History has many tales of purported spirit mediums, those individuals who were said to be able to conjure up the spirits of the dead. These people manifested this supposed ability in many ways, including speaking in different voices, regurgitating forth a paranormal slime called “ectoplasm,” and causing objects to move, ghostly faces to appear, and much more. Back in the days of the Spiritualism movement seances in which all manner of strange things occurred were common, and yet some of these mediums managed to stand out as even more impressive than the rest. One such individual was a purportedly very powerful medium who was able to consistently and convincingly invoke a full bodied spiritual manifestation who baffled the world.
In the late 1800s, the spiritualism craze was alive and well in London, England. During the era, séances and spirit mediums were all the rage, and on the crowded field of people claiming to have psychic powers and the ability to talk to ghosts, one who stood out was a teenager by the name of Florence Cook, who was tutored under renowned Spiritualist mediums Frank Herne and Charles Williams. She burst onto the scene in 1870, quickly becoming known for her powerful mediumship abilities and her signature power of materializing spirits in the room during her séances, which would then go around and interact with objects and those present. Cook’s séances were dramatic affairs, very theatrical in nature, with the materialized spirits appearing as glowing faces or hands in the dark, lifting up chairs, and purportedly even lifting Cook herself on occasion.
These amazing displays, combined with Cook’s youthful good looks, made her a hit in the Spiritualist scene at the time, and before long she was the talk of London, drawing in huge crowds to her séances. Starting from around 1872, one of Cook’s conjured up spirits in particular became very popular, the one she called “Katie King,” who appeared as a ghostly young woman all in white. Cook claimed that King had actually been born as Annie Owen Morgan, the daughter of the notorious pirate Henry Morgan, who had taken the name John King in his death and so Annie had changed her name as well. In order to conjure up Katie King, Cook would enter a “spirit cabinet,” meant to help her focus her psychic energies, and be tied to a chair. She would then go into a deep trance and then pass out, after which the pale form of King would emerge dressed all in white. By all accounts, King would look remarkably real, as if she were not a ghost but a flesh and blood corpse that had risen from the grave to walk about. King would then wander about the room talking to amazed spectators, smiling at them, and even touching them, holding their hands, or sitting in their laps. During these displays, Cook could often be heard to moan from within the cabinet, still in her trance. Finally, King would go back into the cabinet, where Cook was still supposedly still sitting tied up, and vanish.
It was all very impressive, delighting crowds time and time again, but Cook wasn’t without her skeptics. For one, there were those who noticed that, for all of the pale white visage, Katie King, well, looked an awful lot like Florence Cook. In December of 1873, one such skeptic in the crowd at one of Cook’s séances was a lawyer by the name of William Volckman. He watched the whole theatrical appearance of Katie King skeptically with raised eyebrows, and as she passed by him he couldn’t resist grabbing her by the hand and waist, loudly proclaiming that it was just Florence in disguise and that the whole thing was a sham. Now at the time, this sort of behavior was a big no no. It was thought that to try and touch a spirit that had been conjured up was dangerous to the medium, so the audience was shocked, pulling King away from him and quickly ushering her back into the cabinet, where she allegedly evaporated from the feet up to disappear into thin air. Volckman kept up his offensive, fighting through the crowd to rip the cabinet doors open, where Cook was found still unconscious and tied up.
The bizarre incident did not detract from believers of Katie King. Not only had Cook still been tied up, but many witnesses insisted they had seen King vanish right before their eyes, and furthermore, since it was known that spirits siphoned energy through their medium, it wasn’t seen as particularly suspicious that the spirit should resemble Cook. Indeed, even with the resemblance King was consistently reported as being significantly taller than Cook, and with a larger face and different hair and complexion. However, the papers were widely reporting it as a successful debunking, and so Cook’s supporters decided to bring in a scientist to back up their claims, in the form of the British chemist, physicist, and sometimes paranormal investigator Sir William Crookes. Very well-respected at the time, Crookes agreed to investigate Cook’s claims on certain conditions, including that they be done at his own house and that they be done under a strictly controlled setting with the spectators being people he hand-picked himself. Cook agreed.
Before this, Crookes visited Cook’s home, and there the spirit Katie King appeared to him, after which Cook’s parents allowed him to examine the cabinet to see that she was still in there. In fact, King made a point of standing right next to the unconscious Cook. The baffled Crookes carefully examined Cook and came to the conclusion that at the very least, her and King were different individuals. When Florence went to Crookes home, she was still able to materialize King, each time proving that she was still tied and unconscious during these appearances. King would let Crookes touch her and even measure and weigh her. Through all of this Crookes would manage to take 55 photographs of Cook and King, using five different cameras operating simultaneously during these sessions in order to show the two together at the same time. Crookes surprised everyone by coming to the conclusion that Katie King was a real spirit, and not the result of trickery. Of course, not everyone agreed.
One of the main problems is that most of the photos are poorly shot and seem to be staged. There is also the fact that in the pictures which supposedly show Cook and King together, there is often seen a blurry “ectoplasmic shroud” over the medium’s face, or she will be slumped over or otherwise obscuring her face somehow. The photos were enthusiastically debunked by skeptics, but Crookes stood his ground, insisting they were real and that there was no way Cook could have deceived him. The most severe of skeptics accused Crookes of helping Cook perpetrate her fraud, possibly because he was having an illicit relationship with her or because he was enamored with her, which he also of course strongly denied. Others said that Cook had used a double, but Crookes was very certain that this was impossible, and that the conditions had been very strictly monitored. Crookes became so frustrated with the criticism and the unwillingness for fellow scientists to hear him out, that he quit active paranormal investigations altogether after this fiasco. His reputation didn’t do too badly though, as he was later knighted after discovering the element thallium and for his contributions to the development of cathode ray tubes and x-rays. As for Cook, she would claim that Katie King suddenly said goodbye to her and would appear no more.
And that seems to be the end of the story. We are left to wonder just what was going on here. Was this an elaborate magic show, and if so, how did she do it? How could she so completely fool so many, even under supposedly controlled conditions? What was Katie King? Was this a ghost, a double, or some other trick? Whatever the case may be, it is an intriguing look back into history, back to a time when the Spiritualist movement was in full swing and psychic powers and supernatural forces were openly embraced.