XVI

Spiritualist humbugs waking up⁠—​Foster heard from⁠—​S. B. Brittan heard from⁠—​The Boston artists and their spiritual portraits⁠—​The Washington medium and his spiritual hands⁠—​The Davenport brothers and the sea-captain’s wheat-flour⁠—​The Davenport brothers roughly shown up by John Bull⁠—​How a shingle “stumped” the spirits.

I hear from spiritualists sometimes. These gentry are much exercised in their minds by my letters about them, and some of them fly out at me very much as bumblebees do at one who stirs up their nest. For instance, I received, not long ago, from my good friends, Messrs. Cauldwell & Whitney, an anonymous letter to them, dated at Washington, and suggesting that if I would attend what the latter calls “a séance of that celebrated humbug, Foster,” I should see something that I could not explain. Now, this anonymous letter, as I know by a spiritual communication, (or otherwise,) is in a handwriting very wonderfully like that of Mr. Foster himself. And as for the substance of it, it is very likely that Foster has now gotten up some new tricks. He needs them. The exhibiting mediums must, of course, contrive new tricks as fast as Dr. Von Vleck and men like him show up their old ones. It is the universal method of all sorts of impostors to adopt new means of fooling people when their old ones are exposed. And Mr. Foster shall have all the attention he wants if I ever find the leisure to bestow on him, though my time is fully occupied with worthier objects.

I have also been complimented with a buzz and an attempt to sting from my old friend S. B. Brittan, the ex-Universalist minister⁠—the very surprisingly efficient “man Friday” of Andrew Jackson Davis, in the production of the “Revelations” of the said Davis, and also ghost-fancier in general; who has gently aired part of his vocabulary in a communication to the Banner of Light, with the heading “Exposed for Two Shillings.” I can afford very well to expose friend Brittan and his spiritualist humbugs for two shillings. The honester the cheaper. It evidently vexes the spiritualists to have their ghosts put with the monkeys in the Museum. They can’t help it, though; and it is my deliberate opinion that the monkeys are much the most respectable. I have no wish to displease any honest person; but the more the spiritualists squirm, and snarl, and scold, and call names, the more they show that I am hurting them. Or⁠—does my friend Brittan himself want an engagement at the Museum? Will he produce some “manifestations” there, and get that $500?⁠—the money is ready!

A valued friend of mine has furnished me a pleasant and true narrative of a fine “spiritual” humbug which took place in a respectable Massachusetts village not very long ago. I give the story in his own graphic words:

“Two artists of Boston, tired of the atmosphere of their studios, resolved themselves, in joint session, into spiritual mediums, as a means of raising the wind⁠—or the devil⁠—and of getting a little fresh air in the rural districts. One of them had learned Mansfield’s trick of answering communications and that of writing on the arms. They had large handbills printed, announcing that ‘Mr. W. Howard, the celebrated test-medium, would visit the town of ⸻, and would remain at the ⸻ Hotel during three days.’ One of the artists preceded the other by a few hours, engaged rooms, and attended to sundry preliminaries. “Mr. Howard” donned a white choker, put his hair behind his ears, and mounted a pair of plain glass spectacles; and such was his profoundly spiritual appearance on entering his apartments at the hotel, that he had to lock the door and give his partner opportunity to explode, and absolutely roll about on the floor with laughter.

“Well, they rigged a clotheshorse for a screen; and to heighten the effect, the assistant, who was expert in portraiture, covered this screen, and, indeed, the walls of the room, with scraggy outlines of the human countenance upon large sheets of paper. These, they said, were executed by the draftsman, whose right hand, when under spiritual influence, uncontrollably jerked off these likenesses. They added, that the spirits had given information that, before the mediums left town, the people would recognize these pictures as likenesses of persons there deceased within twenty years or so. Price, two dollars each! They absolutely sold quite a large number of these portraits, as they were from time to time recognized by surviving friends! The operation of drawing portraits was also illustrated at certain hours, admission, fifty cents; if not satisfactory, the money returned.

“Other tricks of various kinds were performed with pleasure to all parties and profit to the performers. The artists stood it as long as they could, and then departed. But there was every indication that the townspeople would have stood it until this day.”

Thus far my friend’s curious and truthful account.

A little while ago, there was exhibiting, at Washington, a “test-medium” whose name I would print, were it not that I do not want to advertise him. One of his most impressive feats was, to cause spiritual hands and other parts of the human frame to appear in the air à la Davenport Brothers. A gentleman, whose name I also know very well indeed, but have particular reasons for not mentioning, went one day to see this “test-medium,” along with a friend, and asked to see a hand. “Certainly,” the medium said; and the room was darkened, and the “circle” made round the table in the usual manner. After about five minutes, my friend, who had contrived to place himself pretty near the medium, saw, sure enough, a dim glimmering blue light in the air, a foot or so before and above the head of the medium. In a minute, he could see, dimly outlined in this blue light, the form of a hand, back toward him, fingers together, and no thumb.

“Why is no thumb visible?” asked my friend of the medium in a solemn manner.

