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The Strange Story of Florence Cook and Katie King
Florence Cook was born in the East End in 1856, eight years after the Fox Sisters first introduced the world to the amazing world of Spiritualism. She was a normal child except for one account: she claimed that angels spoke to her. She led an otherwise unremarkable life until, aged 15, her parents held a séance with friends and family members. Here she was said to have become the focus of activity and to have obtained a table tilting at her first try. Of course many other séances followed and Florence became a medium to reckoned with. Her specialty was creating "spirit faces" while locked inside an homemade spirit cabinet (an invention of those famous mediums, the Davenport Brothers) and bound, hands, legs and neck, to a chair.
She soon gained a following: she was an attractive, well-educated young woman with impeccable manners and, more importantly, she never charged anything for attending her séances, even refusing the gifts she was offered by her admirers. Of course the standard charges against mediums were brought up but did no harm to her rising star.
As her fame grew, so did her skills: she levitated, was tossed into the air by spirits and on one occasion an "invisible force" tore off her dress. This contributed greatly to her popularity among Spiritualists and London thrill-seekers.
At the time Florence was working as an assistant teacher in girl school but her newfound fame became a problem for the headmaster: parents started complaining that the girls had seen "strange things" happen around Florence and some even became worried that their children may be somehow affected by these unknown forces. The owner, a Mrs Eliza Cliff, was forced to fire Florence to avoid damaging the reputation of the school though she obviously liked having the young woman around. In the end this is probably what allowed Florence's career to take off, since she completely devoted herself to becoming a full-fledged medium.
During a séance held by Jonathan Koons at his Ohio, USA, home in 1852 a mysterious spirit made his first appearance in the mortal world. He gave his "new" name as John King. He once was the dreaded privateer and sea captain Henry Morgan who died in Jamaica in 1688 but, after reaching the Afterlife, realized how wretched and horrible his existence had been and so decided to atone for his sins by taking the new name of John King and took unto himself the task of proving to humans the reality of the Afterlife. John King went to become a great celebrity: he appeared in literally hundreds of séances and instructed the Davenport Brothers, those famous mediums, on how to build a spirit cabinet. Jonathan Koons soon faded into nothingness (apparently he was caught cheating during a séance and this destroyed his already dubious reputation) but not before he introduced to the world a whole host of John King's relatives. The most famous was Annie Owen Morgan, the alleged daughter of the aforementioned privateer, who had now taken the identity of Katie King. Like her father she wanted to atone for her sins (she claimed to have been an adulteress and a murderer) by proving to mortals the reality of the Afterlife.
Katie became every bit as popular as her father and her "career" lasted considerably longer, having appeared for the last time at a séance held in Rome in 1974 by the famous medium Fulvio Rendhell.
Florrie, Meet Katie
As Florence Cook's powers as a medium grew she became capable of producing more astounding and "lifelike" pieces of materialization. In 1872 she produced a floating deathlike pale face who claimed to be the famous Katie King. She had crossed the sands of time and the Atlantic Ocean to prove the reality of the Afterlife in London too! It took Florence more than a year of strenuous efforts to produce a full body materialization of Katie. But in the meanwhile an accident threatened to cut Florence Cook's career as medium short.
On the 9th December 1873 Florence was holding a séance for the Earl and the Countess of Caithness and other selected guests. She produced a few full-body materializations before something highly unusual happened: an invited guest by the name of William Volckman jumped to to his feet declaring Florence to be a fraud and he seized an "apparition" by the wrist. Now, in the heydays of Spiritualism and mediumship it was considered highly inappropriate to touch an apparition, ectoplasm or a medium in a trance. According to popular lore this could cause the medium a serious trauma or even kill him/her.
Volckman tried to drag the apparition towards a source of light but the "spirit" proved to be very corporeal and put up quite a fight, leaving Volckman with a bloody nose. The Earl of Caithness and other guests rushed to seize Volckman, allowing the "spirit" to make his escape. Volckman managed to free himself, rushed to the spirit cabinet and opened it, to reveal Florence still tied to the chair but with her clothing in disarray.
