Confessions Of A Closet Magician:
There can be little doubt that the brothers were not genuine spirit mediums. Exposures were common, and easily achieved by lighting a match during the sťances, to find the brothers free of their bonds, prancing around the floor. Magicians such as Anderson, Dexter and Maskelyne duplicated and often surpassed the effects created. David Devant (1) states that Maskelyne's whole career in magic started with imitations of the Davenport's rope-slipping prowess. Harry Keller, soon to become one of the foremost illusionists of the world, under the new spelling, "Kellar" (2), actually worked and travelled with the show, later featuring a spirit cabinet routine in his own magic show. Exposures mattered little; those who wished to believe simply ignored the evidence, as do many people today when faced with facts which detract from their favourite paranormal beliefs.
The famed escape artist and anti-spiritualist campaigner, Harry Houdini, corresponded with Ira Davenport from 1909 and, following his tour of Australia in 1910, visited Davenport, discussing openly the question of their powers. He relates (3) that
"Ira positively disclaimed Spiritualistic powers in his talk with me, saying that he and his brother never claimed to be mediums or pretended their work to be spiritualistic."
Nevertheless, their programmes stated that:-
'Mysterious and unaccountable phenomena take place, all of which are produced by invisible agencies which … have been attributed to Demonology and Witchcraft.'
Though the brothers kept quiet themselves, the claims made for them by others were not disputed - a strange sense of morality still used by semi-supernatural performers today. Ira showed Houdini the method of obtaining slack in the wrist ropes, and retying them afterwards.
In 1876, the brothers toured India and Australasia with William Marion Fay as the master of ceremonies. Also in the company was Mr E. D. Davies, billed as the 'Premier Ventriloquist of the World', which can only have cast their performance in the light of a theatrical entertainment rather than a mystical demonstration.
By now the audiences and newspapers seem to have little interest in whether the Brothers were in cahoots with the spirit world. There was no speculation as to whether or not the Brothers remained tied or freed themselves; it was assumed that they escaped their bonds. Performances had degenerated into a battle of wits; more of a rope-tying competition than an exhibition of spirit phenomena. In this respect the Davenports' act was as much an escapology act as Houdini's, and in 1877 they met a defeat, not their first, but one which finally finished their careers.
Two reports from New Zealand describe how the brothers were defeated by the "Tom Fools" knot, at Auckland in late May, 1877:-
It appears that the celebrated Davenport Brothers have been undone as professionals through inability to undo themselves when tied before a public audience at Auckland. The story of their fall is told by the Auckland correspondent of the Otago Daily Times. Telegraphing on the 30th May he says:- An exciting scene occurred last night in the Theatre, when the Davenports were effectually tied up by the Mayor and Mr Hesketh, solicitor. The knot had been suggested to the Mayor by Mr Tunny, Provincial Analyst, who had seen it tried before. The Mayor and Mr Hesketh practised it in the afternoon, and were acting in concert, putting it on both Brothers. After the tying had proceeded so far that their hands were firmly secured behind their backs (continual remonstrances proceeding from the Brothers during the process), a very excited colloquy was observed to be going on between the Mayor and Ira Davenport, in which the latter was heard accosting the Mayor in violent terms, asserting that the ropes were tied so tightly as to injure him.
Mr Hurst stated to the audience that his subject complained of being brutally tied. He was satisfied that such was not the case, and if a medical man was present he would leave the matter to his judgment. (Loud uproar, and crises of "Dr. Hooper."). Dr Hooper went on the stage amid much cheering. He carefully examined the ropes, and declared that the tying was not excessive. He could put his finger between the ropes and the flesh. There was no stoppage of the circulation. Ira Davenport, in a loud voice to the Mayor: "I say untie it; I am the best judge whether the tying is brutal of not, Dr Hooper." - (Groans, howls, and cat-calls.) William Davenport, who looked very ill, also said the tying was painful and stopped the circulation.
