Davenport, The Brothers
Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and his younger brother, William Henry Harrison Davenport (1841-1877), were two of the most spectacular mediums of the 19th century. Their stage act, with its demonstration of apparently supernatural powers, caused intense excitement and controversy. They first came to public notice while they were still small boys, in the wake of the curious events at the farm of the Fox family in Hydesville, New York. Previous occupants of the farmhouse had been troubled by mysterious knocks in the night. In 1848 one of the Fox children, Kate, allegedly challenged the 'spirit' responsible for the knocks to rap as many times as she snapped her fingers. This the spirit did, and eventually a code of raps was established.
The Fox rappings aroused great interest, some of which spread to the Davenport brothers, in nearby Buffalo, who were able to produce sounds from musical instruments which were hung near them in a darkened room, while they were tied up with heavy ropes. In their later, more elaborate display the brothers were tied hand and foot at opposite ends of a giant box, with doors. When the doors were shut, bells were heard to ring, musical instruments inside the box were played and 'spirit hands' appeared at an opening in one of the doors.
Whether the Davenports had any genuine mediumistic powers, or whether they were nothing more than brilliant showmen and illusionists, was hotly debated. Many people believed in them, and some still do, but stage conjurors of the time, including J. N. Maskelyne and Houdini, the great escape artist who became a violent opponent of spiritualism, were convinced that they could duplicate the Davenports' effects. In a letter which he wrote to Houdini in 1909, Ira Davenport sat on the fence:
"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 results of sleight of hand, nor on the other hand as spiritualism, we let our friends and foes settle that as best they could between themselves. The friends and foes never did settle it, and have not yet."
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Sources: (1) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (2) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (3) The Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition Handy Volume Edition, Oxford University Press.
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