This could prove disastrous to Florence Cook career if not for one detail. Mr Volckman was at the time engaged to Mrs Samuel Guppy (the two married a few months after this incident), a medium of wide renown who had developed a strong dislike for Florence. While sceptics had a field day, Florence was able to survive the ordeal without too much damage. But she knew very well that her reputation had to be spotless from then on.
Shortly after this episode Katie King began to appear fully materialized at Florence's séances. At the beginning she just nodded and smiled at the presents but she quickly "gained strength", walking among the presents and offering them warm, very solid hands. It is at this time that her extraordinary resemblance with Florence Cook became apparent.
Sir William Crookes: physicist, chemist and Spiritualist
At about this time Florence heard that the "human wonder", Daniel Douglas Home, was undergoing testing with a renowned London scientific researcher, William Crookes.
William Crookes, later Sir William, (1832-1919) is often remembered nowadays as the co-discovered of the chemical element thallium together with the Frenchman C.A. Lamy, but he was a very capable experimental physicist and chemist. His fame as a theorist never took up but he's still remembered to this day for the thoroughness and soundness of his experimental methods. He was one of the first researchers outside of Germany to embrace the new methods of spectrography invented by Bunsen and Kirchhoff and led the way in the rare earths studies.
But he's also remembered for his involvement with "supernatural" research. As said before he experimented with Daniel Douglas Home shortly before this enigmatic man announced his retirement from the scenes.
Many scientists of renown, whose name are still held in the highest esteem nowadays investigated the reality of mediumship in the closing decade of the XIX century. Among the best remembered are Camille Flammarion, French astronomer, Alfred Russel Wallace, zoologist, botanist and father of zoogeography and William Fletcher Barrett, physicist and inventor.
Florence Cook had sent messages to Crookes asking him to be "tested" using scientific methods. The great scientist answered enthusiastically and arranged for a séance to be held at his London home on the shortest possible term. During this séance Katie appeared, smiled to Crookes, took his hand and led him behind the curtain where Florence was laying motionless.
Crookes became sufficiently impressed to arrange for Florence Cook to come live in his house for an undetermined period of time to be "studied" constantly.
This period proved to be incredibly productive: Katie King agreed to appear in plain sight and Crookes took 55 pictures of her. All the originals were destroyed by Crookes' heirs shortly after his death and only a handful survive in copy form to this day. The most famous ones show Crookes standing arm in arm with Katie King, Katie appearing (though her face is conveniently obscured by an "ectoplasmic shroud") next to an entranced Florence Cook and then the most famous and controversial of them all, the "mirror sitter" photograph.
Crookes remained adamant that Florence Cook had passed every test to prove the reality of her powers and that he could vouch for her sincerity. But, despite his stature as a researcher, he failed to convince the growing number of sceptics. The mirror sitter picture in particular has always been considered proof that something strange and not entirely clear was going on in the Crookes' house.
Supporters of Crookes and Spiritualists instead were adamant about the reality of the phenomena, even going as far as claiming that Katie King appeared of her free will around the house outside of séances. This statement has never been substantiated by either Sir William or Florence, so it should be taken with caution.
Katie Must Leave
In 1875 Katie King announced to an astonished audience that her time on Earth with Florence was coming to an end. The final goodbye was given at a private séance and Sir William affirmed that he witnessed Katie embracing Florence and bidding her goodbye for the last time.
Immediately after Florence told Sir William that now there was no more need for her to stay: she had married two months before and wanted to enjoy a little privacy away from the eyes of the public.
But the spirits were still calling her and in 1880 she came out of retirement with a new "spirit guide", a ghost-girl named Marie. Of course her supported were delighted by her return but it was to be short-lived. In that same year during a séance Sir George Sitwell, a young and eccentric antiquarian and genealogist, noticed corset stays under Marie's flowing white gown. He grabbed hold of her and ordered the lights to be lit. To the astonishment of everyone Florence Cook, the most revered medium of the time, had been caught cheating during a séance.
