Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow…
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Halloween for most of us is just a seasonal event. Many people enjoy the chance to don costumes and prance about. We probably all enjoy the intriguing imagery of the occult, supernatural, and paranormal presented to us in every form, including horror-film marathons and seasonally-themed beer posters on the walls of pubs.
For Europe’s “First Nations,” the Celtic cultures, the date of Halloween was the prime holy day in the year. It was not only the Celtic New Year’s Day but the night on which the spirits of the dead were thought to return. While a long way away from that in space and time, 19th-century Western New York was the birthplace of a religion for which every day of the year is Halloween. And Buffalo was the first home of some of its key early players, including a supernatural actor who may have no parallels in the legions of the beyond. We speak of the inimitable Johnny King.
Most of the spiritual and occult customs we see today have very old roots. Humanity has been seeing ghosts and conceiving that it talks to spirits since at least the Ice Ages, or so we deduce from the evidence of ancient art and the shamanistic practices we know from other sources. It was surely out of the beliefs of the original shaman that all of our religions developed. The shaman was society’s first medium – a spirit-talker. The shaman went into a vision-trance, entered the world of the spirits, and returned with guidance used to benefit his or her society. Only a few people were thought to have had the potential to do a thing like that, and only with training did the ability come out.
Most world religions have tended to agree with the shamanistic ones. The dead are not really dead; they are just gone. And newcomers need not apply to speak for them. You need to be trained. A druid. The Pope. Cassandra. Noah. This figures. No world society wants Joe Sixpack to be the one coming down the mountain with the graven slates. His Ten Commandments would surely be less functional than Moses.’
When a young, Western New York-based religion broke upon the middle 19th century, then, suggesting not only that the dead have never really left but that anyone can talk to them, it was an egalitarian revolution in attitudes to the unseen world. It hit with a popular storm.
The world in which Spiritualism made its debut was at as perfect an equipoise as it will probably ever be between the humanist/physicalist/materialist academic establishment and the still-powerful Christian church. The two forces were also at a conceptual balance that ultimately led to the same expectation. Christianity had developed its vision of an abstract, unvisualizable God and its leagues of the human dead, slumbering dreamlessly till the first peal of the last trumpet. The Church thus anticipated no intervention from spirits. Science, meanwhile, acknowledged no spirits at all. Neither perspective granted immediacy. People who needed to feel that they were getting some response from the currents of the universe were completely left out. Something got up and answered.
For Spiritualism, it all started in the Wayne County hamlet of Hydesville, today part of Newark township, two dozen miles east of Rochester. It was December, 1847. The neighbors had told John and Margaret Fox not to move their small family into what they were already calling “the spook house,” a cottage along the Hydesville Road a mile or two northwest of the canal town of Newark. The Foxes did as they chose, and before long the family was plagued by strange knocking sounds every night as darkness fell. The knocks seemed to come from within the house itself, though the precise source was utterly mysterious.
By late March, 1848, the two young Fox girls Kate (12) and Margaret (15) had found something interesting about these knocking sounds: they were communicable. They resounded to the girls snapping their fingers. They outright responded when given a code – one for yes, two for no – and were asked to answer questions. The parents were so shocked they called in their “we-told-you-so” neighbors. The Hydesville rapper eventually claimed through these means to be Charles B. Rosna, a traveling salesman killed by a former owner and buried in the basement.
The parents freaked. They sent the girls to stay with relatives in Rochester.
The knocking sounds were portable. They followed, creating a sensation in the Flower City.
It was wondered if they might not also be marketable. Halls were rented, tickets were sold, the girls set themselves out on stage, and “the spirits” gave messages. A star was born.
Not only did the Fox sisters go on to controversial and eventually tragic careers as professional mediums, but a craze of imitators was started on both sides of the Atlantic. People sat around tables and waited for the rapping sounds associated with the Foxes. A surprising number claimed to have gotten them. People devised other means of showing not only the counseling services but also the outright power of “the spirits.” Voices came out of nowhere, musical instruments played by themselves, and pens wrote on paper as if held by ghostly hands. Some invisible force raised objects and even people into the air. Soon the physical marvels became the point of the performances.
This craze would escalate into a league of celebrity psychics, a buzz in the entire reading public, and a philosophy that would preoccupy more of the day’s rich and famous than our own Scientology. Ultimately the sensation of spirit-talking would cause a new young religion to spring forward, based on the idea that we can all talk to the spirits.
As we imaginatively enter the second half of the 19th century and the age of Spiritualism, we step into a realm of dimly lit seances, elaborate stage performances, and flamboyant personalities. The subject of spirit-talking seemed to be on everyone’s tongue, especially for those who disapproved. Had SNL or ESPN been around, the terms, titles, and topics of famous mediums would have been the fodder for jaunty quips that everyone would have been expected to get. Even some of the invisible presences allegedly guiding their mortal mediums – the spirit-guides – became international stars. A big one had a root in Buffalo.
