Today, I want to tell you about Florence Cook. She was born in the East End of London in about 1856. I’m not sure of the date, but she died on this day in 1904. Florence was a celebrated medium who made her name contacting the dead, so today seems like an appropriate day to remember her. She was most well known for contacting a spirit guide called Katie King who had a remarkably physical presence for a spirit form beyond the grave.
As a child, Florence claimed that angels spoke to her. Then, when she was fifteen, she attended a séance held by her parents where she became the focus of ‘activity’. At first she performed at private séances and according to her own account, loud knockings were heard, objects flew around the room, a table was flung against a wall and Florence herself was lifted to the ceiling and carried over the sitters. She began to develop her abilities under the guidance of two other mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Frank had a spirit guide called John King and Florence claimed to contact his daughter Katie King.
Now I need to go back a bit and tell you more about John and Katie King. Because Frank and Florence were not the first people to contact them. Back in the 1850s, an American Spiritualist called Jonathan Koons claimed to be in touch with John King. But John King was not the name he had in life. He was actually the spirit of Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh buccaneer who had died in 1688. He was very sorry for all the terrible things he’d done when he was alive and had returned to our earthly realm to prove the existence of the spirit world as a sort of penance. I’ve no idea why he changed his name. Anyway, John King also introduced Jonathan’s audience to his daughter Katie, the spirit of Annie Owen Morgan.
As another aside, and because I like it when I find links between my posts, Jonathan Koons was the originator of the ‘Spirit Cabinet’ that was later used to great effect by the Davenport Brothers. Their act fired the imagination of John Nevil Maskelyne who was, in turn, a big influence on Georges Méliès. The Davenport Brothers also claimed to have manifested Katie.
In the hands of Florence, Katie did actually physically manifest herself. She walked around the room, she spoke to people, she touched them. She even allowed herself to be photographed. Katie Cook is the most photographed spirit ever. There are more photographs of Katie King than there are of Florence Cook. The two look remarkably similar. In early manifestations, only Katie’s face appeared. Florence had a home made ‘spirit cabinet’ which was made from a cupboard that was large enough for her to sit inside. She would be bound to a chair and shut inside the cupboard. There was a hole cut in the door near the top and that was where the face would appear, covered with linen. Afterwards, the door would be opened and Katie would be still tied to the chair.
Eventually, Katie appeared as a whole being, clad in white flowing robes. She could walk around the room and talk with people whilst Florence was apparently in a trance, concealed behind a curtain. On at least one occasion, Katie had allowed one of the sitters to look behind the curtain and see Florence sitting in her chair in a trance. When Florence awoke, it seems that Katie disappeared. Of course, she may have had an accomplice.
In 1873, she was exposed as a fraud by William Volkman. He grabbed hold of Katie during a séance and there was a bit of an altercation. Attempting to touch a spirit being was absolutely not done. Some of the other sitters, and perhaps the spirit herself attacked Volkman and he was left with a bloody nose and had part of his beard was torn off. Afterwards, Florence was found to be in a state of distress, but still tied to her chair. There was no sign of Katie or the clothes she had been wearing. Volkman’s accusation of fraud didn’t really stick, especially after it was discovered that he was very close friends with another medium called Mrs Guppy, who really hated Florence.
In 1874, Florence was investigated again by chemist and physicist William Crookes. She stayed at his house and was willing to be subjected to any test Crookes could devise for her. He had her wired into an electrical circuit to find out whether or not she moved from her chair. The spirit Katie allowed herself to be weighed, measured and even have her pulse taken – Yes, I was surprised she had one too. It was discovered that Katie varied in weight and height but was always taller than Florence. Crookes also took forty-four photographs of Katie. Unfortunately for us, his family destroyed most of the pictures along with the glass plate negatives after he died. Crookes had co-discovered the chemical element thallium and become rather famous, they didn’t want his reputation blackened by spiritual nonsense.
He did send copies to friends, but we don’t know what they are meant to show. He did sometimes have Florence dress up like Katie so he could photograph her and compare the two. All his surviving photographs certainly do bear a striking resemblance to Florence, but he was convinced that he was not being duped. Her Supporters claimed that Katie was bound to look like Florence as she was borrowing some of her energy to manifest herself. Personally, I don’t believe in spirit mediums and I don’t know what it was that convinced William Crookes that she was genuine. It may have been that he was complicit with her for reasons we don’t understand, some claim they were having an affair. It could be that Florence was just really, really good.
Katie left Florence in 1874. Florence did appear again, in 1880, with another spirit guide, but she was caught out. Katie, however had a longer career. In 1875, she was apparently manifested and photographed by Jennie and Nelson Holmes at a séance in New York. But a woman called Eliza White later claimed that she had posed for the photos. She also appeared in Winnipeg, Canada in 1930. Her most recent manifestation was in Rome in 1974.