A cabinet is a confined space, whether provided by an actual piece of furniture, a closet or merely an enclosed end of a Séance room, that once served as a physical medium’s working space. Its purpose was to attract and conserve spiritual forces, enabling the Medium to produce manifestations. Psychical researcher Hereward Carrington compared the cabinet to a spiritual storage battery, releasing psychic energy throughout the Séance.
The use of a cabinet for paranormal revelations began with the Davenport Brothers in the mid-1850s. Neither the Fox Sisters nor any of the earlier mediums had used one. William and Ira Davenport, who never claimed to be spiritualists, began their careers by performing with a table and chairs on a raised platform, most often in the dark. According to Harry Houdini, who attempted to expose mediums as frauds, a person in the audience asked if the Davenports could produce their manifestations in a closet to prevent collusion by confederates, and the Davenports, realizing the benefits of working in secret, agreed.
The wooden cabinet became an essential part of the Davenports’ act. According to legend, the infamous spirit control John King himself gave the Davenports the cabinet’s specifications. Made of lightweight bird’s-eye maple, it was seven feet high, six feet wide and two feet deep, and rested eighteen inches off the floor on three sawhorses. Three doors comprised the front side, which opened to fully show the interior. A diamond-shaped hole was cut in the middle door for air and to allow the spirits’ hands to show. Behind the left and right doors were benches where the Davenports sat, bound hand and foot by members of the audience. Upon the center bench, supposedly out of reach, were piled musical instruments: tambourines, accordions, trumpets, guitars, violins, bells. Once the audience was convinced the Davenports were incapable of playing the instruments, the doors were closed.
Almost at once, spirit hands of men, women and children appeared in the aperture in the middle door, playing the instruments wildly and waving about. But upon opening the doors, the brothers were seen to be still bound with rope. Occasionally a brave soul from the audience volunteered to sit on the middle bench in the dark cabinet, tied to the Davenports, but the manifestations appeared regardless.
The act was an immediate sensation. Hardly any practicing medium anywhere could continue his or her performances without a cabinet to harness psychic energy. Many just hung black curtains in front of an alcove or corner of the Séance room and retired behind them during the sitting. The full-form Materializations of Florence Cook and Eva C. (see Marthe Beraud) appeared from the cabinet curtains, with faces floating on the black surface. Critics found the cabinet a convenient prop for trickery.
Cabinets are rarely used in modern physical mediumship.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
- Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Edge of the Unknown. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1968. First published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930.
———. The History of Spiritualism, Vol. I & II. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
- Houdini, Harry. Houdini: A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno Press, 1972.