Skaneateles-born Ira Davenport was a Buffalo policeman living, as far as I can tell, on Spring Street by the 1840s. His wife Virtue Honysett had been born in Kent, England, to a family known for folk healing and “the second sight.” Maybe it was a rite of passage that as early as 1846 the two Davenport boys, Ira (1839-1911) and William (1841-1877), were experiencing in their Buffalo home what we would call psychic phenomena (the professional term for “spooky stuff”). It was disorganized and dramatic, and it seems to have pointed to no message or presence at all. It sounds like it could have been a bout of poltergeist activity, likewise usually incoherent. It was, though, a strangely enduring case.
According to biographers, it may have been in 1850 that the Davenport family held their first freelance seance, holding hands around a table in their home. The spontaneous raps that were rumored of the Fox Sisters erupted in Buffalo. The neighbors flocked, and a sensation was started.
The raps seemed to be just as dependable as those reported of the Foxes, and other effects were even more impressive. Ira, in particular, seemed the focus of the spiritual energy, being driven to a bout of automatic – trance – writing, delivering messages to several of those present. At one point in the cycle he was even observed to have been raised in the air above the dinner-table. William and their only sister soon joined him against the ceiling. (They ‘lost their gravity,’ summarized Davenport biographer Thomas Low Nichols of the state of levitation.) This was an escalation of the Foxes’ act.
At one point the spirits directed Ira to fire a charged, unloaded pistol into a corner of a darkened room. The glare of the gun – it had to have been one of the 1812-era style black powder single-shooters – illuminated an imposing guest, a grown man smiling like an uncle upon all in the room. Only a second was this figure visible, but from then on, Johnny King was a frequent flier in the lives of the Davenports. He was their spiritual guide and protector. He came to them in a number of modes, including “direct voice.” Yes. It was asserted that he spoke to them.
Psychic voices inside psychic individuals are common, to go by report. Psychic voices that anyone else can hear are pretty rare. There were many witnesses to King’s. American preacher Jesse Babcock Ferguson lost a job by vouching for the Davenports’ invisible friend. Chemist James J. Mapes claimed to have conversed for half an hour with this articulate presence. His hand, he said, was taken in a powerful grip. Many a time Robert Cooper, another Davenport biographer, heard King talk to the Davenports, in or out of doors, night or day. At least he said he did.
The Davenports would go on to a quarter century of international touring as stage-magicians and fundamentally escape artists. The core of their act, their spirit-cabinet, was said to have been a portable closet a bit like a piano crate that was prescribed in the early days by none other than John King. The brothers entered this contraption and stocked it with too many musical instruments to be played in any fashion by two sets of hands. The door was closed, and then the party started. The instruments seemingly played themselves – all at once.
As for what this symphony of “the spirits” could have sounded like, I can’t imagine that it was any other than a cacophonous bedlam. As with the old quip referencing a dog walking on its hind legs – “It was not done very well, but one is surprised to see it done at all” – the point seems to have been less artistry than marvel.
At one juncture it was wondered if the spirits could make their music if the brothers were unable to assist it, and the two Davenports consented to be tied silly inside their cabinet. The music sounded as always, and this fettering and webbing became part of their act. The brothers’ “spirits” could untie and retie them at will, in a very short period of time. The Brothers Davenport toured for ten years in the States and then took off across the oceans.
At least in public, the brothers were pretty coy about the sources of their talent. It was their handlers and biographers who hyped up “the spirits,” including the miraculous King.
Their stage act brought them fame and success, but it’s debatable how much peace the Davenports enjoyed. Both their performances and their alleged spirit-guide were triggers for a great many Victorians, and life would have been a lot simpler for the Davenports had they renounced the one and admitted fakery in the other. There were virtual riots at some of their shows, and the lives of the brothers were threatened several times.
When William Davenport died on tour in Australia in 1877, brother Ira retired to the family farm in Mayville, NY, and generally stayed out of the limelight. Johnny King was just warming up.
In his biography of Davenport-biographer P. B. Randolph – an African-American Spiritualist and Rosicrucian who makes for a remarkable story in himself – John Patrick Devaney calls King a “conglomerate” and a “multiple” spirit. Like Blanche Dubois of Tennessee Williams’ play, King “depended on the kindness of strangers.” He was no longer just the Davenports’ Johnny King.
Even in the early years King was gregarious. By 1852 something that later called itself that – or else nothing that was called that by others – was coming to the Ohio homestead of farmer Jonathan Koons. In the first wave of “physical” psychic mediums, the Koons family were already regulars in the budding séance business. Their Athens County log house held a whole “spirit room” dedicated to the enterprise of the you-know-whos. (You bring the treats, they do the tricks.)
