Ira Erastus and William Henry Davenport
Ira: 1839-1877, William: 1841-1911

          famous American mediums who demonstrated before large audiences on the theatrical stage. Their father was a police official of Buffalo. In 1846, two years before the outbreak at Hydesville, raps, thumps, loud noises, snaps, crackling noises were heard at their home in the night. In 1850 the two boys and their younger sister, Elisabeth, tried table turning. The table soon moved, raps were heard, messages were spelt out, Ira's hand was seized to write automatically and a little later the marvel of a simultaneous levitation of the three children was witnessed by all present. On the fifth night of the experiments, in compliance with rapping directions, a pistol was fired by Ira in a vacant corner of the room. At the instant of firing it was taken from his hand and by the flash a human figure was seen holding it and smiling at the company. This was the first appearance of John King, their self-constituted control. It lasted for an instant only. With the extinction of the flash the figure vanished and the pistol fell on the floor. The rope-tying performance of which the brothers became famous was also instituted on spirit direction. From the most complicated knots they were released in a remarkably short time. In due course direct writing and direct voice developed and the boys were soon on the road, holding sťances amid trying circumstances.

Public committees were set up to examine their phenomena and rope-tying was developed to an art of torture. In 1857 the Boston Courier offered a reward of 500 dollars for the production of genuine physical phenomena. Dr. H. F. Gardner of Boston accepted the challenge and arranged, before a committee of Harvard Professors (Benjamin Pierce, Louis Agassiz, B. A. Gould and E. N. Horsford) a series of sťances with the Misses Kate and Leah Fox, J. W. Mansfield, Dr. G. A. Redman and the Davenport Brothers. When the turn of the latter came they were tied in the most brutal manner, the ropes were drawn through holes bored in the cabinet and firmly knotted outside so as to make a network, the knots were tied with linen and Prof. Pierce sat in the cabinet between the mediums. As soon as he entered an invisible hand shot the bolt, the din of musical instruments immediately began, a phantom hand was thrust out through a small, curtained opening near the top of the middle door of the wardrobe-like cabinet, and the professor felt it about his head and face. At the end the mediums were found released and, according to Dr. Nichols' biography, "the ropes were found twisted around the neck of Prof. Pierce." The latter statement, however, was pronounced "shamelessly false" by the Boston Courier. Yet it is a fact that the result of the Harvard investigation, except a short preliminary negative report was never published. On the other hand, Dr. Loomis, Professor of Chemistry and Toxicology in the Georgetown Medical College, who also made an investigation, stated in a long report that the manifestations were produced through some new unknown force with which he was unacquainted.

Professor Mapes also had interesting experiences in Buffalo. He conversed with John King in the direct voice for half an hour, his hand was seized in a powerful grasp and when it was taken again the invisible hand increased in size and was covered with hair. A large table on the elevated platform where the mediums were sitting was carried in an instant over the heads of the sitters and deposited in the most distant part of the room.

Inexplicable as the greater phenomena were, the suspicion of fraud may not have been always groundless. A letter of Dr. John F. Gray, a well-known New York Spiritualist, to Epes Sargent, dated June 7, 1864, says:

"I have not seen the Davenports this time here but I entertain no doubt of the genuineness of the manifestations made in their presence. When they were here some years ago they were detected in making spurious manifestations when the genuine failed."

As a means of control the hands of the mediums were often filled with flour or pennies were placed on their shoes after carefully drawing the outline of the shoes on a piece of paper beneath. When the door of the cabinet was opened the flour was found in their hands as before without white spots on their evening dress and the pennies in their place. The performance while sitting in the cabinet was called the light sťance. There was a second part, the dark sťance, in which the lights in the room were extinguished and, dispensing with the cabinet, the mediums sat between the other sitters, tightly bound to their chairs. The tying and releasing occurred as in the cabinet. The swishing of the rope was heard. The knots presented no obstacle. Sometimes every intermediate one was left undone with the seal at the end, yet the mediums were found free. As an additional amusement the rope was often coiled around the neck of some sitter and through the ropes, in some mysterious way, the coats of the mediums, or their waistcoat underneath, with watch and chair undisturbed, were whisked off and on again. Those who entered the cabinet in the light sťance to sit with the Brothers were usually victims of strange pranks. Their handkerchiefs were taken, their breast pin removed and stuck into the coat behind and their spectacles, if they wore any, were transferred to the face of one of the mediums.

