Ira Erastus Davenport (September 17, 1839 – July 8, 1911) and William Henry Davenport (February 1, 1841 – July 1, 1877), known as the Davenport brothers, were American magicians in the late 19th century, sons of a Buffalo, New York policeman. The brothers presented illusions that they and others 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 musical 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.
The Davenports were rejoined by William Fay for a final American tour before William Henry's death in 1877. Fay settled in Australia and Ira Erastus lived in America until the two reunited in 1895 and toured with a show that failed.
Ira told escape artist Harry Houdini, a skeptic of Spiritualism, that he and his brother had never confirmed belief in Spiritualism to their audiences and that announcements by Dr. Ferguson were part of the act. Houdini made clear to audiences that his escapes were feats of skill, not supernatural, and that performances by others were likewise, regardless of claims to the contrary.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen (1992). The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. New York: Facts On File. pp. 81–83. ISBN 0-8160-2140-6.
- Nichols, Thomas Low. Biography of the Brothers Davenport. 1864. (reprinted in 1976) ISBN 0-405-07969-9