Book Review: The Medium and the Scientist: The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes by Trevor Hall

I made a promise to myself when I began this website that I would focus on the positive aspects of my subject matter and that if I could not say something good I would say nothing at all however The Medium and the Scientist has placed a challenge before me.

Florence Cook:

Katie King:


William Crookes:


William Crookes with Katie King:

will and kati

Sir William Crookes:


It is an excellent book.

Once I picked it up and started to read it I found that I simply could not put it down. Trevor Hall is a historian of the finest kind. His research is obvious but he never overwhelms or bores. The story reads like a best-selling novel.

So what, you may ask, is the problem?

Trevor makes the case that Florence was a fraud and that Sir William Crookes willfully and knowingly aided her in fraud. Fraudulent mediums in the Victorian period are quite common but reputable scientists who make profound discoveries and are Knighted by Queen Victoria don’t usually assist them.

The accusation that Sir William willfully aided Florence in fraud bothered me.

I have no desire to defend Florence.
I have known about her mediumship for years.
I have known about Katie King, the alleged full-form spirit being that drew her energy to manifest from Florence, for years.

My first impression when I saw the images and read her story was that the mediumship was almost laughable fraud but first impressions are not always accurate. When I finally read the first-hand account of Sir William Crookes a lump of emotion formed in my throat and I thought, “Oh my god, Florence was legit.”

It is unlikely but possible that William was deceived.
I have been deceived.
As human beings, we are all vulnerable to deceit.
This is why we should always keep an open mind but check the facts.

I was hoping to avoid the issue of fraud during the Victorian period altogether. There are so many genuine mediums, I reasoned, I should never find it necessary to write about fraud. But, alas, avoiding the sticky subject of fraud is not to be. I simply cannot let the accusations of Trevor Hall stand without at least giving voice to the other side.

Why would a reputable scientist, married, with a family, risk it all to help a fraudulent medium?

Trevor believes that Sir William’s investigation began with the best of intentions but, his wife was supposedly bedridden and pregnant and Florence was a young beauty. According to Mr. Hall, Sir William fell in love with the irresistible Florence and his passion blinded him.

Maybe Mr. Hall is correct.
Maybe he is not.

Mr. Hall said that Sir William’s wife was indisposed and that Sir William and Florence carried on their alleged affair in the Crookes home under the guise of controlled experimentation. In reality Sir William’s family including his lovely wife attended most of the séances conducted at the home and his wife is a first-hand witness of the full-form manifestation of Katie King.

Mr. Hall said that there was no difference between Katie King and Florence Cook; that they looked exactly like each other because they were one and the same person.

Sir Arthur Conon Doyle tells a different story in his book, The History of Spiritualism.

The following is an excerpt of the findings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recording in his history:

“The research into the phenomena of Spiritualism by Sir William Crookes-or Professor Crookes, as he then was-during the years from 1870 to 1874 is one of the outstanding incidents in the history of the movement. It is notable on account of the high scientific standing of the inquirer, the stern and yet just spirit in which the inquiry was conducted, the extraordinary results, and the uncompromising declaration of faith which followed them.

“It has been a favorite device of the opponents of the movement to attribute some physical weakness or growing senility to each fresh witness to psychic truth, but none can deny that these researches were carried out by a man at the very zenith of his mental development, and that the famous career which followed was a sufficient proof of his intellectual stability. It is to be remarked that the result was to prove the integrity not only of the medium Florence Cook with whom the more sensational results were obtained, but also that of D. D. Home and of Miss Kate Fox, who were also severely tested.

“Sir William Crookes, who was born in 1832 and died in 1919, was pre-eminent in the world of science.

“Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1863, he received from this body in 1875 a Royal Gold Medal for his various chemical and physical researches, the Davy Medal in 1888, and the Sir Joseph Copley Medal in 1904. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1910. He occupied the position of President at different tunes of the Royal Society, the Chemical Society, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the British Association, and the Society for Psychical Research. His discovery of the new chemical element which he named “Thallium;” his inventions of the radiometer, the spinthariscope, and the “Crookes’ tube,” only represent a slight part of his great research. He founded in 1859 the CHEMICAL NEWS, which he edited, and in 1864 he became editor of the QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SCIENCE. In 1880 the French Academy of Sciences awarded him a gold medal and a prize of 3,000 francs in recognition of his important work.

“Crookes confesses that he began his investigations into psychical phenomena believing that the whole matter might prove to be a trick. His scientific brethren held the same view, and were delighted at the course he had adopted. Profound satisfaction was expressed because the subject was to be investigated by a man so thoroughly qualified. They had little doubt that what were considered to be the sham pretensions of Spiritualism would now be exposed.