“King Number One” he started out for the Koons. He spoke in his own voice through a sort of wide-mouthed pipe he called a trumpet and through direct notes that he or someone wrote and fluttered about as though they were feathers drifting to earth off of angels’ wings. A vainglorious sprite, he claimed to be the leader of a band of over 160 psychic sidekicks, circling the world like Oberon’s band from Shakespeare’s play.
The Koons’ familiar claimed descent from a race of men known by the generic title Adam. Their own leaders were “the most ancient angels” who signed their notes as King No. 1, No. 2, etc., and sometimes “Servant and Scholar of God.” With the Koons, King’s tone was faux-imposing: “We know that our work will be rejected by many, and condemned as the production of their King Devil, whom they profess to repudiate, but do so constantly serve by crucifying truth and rejecting all that is contrary to their own narrow pride and vain imaginings.” Not bad for a Buffalo boy, at least an emigre. He soon took the name of the Davenports’ spirit-guide.
The King of 1852 had let on to Koons that in his last earthly identity he had been “king of the pirates,” Welsh freebooter Henry Morgan (1635-1688), knighted and appointed Governor of Jamaica by Charles II and one of the few pirates to have died in his own bed. This became his image. But if this was really Morgan, “the greatest of the buccaneers,” he’d found rhythm in his years in spirit. There was a level of braggadocio about King that’s a far cry from stiff-upper-lip Anglo. Maybe it was all Morgan’s years in the land that would eventually bring us reggae.
The Koons family soon faded from the scene, but not so Johnny King. Serving as a mouthpiece for so mighty a sprite was taken widely as a sign of distinction, and a number of mediums on both sides of the Atlantic sought at least the reputation of his patronage. In the states King was also claimed by a married mediumistic tag team going as “the Holmeses” and, more significantly, Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918). Though quirky and controversial, Palladino could also be impressive. Her partnership with King during her time in America has been asserted to be King’s epitome.
The first British medium who claimed to speak for King was Mary Marshall (1842-1884), always titled, “Mrs. Marshall.” She was followed by others including Stainton Moses, William Eglinton, and Charles Williams. (Not that Charles Williams – the British author, Arthurian poet, and fellow “Inkling” of Tolkien’s famed literary circle). An itinerant spirit indeed.
Even Theosophy’s colorful founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) had been one of King’s speakers, and possibly his most illustrious. Author and philosopher “HPB,” as they called her, had cut her chops as a Spiritualist and spoken on occasion for King. She was also a prime player in the occult/literary scene of the day. In its London days her Golden Dawn society included the important poet W. B. Yeats; novelist/Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle; occultists Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, and A. E. Waite; and occult authors Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Dion Fortune, Bram Stoker (Dracula), and that Charles Williams.
It would become customary that King’s spectral posse included the spirit of the daughter of Henry Morgan, currently going by the name Katie King. Florence Cook (1856-1904), one of the day’s most prominent mediums, even feigned to manifest – cause to show as a ghostly form – Katie King at her seances, leading to some fairly tawdry accusations of fakery. While no one is sure that the historic Morgan even had a daughter, Katie King went on to make herself a celebrity whose fame shot past King Number One. It may be notable that Wikipedia has an entry for her and not her venerable da.
As late as 1875 at the founding of her Theosophical Society Blavatsky had been generally sympathetic to the Spiritualists. Before long she saw herself as being in touch with even mightier powers than the august and visionary human dead. Her new guides disapproved of the Spiritualists “and their spooks” and directed her to break with Spiritualism. Her relationship with Johnny King remained.
Blavatsky seems to have been among the many who suspected that there was a real entity behind the manifestations of this world-spirit Johnny King. To the end of her own earthly saga, HPB wondered about him, possibly sensing that he might even have been connected with her own spirit-superiors.
John King’s primetime was that of the first wave of Spiritualism, the 1850s through the 1870s. Even that wasn’t the end of him, or at least of some spirit-guide and communicator given his name. Nandor Fodor’s An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science cited appearances of something calling itself King into the 1930s. The King who surfaced after that first wave morphed out of the swaggering conquistador into a serene counselor and guru comparable to Jane Roberts’ invisible Seth, a New Age craze in the 1970s-80s. Seth – an “energy personality essence no longer focused in physical matter” – may once have lived on earth as an Atlantean or pre-Atlantean wise man.
As silly as the whole scene may look to us today, in the grand scheme this concept of the spirit-guide is not at all unusual. Most Spiritualists presume that we all have one or several of them. Most fledgling users of the dubious tool we call the Ouija board are advised to identify their own spirit-guides before taking insights from the invisible choir. We see that the Fox Sisters had their own first-communicator, the apparent spirit of the murdered peddler. What else was the angel Moroni for another Western New Yorker, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith? Mediterranean oracles like the one at Delphi were thought to be channeling for the god Apollo. And who, would you presume, did Joan of Arc believe she was doing the talking for? Or Jesus?
