Showing posts with label Davenport Brothers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Davenport Brothers. Show all posts

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.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Episode 8 Magic Detective Podcast Additional Notes

Episode 8 of The Magic Detective Podcast is about the Life of Harry Kellar. As I was recording the episode today I quickly realized that this would be a multi-part episode. So this first part only cover 1849-1875. I've covered this period of time on this blog before, so I'm going to give you links that you can check out about the various topics.

2. The Davenport Brothers & The Spirit Cabinet

4. The Shipwreck
Please note there is a small error on the podcast. I mentioned that following the shipwreck, Kellar wired for money from his father. In truth, Harry Kellar borrowed money, approx $1000 from Junius Spenser Morgan, a banker, and the father to J.P. Morgan. 

And if you'd like to listen to the podcast before you check out the above links. Here you go!!!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Harry Kellar's Spirit Cabinet Pt1

Harry Kellar, the Dean of Magicians was well known for his Spirit Cabinet trick. In fact, Kellar worked for a time for the Davenport Brothers, the creators of the very first Spirit Cabinet illusion. When Kellar went off with William Fay to perform on their own, they kept the effect in their show. When they traveled throughout Mexico, rather than carry that bulky and heavy piece of equipment with them, they left the Cabinet behind at each location and had a new one built for each new town they played. So there should be Kellar Spirit Cabinet's all over Mexico!

Houdini coaxed Kellar into coming out of retirement for one more Farewell Show at the New York Hippodrome in 1917.  Kellar gave his Spirit Cabinet to Houdini at the conclusion of that event. This Spirit Cabinet was a 'new' cabinet and not the one he toured with years before. The Kellar Book by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel says so on page 498. Later, in the New Conjurer's Magazine Vol 1, in 1945, Hardeen ran an ad selling off a number of the Houdini/Hardeen equipment, at the top of the list was the Kellar Spirit Cabinet. The ad even says it had been used by Frederick Eugene Powell and also by Hardeen.

Patrick Culliton mentions this ad in his Nov 1993 Genii article called "Where The Magic Went". He states that no one knows what has happened to The Vanishing Donkey and the Black and White Illusion that were also listed in that advertisement. However, there is no mention of the Kellar Spirit Cabinets whereabouts.

I have found a record of the Hardeen/Kellar Spirit Cabinet, I'm calling it that to differentiate between it and others. It was sold to Dr. Carl S.Frischkorn of Norfolk, Virginia, known as Karland the magician. This appeared in the April 1945 edition of the New Conjurers Magazine. I also found out that Dr. Frischkorn was a member of SAM Assembly #32 in Lynchburg. Norfolk and Lynchburg are NOT close to each other by any stretch. There is also an IBM Ring in Norfolk that at one time was named after Dr. Frischkorn, but apparently they have since renamed it. OK, big question, where is THAT cabinet today??? I'm still hunting and perhaps it resides somewhere between Norfolk and Lynchburg, or perhaps it was sold to a collector? Don't know yet, but I'm searching.

Kellar's 'Original' Spirit Cabinet that he used in the U.S.  would have been sold to Howard Thurston in the big sale. And Thurston only kept a couple of the Kellar pieces in his show, one was the Floating Lady and the other was The Spirit Cabinet.

Here is an interesting twist to the story. In the Sept 1923 issue of The Sphinx on page 195 a magician by the name of Walter Ross, professionally known as Nazami the Mentalist claims to have had in his possession the ORIGINAL Kellar Spirit Cabinet. According to the little blurb it says the cabinet weighed over 600 lbs and Ross intended to start a tour of Vaudeville with the prop. Hmm, did Thurston sell the cabinet or is this another 'original'?

Now I vaguely recall reading that Joseph Dunninger owned a Spirit Cabinet belonging to someone famous, but I want to say it was the Davenport Spirit Cabinet, though I could be wrong, it very well might be where the Kellar cabinet wound up.

