Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Unusual Friendship Between Houdini and Ira Davenport

From the McCord Museum

  The Davenport Brothers were two brothers from Buffalo NY that along with the Fox Sisters, helped to usher in the strange phenomenon of Spiritualism. But so you know, the Davenport Brothers never claimed to be contacting real spirits. Nor did they deny it. They were essentially entertainers who allowed the audience to make up their minds as to what was happening. Their claim to fame was being tightly tied with ropes and placed inside a very large wooden cabinet. When the doors of this massive cabinet were closed, strange sounds instantly were heard: bells ringing, tambourines shaking, musical sounds, rapping sounds. WHY were they bound with ropes? The thinking was, the brothers could call for spirit aid, but because they were bound, it was proof that spirits were making the sounds and not the brothers. When the cabinet was opened, the brothers were always found to be still tied up. 

This was different from the Fox Sisters who were never tied up, though frankly they could have been. And they did claim to be contacting real spirits. This concept of being tied or at least restrained highly influenced the spiritualism movement. Later mediums used all sorts of tactics, some would be bound, some would simply have spectators holding their hands. But as legitimate and authentic as these things seemed to be, what was really taking place was extremely clever deception. Honestly, it was as if they took a page out of a magicians handbook, but they actually invented their own tricks and presented them as real. 

The movement gave birth to two branches of magic, the Escape Artists and The Mind Readers or Mentalism.  Without the Davenports, there likely wouldn’t have been a Houdini, at least not as we know him today. And it’s just as likely to say without spiritualism, mentalism might look very different today, and stars like Dunninger, The Zancigs, Kreskin and others might not have risen in fame or even gotten involved. 

The brothers were William Henry Davenport and Ira Erastus Davenport. Their father was initially their manager. Before long, as their popularity grew, William Fay took over the managing job and then in 1869, a young 20 year old Harry Kellar was hired as an assistant and later business manager. While in the employ of the Davenport Brothers, Kellar learned a lot about the business end of things, he learned a lot about show structure but more, he accidentally learned a method for the Davenport Rope tie. This would later come back and haunt the brothers.

Apparently, William Henry Davenport and Harry Kellar had a falling out. William considered Kellar his personal servant and when he let Kellar know as much, Harry decided to leave. But upon his exit, he took William Fay with him. Fay and Kellar went on to replicate the Davenport act for a time.

Now, fast forward. According to the book, Death and the Magician by Raymond Fitzsimons, Kellar and Houdini are having a discussion on of all things, the spirits. Houdini it seems was leaning towards all of it being nonsense. But he was taken back by the number of people who would relate stories that couldn’t be explained. Then Harry Kellar shared a story of seeing a medium named William Eglinton, in 1882 in Calcutta. Kellar told Houdini that during the course of the seance, Eglinton started to float up into the air and at one point, Kellar found himself afloat because he was holding onto the man. This was a very disturbing moment for Kellar as he was a skeptic. And he also knew the secrets that magicians used for levitation. There was none of that in this instance, yet the man was clearly floating in the air and Kellar along with him. He told Houdini he was still a skeptic but couldn’t account for what took place.

According to the book, The Haunting of America, William Eglinton, was a very popular medium. Listen to his skillset:
Apports seemed to appear from nowhere, phantoms moved about, and he levitated to the ceiling, which Kellar himself witnessed. The book says, “Eglinton’s most accomplished skill was slate writing, which he began demonstrating in 1884.” By the way, if I might mention something that I just discovered, I think magicians have misunderstood the whole slate writing phenomenon. I still agree it’s faked, don’t get me wrong, but I watched a video from the Lily Dale Historial Museum and they had a glass case filled with various school slates with messages. These are not the one or two words messages we are used too, but rather entire letters written in chalk. Getting a single word or two from a dead loved one would not be near as impressive or moving as an entire letter. Makes me realize why many people were fooled into believing this. Clever clever mediums. BTW, Eglinton was eventually accused of fraud in regards to his spirit writing and he eventually retired and became….a journalist. Now there’s an honest profession, lol. 

Then Kellar told Houdini about working with the Davenport Brothers. He said, “they never claimed to have spiritualist powers, never claimed their power came from the supernatural” But they also hired a unitarian minister to work as the host and lecturer for the show. THAT man totally believed everything the Brothers did was real. So the show had conflicting messages.

