Davenport Brothers, Ira Erastus
(1839–1911) and William Henry
Famous American demonstrators of claimed spirit mediumship
who performed before large audiences on the theatrical
stage. Their father was a police official in Buffalo, New York,
where Ira was born on September 17, 1839, and William on
February 1, 1841.
In 1846—two years before an outbreak of paramormal activity
at Hydesville, New York—‘‘raps, thumps, loud noises,
snaps, crackling noises’’ were reportedly heard at the Davenport
home during the night. In 1850, in the wake of the widely
reported events in Hydesville, the Davenport boys and their
younger sister Elisabeth tried table-turning. According to their
father, the table soon moved, raps were heard, messages were
spelled out, and Ira’s hand began to write automatically. A little
later a simultaneous levitation of the three children was witnessed
by all present. On the fifth night of the experiments, to
comply with rapping directions, Ira fired a pistol into a vacant
corner of the room. At the instant of firing the pistol was taken
from his hand and in the flash a human figure was seen holding
it and smiling at the company. The apparition was the first appearance
of ‘‘John King,’’ their self-appointed control. It lasted
for an instant only, and with the extinction of the flash the
figure vanished, the pistol falling to the floor.
The Dark Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
A short time later a public rope-tying performance, for
which the brothers became famous, was instituted on direction
from the spirits. The brothers released themselves from the
most complicated knots remarkably quickly. In due course both
direct-writing and direct voice phenomena developed, and
the brothers took to the road as performers, holding public séances
amid challenging circumstances. Public committees were
set up to examine the Davenports’ phenomena, and their rope
tying developed into an art of torture.
In 1857 the Boston Courier offered a reward of $500 for the
production of genuine physical phenomena. Dr. H. F. Gardner
of Boston accepted the challenge and arranged, before a committee
of Harvard professors (consisting of Benjamin Pierce,
Louis Agassiz, B. A. Gould, and E. N. Horsford), a series of séances
with the sisters Kate Fox and Leah Fish, J. W. Mansfield,
Dr. G. A. Redman, and the Davenport brothers. The Davenports
were tied in the most brutal manner, the ropes drawn
through holes bored in the cabinet and firmly knotted outside
to make a network; the knots were tied with linen. Pierce sat in
the cabinet between the mediums. As soon as he entered, an invisible
hand shot the bolt, and the din of musical instruments
began. A phantom hand was thrust through a small, curtained
opening near the top of the middle door of the wardrobelike
cabinet, and the professor felt it touch his head and face.
At the end of the séance, the mediums were found released,
and (according to T. L. Nichols’s biography) the ropes were
found twisted around Pierce’s neck. (The latter statement, however,
was pronounced ‘‘shamelessly false’’ by the Boston Courier.)
The committee issued only a brief negative report; a complete
report was never published. It was countered by the
report of Dr. Loomis, a professor of chemistry and toxicology
at Georgetown Medical College, who also investigated the
brothers. He concluded that the manifestations were produced
through some new unknown force.
A Professor Mapes also had interesting experiences with the
Davenports in Buffalo. He conversed with ‘‘John King’’ in direct
voice for half an hour. His hand was seized in a powerful
grasp, and when it was taken a second time, the phantom hand
increased in size and was covered with hair. A large table on the
elevated platform where the mediums were sitting was carried
in an instant over the heads of the sitters and deposited in the
most distant part of the room.
While some found the phenomena inexplicable, charges
and evidence of fraud soon emerged. For example, a letter
from Dr. John F. Gray, a well-known New York Spiritualist, to
Epes Sargent (June 7, 1864) states ‘‘I have not seen the Davenports
this time here; but I entertain no doubt of the genuineness
of the manifestations made in their presence. When they
were here some years ago they were detected in making spurious
manifestations when the genuine failed.’’
As a means of control, investigators often filled the hands of
the mediums with flour or placed pennies on their shoes after
carefully drawing the outline of the shoes on a piece of paper
beneath them. When the door of the cabinet was opened, the
flour was found in the brothers’ hands as before, no white spots
were on their clothes, and the pennies were in place.
The performance while sitting in the cabinet was called the
light séance. There was a second part, the dark séance, in which
the lights in the room were extinguished and the mediums sat
tightly bound to their chairs between the other sitters. Tying
and releasing occurred as in the cabinet. The swishing of rope
was heard. The knots presented no obstacle. Sometimes every
intermediate knot was left undone, with the seal at the end, yet
the mediums were found free. As an additional amusement the
rope was often coiled around the neck of some sitter. Then
through the ropes, in some mysterious way, the coats of the mediums,
or their waistcoats underneath, were whisked off and on
Those who entered the cabinet to sit with the brothers in the
light séance were usually victims of strange pranks. Their handkerchiefs
were taken, their breast pins removed and stuck into
their coats, and their spectacles transferred to the face of one
of the mediums.
