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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

Davenport brothers The American Davenport brothers, Ira (1839-1911) and William (1841-1877), caused a major sensation in the late 1800s with a spectacular and puzzling vaudeville stage act which seemed to support belief in spiritualist doctrine. It consisted of their being tied hand and foot and then being locked into a large cabinet with an assortment of props. Bells would sound, musical instruments would be played, strange hands would appear through openings in the cabinet, and a bewildered member taken from the audience would have his clothes turned inside out and various other indignities would be inflicted on him. The cabinet was often opened quickly right in the midst of these events, and the two Davenports were always found to be still securely bound and seemingly “in trance.”
      The brothers had developed their act as teenagers, following the sensation caused by the Fox sisters. Before long the father of the two “mediums” resigned his position with the Buffalo, New York, police force and took over managing what quickly got to be a very profitable operation. They were joined by William H. Fay, another Buffalo resident who became an important agent of their operation. They developed their tied-in-a-box routine and for the next ten years toured the United States with it. Then they arrived in England, a country that had accepted the idea of spiritualism enthusiastically and still embraced it even after it had begun to wane in the country where it was born. England was fully primed for belief in the Davenports.


The Davenport brothers, whose tied-in-a-box routine caused a major sensation in the late 1800s.

      An important part of the Davenport act was their spokesman, a Presbyterian minister with a wonderfully sepulchral voice, Dr. J. B. Ferguson. This reverend gentleman assured the audience that the Davenports had been given divine powers and worked by spirit power alone, and not, as he phrased it, by “the wit-craft of the commercial.” Ferguson said that the bell ringing and other phenomena happened independently of the brothers, and that it occurred “for the glory of God and the greater enlightenment of weak humanity.”
      Many who saw this act attributed the effects to spirit forces; it seemed impossible for the Davenports——and the many others who subsequently imitated their act——to have done the tricks by other than supernatural means. But one must remember that magicians regularly perform equally confounding feats, and they do not claim for them any diabolical powers or collusion.
      Today, in the United States, Glenn Falkenstein and his wife Frances Willard perform an incredible replication of the Davenport act which might even be better than the original, and they make it clear that they are performing an entertaining conjuring trick.
      Ira Davenport, in 1909, wrote to the famous American magician and escape artist Harry Houdini an explanation of their philosophy concerning the act that he and his brother had performed:  


      We never in public affirmed our belief in spiritualism, that we regarded as no business of the public, nor did we offer our entertainments 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.

      This self-righteous disavowal pales when the record of the Davenports is examined, since they never admitted cheating and as teenagers they were an important part of such events as the Cambridge investigation and always put forth every effort to convince researchers that they were producing genuine spiritualistic phenomena.



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