"I have, at different times," writes Robert Cooper who spent seven months with the Davenport Brothers in Britain and on the Continent, "seen at least three hundred persons enter the cabinet, all of whom certified that there was no movement on the part of the Brothers."

The Davenport Brothers arrived in Britain in 1864. They were accompanied by the Rev. J. B. Ferguson, former pastor of Nashville, a preacher famous in the South, D. Palmer, operatic manager, who acted as secretary, and W. H. Fay, another medium of similar powers as theirs. Ferguson made their acquaintance in Brooklyn and came to Europe to back their manifestations with his reputation. Their stay in Britain was fairly vicissitudinous. Public opposition was violent but the interest in their wonderful feats was tremendous and they did excellent propaganda service to Spiritualism. Their first sťance in London was held privately at the residence of Dion Boucicault, the famous actor and author, in the presence of scientists and members of the Press. After describing the Babel, of sounds caused by the musical instruments in the light and dark sťance, the correspondent of The Times continued:

"A new experiment was now made. Darkness having regained its supremacy, one of the brothers expressed a desire to be relieved of his coat. Returning light showed him in his shirt-sleeves, though his hands were still firmly bound behind the chair. It was now stated that he was prepared to put on the coat of any one of the company willing to 'loan' that article of attire, and an assenting gentleman having been found, the coat, after a short interval of darkness, was worn in proper fashion by a person for whom it had not been designed by the tailor. Finally, the brothers desired a release, and one of the company, certainly not an accomplice, requested that the rope might fall into his lap. During the interval of darkness a rushing sound as of swiftly-drawn cords was audible, and the ropes reached the required knees, after striking the face of the person in the next chair."

The correspondent of The Times was not sure that he witnessed simple conjuring. The account in The Standard pointed out that the knots were tied by a nautical gentleman who was profound in the matter of knots and the reporter of the Daily Telegraph, understood to have been Edwin Arnold, hesitated whether to class the feats as representing "the annihilation of what are called material laws" or some extraordinary physical dexterity; and whether to regard the believers in spiritualism as "the embodiment of a mutual and colossal self-deceit, or the silent heralds of a social revolution which must shake the world."

The public sťances began in October at the Queen's Court Concert Rooms, Hanover Square. They continued almost nightly until the end of the year. No committee could discover fraud. The fraternity of magicians raised a hue and cry and attempted to prove that the performance was jugglery. Maskelyne and Cooke indeed presented later very successful imitation performances. Stage preparations were, however, necessary. The tying was part of the trick. It is probable that a sailor could tie a magician so that he could not free himself.

"But no person," said T. L. Nichols in Supramundane Facts in the Life of the Rev. J. B. Ferguson "of all the hundreds who have tried, has ever tied the Davenports or Mr. Fay so that they were not freed in a few minutes, nor so that the manifestations, which must have been made either by them or by an intelligent, invisible force attending them, did not occur in two seconds."

The quotation has point in view of the occurrences during the tour of the Davenport Brothers in the country. They were met with open hostility. In Liverpool two members of the committee, selected from the audience, tied the mediums with a peculiar Tom Fool's knot. The mediums protested that it was unfairly tight and injured the circulation. A doctor from the audience made an examination and pronounced against them. The Davenports refused to sit and asked the Rev. Ferguson to cut the knot. Next night a riot broke out. They left. At Hull, Huddersfield and Leeds they found an inimical public, inclined to lynch them, and as they did not find the police protection sufficient, they broke off their engagements.

