Spiritualist Medium - Katie King

Psychics and Mediums

Florence Cook and Katie King: The Story of a Spiritualist Medium

Spiritualist Medium - Florence Cook as a young girlThe story of 19th century physical medium. Florence Cook and her 'spirit control' Katie King is a controversial one to say the least. Allegedly the possessor of psychic abilities from a young age, Cook was to become famous in Victorian Spiritualist circles and beyond for producing the full materialisation of the spirit 'Katie King' in front of numerous witnesses and for undergoing methodical testing of her alleged psychic abilities by the eminent scientist Sir William Crookes. However, the genuineness of Cook's mediumistic abilities and the objectivity of Crookes investigations have been called into question by some researchers who view the behaviour of both the medium and the scientist as highly questionable.

Early 'Psychic Abilities'

Born on 3 June, 1856, Florence Cook came from a respectable working class home in Hackney, east London. In poor health since childhood, she had apparently always possessed psychic abilities, and was able to see spirits and hear the disembodied voices of angels, though little notice was taken of this within the Cook family. After the age of fourteen Florence began going into trances in front of the family and soon began to develop her own peculiar psychic gift, initially at informal seances held in the family house and in the house of a friend. According to Florence Cook's own account published in The Spiritualist in May 1872, an array of incredible psychic phenomena occurred at these table turning sessions. Objects flew around the room, loud rappings were heard, tables were levitated and flung against the wall, and Florence herself was lifted up to the ceiling and carried over the sitters. We do only have Florence's description of these psychic wonders, but the similarity of the phenomena to poltergeist activity is interesting.

During one of these  seances Florence received a 'spirit message' which she proceed to note down in mirror writing, which explained that she should make contact with a nearby Spiritualist group called the Dalston Association of Enquirers into Spiritualism. Florence's psychic abilities and mediumship developed as she gave impressive seances for the Dalton Society and she acquired some fame as a medium when Thomas Blyton, secretary of the Dalton Spiritualists, wrote an account of her mediumistic and psychic powers which was published in the June 1871 issue of The Spiritualist. 

In January 1872, Florence allegedly became the focus for unexplained happenings in the school where she worked as an assistant teacher.  Apparently the school owner Miss Eliza Cliff  was reluctantly obliged to terminate her employment due to the effect the strange phenomena were having on the pupils. 

One of Florence Cook's alleged psychic specialities at her seances was to produce 'spirit faces'. Making use of a substantial cupboard in the breakfast room of the family house as her 'spirit cabinet' (a name used among Victorian Spiritualists for the medium's workspace), Florence would enter into a trance state to build up her psychic energies, and then produce her ghostly faces through a hole cut towards the top of cupboard door. These faces, clad in white linen, would peer through the aperture despite the medium being bound securely to a chair with ropes around her neck, waist and wrists.  

The Appearance of Katie King

It was at one of these seances, in summer 1872, that the floating spirit face of Katie King first appeared. The 'entity' or 'spirit' known as Katie King was somewhat of a spiritual world celebrity, first making herself known at the very beginnings of American Spiritualism in the early 1850s, at seances with mediums such as the Davenport Brothers and the Koons family, among others. Katie was allegedly the spirit of Annie Owen Morgan, the daughter of an historical 17th century Welsh pirate called Henry Owen Morgan (1635-1688), known in the spirit world as John King. In her earthly incarnation she had apparently died young, around 22 or 23 years old, after  committing a series of crimes which included murder. She may have been executed for her offenses, since as any Cincinnati criminal defense lawyer should know, the death penalty was a common punishment for even minor crimes. She had, she claimed, returned to convince the world of the truth of Spiritualism in an attempt to expiate her earthly sins. 

Katie King promised to remain with Florence Cook for a period of three years, during which many extraordinary things would be shown to the world. It took approximately a year after the first appearance of the death-like face of Katie King for Florence the develop her mediumship enough for King to manifest her full spirit form in front of the sitters, but after this was achieved, Katie allegedly appeared almost daily, walking casually around the house of the Cook family. 

Spiritualist Seances

Katie KingThere are numerous eye-witness accounts of what happened at Florence Cook's seances. Generally, after the medium was positioned inside her spirit cabinet, the sitters would wait, occasionally for as long as 30 or 40 minutes, for the appearance of Katie, ashen faced and clad in flowing white robes, from behind the curtain. She would walk freely among the sitters, even allowing them to touch her, as her medium apparently lay unconscious in the cabinet. An important detail noted by sitters at some of these seances is that while Katie King was walking around the room, sounds variously described as sobbing, moaning (heard by renowned chemist Sir William Crookes) and even scratching (heard by British medium and religious teacher Stainton Moses) were heard coming from behind the curtain. This of course suggests that Florence had a well-concealed confederate inside the spirit cabinet, though this was never proven. Naturally there are going to be people that would question these accounts, believing that it was a very well done hoax through some sort of trickery. There were many doubters, A.N. Askaroff was perhaps the most voiciferous.  

Russian aristocrat and psychical researcher A.N. Aksakoff (1832-1903) reported on a seance he attended at the Cook family home on 22 October 1873 (see G. Zorab in sources below). Before the seance began Florence Cook, who was sitting in a chair behind a curtain in a corner of the room, had her hands bound individually with twined tape and the knots sealed by a Mr. J.C. Luxmoore, J.P., who was in charge of the seance. Her hands were then drawn behind her back and tied together with the ends of the same piece of rope, the knots once again being sealed. Finally Luxmoore bound Florence again using 'a long piece of tape which was drawn outside the cabinet curtains and then under and through a copper staple nailed to the floor and finally fastened to the table, beside which Mr. Luxmoore was sitting.' Consequently if Florence got up from her chair there would be an obvious tug on the tape fastened to the table. 

