Florence Cook and Katie King:
Part 1 |
Crookes and Florence Cook
One of the most illustrious
scientists to investigate the phenomenon of
Spiritualism was William
(later Sir William) Crookes (1832-1919), an English chemist and
physicist, and discoverer of the element thallium. Previous to attending
some of Florence Cook's sances in September 1873, and undertaking a
detailed scientific study of her mediumship, Crookes had investigated
Kate Fox (one of the sisters involved in the infamous Hydesville case)
and the remarkable English medium Daniel Dunglas Home. It was largely
due his witnessing remarkable psychic phenomena at numerous sittings with Home that Crookes became
convinced of the existence of an 'outside intelligence' which would
sometimes manifest during sances.
particular Florence Cook sitting attended by Crookes is described in his
1874 book Researches in the
Phenomena of Spiritualism, and also in The
Spiritualist for 19 December 1873. It was at this sance,
held at the residence of J.C. Luxmoore, that Crookes claimed that he
heard moaning and sobbing coming from behind the curtain while the
spirit Katie was
standing in the room. Crookes subsequently held a long series of test
sittings with Florence Cook, who agreed to undergo any test of her
psychic abilities Crookes
could devise, at his own house in Mornington Road, Camden Town, London,
where he could be in complete control of the situation. Florence often
stayed at the house, where Crookes lived with his wife Ellen, and was
sometimes accompanied by her mother and sister Kate.
experiments Crookes claimed to have witnessed the medium and the spirit
together on more than one occasion. At one particular sitting held on 29
March 1874, Crookes records that after going behind the medium's
curtain, using the light of a phosphorus lamp he witnessed Florence Cook
'dressed in black velvet as she had been in the early part of the
evening, and to all appearances perfectly senseless'. He goes on to say
that Cook did not move when he took her hand or when he held the lamp
close to her face, but continued breathing quietly. He then shone the
lamp around and saw the figure of Katie, 'robed in flowing white
drapery' standing directly behind Florence. Still holding Florence's
hand Crookes then 'passed the lamp up and down so as to illuminate
Katie's whole figure, and satisfy myself thoroughly that I was really
looking at the veritable Katie.'
other witnesses, including the novelist Florence Marryat, noted physical
differences between Florence Cook and Katie. According to these
witnesses Katie was taller and heavier than Florence, had a larger face,
longer fingers, different colour hair, and unpierced ears, while those
of Florence were pierced. At one sitting Florence was found to have a
blister on her neck which was not found on Katie when she
materialized. On another occasion Crookes covered Katie's hands in dye,
no trace of which was found on Florence when she was later examined.
critics, including Peter Brookesmith (see sources below) believe that on
the occasions when both Florence and Katie King were witnessed together,
the medium must have had a collaborator, probably her sister Kate, to
accomplish the deception. However, it is difficult to believe that when
carrying out his experiments Crookes did not bother to make sure
that Kate Cook was not in a position to masquerade as a spirit. And
surely, as both sisters were often guests at his house, Crookes could
tell the difference between them.
February 1874 Crookes arranged to test Florence Cook's mediumship using
electrical equipment devised by Cromwell Varley, an electrical engineer,
and Fellow of the Royal Society. There were at least two such tests, the
first held at J.C. Luxmoore's house,
and conducted by Varley in the presence of Crookes, the second at
Crookes's house, and conducted by him. Similar results were obtained on
both occasions. It was the object of these experiments to discover
whether the medium was still in her original seated position within the
cabinet, while an alleged materialization was taking place.
In the first
of these tests Florence Cook was placed on a chair in the cabinet, and
made part of an electric circuit connected with a resistance coil and a
galvanometer. To allow the current to pass through the medium's body,
two sovereigns (gold coins) to which platinum wires had been soldered,
were attached to her arms slightly above the wrist.
The galvanometer was
outside the cabinet and visible to the sitters during the sance, so if
the medium made any movement or broke the circuit, fluctuations in the
galvanometer readings would be immediately obvious.
Florence had fallen into a trance, Katie King duly appeared, waving her
and opening and closing her fingers as instructed (to see whether
the galvanometer would be affected), speaking to people, and even
writing on paper provided by one of the sitters. During the sance
Varley was allowed to grasp the hand of King, and stated that is was a
long one, and very cold and clammy. A minute or so after this Varley
entered the cabinet to wake Florence from her trance, as he did so he
took the opportunity to feel her hand, and noted that it was 'small and
dry, and not long, cold, and clammy like Katie's.' This is another
significant detail to consider if one is persuaded that the medium and
the spirit were the same person. Whilst the sitting was taking place,
there were no significant fluctuations in the galvanometer readings, the
electric current had not been interrupted, and when Florence regained
consciousness Varley found the wires exactly as he had left them.
