The Davenport brothers, their rise and progress⁠—​Spiritual rope-tying⁠—​Music playing⁠—​Cabinet secrets⁠—​“They choose darkness rather than light,” etc.⁠—​The spiritual hand⁠—​How the thing is done⁠—​Dr. W. F. Van Vleck.

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 center. 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 forefinger. The faster the finger passed over the strings, the more rapidly the instrument seemed to move. Two hands could thus use as many instruments.

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 séance 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 fingernails.

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 anyone getting hold of them while operating, they hit upon the plan of passing a rope through a buttonhole 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 committeemen 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 endorsed 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 judgment.

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 illustrations.

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 them.