But my big question is, does anyone know where Kellar's Spirit Cabinet resides today? Have any of the Mexican Spirit Cabinets ever showed up? I think I might know...stay tuned for part 2.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Odd Dr. Slade

A friend of mine sent me information on the grave of Dr. Henry Slade, but I couldn't quite recall who he was. I thought he had something to do with 'spiritualism' but was not totally certain so the research began. His name shows up in magic periodicals and even magic books. So who was Dr. Henry Slade?

He was born in Johnson Creek New York in 1836 and at an early age showed signs of having some sort of psychic ability. The claim was he had some sort of telekinetic power and could cause objects to move and even levitate. Let's stop right there for a moment and get some historical perspective.

In 1848, two sisters, Margaret and Katie Fox of Hydesville NY began to produce spiritualistic manifestations in the way of rapping sounds. This unusual phenomenon had never occurred before and when the news got out the world of so-called spirit communication took off. By 1954, two brothers, Ira and William Davenport were presenting something they called 'The Spirit Cabinet' in which manifestations also took place. The brothers were from Buffalo NY. And guess what town sits right in the middle between Buffalo and Hydesville............Johnson Creek.

Henry Slade would have been 12 when the Fox Sisters started their 'spiritualistic work'. As I mentioned before, as a boy Henry showed 'signs' of some sort of unusual power. Quite interestingly, the two young Davenport boys also showed 'signs' of unusual powers at a young age, all of this right after the word of the Fox Sisters hit the newspapers. For the record, people who could create these manifestations were referred to as  'Spirit Mediums'.

Slade moved to Michigan when he was 20. His title of 'Dr' apparently was not a medical doctor but rather a 'spiritual doctor'. His signature spiritualist manifestation was called 'Slate Writing'. At the time a very common item was a small square or rectangular piece of chalkboard or blackboard that was used by school children, these were called slates. Dr. Slade would show the several slates to have no writing upon them and during the course of his seances, writing would appear. This writing, he claimed, were messages from the dead. And to make his 'slate writing' even more exciting, the words were often written in different languages.

The spiritualist community recognizes that Dr. Henry Slade inventing or discovering slate writing. He certainly gets credit for it's popularity. If you're wondering how this fits into magic history, well let me explain that the Fox Sisters and the Davenport Brothers all later revealed that what they were doing was fake. In other words, they used what we would call 'magical methods' to create their effects. Magicians of the time knew this and that's why many of them included 'fake spirit effects' in their shows. Others, like Harry Kellar actually exposed the methods used by fake spirit mediums in their performances.

Slade apparently made millions of dollars over the course of his career by presenting seances and slate writing exhibitions. He traveled to Europe and performed before many of the royal families. At the height of his career it was near impossible to get a sitting with Dr. Slade. Even with the exposures in the press and by magicians like Kellar and by scientific investigators, his popularity continued.

That popularity stopped when he was beaten and robbed one evening in NY. He lost $10,000 worth of money and diamonds, likely everything he had. Ten Thousand dollars in the late 19th Century would be about $250,000 today, he could have lived on that the rest of his life. But now the money was gone and on top of that he developed some sort of paralysis after his injuries. He continued to give sittings but now at the discount price of .50 cents. His frail body, lack of money and constant exposure of mediums in the press and in theatres brought his career to an end. He would up in a Sanatorium in Detroit. And died on September 9th, 1905 and was buried in a paupers grave in Battle Creek Michigan.

But the story doesn't quite end there. A number of famous spiritualists of the time found out about Slade being buried in Battle Creek and began to take up a collection to have his grave moved to Albion Michigan. It was discovered that Slade owned a plot in the Riverside Cemetery there. They did get his grave moved and now he rests beneath a very large monumental tombstone with the following inscription on it "Henry Slade, renowned throughout the world as the first spiritualist medium for the independent slate writing. Retired to spirit life September 8,1905 after an earthly visit of 69 years, 5 months and 22 days. With toil now finished, with soul set free, he now enters eternity."