‘‘I have, at different times,’’ wrote Robert Cooper, who spent
seven months with the Davenport brothers in England and on
the Continent, ‘‘seen at least three hundred persons enter the
cabinet, all of whom certified that there was no movement on
the part of the Brothers.’’
The Davenport brothers arrived in England in 1864. They
were accompanied by the Rev. J. B. Ferguson, a former pastor
from Nashville, Tennessee, who was famous throughout the
South; D. Palmer, their operatic manager, who acted as secretary;
and William M. Fay, another physical medium. Their stay
in England was strenuous. Public opposition was violent, but interest
in their feats was tremendous, and the Spiritualists
reaped rewards of favorable press.
Their first séance in London was held privately at the residence
of Dion Boucicault, the famous actor and author, in the
presence of scientists and members of the press. In a report on
the séance, after describing the babel generated by the musical
instruments playing in the light and dark séances, a correspondent
for The Times continues
‘‘A new experiment was now made. Darkness having regained
its supremacy, one of the brothers expressed a desire to
be relieved of his coat. Returning light showed him in his shirtsleeves,
though his hands were still firmly bound behind the
chair. It was now stated that he was prepared to put on the coat
of any one of the company willing to ‘loan’ that article of attire,
and an assenting gentleman having been found, the coat, after
a short interval of darkness, was worn in proper fashion by a
person for whom it had not been designed by the tailor. Finally,
the brothers desired a release, and one of the company, certainly
not an accomplice, requested that the rope might fall
into his lap. During the interval of darkness a rushing sound
as of swiftly-drawn cords was audible, and the ropes reached
the required knees, after striking the face of the person in the
next chair.’’
The Times correspondent said he was not sure that he had
witnessed simple conjuring. An account in The Standard says the
knots were tied by a sailor who was ‘‘profound’’ at knot tying,
and the reporter of the Daily Telegraph was not certain whether
the feats were ‘‘the annihilation of what are called material
laws’’ or a display of some extraordinary physical dexterity. He
was unsure whether to regard the believers in Spiritualism as
‘‘the embodiment of a mutual and colossal self-deceit, or the silent
heralds of a social revolution which must shake the world.’’
The Davenport public séances began in October 1864 at the
Queen’s Court Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, London.
They continued almost nightly until the end of the year. No
committee could pinpoint the brothers’ fraud, though a group
of stage magicians attempted to prove that the performance
was fraudulent.
It is probable that a sailor could tie a magician so that he
could not free himself. ‘‘But no person,’’ declares T. L. Nichols
in Supramundane Facts in the Life of the Rev. J. B. Ferguson (1865),
‘‘of all the hundreds who have tried, has ever tied the Davenports
or Mr. Fay so that they were not freed in a few minutes,
nor so that the manifestations, which must have been made either
by them or by an intelligent, invisible force attending
them, did not occur in two seconds.’’
Although their stay in London was somewhat successful, the
Davenports and Fay met with open hostility in the countryside.
In Liverpool, for example, two members selected from the audience
tied the mediums with a peculiarly intricate knot. The
mediums protested that it was unfairly tight and injured their
circulation. A doctor from the audience made an examination
and pronounced against them. The Davenports refused to sit
and asked Ferguson to cut the knot. The next night a riot broke
out and the party left town. At Hull, Huddersfield, and Leeds
they found a hostile public, inclined to lynch them. Since they
did not find the police protection sufficient, they broke off their
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Davenport Brothers
engagements. In a letter to Ferguson, the Davenports later
‘‘Were we mere jugglers we should meet with no violence,
or we should find protection. Could we declare that these
things done in our presence were deception of the senses, we
should, no doubt, reap a plentiful harvest of money and applause.
As tricks they would transcend, according to the testimony
of experienced observers, any ever exhibited in Occident
or Orient. The wonders of the cabinet, or still more, of the dark
séance, surpass all pretentions of conjurers. We should safely
defy the world to equal them, and be honoured for our dexterity.
But we are not jugglers, and truthfully declare that we are
not, and we are mobbed from town to town, our property destroyed
and our lives imperilled.’’
The truth of these wonders was solemnly promulgated by
‘‘I have in their presence had articulate and audible conversation
with a voice which was not theirs, nor that of any living
person. With this I have conversed as a man talks with his
friend, while the power or being from which the voice proceeded
made its presence and reality known to me by other
physical manifestations. In railway carriages, when in company
with the Brothers Davenport and Mr. Fay, in passing through
dark tunnels, I have been manipulated all over my body by
hands seemingly human, sometimes unexpectedly, others at
my request, when no one present could have touched me without
my knowledge.’’
