The rise and fall of Victorian materialising medium Florence Cook: part two
Although my novel The Bridge of Dead Things is clearly a work of fiction, it was suggested in part by the true tale of the respected Victorian scientist Sir William Crookes and his spirit-materialising protégée Florence Cook. This is the second of two posts relating her life story.
The séances continued. Florence teamed up with another girl, Mary Rosina Showers. The pair gave a séance at the Crookes home in March of 1874 which was attended by a number of witnesses, among them the barrister, Sergeant-at-law Edward William Cox. Cox was a firm believer in spiritualism; it was he who had first hosted and championed the Scottish-born medium Daniel Dunglas Home on his return from America. He published his observations some weeks later in The Spiritualist, the leading newspaper in its field. Of the materialisations he wrote:
"They were solid flesh and blood and bone. They breathed, and perspired, and ate…Not merely did they resemble their respective mediums, they were…alike in face, hair, complexion, teeth, eyes, hands, and movements of the body…"
As regards proof that they were not simply the two girls themselves, he wrote: "…no proof whatever was given or offered or permitted. The fact might have been established in a moment beyond all doubt by the simple process of opening the curtain and exhibiting the two ladies then and there upon the sofa, wearing their black gowns. But this only certain evidence was not proffered, nor, indeed, was it allowed us…"
On the 29th of April 1874 Florence Cook married Captain Edward Elgie Corner, the neighbour who had rushed to Katie's aid the previous December. Though their marriage was blessed with two daughters, Kate and Edith, it was not a happy one.
The final appearance of Katie King was a truly sad occasion. She had often stated that she could not appear on this earth beyond the month of May, 1874, and so, on the 21st, she assembled her friends together to bid them all goodbye. This eye-witness account was written by the stage actress and internationally successful author Florence Marryat:
"Katie had asked Miss Cook to provide her with a large basket of flowers and ribbons, and she sat on the floor and made up a bouquet for each of her friends to keep in remembrance of her. Mine, which consists of lilies of the valley and pink geranium, looks almost as fresh to-day, nearly seventeen years after, as it did when she gave it to me. It was accompanied by the following words, which Katie wrote on a sheet of paper in my presence: ‘From Annie Owen de Morgan (alias "Katie") to her friend Florence Marryat Ross-Church. With love. Pensez à Moi. May 21st 1874.' The farewell scene was as pathetic as if we had been parting with a dear companion by death. Katie herself did not seem to know how to go. She returned again and again to have a last look, especially at Mr. Alfred [William] Crookes, who was as attached to her as she was to him."
Of that final parting, this is what William Crookes himself wrote: "Having concluded her directions, Katie invited me into the cabinet with her, and allowed me to remain there to the end. After closing the curtain she conversed with me for some time, and then walked across the room to where Miss Cook was lying senseless on the floor. Stooping over her, Katie touched her and said, ‘Wake up, Florrie, wake up! I must leave you now.' Miss Cook then woke and tearfully entreated Katie to stay a little time longer. ‘My dear, I can't; my work is done. God bless you!'…For several minutes the two were conversing with each other, till at last Miss Cook's tears prevented her speaking. Following Katie's instructions, I then came forward to support Miss Cook, who was falling on to the floor, sobbing hysterically. I looked around, but the white-robed Katie had gone…"
It would be impossible not to compare Cox's statement with that of Crookes's, or Florence's likeness with that of Katie's. But I will tell you this: I am absolutely convinced that William Crookes was not lying about what he saw.
Though Katie was never to appear again, Florence went on to host two further spirit-guides during her lifetime: firstly Leila in 1875 (the same year that Frank Herne, the medium who'd set Florence on her career-path was debunked as a fraud), and then later a French girl who called herself Marie, who was said to have "danced and sung in a truly professional style".
In 1880 Florence Cook was ghost-grabbed for a second time, on this occasion by the young Sir George Sitwell, a 20-year-old Oxford University student, at a public séance being given at the rooms of the National British Association of Spiritualists. The debacle ruined her, and she retired and moved to Wales. The incident brought Sir George some noteriety too and he soon left Oxford without taking a degree. He ended up fathering a daughter, the future Dame Edith Sitwell, truly England's most eccentric poet who became something of an entertainer herself. In 1923 she alienated her audience by standing out of sight behind a starkly-painted screen while shouting her poems at them through a megaphone, all in time to William Walton's carefully arranged score of Façade – An Entertainment.
In 1899 Florence tried to revive her career when she was invited to Berlin to undertake a series of séances under test conditions by the Sphinx Society. She died of pneumonia in relative poverty at 20 Battersea Rise, London, on the 22nd of April 1904 at the age of 48. Her husband outlived her by a quarter of a century and died in 1928.
William Crookes received his knighthood in 1897 and the Order of Merit in 1910. He died in 1919. Towards the end of his life he sought out mediums to help him communicate with his beloved wife, who had predeceased him by two years.
I'd like the last words to go to the fifteen-year-old Florence Cook herself. In a letter to Mr W. H. Harrison (the Telegraph reporter who would later take the first photographs of Katie), dated May, 1872, she writes: "From my childhood I could see spirits and hear voices, and was addicted to sitting by myself talking to what I declared to be living people. As no one else could see or hear anything, my parents tried to make me believe it was all imagination, but I would not alter my belief…"
A new series of posts examining various influences on the development of spiritualism coming soon: Why the Victorians saw ghosts
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The Bridge of Dead Things, the first in a series of engaging and fun gothic novels about a young materialising medium growing up in Victorian London, is available now as an ebook at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk; an epub edition is also available at Smashwords.com and all major online stores
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