After 15 minutes the figure of Katie King appeared close to the curtain, clad as usual entirely in white, and with hands and arms bare. She held short conversations with Mr. Luxmoore and various other sitters, including Aksakoff, who summoned up enough courage to ask 'Can't you show me your medium?' to which Katie replied: "Yes, certainly, come here very quickly and have a look!'  Aksakoff rose immediately from his chair, took five steps and reached the curtain. But the white figure had completely disappeared, and as he looked inside the curtain he saw a figure sitting in a dark corner wearing a black silk dress. The moment he returned to his seat Katie King appeared standing next to the curtain and asked if he was satisfied. But Aksakoff was not convinced that it was indeed Florence Cook he had seen and asked to examine the medium in better light. 

His request granted, the Russian aristocrat grabbed a lamp and within seconds was behind the curtain. Again the white-clad figure had instantly disappeared and Aksakoff found himself alone with Florence Cook who:

' . . . in a deep trance, was sitting on a chair, with both her hands bound fast behind her back. The light, shining on the medium's face started to produce its usual effect, i.e. the medium began to sigh and to awake. Behind the curtain an interesting dialogue started between the medium, becoming more and more awake, and Katie who wanted to put her medium to sleep again. But Katie had to give way, she said Goodbye, and then silence followed.'

At the end of the seance Aksakoff checked that all the bindings, knots and seals were still intact, and in fact had some difficulty in cutting Florence free with scissors which barely fitted underneath the tape, so tightly had it been wrapped around her hands. Aksakoff attended a second seance with Florence Cook on 28 October, this time at the house of Luxmoore, and again witnessed the appearance of Katie King. Once more, if the account of Count Aksakoff can be trusted, and if Cook did not have an accomplice hidden away somewhere, then it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that a genuine phenomenon occurred at these two seances.

As word of Florence's physical mediumship spread and prominent members of society witnessed the manifestations she received the patronage of a Manchester businessman called Charles Blackburn. As Florence never asked money for her seances she was glad of Blackburn's financial backing, which allowed her to demonstrate her mediumship whenever required.

The Volckman 'Exposure'

With the Katie King manifestations Florence Cook had become the first British medium to allegedly materialize a spirit form in good light. However, on the night of 9 December, 1873, her reputation as a physical medium received a blow from which it never fully recovered. One of the sitters at this particular Hackney session was a Spiritualist and investigator named William Volckman. 

According to Volckman, after he had carefully observed the spirit of Katie King, dressed completely in ghostly white as she paraded around the room, he noted the startling resemblance between the medium and the so-called spirit. Hoping to prove his theory correct in dramatic fashion Volckman sprang up from his chair and 'grasped the spirit'. In the confusion which followed three of the other sitters took hold of Volckman, who received a scratched nose and lost part of his beard in the struggle, while the 'spirit' escaped back into the cabinet. When everything had calmed down, apparently after a period of about five minutes, the curtain was pulled back. There the sitters found Florence in a considerably agitated condition, but still clad in the black dress and boots which she had been wearing at the beginning of the seance, and bound to the chair with the same tape which had been used to confine her. The knot in the tape, which had been sealed with the signet ring of the Earl of Caithness, one of the sitters, was still intact. A subsequent search of Florence Cook revealed no trace of the white robes Katie King had been seen wearing.

Despite the fact that Florence was discovered still bound to her chair, Volckman's evidence for imposture still seems rather suggestive, and to Trevor Hall and many subsequent researchers it is conclusive proof that her claims to psychic and mediumistic abilities were based on fraud. However, there is much more to this incident than Hall et al ever realised or bothered to research. The Volckman exposure needs to be seen against the background of the violent jealousy of another medium called Mrs. Guppy, a woman with an unnatural hatred of young mediums in general, but of Florence Cook in particular. 

Working from unpublished contemporary documents R.G. Medhurst and K.M. Goldney (see sources below) have found evidence of what may be termed a 'Guppy Plot'. In essence this consisted of a startling plan which involved a group of sitters, including William Volckman, who were to be hired to attend one of Florence Cook's seances. When a favourable moment arose during the psychic manifestations, one of the group was to throw vitriol (acid) into the face of the supposed spirit, and thus, they assumed, destroy forever the pretty features of Mrs. Guppy's bitterest rival Florence Cook. 

Another interesting fact relating to the exposure, and supporting the idea of some kind of plot, is that after Mr. Guppy passed away, William Volckman married Mrs. Guppy. However, despite the motives of Volckman, it is still a fact that he grabbed hold of Florence posing as the spirit Katie King. Or is it? We only have Volckman's word that what he grasped was indeed the flesh and blood Florence Cook rather than the ethereal Katie King. After the exposure Volckman stated that 'no third parties had any knowledge of my invitation to, or presence at, the seance in question.' As we have already seen this was an outright lie. In contrast to Volckman's statement that Katie had to be forcibly removed from his grasp, other sitters attested that Katie glided out of Mr. Volckman's grip, and subsequently seemed to dematerialize. One witness described her movement as being akin to that of 'a seal in water'. 

So, although the so-called Volckman exposure does cast a huge shadow over the mediumship of Florence Cook, it is clear that Volckman was far from the disinterested witness he claimed to be. If the motive for his actions was to show Florence to be a fraud by whatever means necessary, which seems to have been the case, this should cast at least some doubt on his testimony, though of course it still remains a telling indictment of Cook and her 'psychic abilities'.

Copyright 2006 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.

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