Cook, Florence Eliza (1856-1904)
Cook, Florence Eliza (1856-1904)
The famous British materialization medium whom physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes investigated. The popular story of her mediumship opens in 1871. She claimed to have seen spirits and heard voices in her childhood, but this was attributed to vivid imagination. When she was fifteen years of age and at a tea party with friends, table-turning was proposed. She at first refused to participate, but later, with her mother's permission, consented to the experiment. Extraordinary things were reported, including the table being unmanageable and Cook being levitated.
Next, while she and her mother sat at home, Florence's hand began to write, and a message came through in mirror (reversed) image. It said she should go to a certain bookseller and there inquire about the Dalston Association. A meeting would take place in a few days and there she would make the acquaintance of the editor of the newspaper The Spiritualist.
For some time afterward she gave séances for the Dalston Association. She attended a few materialization sittings of the mediums Frank Herne and Charles Williams and sat with Herne in her father's house. She soon gave up the Dalston séances because the manifestations became too strong and embarrassing for a public assembly. She was said to have been carried over the heads of the sitters, and invisible hands were said to have stripped her of her clothing. Mrs. Cook decided to allow her daughter to sit only at home.
Florence often became entranced and changed personalities, calling herself "Katie King ," the daughter of John King (alias Henry Owen Morgan), the buccaneer. She promised to remain for three years and reveal many strange things. The promise was generously kept. The Hackney circle—composed of Florence, her parents, her two sisters who were also mediums, and Mary, the maid—soon became famous. The young and beautiful "Florrie" gave some private sittings to Charles Blackburn, a wealthy citizen of Manchester, and he guaranteed her an annual retaining fee so she should be free to give her services when required.
She was the first English medium who exhibited full materializations in good light. The first attempt by Katie King was made in April 1872. A face like a death mask was seen between the curtains of the cabinet. It is curious to note from Florence's letter to Mr. Harrison that Katie "told us that we must give her a bottle of phosphorescent oil because she could not get the phosphorus that was necessary from my body because my mediumship was not sufficiently developed." The bottle of oil was employed in the place of psychic light, and lit up Katie's face. At this stage of development the medium was still conscious. Later she passed into trance.
As time went on, increased facility and practice enabled Katie King to show herself more clearly. Her resemblance to the medium in the materialization attempts was soon noticed. To prove that she was distinct from Florence, Katie changed the color of her face to chocolate and then to jet black. Moreover, Katie King was different in stature, manner and personality. As further proof, the medium was tied by the sitters or sometimes by the spirits, in the cabinet.
Katie's Separate Existence
Sir William Crookes offered what was at the time considered decisive proof of Katie's separate existence. The report of his long series of experiments, conducted in the Cook home and in his own laboratory, was published in 1874. It aroused a storm of ridicule, sarcasm, and protests.
Prior to this, Crookes felt prompted to come before the public in defense of Florence Cook in a curious incident. On December 9, 1873, the earl and countess of Caithness and Count de Medina Pomar had been the guests of Mr. Cook. W. Volckman, one of the other guests present, became suspicious of Katie King during a séance, rushed forward, and seized her hand and then her waist. A struggle ensued in which two of the medium's friends went to Katie's aid. In the testimony of Henry Dumphy, a barrister, Katie appeared to lose her feet and legs and made a movement similar to that of a seal in water. She then glided out of Volckman's grip, leaving no trace of physical existence. According to Volckman, she was forcibly freed.
The incontestable fact, however, was that five minutes later when the excitement subsided and the cabinet was opened, Florence was found in black dress and boots with the tape tight-ly around her waist as at the beginning of the séance, the knot still sealed with the signet ring of the earl of Caithness. She was searched, but no trace of white drapery was found.
As a result of the ordeal the medium became ill, and Crookes came forward in three letters in the Spiritualist press citing his own experiences with her. In his first letter he states that when Katie stood before him in the house of a Mr. Lux-moore, he distinctly heard from behind the curtain Florence Cook's sobbing and moaning from the pangs of trance. The second and third letters contained accounts of séances held in Crookes's own house and at Hackney.
Describing how Katie took his arm when walking, he also noted:
"… the temptation to repeat a recent celebrated experiment became almost irresistible. Feeling, however, that if I had not a spirit I had at all events a lady close to me, I asked her permission to clasp her in my arms so as to be able to verify the interesting observations which a bold experimentalist had recently somewhat verbosely recorded. Permission was graciously given and I accordingly did—well as any gentleman would do under the circumstances. Mr. Volckman will be pleased to know that I can corroborate his statement that the "ghost" (not "struggling" however) was as material as Miss Cook herself."
