In 1864 a 25 year old Cheltenham watchmaker called John Nevil Maskelyne was visited by an American gentleman with a piece of ‘apparatus’ that needed attention. Its only apparent purpose was to make rapping noises on the underside of tables. The stranger paid well for the work and when he left he said to Maskelyne…
’I’m sure a smart young fellow like you could use the loose change. And in return, just forget you ever saw me.’
Maskelyne, a talented conjurer who had built many of his own mechanical illusions, was immediately suspicious. Ever since 1848 when the Fox Sisters in America claimed communication with the dead through table rapping and automatic writing the entire world had become obsessed by Spiritualism. Endorsed by establishment figures like the scientist Sir William Crookes and the writer Sir Alfred Conan Doyle ‘psychic mediums’ were appearing in droves to satisfy the public interest. Theatrical displays of levitation, ghosts, disembodied voices and telekinesis had become commonplace — and profitable too. Illusionists and conjurers like Maskelyne suspected fraud.
A few days after the American’s visit to Maskelyne’s workshop, posters appeared in Cheltenham advertising a performance at the Assembly Rooms by the Davenport Brothers promising a ‘dark seance’ and a ‘spirit cabinet’. Staring out of the poster was a face that Maskelyne immediately recognised. It was the American with the strange ‘rapping’ apparatus – Ira Davenport.
Ira and his brother William had started performing in America in 1854 with a show that included table tipping, musical instruments that floated in the air and a ‘spiritual séance’ with ghosts. In 1864, when the American Civil War put a stop to their activities they came to Britain for a sell out tour.
Prompted by the posters, in March 1865, Maskelyne went to see the Davenport’s show. It started with an announcement from the sepulchral voiced Rev. J. B Ferguson who assured the audience that the Davenports had been…
“given divine powers and worked by spirit power alone… All the phenomena happened independently … for the glory of God and the greater enlightenment of weak humanity.”
The climax of their act was the Spirit Cabinet – seen by many as a true manifestation of psychic phenomena. William and Ira sat inside a wooden cabinet next to a stool on which stood a glass of water, some musical instruments, a board, a hammer, and some nails. The brothers were bound to chairs with their wrists tied and their hands filled with flour. Monitoring all this were members of the audience, including Maskelyne, who had been invited onto the stage. The cabinet was closed, the theatre lights went out and the stage left in darkness. Almost immediately the sound of hammering was heard from the cabinet and then musical instruments being played. When the lights were turned back on and the cabinet opened it could be seen that the nails had been driven into the board, the water had gone and the instruments undisturbed. The brothers were still bound with their hands full of flour and more surprisingly – their coats had been turned inside out. They claimed it was the spirits what done it! Even the ‘London Post’ was impressed.
“The instant the lights were extinguished the musical instruments appeared to be carried about the room… The bells were loudly rung; the trumpets made knocks upon the floor, and the tambourine appeared running around the room, jingling with all its might.”
Ever sceptical Maskelyne was not so sure.
The following day the Davenports gave another performance at Cheltenham Town Hall. This time Maskelyne was seated at one side of the stage. In the half light of a poorly drawn curtain Maskelyne was able to see Ira free his hands from the bonds. After hammering nails and throwing instruments about Ira gave a wriggle and once again seemed to be completely secured. Maskelyne realised that if one brother could do it then why not both? At the end of the ‘séance’, as the good Rev. J.B Ferguson tried to throw him out, Maskelyne declared the act a fraud and announced that he would reproduce the entire performance!
To make good his promise Maskelyne turned to his colleague George Alfred Cooke. Although Cooke was 14 years older than Maskelyne they were the very best of friends. They had both grown up in the poorest part of Cheltenham – Cooke was ‘as poor a lad as any in the town’ – they were both members of the Cotswold Volunteer Rifles and they shared an interest in music, conjuring and illusions. While Maskelyne was inventive and imaginative, Cooke was dexterous and agile. Together they made a formidable conjuring team. As a friend said…
“they were young fellows who knew a thing or two and might well be relied upon to detect any trickery that was going.”
Two months later, on Tuesday 19th June 1865, after weeks of rehearsing Maskelyne and Cooke appeared at Jessop’s Aviary Gardens, Cheltenham heralded by this explosive poster …
“Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke, the only successful rivals of the Davenport Brothers, will give a grand exposition of the entire public séance in open daylight, showing the possibility of accomplishing, without the aid of spiritualism, not only all the Davenports’ tricks, but many others, original and more astounding, including escaping from a box.”
And so they did, repeating the Davenport’s act in every respect – and not a spirit in sight! The performance – which started with the audience being invited to inspect the equipment – was met by great applause and public acclaim. Dr. George Sexton of the “Spiritual Magazine” and a staunch defender of the Davenports, said that Maskelyn and Cooke’s performance bore no resemblance whatsoever to that of the Americans but five days later the Birmingham Gazette came out in support of Maskelyne’s claim that the Davenports were frauds.
“Spirits are not necessary for a spirited performance!” it suggested. By then the Davenports had slunk off to the continent where free from the attention of a hostile press they were being wined and dined as psychic stars.
There was no looking back for Maskelyne and Cooke. Inspired by the attention that they had received they set off on a tour that in 1874 brought them to London and a celebrated 31 year residency at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Billing themselves as “royal illusionists and anti-spiritualists” they created many famous illusions that are still used today. George Alfred Cooke did what any successful gentleman of the time would do. No longer impoverished he bought himself an elegant villa called Glenrosa on St. Margarets Road in the smart new suburb of St. Margarets and lived there with his young wife and son until his death in February 1905.
The Davenport’s careers came to an end in 1877 when William died suddenly on tour in Australia. Ira ordered a magnificent memorial for his brother on which was carved a representation of their ropes, spirit cabinet and other séance props. Officials in Sydney would not allow the monument within the cemetery grounds so it was left outside. Ira himself died in 1911.