"Were we mere jugglers" - write the Davenports of these experiences to the Rev. Ferguson "we should meet with no violence, or we should find protection. Could we declare that these things done in our presence were deception of the senses, we should, no doubt, reap a plentiful harvest of money and applause. As tricks they would transcend, according to the testimony of experienced observers, any ever exhibited in Occident or Orient. The wonders of the cabinet, or still more, of the dark sťance, surpass all pretensions of conjurers. We should safely defy the world to equal them, and be honoured for our dexterity. But we are not jugglers, and truthfully declare that we are not, and we are mobbed from town to town, our property destroyed and our lives imperilled."

The truth of these wonders was solemnly promulgated by the Rev. Ferguson.

"I have in their presence," said one of his statements, "had articulate and audible conversation with a voice which was not theirs, nor that of any living person. With this I have conversed as a man talks with his friend, while the power or being from which the voice proceeded made its presence and reality known to me by other physical manifestations. In railway carriages, when in company with the Brothers Davenport and Mr. Fay, in passing through dark tunnels, I have been manipulated all over my body by hands seemingly human, sometimes unexpectedly, at others at my request, when no one present could have touched me without my knowledge."

Robert Cooper's Spiritual Experiences thus sums up seven months of close observation:

"I can truly say that during the whole time I was with them, extending over a period of seven months, I never saw aught to indicate that they were anything but passive instruments, the manifestations being produced by a power outside themselves. Indeed, I feel quite sure they could not accomplish these things by natural means without being detected every week of their lives; and I give it as my deliberate conviction after all the opportunities I have had of forming an opinion, that their manifestations are a reality; if they are not, then all creation is a myth and our senses nothing worth."

In France, to where, after their misadventure in Britain, the Davenports repaired, for some time they could not get the necessary permit to exhibit in public. The reason was a fear of the authorities of similar disturbances. When at length the time arrived for their first performance, an emissary of Robin, the conjuror, stepped on the platform and, under pretence of examining the cabinet, tore the rail that supported one of the seats from its place, and holding it up before the excited crowd, asserted that he had discovered a secret spring. Owing to the confusion which arose the police cleared the room. A few days later the sťances were continued but by order of the Prefect attendance was restricted to sixty persons.

From the fraternity of magicians, however, some impressive public testimony came forth very soon. Hamilton, the famous conjuror, and Rhys, a manufacturer of conjuring implements, stated in letters to the Davenports, published in the Gazette des Etrangers September 27, 1865, that the phenomena were inexplicable and could not be attributed to fraud. In later years Prof. Jacobs similarly testified that the phenomena seen in Paris "were absolutely true and belonged to the spiritual order of things in every respect." Before they left Paris the Davenports were summoned to appear before the Emperor and the Empress Napoleon at the palace of St. Cloud. A party of forty witnessed their demonstration with astonishment. They were well received in Belgium and appeared in St. Petersburg before the Czar in the Winter Palace. Their first public sťance in St. Petersburg was attended by a thousand people. In 1868 they returned to Britain. At Robert Cooper's initiative the Anthropological Society appointed a committee to investigate. A trial sťance was held which the committee considered a failure. The conditions they proposed were found unacceptable by the mediums and the investigation was broken off.

In 1876 the Davenports visited Australia. Next year William Davenport died in Sydney. His brother had the cabinet, ropes, etc., engraved on his grave.

It should be noted that during their long and chequered career the Davenports never claimed to know how their phenomena occurred. In a letter to Harry Houdini, Ira Davenport declared:

"We never in public affirmed our belief in spiritualism. That we regarded as no business of the public, nor did we offer our entertainment as the result of sIeight-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."

Houdini in A Magician Among the Spirits says that Ira Davenport admitted that he was a fraud. This, however, rests solely on his testimony and as his attitude was bitterly hostile it cannot be accepted without further proof. Moreover privately he voiced different opinions. In a letter to Conan Doyle (The Edge of the Unknown) he 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."

Bibliography: T. L. Nichols: A Biography of the Brothers Davenport, London, 1867; Supramundane Facts of the Life of Rev. J. B. Ferguson, London, 1865; Robert Cooper: Spiritual Experiences, Including Seven Months with the Brothers Davenport, London, 1867.

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



Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2004