Many of the professional mediums had spirit-guides who themselves became famous. Emma Harding enjoyed the protection of a Native American chief “Arrowhead,” who, in times of danger, stood above her “with drawn hatchet.” Patience Worth and Bridey Murphy were two 20th century spirit-guides more celebrated than their reluctant mediums.
Among historic Niagara stars who came back as disembodied guides was the great Seneca Red Jacket. A string of white mediums have appointed themselves to speak for him. Elbert Hubbard of Roycroft showed up at least in name at numerous post-Lusitania séances all over the States. So did many another famous stiff, and too often for credibility. The topic is a rich one for satire.
But what was this John King that spoke up so often and seems to have driven so many careers? Was it all just a parlor game for impressionable Victorians? Was Johnny King just a name its human solicitors seemed to like? Was it the case of a host of “tramp spirits,” as my Spiritualist friends call them: dimly-conscious and earthbound presences taking suggestion from the minds of the living and having a bit of fun? Was Johnny King something people called up that answered to a name, then took on an apparent life and personality of its own, possibly through human extra-sensory talents? Was it a case of living human minds communicating telepathically with each other?
What came first to the Davenports in 1850 would, if valid, be classified as some weird, mega-plus poltergeist effect – apparitions plus apparently purposeful phenomena – as has been reported in the most developed known cases. What stayed with the Davenports and came to so many others all those years is anyone’s guess.
Late in Ira Davenport’s life the great stage magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) came to Chautauqua County to talk with him about old-school tricks. Houdini was an inveterate debunker of the frauds who claimed to invoke the spirits for fun and profit, particularly of the performance/physical mediums who produced the often poorly-faked wonders. They gave the whole business a bad name and came to blind the post-Victorian world to the few potentially valid cases.
In his book A Magician Among The Spirits Houdini claimed to have exposed the stage-tricks of the Davenports based on his Mayville conversations. When it was published in 1924, though, Johnny King’s confidant was already thirteen years on his own side of the veil and no longer around for direct comment in this one.
Curiously, some Spiritualists and believers in psychic phenomena actually claim that Houdini was himself a gifted medium and that some of his most radical stunts could not have been done without metaphysical helpers. Even more curiously, Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, and at least one celebrated seance has been held to try to reach him every year since on just that day, usually at shops or museums devoted to stage magic. One of the most recent local ones I know of was held for several years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada, which operated from 1968 to 1995.
It’s hard for me to take almost anything at face value about the whole period of Spiritualism’s prime. I believe in the existence of psychic phenomena. I’ve never seen it anywhere even faintly as dramatic or dependable as that reported of the Buffalo Davenports. But since I believe it occasionally happens, it is hard for me to believe that none of the great Victorians ever experienced or enacted anything psychic.
Some insights about seances, psychics, and the like may come to us via an adventure remembered today as “The Philip Experiment.” A Toronto team led by poltergeist researcher A. R. G. Owen (1919-2003) wondered why the apparent miracles of the Victorian age were no longer being reported in developed Western countries. In 1972 they decided to try to duplicate the methods and circumstances of the Victorian psychics and see what would happen. They met weekly at a regular day and hour to sit around a table and hold a Victorian-style seance.
As you would gather, it was an evolution. They started out in a laboratory. They stuck to a schedule and tried to stay serious. For weeks nothing happened. They only reluctantly acknowledged the effects of mood upon their psychic proclivities and arranged for a bit more atmosphere. As a lark, they invented a character so they might have something to envision. They came up with a personality out of a bodice-ripper of a novel – a 17th century Englishman called Philip of Aylesford (sometimes “Aylesword” or “Aylesworth”). Before too long after that, there came the raps.
The matter escalated. The team got some surprising results, including startling physical phenomena and apparent communication from some personality announcing itself to be Philip. They became convinced that contemporary subjects can reproduce at least some of the effects reported of the Victorian era.
The experimenters of the Philip circle did not presume the activity they had elicited was caused by “spirits,” and certainly not their fabricated Philip. The presumption was that the whole affair was due to some hidden energies either within the psyche of the living human beings or from other sources that living people can in the right circumstances reach.
The Philip Experiment may leave us some explanation for the Victorian-era seances – the ones that may not have been faked, I mean – but I see no way out for the tricksy, talkative, King Number One under any of his names or guises, whether privateer, prankster, mahatma, or Atlantean spirit. I can never envision King as any other than a Robin Goodfellow, “merry wanderer of the night,” the shapeshifting trickster of Shakespeare’s play who dallies awhile jesting with mortals. And to think that he was a Buffalo boy! So, good night unto you all.
© Mason Winfield 2017