Kellar too started to believe that way. But then one day he decided to test out the rope tie that the Brothers were using and discovered he could free one hand, and return it, as if he had never been free. He told Houdini, this is not proof that the Brothers were frauds, but it did make him question things. 

Houdini continued to question him, and Kellar finally suggested that if wanted answers in this regard, he should go to the source, Ira Davenport. Houdini had no idea that Ira was still alive. He knew that William Henry was dead, and had assumed the brother was as well. But no, he was very much alive and living in Mayville NY, not far from Lily Dale, the birthplace of Spiritualism.  Houdini was surprised to learn that Ira Erastus Davenport was alive. He quickly penned a letter of introduction, in early 1908, to the man. That was the best Houdini could do for now as he was soon off to Europe and Australia. In the book, A Magician Among The Spirits, Houdini writes, “I ate once communicated with him and there followed a pleasant acquaintance that lasted until his death…” So by that I believe there were numerous letters between Houdini and Ira. We have the contents of one, the July 19th letter from Ira Davenport.

Houdini received a reply on Jan 19th, 1909. Thanks to Mike Caveney and his incredible collection of letters and correspondence, we know exactly what the letter said. It was written up in his column, Classic Correspondence From Egyptian Hall Museum in MAGIC Magazine April 2015. In addition, I also found the letter along with additional commentary in Houdini’s book A Magician Among the Spirits.  The letter immediately corrects a mistake that are in a number of Houdini biographies. The books say that Davenport was suffering with throat cancer. In his letter he says, “I had been several weeks in Buffalo under the care of a specialist being treated for what was at first feared might be cancer of the throat, but which is now pronounced to be no cancer, although it is rather a troublesome sort of thing, but nothing serious.”

He then shares with Houdini the adventure that he and his brother suffered through during their tour of Liverpool and some of the surrounding areas. Houdini was a big hit in those places. The Davenports met with skeptics and two particular brothers who followed them around and proceeded to tie them rather torturously and then a member of their own company, cut the ropes, exacerbating the problems with the Brits. There was also a large anti-American sentiment in that region of the world due to the American Civil War. Apparently, much of Britain sided with the south.  Here is the official news report from the Richmond Times Dispatch, March 8, 1865. 

The Davenport Brothers were mobbed at Liverpool, England, on the 15th ultimo. The Post of that city says:

‘ "The audience elected Mr. Cummins and Mr. Hulley as the committee to tie the brothers. The Davenports objected at first, but ultimately agreed. Ira Davenport, who wriggled and twisted a good deal during the operation, and at its conclusion turned round suddenly to Dr. Ferguson. Mr. Cummins shrugged his shoulders and walked away, while Dr. Ferguson immediately stepped up, and instantaneously Ira Davenport stood free. He at once created a large sensation by exposing the back of his hand to the audience, with blood flowing from it. The excitement at this point was extreme, and although it was hardly explicable how a rope could produce a wound from which the blood would thus copiously flow, the tables for the moment seemed to be turned upon the gentlemen whose brutality had been so strongly animated upon. Mr. Ira Davenport hastily, and with an indignant expression of countenance, left the stage, followed by his brother.

"Mr. Cummins then addressed the audience, nearly in these words: ‘'Ladies and gentlemen, you have seen blood upon the hand of the person who has just left this platform. That blood was caused by Dr. Ferguson in cutting the rope.'’--Upon this, an immense shout of mingled triumph and indignation arose from the audience, whose sympathies, it was at once evident, had scarcely wavered, even during the sensation incident they had just witnessed. In the noise which ensued, Dr. Ferguson's explanation was to us inaudible. Mr. Cummins was heard to declare that if any medical man would certify that the wound had not been produced as he had stated, he would give five pounds to any Liverpool charity.

