The following excerpt is taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's The History of Spiritualism. I don't understand which statement is referred to by "this latter statement" and which one is referred to by "the former".

It is to be remarked that the Davenports themselves, as contrasted with their friends and travelling companions, never claimed any preternatural origin for their results. The reason for this may have been that as an entertainment it was more piquant and less provocative when every member of the audience could form his own solution. Writing to the American conjurer Houdini, Ira Davenport said in his old age, "We never in public affirmed our belief in Spiritualism. That we regarded as no business of the public, nor did we offer our entertainment as the result of sleight-of-hand, or, on the other hand, as Spiritualism. We let our friends and foes settle that as best they could between themselves, but, unfortunately, we were often the victims of their disagreements."
Houdini further claimed that Davenport admitted that his results were normally effected, but Houdini has himself stuffed so many errors of fact into his book, "A Magician Among the Spirits," and has shown such extraordinary bias on the whole question, that his statement carries no weight. The letter which he produces makes no such admission. A further statement quoted as being made by Ira Davenport is demonstrably false. It is that the instruments never left the cabinet. As a matter of fact, The Times representative was severely struck in the face by a floating guitar, his brow being cut, and on several occasions when a light was struck instruments dropped all over the room. If Houdini has completely misunderstood this latter statement, it is not likely that he is very accurate upon the former (vide Appendix).

Can anybody explain these references?

  • Are you already acquainted with what the words itself mean in a general sense? If not, then that might be a starting point, albeit one this site doesn't seem to be the appropriate place to help you with. If yes, then can you elaborate what specifically it is you're asking about in that quote (as well as where it's taken from) and where your unclarities are? Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:53
  • @Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach. i agree with you. it is related to history of spiritualism br arthur conan doyle. i can not distinguish the source of "latter" and "former" here.
    – andrew
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:57
  • i know the meaning of those two words but i am confused about to which statements they refer
    – andrew
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:59

2 Answers 2


The “former statement” is:

Davenport admitted that his results were normally effected [that is, they were tricks, not genuine spiritual phenomena]

And the “latter statement” is:

the instruments never left the cabinet

So Doyle’s argument seems to be that since the latter statement is wrong, then Houdini must have misquoted or misunderstoood Ira Davenport, and if he could get one statement wrong, he could do the same for another. But it is Doyle who has misread or misremembered his sources, for Houdini did not quote Ira Davenport as saying, “the instruments never left the cabinet”, but rather:

the musical instruments never left our hands

Ira Davenport, quoted in Harry Houdini (1924). A Magician Among The Spirits, p. 25. New York: Harper.

I think what must have happened is that Doyle, who never saw the Davenport brothers give a performance (William Davenport died in 1877, when Doyle was just eighteen), had to rely on accounts written by gullible spectators, and in his imagination he conflated elements of two different types of performance into one impossible version.

The Davenport brothers seem to have given at least two types of performance, one in which the effects were hidden from the spectators by the closed doors of their cabinet, and another in which the effects were hidden by darkness. Houdini quotes a newspaper description of a typical “dark” performance thus:

“The musical instruments, bells, etc., were placed on the table; the Brothers Davenport were then manacled, hands and feet, and securely bound to the chairs by ropes. A chain of communication (though not a circular one) was formed, and the instant the lights were extinguished the musical instruments appeared to be carried all about the room. The current of air, which they occasioned in their rapid transit was felt upon the faces of all present.

“The bells were loudly rung; the trumpets made knocks upon the floor, and the tambourine appeared running around the room, jingling with all its might. At the same time sparks were observed as if passing from South to West. Several persons exclaimed that they were touched by the instruments, which on one occasion became so demonstrative that one gentleman received a knock on the nasal organ which broke the skin and caused a few drops of blood to flow.”

Houdini, p. 25.

Houdini says that this report is from the London Post, but the British Newspaper Archive shows that it was syndicated and appeared in various newspapers, including the Sun for Thursday 29 September 1864.

It should be clear that in the dark, the man who was struck on the nose could not have known what kind of object he had been struck with, and although Doyle imagines it to be a floating guitar, we are not compelled to agree with him. Houdini writes:

After I finished reading [the newspaper report] Ira exclaimed:

“Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads.” *

* As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland told me an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person.

Houdini, pp. 25–26.

Magicians are well aware of this tendency for people to conflate two different performances of an effect into a single version combining features of both, calling it “cancelling methods” because each performance can “cancel” a different theory about how the trick is done.


According to the second of the two paragraphs, Houdini made two claims about statements by Ira Davenport. Houdini first claimed that Ira Davenport had said the illusions in the shows of by Davenport brothers "were normally effected" (i.e. the supernatural was not involved). However, Houdini apparently produced a letter by Ira Davenport that does not support the claim that the American magician made such a statement. Doyle then describes another claim by Houdini ("A further statement quoted as being made by Ira Davenport ..."), namely that Ira Davenport had said that "[their] instruments never left the cabinet".

On the face of it, "the former" appears to refer to the first of the above two statements ("Davenport admitted that his results were normally effected"), while "this latter statement" would refer to the claim that "the instruments never left the cabinet".

However, the Appendix contains a "Note to chapter X" entitled "Were the Davenports jugglers or spiritualists?", which quotes a letter by the Davenports that was published in 1868. This letter shows that the magicians "would not renounce Spiritualism, and declare [them]selves jugglers". This bears more relevance to the claim that the Davenports "never in public affirmed [their] belief in Spiritualism" than to the claim that their illusions "were normally effected", because the quote from the letter is a statement about belief in Spiritualism rather than a claim about how their illusions were achieved. For this reason, I think that "the former" actually refers to the claims in the first of the two quoted paragraphs and not to the first claim in the second paragraph.

The phrases "the former" and "the latter" are normally used to refer back to the first and second (respectively) of two statements, and Doyle seems to have confused the references by discussing three statements.

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