In volume I of The History of Spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle quotes a letter from Dion Boucicault describing a performance by "the Davenport brothers and Mr W. Fay" on October 11, 1864.

How had Mr. Fay's coat left him while his hands were bound tightly?

The next part of the séance was performed in the dark. One of the Messrs. Davenport and Mr. Fay seated themselves amongst us. Two ropes were thrown at their feet, and in two minutes and a half they were tied hand and foot, their hands behind their backs bound tightly to their chairs, and their chairs bound to an adjacent table. While this process was going on, the guitar rose from the table and swung or floated round the room and over the heads of the party, and slightly touching some. Now a phosphoric light shot from side to side over our heads; the laps and hands and shoulders of several were simultaneously touched, struck, or pawed by hands, the guitar meanwhile sailing round the room, now near the ceiling, and then scuffling on the head and shoulders of some luck less Wight. The bells whisked here and there, and a light thrumming was maintained on the violin. The two tambourines seemed to roll hither and thither on the floor, now shaking violently, and now visiting the knees and hands of our circle—all these foregoing actions, audible or tangible, being simultaneous. Mr. Rideout, holding a tambourine, requested it might be plucked from his hand; it was almost instantaneously taken from him. At the same time, Lord Bury made a similar request, and a forcible attempt to pluck a tambourine from his grasp was made which he resisted. Mr. Fay then asked that his coat should be removed. We heard instantly a violent twitch, and here occurred the most remarkable fact. A light was struck before the coat had quite, left Mr. Fay's person, and it was seen quitting him, plucked off him upwards. It flew up to the chandelier, where it hung for a moment and then fell to the ground. Mr. Fay was seen meanwhile bound hand and foot as before. One of our party now divested himself of his coat, and it was placed on the table. The light was extinguished and this coat was rushed on to Mr. Fay's back with equal rapidity.

1 Answer 1


Boucicault’s letter says:

The next part of the séance was performed in the dark

and it is clear from the way the letter is phrased that during this performance the spectators were unable to see the performers. For example, near the end, Boucicault writes:

Mr. Fay was seen meanwhile bound hand and foot as before

whereas, if he had been able to watch Mr. Fay throughout the performance, he would have written something more like, “Mr. Fay remained bound hand and foot throughout”.

So the explanation is that the three performers did not remain bound, but escaped from the ropes, performed various tricks in the dark, and resumed the appearance of being bound before the light was struck. How could they have done this? Well, escapologists have various “rope-tie” techniques that allow them to give the illusion of being tightly bound, while in fact being able to quickly escape the knot and resume it later. The techniques involve taking up slack in the rope, and concealing it somehow to give the illusion of tautness.

Ira Davenport gave an interview to Harry Houdini and told him how the brothers had worked their trick:

We talked far into the night, I with notebook in hand, he with a long piece of rope initiating me into the mysteries of the real “Davenport tie,” which converted thousands to a belief in Spiritualism and was the genesis of of the rope-tying stunts which gave such a stimulus to Spiritualistic discussion in connection with the brothers. Though many attempts were made to imitate it, to the best of my knowledge and belief, no one, not even the magical fraternity, was ever able to detect the method used in these famous rope tricks, the secret being guarded so carefully that Ira Davenport’s children did not know it. I have tested it and for uses such as they made of it I consider it one of the best rope ties in existence to-day, and it is only because I want it on record when I eventually pass to the Beyond that I am explaining to the public the modus operandi which was as follows.

Built into either side of the cabinet used by the Davenports was a bench through which two holes had been bored a little distance apart. The Brothers seated themselves on these benches, and opposite one another, with their feet squarely on the floor in front of them. The end of a rope was passed around the legs of one of the brothers, close up by the knees, and tied. The rope was then wound around the legs several times, fastened at the ankles, the remaining portion carried straight across the cabinet to the other brother’s ankles, fastened, wound about his legs and tied at the knees. A shorter piece of rope was, then tied to each of their wrists with the knots lying next to the pulse. These ropes were threaded through the holes and the wrists drawn down to the benches, and the ends of the ropes fastened to the ankles.

Their method of releasing themselves was comparatively simple. While one extended his feet the other drew his in thus securing slack enough in the wrist ropes to permit working their hands out of the loops. The second brother was released by reversing the action.

After the demonstrations were completed the brothers slipped their hands back into the loops from which they had drawn them, placed their feet in the original positions and were ready to he examined. When the cabinet was opened the ropes appeared as taut as when put on by the committee.

Harry Houdini (1924). A Magician Among The Spirits, pp. 20–22. New York: Harper.

If they had a dark enough room then darkness could substitute for the closed cabinet.

  • wow. thanks gareth. a wonderful answer. i must read "A Magician Among The Spirits, pp. 20–22".
    – nadia
    Jun 6, 2020 at 12:03
  • but we must consider that Houdini was an anti-spiritualist and he was right in some of the cases.
    – nadia
    Jun 6, 2020 at 12:29

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