So was Slade the genuine spirit medium that he claimed or was he like the Davenport Brothers, the Fox Sisters, Anna Eva Fay and others of the time, a fake? Well, he had been exposed a number of times. The most damning exposure came from Remigius Weiss who caught Slade in the act and forced him to sign a document stating that his manifestations were all done through trickery. Weiss later gave the document to Harry Houdini to be used in his book A Magician Among the Spirits.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Civil War Era Magicians Part 7

Ira and William Davenport certainly have that 'Civil War Era' look. They were two brothers from upstate New York. Probably influenced by the news of the Fox Sisters and the spirit manifestations they created, the Brothers developed an act of their own. In 1854 they introduced their Spirit Cabinet to America and along with the Fox Sisters, set the world into believing that contact with the spirits of recently departed people could be easily accomplished.

They did not fight in the war, but their direct connection to the Civil War is more than eerie. April 1861 while in Chicago , the brothers were conducting a seance, when a voice was heard coming from a spirit trumpet. This spirit voice declared a military conflict was taking place off the coast of South Carolina at Fort Sumter between the North and the South. This is a time long before mass media and news traveled slow.  Yet somehow this 'spirit' seemed to know what was taking place half way across the country.  The Davenport's spirit guides revealed the start of the Civil War before the actual news of the event arrived by telegraph! Though astonishing, this bit of information did not make them famous, as they already were famous. It caused those who believed in them to become more devout and those that questioned them to stand back and wonder how they were doing this. The Davenport Brothers continued to tour the Northern States during the War but departed for England in 1864.

Samri S. Baldwin
Next we have Samuel S. Baldwin, who went by Samri Baldwin and his stage moniker was 'The White Mahatma'. He was born in Cincinnati Ohio in 1848. Baldwin is credited for taking the question and answer techniques used in seances and turning them into a mentalism feat for the stage. So clever were his techniques that many are still used today.

His interest in the mystery arts came from watching and then following the Davenport Brothers around. Eventually, Baldwin was able to duplicate the feats presented by the brothers.  During the Civil War he joined the Ohio 83rd Infantry Regiment, Company B. He was the drummerboy for the regiment. After the war was over in 1865, Samri Baldwin began his performing career. He would continue to perform until his death on March 10th, 1924.

Next we have Fred Bearns, known as 'Bearns, The Monarch of All Ventriloquists and High Priest of Magic'. Not much is known about Bearns except he joined the 14th New York State Militia during the Civil War. He was captured and held prisoner in Richmond Va. After the war he used the billing, "Returned Prisoner of War from Richmond, with his Most Charming Experiments in Magic and Ventriloquism". No photo or poster remains of Fred Bearns to my knowledge.

Harry Kellar's first boss, The Fakir of Ava, was really Isaiah Harris Hughes and was born in Essex England on December 25, 1810. He moved to America and was quite a successful performer. He did well during the Civil War, though he did not enlist or fight.

Hughes presented a 'Gift Show' similar to what Wyman the Wizard, John Henry Anderson and others were using at the time. This technique seemed to work for him as the NY Times Obituary says he died a wealthy man.

Last on my list of Civil War era magicians is someone I've written about quite extensively, William Henry Palmer, better known as Robert Heller. Mr. Heller worked as a magician and musician prior to the Civil War. In the 1850s he was forced into a sort of early retirement from magic and moved to Washington D.C. and became a Music Professor.

Around 1861, as the Civil War started, Heller began to get back into magic. By 1864 he opened on Broadway with a hit show called "Sallie Diabolpue". Please click the link on his name to read more about the incredible Robert Heller. I have a three part article on Heller and a fourth and possibly fifth part coming later in the year.

There is no doubt I will have missed a number of magicians who also had some part to play during the Civil War. I'm actually amazed that I found as many as I did and it seems like more information on others pop up daily. This however will be the final blog on the magicians of the Civil War.  I hope you have enjoyed this historical journey. For those of you who would like a little more, there will be one more Civil War related article about the MAGIC of the Civil War magicians.

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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who was William Fay?

Houdini and William Fay in Australia

His name was William Marion Fay, born in 1840. He was a resident of Buffalo, NY who had an early interest in magic. Various magic histories show his name as William Melville Fay, but his tombstone clearly has his middle name as Marion. He was not related at all to Anna Eva Fay though they share the same last name. I found a reference to the fact that William Fay was doing a 'Second Sight Act' similar to that of Robert Heller's, but I don't know when. My guess is it was prior to going to work for the Davenports.