Robert Cooper’s Spiritual Experiences (1867) thus sums up
seven months’ of close observation
‘‘I can truly say that during the whole time I was with them,
extending over a period of seven months, I never saw aught to
indicate that they were anything but passive instruments, the
manifestations being produced by a power outside themselves.
Indeed, I feel quite sure they could not accomplish these things
by natural means without being detected every week of their
lives; and I give it as my deliberate conviction after all the opportunities
I have had of forming an opinion, that their manifestations
are a reality; if they are not, then all creation is a
myth and our senses nothing worth.’’
In France, where the Davenports traveled after their misadventures
in England, they could not get the necessary permit
to exhibit in public for some time, since the authorities feared
similar disturbances. When the time finally arrived for their
first performance, an emissary of a conjurer named Robin
stepped onto the platform. Under pretense of examining the
cabinet, he tore off the rail that supported one of the seats and,
holding it up before the excited crowd, asserted that he had
discovered a secret spring. Because of the confusion that arose,
the police cleared the room. A few days later the séances continued,
but by order of the prefect attendance was restricted to
60 persons.
Some magicians were more friendly, however. The famous
conjurer Hamilton, and one Rhys, a manufacturer of conjuring
implements, state in letters to the Davenports published in the
Gazette des Etrangers (September 27, 1865) that the phenomena
were inexplicable and could not be attributed to fraud. In later
years a Professor Jacobs similarly testified that the phenomena
seen in Paris ‘‘were absolutely true and belonged to the spiritual
order of things in every respect.’’ Before they left Paris, the
Davenports were summoned to appear before the Emperor
and the Empress Napoleon at the palace of St. Cloud. A party
of 40 witnessed their demonstration with astonishment. They
were well received in Belgium and appeared in St. Petersburg
before the czar in the Winter Palace. Their first public séance
in St. Petersburg was attended by a thousand people.
In 1868 they returned to England. At Cooper’s initiative the
Anthropological Society appointed a committee to investigate
their phenomena. A trial séance was held, which the committee
considered a failure. The conditions they proposed were found
unacceptable by the mediums, and the investigation was broken
In 1876 the Davenports visited Australia. The following year
William Davenport died in Sydney on July 1, 1877. His brother
had the cabinet, ropes, and so forth engraved on William’s
tombstone. Ira returned to Mayville, New York, and continued
to give stage demonstrations with another partner in Boston,
Washington, and Pennsylvania. In 1906 he toured Jamaica and
Cuba. His last performance was on November 19, 1906, for an
American regiment near Santiago de Cuba. He died on his
farm in Mayville, July 8, 1911.
The general conclusion regarding the Davenport brothers’
pheonomena is that their performance was simple stage conjuring.
Trick cabinets and rope tying were standard items of
stage magic at the time, and Harry Houdini and his students
demonstrated feats equal to and surpassing those of the Davenports.
The brothers’ refusal to continue with a performance in
England when their wrists were tied too tightly argues against
spirit agency, since this should have operated even in such unfavorable
circumstances considering other marvels that were
demonstrated. They escaped any exposure of trickery though,
in spite of observation by alert and intelligent investigators
(which other mediums also accomplished only to be caught
later), and their release from binding with strong ropes was
phenomenally rapid—often taking only two or three minutes.
Futhermore, during their long and checkered career the
Davenports never claimed to know how their phenomena occurred.
In a letter he wrote to Houdini, Ira Davenport declares,
‘‘We never in public affirmed our belief in spiritualism. That
we regarded as no business of the public, nor did we offer our
entertainment as the result of sleight-of-hand or, on the other
hand, as spiritualism. We let our friends and foes settle that as
best they could between themselves but, unfortunately, we were
often the victims of their disagreement.’’
In A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) Houdini claims that
Ira Davenport admitted that he was a fraud and described how
the rope trick was performed. There is no independent confirmation
of this admission, however, and Houdini privately
voiced different opinions to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The
Edge of the Unknown (1930), Doyle asserts, ‘‘I was an intimate
friend of Ira Erastus Davenport. I can make the positive assertion
that the Davenport Brothers never were exposed. . . . I
know more about the Davenports than anyone living.’’
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Cooper, Robert. Spiritual Experiences, Including Seven Months
with the Brothers Davenport. London, 1867.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Edge of the Unknown. N.p., 1930.
Ferguson, J. B. Supramundane Facts of the Life of Rev. J. B. Ferguson.
London, 1865.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York
Harper & Brothers, 1924. Reprinted as Houdini A Magician
Among the Spirits. New York Arno Press, 1972.
Nichols, T. L. A Biography of the Brothers Davenport. London,
Randolph, P. B. The Davenport Brothers. Boston, 1869.

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