Consequently, it must be assumed that Florence had not moved from her
seat during the materialization of Katie.
Trevor Hall has maintained that Crookes helped Florence Cook to deceive
Varley in the experiments. Hall suggests that Crookes instructed Cook on
how she could substitute a resistance coil of about the same resistance
as her own body into the electric circuit, thus enabling her to assume
her role as Katie King. But Professor C.D. Broad's analysis of the
Varley experiments (see sources below) has shown that such a
substitution could not account for the galvanometer readings recorded by
During May 1874, as a
visual record of his experiments with Florence Cook, Crookes took a
series of 44 'spirit' photographs by artificial light using five different
cameras. He described some of these photographs as 'excellent'.
Unfortunately the handful of photographs of Katie King and Florence
Cook that survive today are, in the words of R.G. Medhurst and
K.M. Goldney, 'poor quality prints of obscure origin.' They also look
extremely unconvincing, and, though charming Victorian period pieces,
rather silly. While it may be fine to strike a silly pose with friends in a photo booth hire London, in this case it weakens the evidence for Crookes' spirit photographs. Due to the
resemblance between medium and spirit on these 'poor quality prints',
the photographs are not taken seriously by most psychical researchers
today. If the photographs were even close to photo booth quality there is a chance they would be taken more seriously. Indeed they have been enough to convince many researchers that
Florence Cook and Katie King were indeed the same person, and the whole
thing was a fraud.
published his photographs during his lifetime, and the original plates
were destroyed on his death in 1919. However, he did send copies out to
close friends and associates, some of whom had attended Florence Cook's
sances, though it is doubtful if these are the same photos that remain
today. One would assume that if Crookes's original spirit photos had
been faked, those who had been sitters at Cook's sessions and had seen
Florence Cook and the materialized Katie King would immediately have
noticed that the 'spirit' depicted was merely the medium dressed in
white sheets. That is unless the desire to believe was so strong that
their critical facility deserted them. The Russian aristocrat Count Aksakoff
made the intriguing statement that on the photographs of Katie King /
Florence Cook which Crookes had shown him, Katie looked exactly like the
phantom he had witnessed at the two sittings he attended.
Crookes' Researches he describes one of his pictures thus:
of the most interesting of the pictures is one in which I am standing by
the side of Katie; she has her bare foot upon a particular part of the
floor. Afterwards I dressed Miss Cook like Katie, placed her and myself
in exactly the same position, and we were photographed by the same
cameras, placed exactly as in the other experiment, and illuminated by
the same light. When these two pictures are placed over each other, the
two photographs of myself coincide exactly as regards stature, etc., but
Katie is half a head taller than Miss Cook, and looks a big woman in
comparison with her.'
At a sitting
in May 1874, Katie King announced that her time as Florence's spirit
guide would be
soon over. In his Researches published the same year, Crookes described her final
appearance at a sance in late May at which he had been present. Just
before this final series of Katie King sances, on 29 April 1874,
Florence had married Edward Elgie Corner, and although Crookes and his
wife remained friends with both her and her husband, he undertook no
more experiments with Florence Corner. Crookes went on to investigate
the American psychic and medium Eva Annie Fay, using Varley's equipment, and
published his results as 'A Scientific Examination of Mrs. Fay's
Mediumship' in The Spiritualist for 12 March, 1875.
loss of Katie King, Florence Cook continued her controversial career as
a medium with varying degrees of success. On one occasion in January
1880, she was caught out apparently impersonating 'Marie', her spirit
guide, though it was posited that she may have been sleepwalking
at the time. In contrast to this apparent fraud, there are testimonies
by various witnesses who claimed to have seen Mrs. Corner and Marie at
the same time (see Medhurst, R.G. and Goldney, K.M., p80 ff in sources
below). Florence Corner remained friends with the Crookes until her
death of pneumonia in April 1904, at a house in Battersea Rise,
Katie King, she allegedly appeared again at various sances, including
one in Winnipeg, Canada, in October 1930. This particular sitting was
conducted by a Dr. Glen Hamilton, and Katie was photographed, Dr.