A scene of great confusion here ensued, Ira Davenport doggedly demanding that he should be untied, and His Worship declining to unloosen the knots. The audience were in an uproar, shouting that the Davenports should confess themselves beaten and apologise. Both brothers positively refused to go on, and persisted in the demand for liberation. William was at length let loose, and slackened the ropes on his brother. There was no reason whatever to believe that the tying had been unduly severe, and the spectators, satisfied of this, marked their approbation in continual groaning. After this had continued for some time, Mr Swanson, M.H.R, and Captain Brand went on the stage and began to tie the Brothers with the same knot, when again they positively refused to submit. The Brothers retired from the stage most ungracefully, amid tremendous howls.
The excitement was only quelled by the good management of Messrs Fay and Davis. Professor Fay offered to take the place of either of the Brothers and allow Mr Hurst and Mr Hesketh to tie him, but the audience were so incensed against the Davenports that they would not allow it. The box office was threatened with demolition, but the affair ended orderly, and with few exceptions the people returned to witness Fay's sťance and Davies's performance, which passed over very successfully, and both received a vote of thanks amid loud applause. The breaking up of the Company in consequence of the event is announced by Fay, Davies and Fay separating from the Davenports and travelling together. William Davenport publishes a medical certificate stating that he is not in a fit condition to continue the performance. It says he has been suffering from a rupture of a blood vessel in the lungs for two months. The knot which fixed the Davenports is a double noose, retied between the hands like handcuffs.
…. Professor Fay said of course they were entirely in the hands of the performance. The Davenports had refused to go on, and he did not know what could be done.
Mr E. D. Davies, who had appeared on the scene during the row, good humoredly addressing the audience from time, and, endeavouring to throw oil on the troubled waters, said it was not fair that Mr Fay and himself should suffer from the short-comings of the Davenports. Tom and Joe were two genuine characters, and he always left a town so that he could come back to it. (Cheers, laughter, and interruption). Those who chose could have their money back. The curtain fell amid general confusion. A row was threatened for a short time at the box office, but it passed off quietly, and when the curtain rose after the intermission, it was seen that very few of the original audience had taken back their money. Mr Davies proceeded with his ventriloquial performance, excelling all his previous efforts. His imitations were loudly applauded, and harmony and good humor seemed to be perfectly restored. Professor Fay afterwards carried out his dark sťance under the supervision of the Mayor and Mr Hesketh with perfect success. The instruments were played and floated about the hall, his coat was taken off and put on, and other marvels exhibited to the general mystification. The Mayor then moved a vote of thanks to Professor Fay and Mr Davies for the really capital evening's entertainment which they had afforded under difficult circumstances.
Prior to May 1877, illusionist Harry Kellar, who was also touring in Australia, had a reunion with the Davenport Brothers and, (1) in a letter written to his father, reported that William Davenport appeared to be very sick. Newspaper reports as far back as 1876 mentioned William showing a distinct sheen of sweat, which led to the assumption that he was taking the most active part in the performance. However, the reports reproduced above, and others, make it clear that William was suffering from Tuberculosis of the lungs. Said the Hobart Mercury of May 21, 1877, "The Davenport-Fay Company are in the north [of New Zealand] making money fast. William Davenport, however, is not like to enjoy it long, for he is evidently going really to the land of spirits. The New Zealand climate seems to have developed the seeds of consumption with wonderful rapidity. He still tries to play, but often has to give it up."
Given his illness, and the resignation with which his death was predicted, it seems curious that only months earlier, on February 1, 1877, William married in the town of Invercargill. His bride's name, for some reason, was reported variously as Miss Nora Lang, or as Miss Eva Nora Davies. She was the "Solo Pianiste" travelling with the company, and probably the daughter of ventriloquist Davies. In later newspaper advertisements she was billed as Mrs W. H. H. Davenport.
What was the source of William's illness? According to a lengthy and fascinating article written by none other than Ira's great-grandson, Ormus "Doc" Davenport (4), William had been married previously, and in secret, to the flamboyant and scandalous star of the gaslight stage, Adah Isaacs Menken.
