It was Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) who eventually confessed to Houdini (an acorn off of his own tree) that the spiritualist demonstrations he’d put on with his brother William from 1854 to 1877 were fraudulent. Houdini, who had based his early act on the Davenports’ feats but was franker about the fact that he was a magician and escape artist (as opposed to a medium) needed no convincing. The Davenport Brothers, however, always refused to say one way or the other, a wise gambit which saved them from getting into legal trouble for lying, while enjoying the patronage of believers as well as heated debates (and thus attention) by press and public.
They were born and raised in Buffalo in an era when upstate New York was the philosophical equivalent of our California — a hotbed of progressive causes (feminism, Free Love, socialism, abolitionism) and religious eccentricity (Mormonism, revivalism, spiritualism). The latter fad exploded into the universe in 1848 when the Fox Sisters, a pair of bored little girls started scaring the grown-ups around them by producing unseen thumps and tappings in response to their questions. (40 years later one of them confessed and divulged their techniques, which ranged from yanking an apple on a black thread to cracking their toe knuckes. But that didn’t discourage true believers).
Swept up in the craze, the Davenport Brothers began their own demonstrations in 1854. What they are most famous for is the so-called Spirit Cabinet. The Brothers would be supposedly tied up and placed in the cabinet; then, when the lights were conveniently turned off, tamborines would shake, bells would ring, trumpets would toot, messages would be written on slates, etc etc etc. Todd Robbins revived a bunch of these stunts to mesmerizing effect in his show Dark Deceptions, a.k.a. Play Dead. You can see versions of them in the 1953 film Houdini starring Tony Curtis, (one of my favorite movies as a kid. I can still conjure the scene in my head and I haven’t seen it in over 20 years.)
While the Davenport Bros. demonstrations weren’t presented in the context of show business per se, those of some of their influential apprentices, like magician Harry Kellar, were. In 1865, P.T. Barnum profiled the brothers in his book Humbugs of the World. You can’t kid a kidder!