The Davenport Brothers Their Rise And Progress

The Davenport Brothers are natives of Buffalo, N. Y., and in that city

commenced their career as "mediums" about twelve years ago. They were

then mere lads. For some time, their operations were confined to their

own place, where, having obtained considerable notoriety through the

press, they were visited by people from all parts of the country. But,

in 1855, they were induced by John F. Coles, a very worthy spiritualist

of New York City, to visit that metropolis, and there exhibit their

powers. Under the management of Mr. Coles, they held "circles" afternoon

and evening, for several days, in a small hall at 195 Bowery. The

audience were seated next the walls, the principal space being required

for the use of "the spirits." The "manifestations" mostly consisted in

the thrumming and seemingly rapid movement about the hall of several

stringed instruments, the room having been made entirely dark, while the

boys were supposed or asserted to be quietly seated at the table in the

centre. Two guitars, with sometimes a banjo, were the instruments used,

and the noise made by "the spirits" was about equal to the united

honking of a large flock of wild geese. The manifestations were stunning

as well as astonishing; for not only was the sense of hearing smitten by

the dreadful sounds, but, sometimes, a member of the circle would get a

"striking demonstration" over his head!

At the request of the "controlling spirit," made through a horn, the

hall was lighted at intervals during the entertainment, at which times

the mediums could be seen seated at the table, looking very innocent and

demure, as if they had never once thought of deceiving anybody. On one

of these occasions, however, a policeman suddenly lighted the hall by

means of a dark lantern, without having been specially called upon to do

so; and the boys were clearly seen with instruments in their hands. They

dropped them as soon as they could, and resumed their seats at the

table. Satisfied that the thing was a humbug, the audience left in

disgust; and the policeman was about to march the boys to the

station-house on the charge of swindling, when he was prevailed upon to

remain and farther test the matter. Left alone with them, and the three

seated together at the table on which the instruments had been placed,

he laid, at their request, a hand on each medium's head; they then

clasped both his arms with their hands. While they remained thus

situated (as he supposed,) the room being dark, one of the instruments,

with an infernal twanging of its strings, rose from the table and hit

the policeman several times on the head; then a strange voice through

the trumpet advised him not to interfere with the work of the spirits by

persecuting the mediums! Considerably astonished, if not positively

scared, he took his hat and left, fully persuaded that there was

"something in it!"

The boys produced the manifestations by grasping the neck of the

instrument, swinging it around, and thrusting it into different parts of

the open space of the room, at the same time vibrating the strings with

the fore-finger. The faster the finger passed over the strings, the more

rapidly the instrument seemed to move. Two hands could thus use as many


When sitting with a person at the table, as they did with the policeman,

one hand could be taken off the investigator's arm without his knowing

it, by gently increasing, at the same time, the pressure of the other

hand. It was an easy matter then to raise and thrum the instrument or

talk through the horn.

About a dozen gentlemen--several of whom were members of the press--had

a private seance with the boys one afternoon, on which occasion "the

spirits" ventured upon an extra "manifestation." All took seats at one

side of a long, high table--the position of the mediums being midway of

the row. This time, a little, dim, ghostly gaslight was allowed in the

room. What seemed to be a hand soon appeared, partly above the edge of

the vacant side of the table, and opposite the "mediums." One excited

spiritualist present said he could see the finger-nails.

John F. Coles--who had for several days, suspected the innocence of the

boys--sprang from his seat, turned up the gaslight, and pounced on the

elder boy, who was found to have a nicely stuffed glove drawn partly on

to the toe of his boot. That, then, was the spirit-hand! The nails that

the imaginative spiritualist thought he saw were not on the fingers. The

boy alleged that the spirits made him attempt the deception.

The father of these boys, who had accompanied them to New York, took

them home immediately after that exposure. In Buffalo, they continued to

hold "circles," hoping to retrieve their lost reputation as good

mediums--by being, not more honest, but more cautious. To prevent any

one getting hold of them while operating, they hit upon the plan of

passing a rope through a button-hole of each gentleman's coat, the ends

to be held by a trusty person--assigning, as a reason for that

arrangement, that it would then be known no one in the circle could

assist in producing the manifestations. The plan did not always work

well, however; for a skeptic would sometimes cut the rope, and then

pounce upon "the spirit"--that is, if he didn't happen to miss that

individual, on account of the darkness and while trying to avoid a

collision with the instruments.

To secure greater immunity from detection, and to enable them to exhibit

in large halls which could not easily be darkened, the boys finally

fixed upon a "cabinet" as the best thing in which to work. They had,

some time before, made the "rope-test" a feature of their exhibitions;

and in their cabinet-show they depended for success in deceiving

entirely upon the presumption of the audience that their hands were so

secured with ropes as to prevent their playing upon the musical

instruments, or doing whatever else the spirits were assumed to do.

Their cabinet is about six feet high, six feet long, and two and a half

feet deep, the front consisting of three doors, opening outward. In each

end is a seat, with holes through which the ropes can be passed in

securing the mediums. In the upper part of the middle door is a

lozenge-shaped aperture, curtained on the inside with black muslin or

oilcloth. The bolts are on the inside of the doors.

The mediums are generally first tied by a committee of two gentlemen

appointed from the audience. The doors of the cabinet are then closed,

those at the ends first, and then the middle one, the bolt of which is

reached by the manager through the aperture.