On March 12, 1874, Katie came to the opening of the curtain and summoned Crookes to the assistance of the medium. Katie was in white. Crookes went into the cabinet and found Cook, clad in her ordinary black velvet dress, lying across the sofa. Katie vanished.
Later, in May, Crookes actually saw the two forms together during the photographic experiments. To protect herself from the injuries of the flashlight, Cook, lying on the floor, muffled her face with a shawl. Crookes's account stated,
"I frequently drew the curtain on one side when Katie was standing near and it was a common thing for seven or eight of us in the laboratory to see Miss Cook and Katie at the same time under the full blaze of the electric light. We did not on these occasions actually see the face of the medium, because of the shawl, but we saw her hands and feet; we saw her move uneasily under the influence of the intense light and we heard her moan occasionally. I have one photograph of the two together, but Katie is seated in front of Miss Cook's head."
An account of a séance on March 29 furnishes further evidence for the simultaneous appearance of the two figures. Katie allowed Crookes to go into the cabinet. He described his experience:
"I went cautiously into the room, it being dark, and felt about for Miss Cook. I found her crouching on the floor. Kneeling down, I let air enter the phosphorus lamp, and by its light I saw the young lady dressed in black velvet as she had been in the early part of the evening, and to all appearances perfectly senseless; she did not move when I took her hand and held the light quite close to her face, but continued quietly breathing. Raising the lamp I looked around and saw Katie standing close behind Miss Cook. She was robed in flowing white drapery as we had seen her previously during the séance. Holding one of Miss Cook's hands in mine, and still kneeling, I 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 whom I had clasped in my arms a few minutes before and not at the phantasm of a disordered brain. She did not speak but moved her head and smiled in recognition. Three separate times did I carefully examine Miss Cook, crouching before me to be sure that the hand I held was that of a living woman, and three separate times did I turn the lamp to Katie and examine her with steadfast scrutiny until I had no doubt whatever of her objective realty."
He also noticed that a blister on Cook's neck was not to be found on Katie's neck, and that Katie's ears were not pierced for earrings, whereas Cook's were.
Of the many precautionary measures taken by Crookes to prevent fraud, the electrical test devised by Cromwell Varley was perhaps the most interesting. The medium was placed in an electric circuit connected with a resistance coil and a galvanometer. The movements of the galvanometer were shown in the outer room to the sitters on a large graduated scale. Had the medium removed the wires, the galvanometer would have shown violent fluctuations. Nothing suspicious occurred, yet Katie appeared, waved her arms, shook hands with her friends, and wrote in their presence.
As an additional test Crookes asked Katie to plunge her hands into a chemical solution. No deflection of the galvanometer was noticed. Had the wires been attached to Katie the solution would have modified the current.
On May 21, 1874, Crookes witnessed the farewell meeting between Cook and Katie behind the curtain. Katie woke Cook from her trance. The farewell was very moving. They were talking affectionately and the medium shed many tears. She never saw Katie again.
After Katie departed, another spirit form, "Marie," took her place. Marie, who danced and sang in a professional style, led to Cook's exposure. During a séance on January 9, 1880, Sir George Sitwell grabbed Marie, and she did not dissolve. She was found to be the medium, wearing only her underwear, corsets, and a flannel petticoat. The discarded pieces of garment were brought out of the cabinet by another sitter.
According to Marryat, following this exposure Cook declined to sit unless someone remained in the cabinet with her. On one occasion the duty fell to Marryat. She reported being tied to Cook with a stout rope and remaining thus fastened to her the whole evening. Marie appeared and sang and danced the same as before she was seized.
Because of the many trials she had to undergo, Cook, who from 1874 was known by her married name, Mrs. Elgie Corner, for some time gave up public mediumship. During 1899, on the invitation of the Sphinx Society, she sat under test conditions in Berlin.
Following Cook's death in 1904, her husband married her sister, Kate Cook, also a materialization medium.
Assessing Cook's Career: The Question of Fraud
The question of whether Florence Cook was a fraud has been hotly debated and is still a matter of some interest in parapsychological circles. The Sitwell exposure was the primary condemnatory evidence. However, much additional material for discussion has also been uncovered. For example, French researcher Camille Flammarion wrote in a satiric vein that the medium D. D. Home "gave it to me as his personal opinion that Miss Cook was only a skillful trickster and has shamefully deceived the eminent scientist, and as for mediums, why there was only one absolutely trustworthy and that was himself, Daniel Dunglas Home."
