The Feud Over Fraud: The Davenport Brothers vs. Maskelyne

December 30, 2017

A magician has a peculiar, powerful hold over an audience. Magicians can convince people of impossible things, but while most prefer to do so for entertainment purposes there are some who practice what P.T. Barnum called “humbug,” and fleece audiences with outrageous claims of mystical power. The magical community has long fought back against these flim-flam artists, loathe to see their beloved methods used for nefarious means. Such was the case when the Davenport brothers tangled with John Nevil Maskelyne in 1865, when both the spiritualists and the magician were at the beginning of their long careers.

If you had any interest in matters spiritual and you were alive in the 1860s, you knew who the Davenport brothers were. Ira, born 1839, and his younger brother William from Buffalo, New York, were wonder workers. They communed with the Great Beyond, bringing the ghosts of the departed on stage with them to perform, but whether it was for your entertainment or education was deliberately obscure. Perhaps these Irish Americans genuinely believed in the spirit realm and all things mediumistic. Perhaps, as Ira later protested to escapologist and enemy of fakers Harry Houdini, it was all a gag.

The Davenports had their magical education early, at the hands of their father Ira, a Buffalo cop. Father Ira was a steady source of ghost stories and claimed to have invented several ingenious escapology rope tricks, which he taught his sons. They practiced their spiritualist art on neighbors, inviting them to an evening with the dead in which the brothers would be tied tightly, the lights turned off, and in the darkness things would move apparently without the help of human hands. In actuality the brothers were slipping their bonds and performing the ghost routine themselves, but audiences were very willing to believe otherwise.

The Davenports, realizing how big their act could be, went on tour in the States with father Ira as stage manager and promoter. They had two simple routines, which they called their dark and light séances. In the dark séance the brothers invited a volunteer from the audience up on stage to sit with them. The volunteer was instructed to grip both Davenports and never let go. All light would be extinguished and, in complete darkness, things moved around and strange sounds were heard. This was their Buffalo routine all over again, and since they had as many as ten helpers available for any performance, the brothers could – and did – get away with almost anything.

It was the light séance that captured everyone’s attention. In that performance the brothers were tied up by volunteers from the audience, and supervised by a committee chosen by the audience. They were placed in an ordinary cabinet with holes cut in its sides large enough for hands to fit through, which allowed viewers a peek at what might be happening inside. The box also contained musical instruments. The cabinet doors closed. All curtains were drawn and light sources dimmed, giving the performance area a ghostly look. Then the musical instruments began to play, and ghost hands poked out of the holes in the cabinet, a bit of added showmanship. The audience never saw the Davenports escape their ropes; as far as they were concerned, spirits were behind it all. Crowds went wild.

The Davenport séances were a tremendous draw for those who believed that the dead continued to evolve and grow in the afterlife, and could offer guidance to the living. The brothers satisfied that need by proving beyond question that the spirits were listening to us, and had learned to play the guitar. The brothers even had a Presbyterian minister, Dr. J.B. Ferguson, with a uniquely saturnine voice, acting as their spokesman and emcee. Dr. Ferguson would proclaim at each performance that these miracles occurred “for the glory of God and the greater enlightenment of weak humanity.” Who would doubt him?

The brothers had their detractors. In 1865, showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum ruthlessly exposed their fakery in his book Humbugs of the World. “If the Davenports were exhibiting simply as jugglers,” wrote Barnum, “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.” English audiences keenly awaited the Davenport brothers in spite of Barnum’s accusations of fraud and the pair soon embarked on their first overseas venture.

It wasn’t a smooth tour. In their early appearances the Davenports were flummoxed by two conjurers, Hulley and Cummings, who volunteered to tie them up at a Liverpool performance. Their Tom-Fool’s Knot proved impossible to break, and an enraged audience smashed the Davenports’ cabinet. Hulley and Cummings followed the Davenports to Leeds and Huddersfield, where they again disrupted the mediums’ routine.

Then, in March of 1865, they crossed paths with a future master of magic, John Nevil Maskelyne.

Maskelyne, at that time a twenty-five year old clockmaker and repairer of mechanical devices, had dealt with spiritualists before. A group of mediums had asked him to repair a simple mechanical device, without mentioning what it was supposed to do. After investigating its workings, Maskelyne repaired it and sent it back with his bill: ‘Repairs to rapping apparatus, 1s 6d.’ He knew it was a trick, and now they knew he knew. Table rapping, also known as ghost knocking, quickly fell out of favor in Cheltenham.

Maskelyne’s role in the Davenport performance was special: he was asked to be one of the committee and as such, he wasn’t sitting with the audience. He was up on stage with the cabinet. When one of the window curtains slipped, illuminating for a split second one of the cheating Davenports, limbs clearly free, Maskelyne saw everything.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “By a slight accident, I have been able to discover this trick.”