In a marriage lasting only three years, at which time Menken was still legally wed to Robert Newall, Davenport and Menken endured a tempestuous relationship and breakup, and an equally fiery reunion in 1866. Menken claimed that her son, christened Louis Dudevant Victor Emmanual Barkley, was fathered by William. This relationship was, claims the author, the cause of William's heavy drinking and also the source of his tuberculosis. Following their final separation in 1867, Menken's life spiralled out of control, she suffered violent coughing fits, and succumbed at the age of thirty-three.
According to a report in the Town & Country Journal (5), doctors advised William to leave New Zealand and return to Australia for the benefit of his health. Since the touring company had parted ways after the debacle in Auckland, only Ira, William and presumably Norah travelled to Sydney where, says the Journal, William suffered two more burst vessels. He died at the age of thirty-six on July 1, 1877, at the Oxford Hotel in King Street, Sydney.
William Fay soon afterwards settled in Hay, New South Wales to run a general store. Eventually he retired to Kew, Victoria, and became an Australian citizen in 1915 before his death in 1921. His descendants still live in Australia. Ira Davenport returned to the U.S. on October 20, 1877, four months after his brother's death. (3) A brief attempt, by William Fay and Ira Davenport, at reviving the show in 1895 was a dismal failure. Ira died on July 8, 1911 and is buried in Mayville, New York.
As far back as 1983, I became interested in locating the grave of William Davenport. James Randi and Bert Sugar's book "Houdini, His Life and Art" has a photo of the showman standing by the side of a white gravestone in early 1910. Houdini toured Australia in that year, and visited William Davenport's graveside with magicians Allan Shaw and Charles J. Carter. He reported, "finding it sadly neglected I had it put in order, fresh flowers planted on it and the stonework repaired." Houdini also met with William Fay.
With these scanty facts, trying to locate William Davenport's grave in 1983 was not a simple task. The notes of Charles Waller (6) stated that he is with Oscar "Dante the Great" Eliason at Waverly Cemetery, Sydney, but this is incorrect. A copy of his death certificate shows that he is actually buried in the Church of England (Anglican) Necropolis, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney. With his religion established, the office at Rookwood was able to quickly tell me that he was buried July 2, 1877, in Section E, grave number 848. [See the end of this article for a full guide to locating the site].
Searching on-line, or reading books concerning the Davenport Brothers, one finds variations on the following statement:-
"In honor of his brother, Ira ordered a magnificent memorial for him on which was carved a representation of their ropes, cabinet and other sťance props. William had died in Australia and cemetery officials in Sydney would not allow the monument within the cemetery grounds. It was placed outside instead."
This statement raises a number of immediate issues. Firstly, William's gravesite is not a 'magnificent' memorial. It is a simple horizontal stone inscribed with text (the upright headstone visible in the Houdini photographs is from a neighbouring grave and does not form part of the Davenport grave.) Furthermore, there is no engraving of ropes, bells, cabinets or anything else on the stone. Although the text is worn, it is still sufficiently clear to be seen; no other engraving marks are remotely visible.
So the question arises, is this statement correct? If this was a stone ‘erected by his loving wife’, was there also a 'monument', possibly separate to his gravestone, erected by Ira Davenport in William's honour, and if so, where is it located?
In an attempt to trace primary sources for the claims about the monument, the two most likely sources are the website at www.prairieghosts.com, from which it appears that most other online article have based their remarks. The site's author, Troy Taylor, advises that his source was Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who authored the "Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits". Unfortunately I have been unable to make further headway in tracking this to its source.
Another online reference comes from William George Alma, Australian magic historian, whose extensive collection of research is held at the State Library of Victoria. The S.L.V searchable image website returns many interesting images of the Davenports, along with a biography which repeats the 'monument' story, (see, for instance, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/miscpics/gid/slv-pic-aab12631/1/mp015953 ) but examination of the files in the Alma Conjuring Collection reveals no comments about the monument, let alone any clues to the primary source. Neither do Alma's writings in his magazine, the "Magic Circle Mirror" (8).