"The audience now began to take matters into their own hands. One gentleman led the way, and several others scrambled over the footlights on the platform, with the view, apparently, of demanding their money of Dr. Ferguson. It is due to Messrs. Hulley and Cummins to say that they did their utmost to keep the crowd back, and to protect Dr. Furguson and Leighton, who were still on the stage. The numbers, however, were too great for resistance to avail; and the next thing witnessed was the overthrow of the cabinet, Dr. Ferguson being pushed backwards into it. He immediately rose, but as immediately retreated, and we are informed that he, the Davenports and Mr. Fay were out of the building almost as soon as Dr. Ferguson was off the stage. Shortly afterwards Mr. Hulley was borne from the room on the shoulders of an admiring throng.

"The crowd on the platform at once proceeded to demolish the cabinet, and Dr. Ferguson's much-ridiculed 'structure' will never again battle the scrutiny or beguile the credulity of a British audience. The scene during the smashing and distribution of the fragments of the cabinet was very exciting. Pieces were thrown up into the galleries, and the occupants of that part of the hall busily vied with those in the body in scrambling for the spoils, while many resorted, probably as a relief to their excitement, to the exhilarating occupation of letting themselves down from the galleries on to the stage. One person only fell into the hands of the police upon a charge of breaking one of the columns by which the gallery is supported. A portion of the right arm of the figure was knocked off by the young man placing his hand upon it as he dropped from the gallery. The proceedings, though turbulent, were exceedingly good-humored, and they were enlivened by a few burlesque addresses, delivered from the platform to those in the body of the hall. In the meantime, some thirty policemen had arrived; they occupied the stage, and the hall was shortly afterwards cleared."

Notice that in the report, the crowed destroyed the Davenport Cabinet and broke it into pieces.

Houdini was in Liverpool from Dec 7th - Dec 12th, 1908. He was appearing at the Liverpool Hippodrome and to publicize the event, on Dec 7th, he jumped chained and manacled into the Mersey River from the top of a tugboat. There is this report from the Dundee Courier Newspaper on December 8th. 

Houdini threw himself from the upper deck of the tug Hannah Jolliffe, into the Mersey yesterday afternoon. This was intended as a display of Houdini’s power in escaping safely under all circumstances from handcuffs and chains, from locks and bars and other impediments. The weather was particularly  trying for Houdini on the occasion of his first water jump, handcuffed in England. The air was six degrees above freezing, the thermometer standing at 38 degrees. Houdini took the leap bravely. In an instant, the plunge was over, the chained athlete disappearing like a shot. In a second or two, Houdini appeared above the surface, carrying the unfastened chains in one hand. They weighed 22 lbs while the locks and handcuffs in which his arms were encased weighed 2 bps to 2 1/2 lbs more. 

Houdini said to the press representative: "The first shock of the cold water nearly knocked me out of my senses but the idea occurred to me, submerged as I was, to save my life and I made a dash for the top. The COLD, he added, numbed my fingers and made it hard to open the handcuffs.  I am glad, he concluded, that all is safely over, for in a water jump like this there is a certain element of risk against me."

The tide was going out with a very strong current at the time. Houdini is a teetotaler and non-smoker and expects, he says to quiet these jumps before long. He added quaintly and curiously, “I expect the grim friend is following me up in these tricks and he may catch me some day yet.”

There are two other things of great interest in the letter to Houdini from Ira Davenport. He mentions that Houdini is working on History of Magic book, and Ira says “I have a large quantity of material in the shape of scrapbooks dating back to 1855. Newspaper clippings, editorials of the leading newspapers of the world, magazines, letters, etc. which I will place at your disposal if you can make any use of them.”   Then he further goes on to invite Houdini to visit when he returns to the United States. 

In 1910, while performing in Australia, Houdini visited the grave of William Henry Davenport. He found the grave in disrepair, and paid for its repair and upkeep and made sure to place fresh flowers on the grave. And he took a photo of the grave to share with Ira, upon his return to the states.  Also while in Australia, Houdini met with William Fay, the one time manager of the Davenport Brothers and also one time partner to Harry Kellar before a shipwreck destroyed their act and partnership. He learned a great deal about the Davenports from Mr. Fay.

One of the first things Houdini did when he returned to the U.S. was visit Ira Davenport. It was an 800 mile train ride to the western side of New York. Ira was waiting at the train station for Houdini. They went back to his home and sat together on the porch. Houdini showed Ira the photograph of the grave of his brother William Henry, that Houdini took in Australia. He was moved by the gesture.

