The Davenport Brothers were Americans who conducted one of the most successful Séance acts of the 19th century. William and Ira Davenport introduced the CABINET—a special room or enclosure—to the medium’s repertoire and produced various spirit phenomena, including ghostly hands that played musical instruments. They also developed sophisticated rope tricks and escape illusions unparalleled until the days of Harry Houdini.
Ira Erastus Davenport was born September 17, 1839, and his brother William Henry was born February 1, 1841, both in Buffalo, New York. Their father, a local policeman, was intrigued with spirit Rappings reported in nearby Rochester. The family tried sitting around a table, and raps appeared almost at once. The senior Davenport told friends that the boys and their younger sister, Elizabeth, could levitate and often floated around the room. At one Séance in 1850, the spirits told Ira to fire a pistol in a corner of the room, and the ever-present control John King appeared for an instant in the gun flash.
Sittings were originally held in the Davenport home, but soon John King ordered the family to rent a hall and begin public performances. The boys, 16 and 14, went on the stage in 1855. Their first performances included such standard fare as Table-Tilting and rapping, but also featured playful spirit hands which gripped sitters, played musical instruments and twirled umbrellas overhead. John King continued as spirit guide; his alleged daughter Katie, another famous Control, also appeared in Davenport Séances, but not as the lovely lady manifested by Florence Cook. By the end of the year, the boys appeared in New York City, adding the signature effects that characterized their act: rapidly escaping from complicated rope bindings and knots.
At the suggestion of a member of the audience in New York, suspicious of the Davenports working with confederates in the crowd, a box similar to a closet was erected onstage. Immediately realizing the benefits of working in secret darkness, the Davenports embraced the new arrangement, only asking that an opening be available for the spirit hands to work. The cabinet, as all spiritual enclosures came to be known, was seven feet by six feet wide by two feet deep and sat on three sawhorses. It had three doors in front, exposing the brothers tied to benches on opposite ends and facing a middle bench containing the musical instruments. A diamond-shaped opening in the middle door let in air and showed the phenomena. The entire contraption was quite lightweight and could be disassembled for travel.
Part of the brothers’ act involved asking members of the audience to act as binders. Overeager skeptics tied the brothers in elaborate, often torturous ligatures, occasionally drawing blood. Suspicious watchers were invited to sit in the center section of the cabinet, and they too were bound hand and foot to the Davenports. No matter what the bindings, however, as soon as the doors were closed, wondrous spirit music filled the air and spirit hands waved through the aperture. Someone would fling open the doors, and the Davenports would still be found tied up as before.
Their act created quite a sensation. Many spiritualists hailed the manifestations as proof of spirit intervention, while critics regarded the brothers as conjurers. Neither brother ever admitted being a spiritualist ME DIUM, leaving such a determination to their audience. Their act was billed as a Séance, however, and spiritualists and even several psychical researchers believed the phenomena to be genuine. The brothers were never caught in fraud.
In 1864, the Southern preacher Jesse Babcock Ferguson joined the brothers as their master of ceremonies. A fiery speaker, Ferguson believed in what he called the “supramundane” and was impressed by the Davenports’ powers. Additionally, his Union sympathies forced him to take his family out of their home in Nashville and head north. The Davenports and the Fergusons traveled for about four months in Canada and New England, before sailing for England in company with another medium named William Fay.
The Davenports held their first English Séance in the home of actor and playwright Dion Boucicault in front of several scientists and journalists. Various phenomena were produced, including the removal of Fay’s coat while he was bound (it flew up to the chandelier), the redressing of Fay with another jacket while he remained tied, spirit musicianship, the brothers’ incredible rope escapes and even spirit hands playing with the hair of Sir Charles Wyke, who sat bound between the brothers in the cabinet. The Davenports also sat for authors Sir Edwin Arnold and Sir Richard Burton.
In Liverpool in February 1865, the Davenports objected to the cruel way they were bound and refused to perform. A hostile crowd rioted, storming the stage and breaking the cabinet. Similar violence followed them in performances at Huddersfield and Leeds, causing the Davenports to cancel any more performances in England. Ferguson left the Davenports before they went to France, saying his ignorance of foreign languages made him a liability. He always maintained that after years of intimate travel with the Davenports, he knew of no instance when their phenomena were not genuinely paranormal.
The French authorities delayed giving the Davenports a permit to perform, fearing a repeat of the riots they had suffered in England. But the brothers prevailed, eventually appearing before Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. From France, the Davenports returned to London, then Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Russia, where they mystified the Imperial Court of Czar Alexander II. After Russia, the Davenports traveled to Poland and Sweden—in all, a four-year tour of Europe.
In 1876 the brothers left for Australia, but William died suddenly in Sydney in July 1877. Ira commissioned a memorial carved with the accoutrements of their performances— ropes, musical instruments and the cabinet— but cemetery officials refused to erect the spiritualist monument on hallowed ground. Ira placed it outside the cemetery walls. Lost without his brother, Ira quit performing and retired to New York.
In his book A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini recounts meeting Ira Davenport. He began corresponding with the old showman in 1909 and finally met him at his home in Maysville, New York in 1910, after a long European tour. While in Australia, Houdini visited William’s grave and, finding it neglected, had it put in order. He also met Fay, who regaled Houdini with his adventures traveling with the Davenports.
Ira was apparently touched by Houdini’s tenderness regarding William’s gravesite, and he returned the favor by explaining many of the brothers’ escape illusions. The best was the Davenport tie, or the means by which the brothers could so rapidly escape their bonds and just as easily return before the cabinet was opened. The brothers guarded the particulars of this trick so closely that Houdini claimed even the Davenport children did not know how it worked.
When the brothers were seated opposite one another in the cabinet, the rope was wound around their legs, near the knees, then at the ankles. A shorter piece was tied to each pair of wrists with the knots next to the pulse. Once the brothers were enclosed in the cabinet, one brother would extend his feet while the other drew his in, providing enough slack to allow one, then the other, to free himself. The wrist ropes were knotted in such a way that one hand could twist in the opposite direction and open enough loop to instantly free the left hand. Upon replacing the hand, the hand twisted the rope and appeared to be securely tied. Magician Harry Kellar used the same wrist trick.
Ira died in 1911. Following his death, Houdini maintained that Davenport had confessed the brothers were expert conjurers, not spiritualists. But many discounted Houdini’s claims, noting that the whole affair pitted Houdini—a staunch anti-spiritualist—against the signed statements of many distinguished believers and scientists.
- Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
- Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism Vol. I & II. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
- Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1966. First published 1933.
- ———. Mind Over Space. New York: The Citadel Press, 1962.
- Houdini, Harry. Houdini: A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
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