This proved to be a scandal of enormous proportions and a serious blow to the credibility of Spiritualism and mediums in general.
But Florence's supporters again stood by her side, though in dwindling numbers: yes, she had been caught cheating but she did this only because her powers were disappearing and she didn't want to upset her supporters and lose her popularity. This was a standard defense and was used on a number of occasions, the most notable being the "unmasking" of famous medium Eusapia Paladino (dubbed "Madame Fakerino" by the popular press) in 1909.
Florence's mainstream career was ruined but she continued to hold private séances for a few selected supporters and admirers until 1904, the year of her death.
Spiritualists claimed that she had produced again a number of genuine phenomena, witnessed by many reliable witnesses in full light, though the stature of these witnesses is not comparable to Sir William's.
Sir William Crookes' academic career never suffered from his involvement with Florence Cook, but he was absolutely stunned by criticism from his colleagues. He was convinced of having followed the best procedures available and to have ruled out any possibility of fraud.
He remained a staunch supporter of Spiritualism and psychic research but ceased any active investigation. He was knighted in 1895 for his contributions to the advancement of physics and chemistry.
Katie King left Florence Cook but she didn't leave the mortal world: she appeared at a number of séances, the last one in 1974. If there ever was a spirit superstar, it was her.
So What Really Happened?
Like many other popular mediums before and after her Florence Cook has elicited widely different reactions. Supporters of Spiritualism have said that, yes, she rigged a few séances but this was done not to upset her admirers at times when her powers were failing. Critics consider her an hoaxer, and a particularly good one: she was able to take in a famed and respected academic and to pass practically every test using her skills as an escape artist and, perhaps, with the help of an accomplice. But there may be more to that.
One hypothesis says that Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook were lovers (though the former was married and the latter engaged at the time) and that this whole story was simply a rouse to cover their relationship, allowing the young woman to live with a married and respected member of the society under the same roof.
Another, darker one, claim that Crookes may have been such an enthusiastic supporter of the Spiritualist cause that he willingly turned a blind eye on Florence or, much worse, that he became her accomplice. During Florence's stay, the Crookes hosted another, albeit much less popular, young medium in their mansion, named Mary Showers.
According to critics the two worked in tandem to perform their act: Florence donned a white flowing gown to become Katie King while Mary threw herself face down, or covered her faced with a cloth or a fold of her dress to pretend to be the entranced Florence, good manners dictating that a medium should never be touched while performing a materialization.
A very interesting detail is the resemblance between the medium and her "spirit guide". When comparing pictures of the two this is quite staggering, though both Crookes and other researchers pointed out a number of differences, like the hair color (black for Florence and reddish for Kate), the ear lobes (pierced for Florence and not pierced for Katie) and so on. Unluckily we are not able to make out any of this out of the few pictures we have available and the two do look disturbingly similar.
Another argument against the reality of Florence Cook's powers is the set of photographs taken during Katie King's last last appearance in 1974 (please note: I have copies of this photographs in my possession but I cannot make them public because I have been unable to reach the copyright holder and have his written permission). While the medium (a middle-aged man at the time) cannot be accused of having donned a white gown and impersonated Katie King, picture #5 of the set in my possession clearly show Katie King holding hands with one of the presents. Her face can be seen very clearly and she doesn't bear the slightest likeness to the Katie King who used to appear at Crookes' house.
Of course I am not ruling out that Florence Cook may have produced some genuine phenomena during her public career, but all the clues tell us that the whole Katie King affair should be approached with a whole lot of caution.
Stemman, Roy Spirits and Spirit Worlds (London, Aldus Books Ltd, 1975)
Taylor, Troy Ghosts by Gaslight (Alton, Illinois, USA, Whitechapel Productions Press, 2007)