Davenport Brothers


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Davenport Brothers

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Little known today, the Davenport brothers were among the most heralded of Spiritualist mediums during the last half of the nineteenth century. With their spectacular demonstrations of spiritual presence, they did much to build the movementin both North America and England. Ira Eratus Davenport (b. September 17, 1839) and William Henry Davenport (b. February 1, 1841) were not even in their teens when the birth of Spiritualism was announced through the spirit rappings in the home of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York.

They would later claim similar spirit rappings had occurred in their home two years before the Hydesville occurrence, but in 1850 they began to experiment with table-tipping (using a table to get answers from the spirits). Soon after, Ira tried automatic writing. Having perfected their abilities to talk to the spirits, in 1854 the teenagers began their public career as performers, demonstrating their abilities to communicate with the spirit world. Ira had emerged as a direct voice medium, with the spirits reputedly using his vocal cords to articulate their messages.

The distinctive nature of the Davenports’ demonstrations, however, were a number of physical manifestations of the spirits’ presence. In a typical performance, for example, musical instruments would be placed on the floor. The brothers would be tied securely and left alone on stage. The lights would be turned out. People would see disconnected human hands floating around that would soon take up an instrument and play it. In the end, the lights would be turned on and the brothers would be found still securely tied to their chairs. Although some dismissed the show as stage trickery, many more were bewildered and could not find a reasonable explanation for what they had seen.

As the act was perfected, the brothers performed across the United States. In 1864 they made an initial tour of England and several countries on the continent. In 1876 they went to Australia, where William became ill the following year and, on July 1, 1877, died. Upon his return to America, Ira recruited another partner and continued to perform until a few years before his death on July 8, 1911.

For their appearances in England, they brought along the Rev. Jesse B. Ferguson (d. 1870). Ferguson’s orations, which accompanied the brothers’ act, were largely responsible for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s conviction that they were genuine. Doyle would later become the brothers’ dedicated champion.

The leading critic of the Davenports was magician Harry Houdini. He claimed he had visited with Ira toward the end of his life and that Ira shared with him the nature of the tricks that they had performed. Houdini was also able to demonstrate all of the phenomena the brothers had performed by simply slipping out of their bonds. Houdini’s revelations did not deter Doyle, who never backed away from his view of the brothers as outstanding mediums.

Additional relevant material on the Davenports was brought forth in 1899 by skeptical author Joe Nickell, who examined the Davenports’ scrapbook, which he found at the Spiritualist center at Lily Dale, New York. In the scrapbook were several revealing newspaper clippings supporting the nature of the brothers’ act as stage magic. For example, the brothers generally allowed the stage and instruments they used to be examined ahead of time by members of the audience. A clipping from the May 23, 1863, issue of the Richmond, Indiana, newspaper told of a person applying an aromatic oil to the handle of the violin bow. After the performance, it was discovered that one of the brothers, who supposedly had been tied up the whole time, had the strong smell of the oil on it. Most of the audience then demanded their money back.

Today, the general consensus of those who study such phenomena is that the Davenports were simply stage magicians. At best they may have been dedicated Spiritualists who attempted to convince people of what they believed to be real by the use of their tricks, but their spectacular accomplishments were perpetrated by simple stage magic. They helped establish such trickery as a major element in Spiritualism through the mid-twentieth century and, as such trickery was exposed, largely deprived the movement of any credibility. Exposés of continued attempts to deceive believers with stage tricks have been published as late as the 1970s.

Sources:

Cooper, Robert. Spiritual Experiences: Including Seven Months with the Brothers Davenport. Heywood, 1867. London: 1967.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
Nichols, Thomas Low. A Biography of the Brothers Davenport. London, 1864. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1976.
Nickell, Joe. “The Davenport Brothers: Religious Practitioners, Entertainers, or Frauds?” Skeptical Inquirer 23, 4 (July–August, 1999). Posted at http://www. findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_4_23/ai_55 208044. Accessed April 1, 2007.