Without a confirmed source, the story of the engraved monument cannot be confirmed. Neither can the statement that the monument was placed outside the grounds of Rookwood Cemetery which, starting as a 200 acre site in 1862, has grown to become the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, there is a document which gives us some clues, if not a final answer, to the mystery of the Davenport monument. In "Cemeteries in Nineteenth-century New South Wales: Landscapes of Memory and Identity" (9), author Lisa Anne Murray has this to say about the authority of cemetery trustees at Rookwood Cemetery :-
The decisions of cemetery trustees, in particular their refusal to entertain monuments which challenged the regulations, created precedents or 'subverted uniformity', illustrate how the desire to ensure 'chaste' and 'decent' monuments degenerated into a pedantic curtailing of designs and reflects the inherent conservatism of the religious bodies that controlled the cemetery trusts.
Each denomination had its own ideas about what was appropriate in the eyes of God. This reflected the theology and social composition of the various Churches, as well as the stylistic debate and trustees' ideas of 'taste' and 'uniformity'. Hence it is possible to discern distinctions in the design and inscriptions of monuments amongst the various religious groups. Roman Catholic doctrine tailored inscriptions, encouraging phrases such as 'pray for the soul of …', 'Gloria in excelsis deo', 'Jesus have mercy on their soul' and 'requiescat in pace'.
Attempts by the Church of England Trustees in Rookwood Necropolis to exclude such popish tendencies were not always successful. In 1877 the Church of England Trustees initially rejected Mrs Davenport's proposal for a family monument because the inscription was 'improper'. The Trustees asserted that in conjunction with the monument, the inscription represented 'Spiritism', and 'May he rest in peace' was a prayer for the dead. The Church of England Trustees clearly wanted no hint of popery amongst its monuments. So incensed was Mrs Davenport that she wrote to the Minister of Lands complaining about the rejection. The Attorney General advised the board of trustees that a ruling in 1838 concerning a tombstone inscription meant that the Trustees had to accept Mrs Davenport's inscription.
[18 & 20 September 1877. Anglican Trustees' Minute Book, Rookwood Necropolis, 1868-1894 (vol.1) Anglican Office, Rookwood Necropolis]
While these comments shed much valuable light on the tale, and confirm that there was, indeed, a dispute concerning the grave, it does not entirely rule out the possibility that a separate engraved memorial was erected somewhere; and the correspondence was undertaken by Mrs Davenport, not by William's brother, Ira.
Curiously, a searchable CD of Rookwood grave inscriptions does list the known Davenport grave, but it fails to quote the poem, and also omits the phrase "may he rest in peace"; the same Popish phrase objected to by the Trustees. (10)
Once again, gaining access to primary sources is currently proving very difficult. Approaches to the Anglican Office at Rookwood have been met with statements to the effect that the Trustees books, if indeed they are still held at the office, would not be made available to members of the public (one assumes author Lisa Anne Murray did not fall into this category!). The possibility that Ministerial correspondence still exists will require further investigation via the State Records Office of NSW.
Possibly the most detailed information about the monument dispute came to light in July 2010, with the location of the following article from the Sydney Morning Herald of September 19, 1877. (11) It may be tantalising to think that, somewhere in Sydney, is another monument to one of the most influential ghost-raisers of the nineteenth century; however this article probably gives the clearest indication that appropriate pressure was placed upon the trustees of the Necropolis and Mrs. Davenport finally had her way, resulting in the gravestone we know today. If that is the case, stories of the stonework being engraved with anything but text are likely to be erroneous.
Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 19 September 1877 (also a near-identical report in Maitland Mercury, 22/9/1877). Report from New South Wales Parliament:-
…. Adjournment - Burial of the late W.H.H. Davenport
Cries of "Adjourn" being made by several hon. Members, Sir John Robertson moved "That this House do now adjourn." Mr Buchanan wished to take advantage of this motion to bring under the notice of the House and the public, what he considered a very scandalous business, which called for public condemnation. He believed that, a short time ago, Mr. William Henry Harrison Davenport, one of the Davenport Brothers, died in Sydney and was buried in the Church of England portion of the Necropolis. His widow naturally proposed to erect a tombstone over his grave. She proposed further to inscribe on the tombstone the line "May he rest in peace and the following verse, written by the deceased's older brother, Mr. Ira Davenport. -
"Dear brother I would learn from thee,
And hasten to partake thy bliss;
To thy world O welcome me,
As first I welcomed thee to this."
In accordance with the regulations of the cemetery, Mrs. Davenport submitted these lines to Mr. S. H. Pearce, one of the trustees, who, with great vulgarity and rudeness, struck his pen through them, ejaculating, "We can't allow this; we can't have any prayers for the dead" and in an offensive and determined manner refused to allow the widow to exercise her rights over her own property. Mrs. Davenport wrote to the Colonial Secretary detailing these circumstances. Not receiving any reply she again addressed the Colonial Secretary, pointing out that on a tombstone in the cemetery there was this line, "May he rest in peace" and that on another there was a verse similar to that which Mr. Ira Davenport wished to have place on his brother's tombstone. In the meantime the matter came under the notice of the Attorney-General who, in a memorandum which he addressed to the Colonial Secretary, and which did him infinite credit, characterised Mr. Pearce's conduct as unwarrantable, and urged that Mrs. Davenport should have the permission she asked for granted without delay.
The next letter in the correspondence was issued from the Lands Office, reciprocating the sentiments of the Attorney-General, and condemning the conduct of Mr. Pearce. Then Mrs. Davenport again addressed Mr. Pearce, asking him to reconsider his decision with regard to the matter. In reply to that, Mr. Pearce wrote acknowledging the receipt of Mrs. Davenport's letter, and stating that the original plans and documents must be again submitted to him before he could reconsider his decision as to what he had previously decided was improper. He [ ie, Buchanan] contended that such conduct on the part of Mr. Pearce was intolerable, and that Mrs. Davenport should have been approached with sympathy and respect. He could not find words sufficiently strong to express his opinion of the conduct of this man Pearce.
The motion was agreed to, and the House adjourned at twnty-three minutes to six o'clock until 4 o'clock this day (Wednesday).
Melbourne General Cemetery, Church of England grave number NN214, 215. Enter by south gave to South Avenue. Turn off South Ave into path directly opposite the grave of Amalia Hirshfeld which is on the right hand side of South Ave coming from the south gate.
This is an expansion of an article originally published in 'Magic Chatter', (International Brotherhood of Magicians, Sydney Ring 102) 1983, and later in Jim Hagy's 'Perennial Mystics', 1986.
1) "My Magic Life" by David Devant
2) A full account of Kellar, Fay and the Davenports, including their Australasian tours can be found in "Kellar's Wonders", by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel, Mike Caveney's Magic Words, 2003.
3) "A Magician Among the Spirits" by Harry Houdini
4) "The Davenport Brothers and Adah Isaacs Menken", Ormus Davenport, The Linking Ring magazine (International Brotherhood of Magicians), December 1993.
5) Town & Country Journal, July 7, 1877, page 9.
6) "Magical Nights At The Theatre" by Charles Waller / pub. Gerald Taylor
7) "Mysterious Australia" by Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2001.
8) "Magic Circle Mirror, volume 4, 1974
9) "Cemeteries in Nineteenth-century New South Wales: Landscapes of Memory and Identity" , by Lisa Anne Murray.
Available from the Royal Australia Historical Society library, Call Number CR Q 929.1 NEW.
10) Rookwood Cemetery Transcriptions; Society of Australian Genealogists.
11) via Trove online research, National Library of Australia
Particular thanks to Leann Richards of the History of Australian Theatre (HAT) Archive at http://www.hat-archive.com ,
Mr M. Hilton-Wood, and Timothy Hyde.
Additional information from 'Beware Familiar Spirits' (John Mulholland) and 'Houdini A Pictorial Life' (Milbourne Christopher)