Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spirit Cabinet - A History

This article is about the Spirit Cabinet illusion. However, there would be no spirit cabinet without The Fox Sisters. Margaret and Kate Fox were two young girls living in Hydesville NY with their parents. In 1848, the two sisters demonstrated that they could communicate with ghostly spirits by having strange rapping sounds manifest in their presence. Their abilities gave birth to a phenomenon/movement that would be known as Spiritualism. Later in life the sisters admitted they were frauds (but they even recanted that eventually).
Living not far from Hydesville, NY were two brothers, Ira and William Davenport. In 1854, the brothers started making claims similar to that of the Fox Sisters. To prove their abilities they created The Spirit Cabinet and took their show on the road. The Spirit Cabinet was a large rectangular wooden cabinet that rested upon two saw horses. This allowed the audience to view the cabinet from underneath. There was room inside for each brother to sit at opposite ends of the cabinet. I believe there was also room in between them as well for a spectator to sit if the routine called for that.  The basic effect was that the two brothers would be tied to the seats within the cabinet by members of the audience. A number of instruments, like bells and tambourines were placed in between them. The doors of the cabinet were closed to allow 'spirit darkness' and the manifestations would begin, the bells would ring, rapping could be heard and the tambourines would play.

Over the years the brothers faced various challenges. One of challenges involved both of them holding a handful of flour while being tied. The idea was that if they were doing the manifestations, they would have to drop the flour. But the manifestations occurred and the flour was still found in their hands. Another interesting manifestation that would take place is they would be tied tightly, the doors closed, and then the doors reopened to show they were completely free and then the doors closed and reopened and they were tightly bound as before. Clearly the precursor to the escape act.

The Davenport Brothers would face challenges by magicians throughout their career. In England they went up against John Nevil Maskelyne who said he could duplicate the manifestations the brothers made without contacting spirits. In America, many magicians added the 'exposure' of the Davenport Brothers to their acts.

Harry Kellar was one of the first to present the Spirit Cabinet, outside of the Davenport Brothers,  in his show. He certainly had good reason to. He worked for the Davenport Brothers for a while and learned their methods. He kept the Spirit Cabinet in his act throughout his entire career. When Kellar and William Fay (the road manager and one time partner of the Davenport Brothers) teamed up and performed across Mexico, they discovered it was too much trouble to carry the cumbersome wooden Spirit Cabinet to each location. Instead, they chose to leave them behind in the towns that they played and have new ones built when they got to their next destination. Years later when Harry Kellar would return to Mexico, he was surprised to find that many of the Spirit Cabinets were still in the towns just as he had left them. One of Kellar's lasting contributions to the art of magic was his 'Kellar Rope Tie', no doubt similar if not identical to the tie used by the Davenport Brothers.

Most magicians who 'ripped off' the Davenport Brothers Cabinet Illusion in the early days, used a large wooden cabinet very similar to the one the Davenports used. Kellar, Thurston, Carter and many others used this large wooden Cabinet. They each had their own take and twists to the routine. Some used different methods of tying, some used cloth or rope, some used shackles and handcuffs. Others had unusual manifestations.  Howard Thurston combined the Spirit Cabinet with the Floating Ball. Charles Carter had someone enter the cabinet while he was tied up and moments later the curtain opened and showed that the men were now wearing each others jackets.
It seems that it was Anna Eva Fay who was the first to use a curtained cabinet rather than the traditional wooden box-like cabinet. Fay's routine began with her being tied with strips of cloth to a chair or wooden bench. After she was tied, the strips would then be nailed to the wood, thus preventing any movement at all. A small table with bells, plates, and tambourines sat next to her and the moment the curtain was drawn noise could be heard coming from within. Whenever the front curtain was opened Ms.Fay would be found still tied and the cloth still nailed to the chair she sat upon.

Willard the Wizard adopted this routine as his own and once Anna Eva Fay stopped performing, he became well known for it. Years later Willard the Wizard would train his daughter to be the medium in the Spirit Cabinet routine and she would continue performing it with mentalist Glenn Falkenstein until they retired. I believe Frances has passed the knowledge of the Spirit Cabinet on to her daughter Hannah who is married to magician Michael Ammar. Watch Falkenstein and Willard and you'll get an idea of Anna Eva Fay's original routine.

Others who have performed the Spirit Cabinet include John Calvert and Andre Kole, both of whom used a much different tying technique and used a large hooped curtain that volunteers would raise or lower as commanded. David Bamberg, who performed as FuManchu used the Spirit Cabinet in his act but he added black art effects so that the manifestations could be seen by the audience. Mark Wilson had a Spirit Cabinet that was created by Alan Wakeling and John Gaughan and combined Black Art with a Shadow Production of a woman. David Copperfield presented an elaborate version of the Spirit Cabinet that he called 'The Barkley House' for a few years. His was complete with ghostly forms that burst forth from the cabinet and circled over the heads of the audience.

Milbourne Christopher and Robert Harbin created much smaller versions of the Spirit Cabinet in which the cabinet itself was quite small.  Christopher's and Harbin's small box like structure was held by an assistant yet the manifestations would occur with the box being held by the assistant. Karl Germain took the idea of small in another direction by creating the 'Daylight Seance Screen' which was nothing more than a cloth that was held in front of bells and tambourines and the objects would float behind the cloth or ring and make noise.

Leon's Haunted House
The Great Leon's went a totally different direction by making a miniature haunted house.  The roof was removed and the back was opened so that the audience could see inside. A bell would be placed inside the house and in full view the audience would see the bell rise upwards and ring. Other manifestations took place throughout the routine and then at the conclusion the entire house was disassembled to show no trickery within it at all.

The Spirit Cabinet in it's various forms is brilliant magic theatre. It has everything a performer could want, it has comedy, mystery, drama, audience involvement and tons of entertainment value. 

The most recent incarnation of the Spirit Cabinet comes from Derren Brown of England. The only likeness to previous routines is in the curtained cabinet. Other than that, the things that happen are really beyond explanation. He has taken a fun routine an injected a moment of horror. I can't help but think the Davenport Brothers would be proud. You can watch that video here.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks. You know, even though it's a very old fashioned effect, I really find it still very effective.

  2. Nice work. It was great to see Glenn and Frances again.