They may have grown up in humble circumstances in up-state New York, but for most of their lives Ira and William Davenport were household names throughout the West. They first came to fame as child prodigies during the spiritualist craze at the end of the 1840s – they were said to commune with spirits a la the Fox sisters, though with more spectacular results. For decades, they were revered by believers as mediums with an extraordinary capacity to slip bonds and set musical instruments a-whirl in the air. The naysayers scoffed at this, of course – and plenty of naysayers there were, who denounced the brothers’ worldwide ‘seance’ tours as a money-grabbing fraud. Some Liverpudlians rioted when the brothers staged their so-called cabinet seance there in the 1860s. And similar outrage was repeated by disgruntled Parisians soon afterwards, when the Davenports moved on to France.
In the long years since their deaths, the Davenports have continued to intrigue the Western public, forming the subject of theatrical performances and of numerous written commentaries. This is in large part because the controversy over their status as mediums represents a fascinating moment in the history of religion and notions of enlightened modernity. Some scholars have written about the impetus that the brothers provided to secular magicians keen to promote a scientific materialist worldview in the mid-19th century (see, for example, Simon During’s Modern Enchantments). Others continue to ponder the question of whether or not the brothers genuinely believed in spiritualist phenomena. But in the midst of all this serious discussion about belief, no one has seems to have discussed the fact that the Davenports were comedians.
I first became aware how humorous the Davenports’ act was when I was researching an article about their Australian tour in 1876, at the end of their career. From reviews of their shows in Victoria and South Australia, it’s clear that audiences roared with laughter throughout the night, watching the brothers make fools of important members of their local communities. At the beginning of their show, the brothers’ compère, ‘Professor’ Fay (a stage magician in his own right), would ask audience members to elect a committee of the most respectable patrons among them. In Melbourne, audience members elected the then Premier James Service to this committee one night. Others chosen were invariably doctors or police or clergymen or naval captains – always men, and always of some standing among their peers. This committee was sent on stage to tie up the brothers and inspect their famed cabinet. Its members remained on stage once the brothers were shut inside, charged with the responsibility of making sure no funny business was involved.
Funny business was precisely what happened as soon as the door of the Davenports’ cabinet was shut, although not of the kind that men such as James Service were expecting. To the astonished glee of the audience, ‘spirit’ hands would appear at a front window of the cabinet and donk the pompous gentlemen standing before it on the head with banjos and tambourines. Sometimes these men would go into the cabinet to vouch for the fact that Ira and William remained tied while musical instruments whirled about them. When they emerged, they would indignantly tell the audience that spirit hands had played ‘outrageously’ upon them, once again drawing shouts of hilarity.
The fact that the instruments in the Davenports’ cabinet were from minstrel-shows made a further nod to the slapstick aspect of their routine. The first part of minstrel shows invariably featured a pompous character (the interlocutor) being ridiculed by a cheeky pair of end-men. This was precisely the part the Davenports played with respect to local dignitaries silly or game enough to get up on stage - that is, the part of the tambo and bones, intent on bringing the representatives of decorum down a notch or two.
Whether or not the brothers actually believed in spirits is beside the point here. Either way, they were taking a swipe at the seriousness with which questions of science and belief were being debated at the time – if not also having a go at social authority at large. My question, then, is this: was the comic twist to the Davenports’ performances something they amplified in the final Australian leg of their tour – a nod to the larrikin wags attracted to colonial theatrical performances? And if not, why do you think others have not discussed it with regard to their performances elsewhere?
An extended discussion of the comic aspect of the Davenports’ act may be found in:
Melissa Bellanta, ‘The Davenport Brothers Down Under: Theatre, Belief and Modernity in 1870s Australia’, in Robert Dixon and Veronica Kelly, eds, Impact of the Modern: Everyday Modernities in Australia (Sydney. University of Sydney Press, 2008).
Standard discussions of the Davenport brothers’ act may be found at Wikipedia, in the following piece by Joe Nickell: ”The Davenport Brothers: Religious practitioners, entertainers, or frauds?’, Skeptical Inquirer 23(4) (July/August 1999): 14-17, and in plenty of other online sites locatable through a basic search engine.
The State Library of Victoria website has plenty of pictures of the Davenport brothers in its Alma Magic Collection: see, for example, this poster used to advertise the brothers’ dark seance in Melbourne. If you look very closely to the bottom lefthand side of the image, you can see a ‘spirit’ hand tickling the head of a bald man in the audience.