Though Maskelyne explained the ruse, a clergyman present, probably Dr. Ferguson, scoffed at his expose, and the Davenports pretended nothing had happened. This incident inspired Maskelyne. If the Davenports wouldn’t admit to fakery even when they were caught in the act, he’d make sure everyone knew what the Davenports were doing by copying their act – and improving on it.

He joined forces with fellow musician and Volunteer Rifles Band member, George Alfred Cooke. Together they took the Davenports’ routine apart bit by bit, and then spent the next three months perfecting their own version.

In addition to faithfully copying everything the Davenports did, Maskelyne and Cooke added one special variant. They created a completely new illusion in which Maskelyne would be put inside a small, plain box, three foot by two foot by one and a half feet deep. This box was tied shut with ropes and chain, and then the box, with Maskelyne in it, was put inside the cabinet. Minutes later when the Cabinet was opened, Maskelyne sat atop the small box, which was still chained and tied shut.

“This is a trick which the Davenport Brothers never attempted,” wrote the Birmingham Gazette in its review, “And, (as Barnum has it somewhere), ‘it must be seen to be believed.’”

Maskelyne began by wanting to show people exactly how the Davenports were defrauding them, but in doing so he discovered a whole new career. Maskelyne and Cooke performed the trick again and again locally, adding comic routines to draw crowds, all the while debunking spiritualist fraud with their fake séances. They took the act on tour for two years, ending with performances at the Crystal Palace, London, one of the premier performance spaces in the country. Then they took a rental at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, where they established a semi-permanent magical home for over thirty years. They invented trick after trick, developing new routines each more elaborate than the last, becoming true artists, unlike the Davenports who were satisfied with one simple ruse. From this base John Nevil would found the Maskelyne dynasty, three generations of stage magicians.

Exposure didn’t worry the Davenports, any more than crowds breaking up their spirit cabinet delayed their progress across Europe. Whenever another enraged mob destroyed their equipment – which, after all, was just a wooden cabinet with some holes cut in the side – they rebuilt, and held another show. After the Maskelyne business they went to Paris, where once more their cabinet was smashed. All this publicity only built up their reputation, and by the time they returned to England in 1868 they counted Queen Victoria as a patron.

When they went back to America, they had $600,000 net profit in their pockets. Estimating historic currency values is notoriously tricky, but estimates $600,000 in 1868 to be worth between $9.3 million and $1.3 billion in today’s money.

It didn’t matter to the Davenports that Maskelyne showed the world how their tricks were performed, any more than it mattered when Georges Méliès made a 1903 film that demonstrated exactly how their cabinet worked, or when the father of modern conjuring Robert-Houdin exposed them in his work Magie et physique amusante. They didn’t care when premier actor Sir Henry Irving burlesqued them in an Athenaeum performance, duplicating their act perfectly, with Sir Henry playing the part of somber Dr. Ferguson.

They didn’t mind because they were making bank, no matter what anyone said about them. If Paris didn’t fall for their routine, they could move on to Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg. If Maskelyne and Cooke were performing their cabinet tricks, said the Davenports, it was because Maskelyne and Cooke were spiritualists too. Surely that was obvious?

It was a suggestion Maskelyne found remarkably difficult to shake. Though Maskelyne remained a dedicated foe of spiritual woo until the day he died, there would always be a spiritualist or two ready to claim him as one of their own. Even during his deliberately fake séances at the Egyptian Hall, intended to expose fraud, Maskelyne said there would often be some credulous soul in the audience who’d cry “in an imploring tone [to the spirits] ‘John, John! Speak to your old friend, John!’”

The Davenports went on performing, in the States and abroad. William died in Australia in 1877, while the Brothers were on tour, and his death brought their successful partnership in fraud to a close. Though Ira tried to make a go of it, nobody wanted to see just one Davenport. He went back to New York and retired, dying in 1911, six years before Maskelyne succumbed to pneumonia at age seventy-seven.

In his book about card sharps and cheats, Sharps and Flats, Maskelyne wrote:

“A goodly portion of my life has been spent in battling with superstition, credulity and chicanery in every form. It has been a labor of love with me. At times I have, so to speak, cried from the house-top truths so obvious that there hardly seemed to be any necessity for calling attention to them, and yet have found some who could not believe them … even now there are some who will prefer to rely on the word of a charlatan–an impostor–rather than accept a plain statement of palpable facts at my hands.

“It is curious, but nevertheless it is true. It is magnificent, but it is not common sense.”

The fight goes on. Until recently James Randi worked with his Educational Foundation to expose woo-woo artists of all kinds, and now enjoys a well-earned retirement from the Foundation. Others, like Penn and Teller, continue the fight. Spirit cabinets can be smashed, but not folly, and every year along comes another would-be Davenport, eager to make a buck or two from someone else’s lack of common sense.