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.
The stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne saw how the Davenports' spirit cabinet illusion worked, and stated to the audience in the theatre that he could recreate their act using no supernatural methods. With the help of a friend, cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he built a version of the cabinet. Together, they revealed the Davenport Brothers' trickery to the public at a show in Cheltenham in June 1865.
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. Magic historian Milbourne Christopher has written:
The Davenports were exposed many times, not only by magicians but by scientists and college students. The latter ignited matches in the dark. The flickering flames disclosed the brothers, with their arms free, waving the instruments which until then had seemed to be floating. The exposures had little effect on that segment of the public which chose to believe the manifestations were genuine. They closed their minds to the truth and sat in awe, sure that spirits had been conjured up in their presence.
According to the magician Harry Houdini, Ira had confessed to him that he and his brother had faked their "spirit" phenomena. Houdini in his book A Magician Amongst the Spirits (1924) also reproduced a letter from Ira claiming "we never in public affirmed our Belief in spiritualism." The spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle refused to accept the exposures of fraud, and insisted that in private Ira was a practicing spiritualist.
In 1998, skeptical investigator Joe Nickell discovered the Davenport's scrapbook from the museum at the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly. Nickell examined newspaper clippings, personal notes and photographs from the scrapbook. He concluded that Doyle was correct about Ira endorsing spiritualism in private; and Houdini was also correct about their public "spirit" phenomena being the result of trickery. According to Nickell "taken as a whole, the evidence of the scrapbook does indicate that Ira Davenport was a practicing spiritualist, or at least pretended to be, although he and his brother used trickery to accomplish the effects they attributed to spirits."
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen (1992). The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. New York: Facts On File. pp. 81–83. ISBN 0-8160-2140-6.
- "The Ghost Club". Prairieghosts.com. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
- Steinmeyer, Jim (2005). Hiding the Elephant. Arrow. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-09-947664-9.
- Christopher, Milbourne. (1990 edition, originally published in 1962). Magic: A Picture History. Dover Publications. p. 99. ISBN 0-486-26373-8
- Nickell, Joe. (2001). Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 18-27. ISBN 0-8131-2210-4
- Nichols, Thomas Low. Biography of the Brothers Davenport. 1864. (reprinted in 1976) ISBN 0-405-07969-9