[circa 1870 photograph shows the brothers and William Fay in front of the “spirit cabinet”]
Ira Erastus Davenport September 17, 1839 -July 8, 1911
William Henry Davenport February 1, 1841-July 1, 1877
The Davenport Brothers, were American Magicians in the late 19th Century, sons of a Buffalo New York Policeman. The brothers presented illusions claimed to be supernatural.
The Davenports began in 1854, less than a decade after Spiritualism had taken off in America. After stories of the Fox Sisters, the Davenports started reporting similar occurrences. Their father took up managing his sons and the group was joined by William Fay, a Buffalo resident with an interest in conjuring. Their shows were introduced by a former “Restoration Movement Minister, Dr.J B. Ferguson, a follower of Spiritualism, who assured the audience that the brothers worked by spirit power rather than deceptive trickery. Ferguson was apparently sincere that the Davenports possessed spiritual powers.
The Davenports’ most famous effect was the box illusion. The brothers were tied inside a box which contained Musicial Instruments. Once the box was closed, the instruments would sound. Upon opening the box, the brothers were tied in the positions in which they had started the illusion. Those who witnessed the effect were made to believe supernatural forces had caused the trick to work.
The Davenports toured the United States for 10 years and then traveled to England where spiritualism was beginning to become popular. Their “spirit cabinet” was investigated by the Ghost Club, who were challenging their claim of being able to contact the dead.The result of the Ghost Club’s investigation was never made public. In 1868 the team was joined by Harry Kellar. Kellar and Fay eventually would leave the group to pursue their own career as a magician team.
Magicians including John Henry Anderson and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin worked to expose the Davenport Brothers, writing exposés and performing duplicate effects. A pair of amateur magicians followed the brothers around Britain, tying the Davenports into their box with a knot that could not be easily removed and thus exposed the trick to audiences who demanded their money back. The impresario P.T. Barnum included an exposé of the Davenports in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World.
A second scrapbook recently donated by Richard Davenport shed more light on the “Davenport” travels that include: England, Spain, Portugal,France, Italy, India, Egypt and Australia. On the way to Australia stops were made for demonstrations at Cuba, Puerto Rico the West Indies Islands, Venezuela and other South American Countries.
The second scrapbook also reveals in Ira’s own handwriting the famous people they met and were introduced to. Take note that Ira and William both were introduced to John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln in the month of April 1864—a year before the President was assassinated.
William died in Australia 1877 and Ira died at Mayville New York-his home, not long after a meeting with the Magician Harry Houdini. The Davenports should be remembered as the most well- known [sometimes notorious] and most traveled “Medium or Showman” of the 19th Century.
Scrapbook #2 donated by Richard Davenport–both scrapbooks can be viewed at the Lily Dale Historical Museum during Camp Season or off season by appointment.