Florence Cook (1856–1904) was the most famous Medium known for spirit Materializations, especially full-form, but who was exposed as a fraud.
Florence Cook was born in 1856 in Hackney, then a suburb of London (now part of London’s East End), a centre of Spiritualism. Cook claimed that as a child she could hear the voices of angels, and had mediumistic gifts.
She began giving Séances at home as an adolescent, and from the first she specialized in materialization. Initially, these were only “spirit faces.” Cook’s Cabinet was a large cupboard in the family’s breakfast room. Inside was a Windsor chair for her to sit upon. A hole was cut high in the cupboard door where the “spirit faces” would manifest.
Cook, who always dressed up for her Séances, would enter the cupboard and sit down. A piece of cord would be placed on her lap. The door would be closed, and the sitters would sing hymns to establish the right “atmosphere.” The cupboard would be opened, and sitters could see that Cook was tied to the back of her chair at the neck, waist and wrists. The door would be closed again, and then soon, in the dark, “spirit faces” would appear in the opening. When the faces vanished, the cupboard would be opened, and Cook would be found still tied to the chair, and giving the appearance of exhaustion from the energy allegedly expended to help the spirits manifest.
Critics observed that the faces looked like Cook draped in a white gauzy material, and that Cook probably slipped her knots, stood on the chair, and then retied herself. Audiences loved the performance, nonetheless.
Cook quickly attracted a following, in part because she charged no fee, and in part because she was a beautiful young woman. Her fame incited jealousy from other mediums, including Agnes Guppy, who lost friends and supporters to Cook, and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes, the latter of whom claimed John King and Katie King as their controls. In January 1873, Guppy tried to convince the Holmeses to help her ruin Cook by having someone throw vitriol in her “doll face” during a Séance. The Holmeses refused and broke their relationship with Guppy.
By 1873, full-form materializations were the rage in spiritualist circles, especially those of the control John King. It was probably no accident that Cook, to be competitive, began materializing the full form of King’s alleged spirit daughter, Katie King. Cook still gave Séances at home (but now in the drawing room), as well as in more fashionable parts of London, sometimes as the protégée of other mediums.
Like the spirit faces, Katie King bore a suspiciously strong resemblance to Cook. After the same preparations and singing of hymns, the cupboard would open and the alleged King, pale and white with fixed eyes, would emerge while Cook moaned and sobbed out of sight behind a curtain. These materializations began simply with King merely smiling and nodding and over time progressed to more elaborate entertainment, in which King walked among the sitters, offered her hand (suspiciously solid) to all and conversed with them. After King retired to the cabinet, Cook would be found, as usual, tied and drained. Cook gained fame for materializing King with lights on.
It was considered improper behaviour for sitters to grab spirits or the medium (see Mediumship), but some sceptics nevertheless did. In 1873, a Mr. Volckman grabbed Katie King by the wrist and announced his suspicion that she was Cook in disguise. The lights were put out and the “spirit” was rescued by Cook’s fiancé, Edward Elgie Corner, and another sitter, and was taken back to Cook’s cabinet. In her struggle with Volckman, the “spirit” had managed to scratch his nose and pull out some of his whiskers. When the cabinet was opened after the required wait of several minutes, Cook was found unusually dishevelled, but tied up. This incident did not immediately harm Cook’s budding career as a medium, though it did shake the faith of some.
The eminent British scientist Sir William Crookes spoke out publicly in Cook’s defense after the Volckman “outrage.” Crookes subjected her to numerous tests in a series of private Séances, but he did not eliminate all possibility of fraud. In 1874, he photographed Katie King. Cook lay down on a sofa behind a curtain and wrapped a shawl around her head. Soon, Katie appeared in front of the curtain. Crookes checked to see that a female form still lay on the sofa, but, incredibly, never lifted the shawl to verify its identity. In another experiment, he attached Cook to a galvanometer which passed a mild electrical current through her. Any movement on Cook’s part would register on the meter. Katie appeared though the meter’s needle never moved.
Crookes also walked arm in arm with King and noted that the form felt solid. However, he concluded that King was a true spirit. Historian Trevor H. Hall proposed that Crookes’s laxity was due to his romantic infatuation or involvement with Cook, and that he may have even collaborated in her fraud. Hall’s views are considered controversial by other historians.
In 1874, during the Crookes sittings, Katie announced her departure from Cook. The tearful farewell took place behind a curtain, with Crookes as an auditory witness. Another spirit named Marie then began to manifest. Marie sang and danced.
Cook was caught in outright fraud on at least one other occasion. At a Séance in 1880, during which Marie materialized in full form, Sir George Sitwell noticed that the spirit’s robes covered corset stays, and, like Volckman, he broke Séance rules and grabbed her. Cook’s curtain was pulled aside to reveal Cook’s chair empty and the ropes slipped.
After that, Cook would perform only if someone was tied up in her cabinet with her. Florence Marryat participated on at least one occasion; Marie materialized, and she sang and danced while Marryat and Cook remained tied together in the cabinet.
These trials eventually caused Cook to retire from mediumship, save for tests in 1899 at the Sphinx Society in Berlin, where she materialized Marie.
D.D. Home was among those who considered Cook a “skillful trickster” and “outright cheat.” Nonetheless, Cook retained a core of supporters who denied fraud and claimed she was somnambulistic and never intended to deceive.
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- ———. The Spiritualists. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1962.
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- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Pearsall, Ronald. The Table-Rappers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.