“The reason is,” said the medium, still more solemnly, “that the spirits have not power enough to produce a whole hand and so they exhibit as much as they can.”

“And do they always show hands without thumbs?”

“Yes.”

Here my friend, with a sudden jump, grabbed for the place where the wrist of the mysterious hand ought to be. Strange to relate, he caught it, and held it stoutly, to. A light was quickly had, when, still stranger, the spirit-hand was clearly seen to be the fleshy paw of the medium⁠—and a fat paw it was too. Mr. Medium took the matter with the coolness of a thorough rascal, and, lighting a cigar, merely observed:

“Well gentlemen, you needn’t trouble yourselves to come here any more!”

He also insisted on his usual fee of five dollars, until threatened with a prosecution for swindling.

The secret of this worthy gentleman is simple and soon told. Holding one hand up in the air, he held up with the other, between the thumb and finger, a little pinch of phosphorus and bi-sulphide of carbon, which gave the blue light. If inconvenient to hold up the other hand, he had a reserve pinch of blue-light under that invisible thumb. It is a curious instance of the thorough credulity of genuine spiritualists that a believer in this wretched rogue, on being circumstantially told this whole story, not only steadily and firmly refused to credit it, and continued his faith in the fellow, but absolutely would not go to see the application of any other test. That’s the sort of follower that is worth having!

Another case was witnessed as follows, by the very same person on whose authority I give the spirit-hand story. He was present⁠—also, this time in Washington, as it happened, at an exhibition by a certain pair of spiritual brothers, since well known as the “Davenport Brothers.”

These chaps, after the fashion of their kind, caused themselves to be tied up in a rope, an old sea-captain tying them. This done, their “shop” or cabinet, was shut upon them as usual, and the bangs, throwing of sticks, etc., through a window, and the like, took place. Well, this sly and inconvenient old sea-captain now slipped out of the hall a few minutes, and came back with some wheat flour. Having tied up the “brothers” again, he remarked:

“Now, gentlemen, please to take, each, your two hands full of wheat flour.”

The “brothers” got mad and flatly refused. Then they cooled down and argued, saying it wouldn’t make any difference, and was of no use.

“Well,” said the ancient mariner, “if it won’t make any difference you can just as well do it, can’t you?”

The audience, seeing the point, were so evidently pleased with the old sailor, that the grumbling “brothers” though with a very bad grace, took their fists full of flour, and were shut up.

There was not the least sign of a “manifestation”⁠—no more than if the wheat-flour had shot the “brothers” dead in their tracks. The audience were immensely delighted. The “brothers,” since that time, have learned to perform some tricks with flour in their fists, but only when tied by their own friends.

Since these facts came to my knowledge, the Davenport Brothers have suffered an unpleasant exposure in Liverpool, in England, the details of which have been kindly forwarded to me by attentive friends there. The circumstances in question occurred on the evenings of Tuesday and Wednesday, February 14 and 15, 1865. On the first of these evenings, a gentleman named Cummins, selected by the audience as one of the Tying Committee, tied one of the Brothers, and a Mr. Hulley, the other committeeman, the other. But the Brothers saw instantly that they could not wriggle out of these knots. They, therefore, refused to let the tying be finished, saying that it was “brutal” although a surgeon present said it was not; one tied brother was untied by Ferguson, the agent; and then the Brothers went to work and performed their various tricks without the supervision of any committee, but amid a constant fire of derision, laughter, groans, shouts, and epithets from the audience. On the next evening, the audience insisted on having the same committee; the Brothers were very reluctant to allow it, but had to do so after a long time. Ira Davenport refused again, however, instantly to be tied, as soon as he saw what knot Mr. Cummins was going to use. Cummins, however, though Ira squirmed most industriously, got him tied fast, and then Ira called to Ferguson to cut the knot! Ferguson did so, and cut Ira’s hand. Ira now showed the blood to the audience, and the Brothers, with an immense pretense of indignation, went off the stage. Cummins at once explained; the audience became disgusted, and, enraged at the impudence of the imposture, broke over the footlights, knocked Ferguson backward into the “cabinet;” and when the discomfited agent had scrambled out and run away, smashed the thing fairly into kindling-wood, and carried it off, all distributed into splinters and chips. Early next morning, the terrified Davenports ran away out of Liverpool; and a number of the audience were, at last accounts, intending to go to law to get back the money paid for an exhibition which they did not see.

The very thorough exposure of the Davenports thus made is an additional proof⁠—if such were needed⁠—of the truth of what I have alleged about the impostures perpetrated by them and their “mysterious” brethren of the exhibiting sort.

Once the “spirits” were “stumped” with a shingle⁠—a very proper yankee jawbone of an ass to route such disembodied Philistines. One day a certain person was present where some tables were rambling about, and other revolutions taking place in the furniture-business, when he stepped boldly forth like a herald bearing defiance, and cast down a common white pine shingle upon the floor. “There,” said he, coolly, “if you can trot those tables about in that style, do it with that shingle. Make it go about the room. Make it move an inch!” And lo, and behold! the shingle lay perfectly still.