Crookes certainly never found the least sign of deception, and when he was notified of the death of Mrs. Corner, in a letter dated April 24, 1904, he expressed his deepest sympathy and declared again that the belief in an afterlife owed so much of its certainty to her mediumship.
Cook's phenomena, like those of Home (also investigated by Crookes), remain a baffling enigma. If one accepts Crookes's careful investigations at face value, the evidence that the materialization of Katie King was real seems conclusive: yet the possibility of a fully materialized phantom form with all the characteristics of a flesh-and-blood human being is difficult to accept, and suggests impersonation by one of Cook's sisters or another accomplice.
Over the years, increasing attention has been given to the hypothesis that Crookes was either highly incompetent or, more likely, infatuated with Florence Cook to a point that weakened his judgment or integrity. This position was supported by a new report published in 1964 by the Society for Psychical Research in London. In it is an account of a man who claimed to have known the medium, and said she admitted fraud to him. He further hinted that the medium had an affair with Crookes. Trevor Hall, in his book The Spiritualists (1962), hypothesized that Florence Cook was Crookes's mistress and that the great scientist tried to cover up the affair. Cook's supporters responded that such an accusation was highly speculative, and lacked firm evidence.
Crookes made no secret of his wonder at the beauty of the phantom Katie King, which appeared to have all the attributes of a living being. He admitted having embraced the phantom to verify his perception of the spirit form as flesh and blood. Obviously, these were things it would have been prudent to conceal if there was really an illicit affair in progress. Some have suggested that a more plausible case could be made for claiming that Crookes at first believed in the reality of Katie King but later had doubts.
By then he was embroiled in an embarrassing situation from which he could only extricate himself by insisting that his experiments Katie King was a genuine materialized spirit form. After the final séance with Katie King on May 21, 1874, Crookes avoided further psychical experimentation. He became reticent about the famous materializations and devoted himself to physics, his research culminating in his development of the radiometer and the Crookes tube.
Hall's book also raises valid doubts as to the genuineness of the Cook phenomena, notably in her association with the medium Mary Showers, a possible accomplice in fraud. Showers also claimed to elicit materialization of spirit forms, in particular the phantom "Florence Maple," which appeared to have the same substantiality as Cook's Katie King. Showers and Cook gave a joint demonstration at the Crookes home in March 1874, when the spirit forms Florence Maple and Katie King walked around the room linked arm in arm, laughing and talking like real human beings. The possibility of two materialization mediums demonstrating the phenomenon jointly at the same séance severely strains credulity.
Also present at this remarkable séance was Sergeant E. W. Cox, who expressed his grave reservations in a letter to The Spiritualist (May 15, 1874):
"I have seen the forms of Katie [King] and Florence [Maple] together in the full light, coming out from the room in which Miss Cook and Miss Showers were placed, walking about, talking, playing girlish tricks, patting us and pushing us. They were solid flesh and blood and bone. They breathed, and perspired, and ate, and wore a white head-dress and a white robe from neck to foot, made of cotton and woven by a loom. Not merely did they resemble their respective mediums, they were facsimiles of them—alike in face, hair, complexion, teeth, eyes, hands, and movements of the body. Unless he had been otherwise so informed, no person would have doubted for a moment that the two girls who had been placed behind the curtain were now standing in propiâ personâ before the curtain playing very prettily the character of ghost.
"…But I have one piece of evidence that goes far to throw a doubt over the whole. At a sitting with Miss Showers a few days ago, the curtain, behind which the form of Florence [Maple] was exhibiting her face, was opened by a spectator ignorant of the conditions, and a peep behind the scenes was afforded to those present. I am bound, in the interests of truth and science, to say that I, as well as all the others, beheld revealed to us, not a form in front and a lady in the chair, but the chair was empty, and the lady herself at the curtain wearing the ghost head-dress, and dressed in her own black gown! Nor was she lying on the floor as some have surmised. When the head was thrust out between the curtain the eyes were turned up with the fixed stare which has been observed in the supposed Florence [Maple], but the eyes rapidly assumed their natural position when the exposure was made, and the hands were forthwith actively employed in trying to close the curtain, and in the struggle with the inspecting lady the spirit head-dress fell off. I was witness to it all, and the extraordinary scene that followed—the voice crying out 'You have killed my medium!'—an alarm which, by the bye, was quite needless, for she was neither killed or injured beyond the vexation of the discovery. She said in excuse that she was unconscious of what she had done, being [in] a state of trance."
Another letter by Cox to D. D. Home, on March 8, 1876 (cited in the entry on Mary Showers), strongly suggests that both Cook and her friend Showers were frauds. The evidence suggests but does not prove conclusively that Crookes was an accomplice.
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