Hamilton stating that there were 'some points of similarity to be traced
between Katie as photographed by Crookes and Katie as photographed in
the Winnipeg experiments'. King also allegedly appeared at a sance in
Rome in 1974, and was again photographed.
What are we to make of this
extraordinarily complex case? Numerous investigators, sceptics and
psychical researchers alike, have dismissed it out of hand as fraud,
which it must be admitted looks like the best explanation.
Many sceptical researchers have been influenced by Trevor Hall's The Spiritualists,
originally published in 1962 and republished as The Medium and the Scientist:
The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes in 1985. Hall's
position was one of complete scepticism about the case, he believed the
whole affair to have been a complete imposture and set about finding out
how it was achieved. Some of his arguments have been mentioned here as
untenable. As for Hall's contention that Crookes was involved in a
torrid sexual relationship with Florence, a girl 24 years his junior,
and thus allowed himself to be duped into accepting her phenomena as
real, though there is no reliable evidence to support it, it does remain
is some evidence against such an affair. For instance, Florence was
married during her experiments with Crookes and both Crookes
and his wife stayed in contact with Mr. and Mrs. Corner long after the
supposed affair. Besides, when he
declared his belief in Spiritualism, Crookes lost the support of many of
his colleagues, and was ridiculed in the press, would he have risked his
reputation even further by having an affair with a 16 year-old girl
under the nose of his (then pregnant) wife?. And what of the
extraordinary psychic phenomena he recorded witnessing in the presence
Dunglas Home? Are we to believe Crookes was having an affair with him
brings us no closer to establishing the genuineness or otherwise of
Florence Cook's mediumship, her psychic 'powers', or the identity of 'Katie King'. The
suggests that Cook reverted to fraud on more than one occassion, though
eyewitness testimony from the period is to be trusted then something was
manifesting in the sance room, whether it was a spirit called
'Katie King' is doubtful. Until it can be proved beyond doubt that
Florence Cook did not have a confederate hidden away during her sances,
the whole case must remain in doubt. Unfortunately Crookes's reports of
his experiments are often frustratingly inadequate, he seems to have
taken it for granted that his word should have been enough to convince
people of the genuineness of the phenomena he claimed to have witnessed.
of most researchers into the Florence Cook case, myself included, is that Crookes, the
other investigators and the sitters at her sances, were being
hoodwinked by a clever and persuasive illusionist. In fact this opinion
could be said to sum up the prevailing
modern attitude to the entire 'Spiritualist' movement of the period. The following quote from Medhurst and Goldney about psychic phenomena from
the 1860s onwards, is relevant here -
things were happening in the second half of the nineteenth
century, on one level or another. Either they constitute an extension,
having far-reaching implications, of the field of phenomena recognised
by physical science, or they represent an astonishing failure of human
It is the opinion
of this writer, that 'an
astonishing failure of human testimony' is indeed what we are dealing with in
the case of
Florence Cook and Katie King.
Sources and Further Reading
Braude, S. The Limits of Influence. Routledge &
Kegan Paul. 1986, pp145-8.
Broad, C.D. 'Cromwell Varley's Electrical Tests with
Florence Cook.' Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume
Part 195, (March 1964), pp158-172.
Brookesmith, P. "What Katie Did.' Fortean Times
179 (January. 2004).
(Sir), Goldney, K.M, Medhurst, R.G, M.R. Barrington, ed. Crookes and the Spirit
World. Souvenir Press, 1972.
William (Sir) Researches
into the Phenomena of Spiritualism. Two
Worlds Publishing Company Ltd. 1904
Fodor, N. Encyclopaedia
of Psychic Science. University Books. 1966, pp61-3.
Hall, T. The Spiritualists. Helix Press. 1962.
R.G. and Goldney, K.M. 'William Crookes and the Physical Phenomena of
Mediumship.' Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume
54, Part 195, (March 1964), pp25-153.
Pearsall, R. The
Table-Rappers. Michael Joseph. 1972, pp49-51. 227-32.
F. Mediums of the 19th Century. University Books. 1963 (1902), Vol. ii
pp97-9, 103, 152-5.
Zorab, G. 'Foreign
Comments on Florence Cook's Mediumship.' Proceedings of the Society for Psychical
Research, Volume 54, Part 195,
(March 1964), pp173-183.
by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.