Then the two showman began to share stories. Houdini interjected when he felt appropriate. At one point Ira said to him, “Houdini you know more about the old timers and my arguments, than I who lived through those troublesome times.” They talked further about some of the things in their letters back and forth. Houdini showed him letters from his own collection from folks like John Henry Anderson inquiring just HOW the Davenports do their tricks. Houdini had other historical letters from his collection that he shared with Ira. This conversation went late into the night. At one point, Ira removed a length of rope. It was time to pass on the secret that the Davenports held so close for all those many years. 

They talked further about various specifics from Davenports life. Houdini brought out a clipping from the London Post, and read the details to Ira. Quote” "The musical instruments, bells, etc., were placed on the table; the Brothers Davenport were then manacled, hands and feet, and securely bound to the chairs by ropes. A chain of communication (though not a circular one) was formed, and the instant the lights were extinguished the musical instruments appeared to be carried all about the room. The current of air, which they occasioned in their rapid transit was felt upon the faces of all present. "The bells were loudly rung; the trumpets made knocks

upon the floor, and the tambourine appeared running around the room, jingling with all its might. At the same time sparks were observed as if passing from South to West. Several persons exclaimed that they were touched by the instruments, which on one occasion became so demonstrative that one gentleman received a knock on the nasal organ which broke the skin and caused a few drops of blood to flow.''' After I finished reading it Ira exclaimed, "Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that theyheard them flying over their heads.”

And now a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from his book, The History of Spiritualism, “Houdini claimed that Davenport admitted that his results were normally effected, but Houdini himself stuffed so many errors of fact into his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, and has shows such extraordinary bias on the whole question, that his statement carries no weight. The letter he produces makes no such admission. A further statement quoted as being made by Ira Davenport is demonstrably false. It is that the instruments never left the cabinet. As a matter of fact, The Times representative was severely struck in the face by a floating guitar, his brow being cut, and on several occasions when a light was struck instruments dropped all over the room. If Houdini has completely misunderstood this latter statement, it is not likely that he is very accurate upon the former." So says Sir Arthur, an avid believer in Spiritualism, who did not believe the Davenports were anything other than entertainers when Houdini tried to explain it to him.

At some point, Ira brought up the idea that the two men, he and Houdini, should take out an international tour together. According to Ken Silverman’s book, Houdini said, “By combining his reputation and my knowledge and experience, we would have been able to set the world agog”. In the William Grehsem biography of Houdini it’s explained this way, “The game old showman proposed a world tour for Houdini and himself, he to lecture on the growth of spiritualism, and the part played by his late brother and himself in its popularity, while Houdini would tie it in with his own escapes, thereby exposing the cabinet phenomenon as the product of natural causes without letting the public know how the tricks were done.”  Ira said proudly to Houdini, “Houdini-we started it, and you finish it!”

They spoke on many aspects of the Davenport’s career. Ira admitted to Houdini that they never claimed real spirit connection or supernatural intervention. He said they let the audiences make up their minds. Though he did regret that both of their parents went to their graves believing the two brothers to be real mediums.

Houdini took extensive notes during the visit and the event was capped off by a photograph of the two men, of which I believe there are 2 maybe three variations.

On July 5th, 1911, Ira again wrote to Houdini. He was anxiously awaiting Houdni’s next visit which would have been the 8th. Houdini wrote, “I was to leave on receipt of his letter, but his daughter Zellie wired me of his sudden passing.”

Now remember those scrapbooks that Ira teased Houdini with. Scrapbook#2 survived with the family and was eventually donated to the Lily Dale Historical Museum by Richard Davenport. I get the impression that even Ken Silverman did NOT see that scrapbook, as he mentions in his book  Notes To Houdini!!!! Quote, “The method of the rope tie was also known to Harry Kellar, surely before Houdini learned it. I am grateful to Ormus Davenport of Buffalo, Ira’s grandson, for having taken me to visit the cottage”.    No mention of seeing that scrapbook. And as to his assertion that Kellar knew the Davenport’s secret, after reading the detailed description of the Davenport’s method, and knowing full well the operation of the Kellar Rope tie, though they both achieve a similar result, I think they are different.

(This is a transcript of Ep 83 of the Magic Detective Podcast.)

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