In 1864 he was hired by the Davenport Brothers to be their Tour Manager as they sailed to England, replacing the Davenport's father. Fay would also be a back-up performer for William Henry Davenport at times when he was too ill to perform. Given that he was interested in 'magic' it's safe to say that the Davenport's taught their rope technique to William Fay. That alone should dispell any belief that the Davenport brothers were creating legitimate spirit manifestations(as if anyone still believes that to be so).

In 1869, a young man by the name of Harry Kellar joined the troupe. It appears that he took over the managing job that William Fay had. Fay was still with the company and surely filled in whenever he was needed. In 1873, Kellar had a falling out with William Henry Davenport and abruptly quit. But he didn't go alone, as William Fay left the employment of the Davenports and went with Harry Kellar.

The two performers joined forces in the Spring of 1873 and began to tour the United States. Calling themselves Fay & Kellar, probably because William Fay was older than Harry and it was a case of age before beauty. Harry Kellar would do the act that he learned while working with the Fakir of Ava and then the conclusion of the show would be a recreation of The Davenport Cabinet, or what is known today as The Spirit Cabinet. The act apparently was not an immediate success as lack of money left them occasionally stranded.

Their luck would change however. Kellar secured some dates for them in Cuba. At the Albisu Theatre in Havana it was said they made over $3000 during their first night on stage. Success continued for them on their tour of Cuba. From there the two went to Mexico and again met with great success. To cut down on their travel expenses they hit upon the novel idea of leaving the Spirit Cabinet behind in each city they played and simply had a new one built when they got to their next destination. Back in this time, the Spirit Cabinet was just that, a very large wooden cabinet. There was nothing faked or gimmicked about it so having the locals build a new one was easy.

Royal Mail Steamship Boyne
From Mexico they sailed on to South America and toured all over the country. The tour of South America was successful with the exception of a couple weeks in December 1874. By July 1875, the South American tour was complete and Fay and Kellar got on board a steamship called the BOYNE and set sail for Portugal.

On August 18, 1875, the BOYNE hit ground near Ushant Island and sank in the Bay of Biscay. This Ushant Island is just off the coast of France. This area of the Bay of Biscay has claimed numerous ships over the years. The Boyne was not the first ship to go down and would not be the last. Fay and Kellar survived the shipwreck but they lost all of their belongings and show props and money.  This marks the end of the Fay & Kellar partnership. They both returned to England but headed their separate ways. Kellar was determined to rebuild his act. While Fay lucked out and rejoined the Davenport Brothers who had just arrived back in England.

The Davenport Brothers were back in England at the same time that William Fay arrived in the country. He rejoined their company and traveled with them to Australia. In 1877, William Henry Davenport who had suffered from poor health for years, died in Sydney. His brother Ira Davenport returned to the United States and William Fay remained behind and settled down in Melbourne Australia. He married Eliza Lydia and together they had one son Franklin.

Whenever Harry Kellar was on tour in Australia he would make a point to visit his old friend and partner William Fay. One year he spent the Christmas holidays with the Fays.

In 1895, Ira Erastus Davenport had the brilliant idea of starting up the act again and he contacted William Fay in Australia to get his opinion. Fay decided to sail to America to join Ira Davenport.  Either the performances were below the standards of their youth, or just behind the times. Whatever the case, they threw in the towel after only three days. Ira retired to Mayville, NY. William Fay went back to Australia.

photo courtesy of Kent Blackmore
Fay died in Australia on July 16th, 1921 at the ripe old age of 81. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery along with the rest of his family.

In the near future I will have a blog article on the Davenport Brothers and their Incredible Cabinet. But I thought you might enjoy learning a little bit about this lesser known part of the company who also worked with Harry Kellar.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about William Henry Davenport, one half of the Davenport Brothers, Kent Blackmore has written an incredible article on him. He has also graciously allowed me to use this grave photo to the left.

The location of the grave at the Melbourne General Cemetery can be found  here: