Anna Eva Fay represents the full flowering of the OTHER branch of the tree that starts with the “spirit cabinet” Spirtualists the Davenport Brothers. The spirit cabinet was a stunt wherein the medium would have his hands and feet tied, be placed amongst a bunch of objects like a bell, chains, a handkerchief, a chalk and slate, and so forth, and then, in the dark, the “spirits” would ring the bell, write on the slate etc. etc. One branch of this tree fed into professional magic. Harry Kellar had apprenticed with the Davenports; Houdini had learned their techniques and turned them on their head. But Fay claimed to REALLY be a medium. In other words, she claimed she really could communicate with the dead, read minds, and tell the future. This branch of the legacy is every bit as tenacious and vital today as stage magic.Now, as then, there are millions of believers.
Born circa 1855 in Southington Ohio as Anna Eliza Heathman, her “gifts” were noticed and encouraged when still a child. (This was in the wake of the Fox Sisters phenomenon, which began in 1848 and started the entire Spiritualism craze). Her first husband Henry Cummings Melville Fay was exposed as a charlatan, but somehow she transcended his reputation (and her own later exposures) and remained sought-after by the public. By the mid 1870s she was performing professionally in theatres both in the U.S. and in London. In the 1890s, this transitioned naturally into vaudeville.
For a time, her son John was part of the act. In 1898, he married one Anna Norman, renamed her “Eva” and taught her his mother’s act, becoming her principal rival.
At one point in 1906, Anna Eva was performing her act at Keith’s while Eva and John were performing theirs over at Hammerstein’s Victoria. Two years later, John was dead — he shot himself in the face while playing with a loaded pistol. Eva continued to perform as “Mrs. Eva Fay”. Anna Eva finally moved into the Beyond in 1927; Eva followed her there in 1931. She went by automobile.
In their last they were plagued by fellow stage magicians who conscientiously strove to expose them, among them, the Incomparable Albini:
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.