Confessions Of A Closet Magician: Some Notes On
The lives of the famous Davenport Brothers have been documented at length elsewhere. Here we examine one aspect of their history - the death and burial of William Davenport, and a small mystery that still demands a solution. Were there two monuments erected to the memory of William Davenport?|
William Henry Harrison Davenport was born in Buffalo, State of New York, on February 1, 1841, the son of a policeman and younger brother of Ira Erastus Davenport. The 9th President of the USA, in 1841, was "William Henry Harrison" so Davenport would have been named after him. The public of the day was just beginning to hear of the strange 'spirit rappings' of the Fox Sisters, and spiritualism was headed towards a surge of popularity previously unknown. Very soon, weird rumours started to fly about the brothers Davenport; stories of flying objects, séances, levitations, all connected with these two boys.
By 1855, the Davenports were touring the States giving séances in which manifestations were produced despite the mediums being tied in a helpless condition. A standard performance would consist of the brothers being tied hand and foot in a large wooden cabinet prior to the lights being turned out. There followed music from instruments left in the cabinet, rappings, and the movement of objects around the room.
Such phenomena caused a sensation, particularly in England in 1864. The tours undertaken by the Davenports were scarcely trouble-free; riots in plenty took place, often due to the insistence of the performers on the way they were tied, and several times the cabinet was smashed - Ira said, "Sharpers reaped a rich harvest selling bogus pieces of smashed Davenport cabinet. Wood enough was sold in small pieces to make ten times as many cabinets as the Davenport Brothers ever used …"
Were The Davenports Magicians?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 séances, 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."
William Davenport, William Fay, Ira Davenport
Davenports Down UnderIn 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.
The Davenports UndoneTwo reports from New Zealand describe how the brothers were defeated by the "Tom Fools" knot, at Auckland in late May, 1877:-
Southland Times - June 5, 1877
Hawkes Bay Herald June 9, 1877
William's IllnessPrior 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.
Adah Isaacs Menken
Death in SydneyAccording 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.
Where Is William Davenport?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.
|Harry Houdini at the Rookwood grave, 1910||Houdini, with magicians Charles J. Carter and Allan Shaw||
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].
On June 4, 1983, I travelled to Rookwood with my friend Peter Rodgers and, after some searching around, we found the tombstone of the old ghost raiser. The grass was high, but the stone and the ones about it are intact, and interesting to compare with the 1910 photo. Davenport's grave is sandstone; no longer white, the inscriptions are wearing away, some scarcely decipherable.
<< Left: Houdini meets William Fay
The main inscription reads:-|
"Sacred to the dearly beloved memory of William Henry Harrison Davenport of the Davenport Brothers. Born at Buffalo U.S.A. Feb.1st 1841 and who departed this life July 1st 1877 after a long and painful illness which he bore with great courage and gentleness. May he rest in peace. Erected by his loving wife."
On the reverse side is inscribed:-
" To William, From his brother Ira.
Many years later, in 2000, we again visited Rookwood with Joe Nickell, who was writing an article for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine (7). On both occasions I was struck by a discrepancy in the stories of William's death in Australia, which we now examine.
The grave in 1983, text enhanced with chalkdust
The Monument to WilliamSearching 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 séance 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? Was there a 'monument', possibly separate to his gravestone, erected in William's honour, and if so, where is it located?
Primary Sources and Some CluesIn 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).
Dispute with the Rookwood TrusteesWithout 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.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.
Further Light Shed on the DisputePossibly 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:-
How to locate the grave of William DavenportRookwood Necropolis (Sydney), is located near Lidcombe railway.
The grave location is SECTION E, Grave 848 in the Anglican (Church of England) section.
Come up through the Lidcombe entrance, up to the road which goes in a large circle.
Look for a road on your left, clearly signposted "William Drive." This runs North from the Circle Rd.
Go along William Drive about 250 meters.
Go down the track, only about 20-30 metres in. On the right hand side of the track (on the side facing away from the Olympic Stadium), about four graves in, look for a low-lying extended pyramid shape. The grave is no longer white (as in this photograph).
For those with access to a GPS, the grave is at - 33 degrees 51.986S, 151 degrees 03.148E
How to locate the grave of William Marion Fay
|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
Particular thanks to Leann Richards of the History of Australian Theatre (HAT) Archive at http://www.hat-archive.com ,
Additional information from 'Beware Familiar Spirits' (John Mulholland) and 'Houdini A Pictorial Life' (Milbourne Christopher)