By the time the end doors are closed and bolted, the Davenports, in many

instances, have succeeded in loosening the knots next their wrists, and

in slipping their hands out, the latter being then exhibited at the

aperture. Lest the hands should be recognized as belonging to the

mediums, they are kept in a constant shaking motion while in view; and

to make the hands look large or small, they spread or press together the

fingers. With that peculiar rapid motion imparted to them, four hands in

the aperture will appear to be half-a-dozen. A lady's flesh colored kid

glove, nicely stuffed with cotton, is sometimes exhibited as a female

hand--a critical observation of it never being allowed. It does not

take the medium long to draw the knots close to their wrists again. They

are then ready to be inspected by the Committee, who report them tied as

they were left. Supposing them to have been securely bound all the

while, those who witness the show are very naturally astonished.

Sometimes, after being tied by a committee, the mediums cannot readily

extricate their hands and get them back as they were; in which case they

release themselves entirely from the ropes before the doors are again

opened, concluding to wait till after "the spirits" have bound them,

before showing hands or making music.

It is a common thing for these impostors to give the rope between their

hands a twist while those limbs are being bound; and that movement, if

dexterously made, while the attention of the committee-men is

momentarily diverted, is not likely to be detected. Reversing that

movement will let the hand out.

The great point with the Davenports in tying themselves is, to have a

knot next their wrists that looks solid, "fair and square," at the same

time that they can slip it and get their hands out in a moment. There

are several ways of forming such a knot, one of which I will attempt to

describe. In the middle of a rope a square knot is tied, loosely at

first, so that the ends of the rope can be tucked through, in opposite

directions, below the knot, and the latter is then drawn tight. There

are then two loops--which should be made small--through which the hands

are to pass after the rest of the tying is done. Just sufficient slack

is left to admit of the hands passing through the loops, which, lastly,

are drawn close to the wrists, the knot coming between the latter. No

one, from the appearance of such a knot, would suspect it could be

slipped. The mediums thus tied can, immediately after the committee have

inspected the knots, and closed the doors, show hands or play upon

musical instruments, and in a few seconds be, to all appearance, firmly

tied again.

If flour has been placed in their hands, it makes no difference as to

their getting those members out of or into the ropes; but, to show hands

at the aperture, or to make a noise on the musical instruments, it is

necessary that they should get the flour out of one hand into the other.

The moisture of the hand and squeezing, packs the flour into a lump,

which can be laid into the other hand and returned without losing any.

The little flour that adheres to the empty hand can be wiped off in the

pantaloons pocket. The mediums seldom if ever take flour in their hands

while they are in the bonds put upon them by the committee. The

principal part of the show is after the tying has been done in their own

way. Wm. Fay, who accompanies the Davenports, is thus fixed when the

hypothetical spirits take the coat off his back.

As I before remarked, there are several ways in which the mediums tie

themselves. They always do it, however, in such a manner that, though

the tying looks secure, they can immediately get one or both hands out.

Let committees insist upon untying the knots of the spirits, whether the

mediums are willing or not. A little critical observation will enable

them to learn the trick.

To make this subject of tying clearer, I will repeat that the Davenports

always untie themselves by using their hands; as they are able in

ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, however impossible it may seem, to

release their hands by loosening the knots next their wrists. Sometimes

they do this by twisting the rope between their wrists; sometimes it is

by keeping their muscles as tense as possible during the tying, so that

when relaxed there shall be some slack. Most "committees" know so little

about tying, that anybody, by a little pulling, slipping, and wriggling,

could slip his hands out of their knots.

A violin, bell, and tambourine, with perhaps a guitar and drum, are the

instruments used by the Davenports in the cabinet. The one who plays the

violin holds the bell in his hand with the bow. The other chap beats the

tambourine on his knee, and has a hand for something else.

The "mediums" frequently allow a person to remain with them, providing

he will let his hands be tied to their knees, the operators having

previously been tied by "the spirits." The party who ventures upon that

experiment is apt to be considerably "mussed up," as "the spirits" are

not very gentle in their manipulations.

To expose all the tricks of these impostors would require more space

than I can afford at present. They have exhibited throughout the

Northern States and the Canadas; but never succeeded very well

pecuniarily until about two years ago, when they employed an agent, who

advertised them in such a way as to attract public attention. In

September last, they went to England, where they have since created

considerable excitement.

If the hands of these boys were tied close against the side of their

cabinet, the ropes passing through holes and fastened on the outside, I

think "the spirits" would always fail to work.

Dr. W. F. Van Vleck, of Ohio, to whom I am indebted for some of the

facts contained in this chapter, can beat the Davenport brothers at

their own game. In order that he might the better learn the various

methods pursued by the professed "mediums" in deceiving the public, Dr.

Van Vleck entered into the medium-business himself, and by establishing

confidential relations with those of the profession whose acquaintance

he made, he became duly qualified to expose them.

He was accepted and indorsed by leading spiritualists in different parts

of the country, as a good medium, who performed the most remarkable

spiritual wonders. As the worthy doctor practiced this innocent

deception on the professed mediums solely in order that he might thus be

able to expose their blasphemous impositions, the public will scarcely

dispute that in this case the end justified the means. I suppose it is

not possible for any professed medium to puzzle or deceive the doctor.

He is up to all their "dodges," because he has learned in their school.

Mediums always insist upon certain conditions, and those conditions are

just such as will best enable them to deceive the senses and pervert the


Anderson "the Wizard of the North," and other conjurers in England,

gave the Davenports battle, but the "prestidigitators" did not reap many

laurels. Conjurers are no more likely to understand the tricks of the

mediums than any other person is. Before a trick can be exposed it must

be learned. Dr. Van Vleck, having learned "the ropes," is competent to

expose them; and he is doing it in many interesting public lectures and


If the Davenports were exhibiting simply as jugglers, I might admire

their dexterity, and have nothing to say against them; but when they

presumptuously pretend to deal in "things spiritual," I consider it my

duty, while treating of humbugs, to do this much at least in exposing


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