, and at Hackney.

Describing how Katie took his arm when walking:

"the temptation to repeat a recent celebrated experiment became almost irresistible. Feeling, however, that if I had not a spirit I had at all events a lady close to me, I asked her permission to clasp her in my arms so as to be able to verify the interesting observations which a bold experimentalist had recently somewhat verbosely recorded. Permission was graciously given and I accordingly did - well as any gentleman would do under the circumstances. Mr. Volckman will be pleased to know that I can corroborate his statement that the 'ghost' (not 'struggling' however) was as material as Miss Cook herself."

On March 12th, 1874, Katie came to the opening of the curtain and summoned him to the assistance of the medium. Katie was in white. Crookes immediately went into the cabinet and found Miss Cook, clad in her ordinary black velvet dress, lying across the sofa. Katie vanished. Later in May Crookes actually saw the two forms together during the photographic experiments. To protect herself from the injuries of the flashlight Miss Cook, lying on the floor, muffled her face with a shawl. The account of Crookes says:

"I frequently drew the curtain on one side when Katie was standing near and it was a common thing for the seven or eight of us in the laboratory to see Miss Cook and Katie at the same time under the full blaze of the electric light. We did not on these occasions actually see the face of the medium, because of the shawl, but we saw her hands and feet; we saw her move uneasily under the influence of the intense light and we heard her moan occasionally. I have one photograph of the two together [click here], but Katie is seated in front of Miss Cook's head."

An account of a sťance on March 29th furnishes a still better evidence for the simultaneous appearance of the two figures. Katie allowed Crookes to go into the cabinet. From shorthand notes taken at the time Crookes quotes his experiences:

"I went cautiously into the room, it being dark, and felt about for Miss Cook. I found her crouching on the floor. Kneeling down, I let air enter the phosphorus lamp, and by its light I saw the young lady dressed in black velvet as she had been in the early part of the evening, and to all appearances perfectly senseless; she did not move when I took her hand and held the light quite close to her face, but continued quietly breathing. Raising the lamp I looked around and saw Katie standing close behind Miss Cook. She was robed in flowing white drapery as we had seen her previously during the sťance. Holding one of Miss Cook's hands in mine, and still kneeling, I passed the lamp up and down so as to illuminate Katie's whole figure, and satisfy myself thoroughly that I was really looking at the veritable Katie whom I had clasped in my arms a few minutes before and not at the phantasm of a disordered brain. She did not speak but moved her head and smiled in recognition. Three separate times did I carefully examine Miss Cook, crouching before me to be sure that the hand I held was that of a living woman, and three separate times did I turn the lamp to Katie and examine her with steadfast scrutiny until I had no doubt whatever of her objective reality."

He also noticed that the blister which Miss Cook's neck showed was not to be found on Katie's neck and that Katie's ears were not pierced for earrings whereas Miss Cook's were.

Of the many precautionary measures taken by Crookes to prevent fraud the electrical test devised by Cromwell Varley should be especially mentioned. The medium was placed in an electric circuit connected with a resistance coil and a galvanometer. The movements of the galvanometer were shown in the outer room to the sitters on a large graduated scale. Had the medium removed the wires the galvanometer would have shown violent fluctuations. Nothing suspicious occurred, yet Katie appeared, waved her arms, shook hands with her friends and wrote in their presence.

As an additional test Crookes asked Katie to plunge her hands into a chemical solution. No deflection of the galvanometer was noticed. This would have been infallibly the case if Katie had had the wires on her because the solution would have modified the current.

Florence Marryat also testifies of having seen Katie together with Miss Cook. She writes in There is no Death:

"She called me after her into the back room and dropping her white garment, stood perfectly naked before me. 'Now,' she said, 'you can see that I am a woman.' Which indeed she was, and a most beautifully made woman too."

On May 21st, 1874, Crookes witnessed the farewell meeting between Miss Cook and Katie behind the curtain. Katie woke Miss Cook from her trance. The farewell was very moving. They were talking affectionately and Miss Cook shed many tears. She never saw Katie again. Another influence which called herself "Marie" and danced and sang in a professional style took her place. On January 9th, 1880, Marie was grabbed by Sir George Sitwell. She did not dissolve. She was found to be the medium wearing only her corsets and flannel petticoat. The divested pieces of garment were brought out of the cabinet by another sitter. This time the medium did not fall ill. It is said that she was enveloped in white drapery when Sir George Sitwell grabbed her. This, however, may have been an optical illusion of the darkness as in cases of personation or transfiguration undergarments are not known to be resorted to supplant ectoplasmic effects. Moreover, in spite of the ordeal she fulfilled another sťance engagement next morning. But, according to Florence Marryat, following this exposure she declined to sit unless someone remained in the cabinet with her. The choice fell on the authoress. She was tied to her with a stout rope and remained thus fastened together the whole of the evening. Marie appeared, sang and danced just the same as the day before when she was seized. Owing to the many trials she had to undergo, the medium who, since 1874, was known by marriage as Mrs. Elgie Corner, for some time gave up public mediumship. In 1899, on the invitation of the Sphinx Society she sat, under test conditions, in Berlin. Marie materialised and produced astounding phenomena. The question whether she was occasionally a fraud is a very delicate one. The Sitwell exposure is the only condemnatory evidence. Camille Flammarion writes in a satiric vein that Home "gave it to me as his personal opinion that Miss Cook was only a skilful trickster and has shamefully deceived the eminent scientist, and as for mediums, why there was only one absolutely trustworthy and that was himself, Daniel Dunglas Home." Crookes certainly never found the least sign of deception and when he was notified of the death of Mrs. Corner, in a letter dated April 24, 1904, he expressed his deepest sympathy and declared again that the belief in an after-life owes so much of its certainty to her mediumship.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).



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