Spiritualist Medium - Katie King Medium

Florence Cook and Katie King:
Part 1 | Part 2

William Crookes and Florence Cook

William CrookesOne 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.

One 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. 

In these 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.' 

Crookes and 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.

Some 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. 

The Varley Experiments 

In late 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. 

After Florence had fallen into a trance, Katie King duly appeared, waving her arms 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.

However, 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 Varley. 

Spirit Photographs?

William Crookes and Katie KingDuring 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.

Crookes never 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.

Finally, in Crookes' Researches he describes one of his pictures thus:

'One 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.' 

Florence Cook and ?Katie King. Photo by Crookes.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.

Despite the 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, London.  

As for 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.

The Spiritualists

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 a possibility.

However, there 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 of Daniel Dunglas Home? Are we to believe Crookes was having an affair with him too?

Katie King at a seanceAll this 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 available evidence suggests that Cook reverted to fraud on more than one occassion, though if 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. 

The opinion 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 - 

'Remarkable 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 testimony.'

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 54, 
Part 195, (March 1964), pp158-172.

Brookesmith, P. "What Katie Did.' Fortean Times 179 (January. 2004).

Crookes, William (Sir), Goldney, K.M, Medhurst, R.G, M.R. Barrington, ed. Crookes and the Spirit World. Souvenir Press, 1972.

Crookes, William (Sir)  Researches into the Phenomena of Spiritualism. Two Worlds Publishing Company Ltd. 1904 (7th Edition).

Fodor, N. Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science. University Books. 1966, pp61-3.

Hall, T. The Spiritualists. Helix Press. 1962.

Medhurst, 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.

Podmore, 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.

Copyright 2006 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.


 [               My Books            |            Articles            |            Mailing List            |            Advertise               ]   

 [    Strange Powers & Abilities    |    Psychics     |    Feral Children     |    Poltergeist Stories     |    Weird People    |    Occult People    ]




Except where otherwise indicated all articles on Mysterious People are written by Brian Haughton and may not be copied 
in any format without his express written permission. If you use Mysterious People for research please reference it and its URL 
. All photographs used on this site are believed to be in the public domain unless 
stated otherwise, if there is an error please contact me by email and I will accredit the photograph or remove it from the site. 
Copyright 2002-2007 Brian Haughton, all rights reserved. Web site design by Brian Haughton, July-November 2002.