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The Amazing Davenport Brothers & A Question of Doubt

Among academics, Ira Erastus (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877) are two of the most renowned (or infamous) mediums of the nineteenth century, depending on one’s perspective.

Portrait of the Davenport Brothers (SOURCE)

There are many cases of historical mediumship that remain unsettled and the alleged powers of the Davenport brothers are a good example. To this day many modern spiritualists continue to uphold the claim that Ira and William were genuine psychics. However, there has also been several generations of sceptics to argue that the Davenports were nothing more than skilled illusionists.

The most important thing to consider when exploring the Davenports brothers' case is that they were never fully exposed as cheats, and that the scepticism surrounding them was based on strong circumstantial evidence. Thus, there remains enough doubt for the case to remain open.

One of the earliest sceptics to denounce the mediumistic powers of the Davenports was the Victorian popular science writer and anthropologist Edward Clodd. Although he could not outright refute the Davenport brothers’ mediumship, because of insufficient evidence, Clodd did believe that there was enough doubt surrounding their performances to argue that Ira and William were likely frauds.

Portrait of Edward Clodd (SOURCE)

Why was this the case? Let’s revisit Clodd’s account of the Davenport brothers from his famous book, The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism (1917).

Originally from Buffalo NY, the brothers rose to fame during the late 1850s as a result of their spirit cabinet performance.

Sitting inside a large wooden cabinet with three compartments, the brothers had their hands and feet tightly bound in front of an audience.

Various instruments including bells, tambourines, a trumpet, and a guitar were placed in the centre section of the cabinet, before the three doors were closed and locked. After a few moments, some of the instruments would begin playing, and at a small opening in the top centre of the cabinet’s middle door, spirit hands and feet would appear.

The Davenport Brothers’ Spirit Cabinet (SOURCE)

Once the phenomena ceased, and the doors would be reopened, the brothers would be found as they were left, with their hands and feet bound on opposite sides of the cabinet.

It was a hugely popular performance, but like so many spiritualist acts, its success eventually came to an end after the mediums were unable to produce phenomena under more rigorous controls.

For believers, the Davenports’ performance was strong evidence in support of genuine spirit and psychic forces. How could they possibly be responsible for the sights and sounds witnessed by the audience members, if they were tied up in separate compartments?

The Spirit Cabinet During Performances (SOURCE)

Spiritualists believed that by entering into a trance state, the brothers were able to channel real spirits, who played the instruments and produced the phantom hands and feet.

Clodd found this explanation absurd. The spirit cabinet act was nothing more than an elaborate escapist trick. By twisting and turning their hands and feet, the brothers were able to free themselves from their bindings in order to play the instruments, and wiggle their limbs through the small opening in the cabinet’s middle door.

The whole act hinged on the Davenports ability to slip back into the bindings before the cabinet doors were unlocked to reveal them again.

If it was all caused through actual spiritual agency, why even close the doors in the first place? Clodd argued that with a clear view of the brothers, the bindings would not even be necessary.

In 1864 the Davenport brothers visited Liverpool, where they performed in front of a large crowd. Usually, the brothers would have someone from their entourage tie the ropes around their hands and feet.

On this occasion, two volunteers from the audience insisted that they be allowed to bind the performers; their names were Mr. Hulley and Mr. R. B. Cummins.

The type of knot that they used was known as a “Tom Fool’s Knot,” and the Davenport brothers instantly recognized that they would be unable to escape them.

They pleaded with the crowd that the knots were too tight, and that they were losing circulation in their hands and feet. As Clodd remarked, “A doctor summoned to give his opinion, said that the knot was not harmful.”

Nevertheless, the Davenport brothers refused to perform under these conditions.

Enraged by their refusal to perform, the crowd began accusing the Davenports and their troupe of being frauds. The Davenport brothers left town soon after, but were followed by Hulley and Cummins.

At every city that they travelled to Hulley and Cummins would push to the front of the crowd and insist that they be allowed to bind the brothers. On one occasion, they even incited a riot, leading to the crowd destroying the Davenports’ cabinet.

Forced to cancel their shows, and rebuild their cabinet, the brothers and their troupe fled to the European continent in search of less interrogative audiences.

These circumstances were highly suspicious to Clodd, and suggested that the Davenport brothers were almost certainly frauds. However, without an outright exposure, sceptics could never fully refute the mediumship of the Davenport brothers.

Portrait of Harry Houdini and Ira Erastus Davenport in 1910 (SOURCE)

In the early 1900s the famed American magician Harry Houdini tracked down Ira Erastus at his home, and claimed to have gotten a confession out of the medium.

Arguments still persist as to whether the manner in which Houdini got the confession was ethical and debates over the legitimacy of the Davenports’ mediumistic powers rage on.

REFERENCES Clodd, Edward. The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. London: Grant Richards, 1917.

Cooper, Robert. Spiritual Experiences, Including Seven Months with the Brothers Davenport. London: Heywood, 1867.

Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. London: Harper & Brothers, 1924.

Lamont, Peter. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lamont, Peter. The First Psychic: The Extraordinary Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard. Preston: Abacus Books, 2005.

Nichols, Thomas Low. A Biography of the Brothers Davenport: With some Account of the Physical and Psychical Phenomena which have Occurred in their Presence, in America and Europe. London: Sounders, Otley, and Co., 1864.

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