“One writer said, “If men like Mr. Crookes grapple with the subject we shall soon know how much to believe.” Dr. (afterwards Professor) Balfour Stewart, in a communication to Nature, commended the boldness and honesty which had led Mr. Crookes to take this step.

“Crookes himself took the view that it was the duty of scientists to make such investigation. He writes: “It argues ill for the boasted freedom of opinion among scientific men that they have so long refused to institute a scientific investigation into the existence and nature of facts asserted by so many competent and credible witnesses, and which they are freely invited to examine when and where they please. For my own part, I too much value the pursuit of truth, and the discovery of any new fact in Nature, to avoid inquiry because it appears to clash with prevailing opinions.” In this spirit he began his inquiry….

“Miss Florence Cook, with whom Crookes undertook his classical series of experiments, was a young girl of fifteen who was asserted to possess strong psychic powers, taking the rare shape of complete materialization. It would appear to have been a family characteristic, for her sister, Miss Kate Cook, was not less famous.

“There had been some squabble with an alleged exposure in which a Mr. Volckman had taken sides against Miss Cook, and in her desire for vindication she placed herself entirely under the protection of Mrs. Crookes, declaring that her husband might make any experiments upon her powers under his own conditions, and asking for no reward save that he should clear her character as a medium by giving his exact conclusions to the world.

“Fortunately, she was dealing with a man of unswerving intellectual honesty. We have had experience in these latter days of mediums giving themselves up in the same unreserved way to scientific investigation and being betrayed by the investigators, who had not the moral courage to admit those results which would have entailed their own public acceptance of the spiritual interpretation.

“Professor Crookes published a full account of his methods in the QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF SCIENCE, of which he was then editor.

“In his house at Mornington Road a small study opened into the chemical laboratory, a door with a curtain separating the two rooms. Miss Cook lay entranced upon a couch in the inner room. In the outer in subdued light sat Crookes, with such other observers as he invited. At the end of a period which varied from twenty minutes to an hour the materialized figure was built up from the ectoplasm of the medium. The existence of this substance and its method of production were unknown at that date, but subsequent research has thrown much light upon it, an account of which has been embodied in the chapter on ectoplasm.

“The actual effect was that the curtain was opened, and there emerged into the laboratory a female who was usually as different from the medium as two people could be. This apparition, who could move, talk, and act in all ways as an independent entity, is known by the name which she herself claimed as her own, “Katie King.”

“The natural explanation of the skeptic is that the two women were really the same woman, and that Katie was a clever impersonation of Florence. The objector could strengthen his case by the observation made not only by Crookes but by Miss Marryat and others, that there were times when Katie was very like Florence.

“Herein lies one of the mysteries of materialization which call for careful consideration rather than sneers. The author, sitting with Miss Besinnet, the famous American medium, has remarked the same thing, the psychic faces beginning when the power was weak by resembling those of the medium, and later becoming utterly unlike.

“Some speculators have imagined that the etheric form of the medium, her spiritual body, has been liberated by the trance, and is the basis upon which the other manifesting entities build up their own simulacra. However that may be, the fact has to be admitted; and it is paralleled by Direct Voice phenomena, where the voice often resembles that of the medium at first and then takes an entirely different tone, or divides into two voices speaking at the same time.

“However, the student has certainly the right to claim that Florence Cook and Katie King was the same individual until convincing evidence is laid before him that this is impossible. Such evidence Professor Crookes is very careful to give.

“The points of difference which he observed between Miss Cook and Katie are thus described:

“Katie’s height varies; in my house I have seen her six inches taller than Miss Cook. Last night, with bare feet and not tip-toeing, she was four and a half inches taller than Miss Cook. Katie’s neck was bare last night; the skin was perfectly smooth both to touch and sight, whilst on Miss Cook’s neck is a large blister, which under similar circumstances is distinctly visible and rough to the touch. Katie’s ears are unpierced, whilst Miss Cook habitually wears ear-rings. Katie’s complexion is very fair, while that of Miss Cook is very dark. Katie’s fingers are much longer than Miss Cook’s, and her face is also larger. In manners and ways of expression there are also many decided differences.

“In a later contribution, he adds:

“Having seen so much of Katie lately, when she has been illuminated by the electric light, I am enabled to add to the points of difference between her and her medium which I mentioned in a former article. I have the most absolute certainty that Miss Cook and Katie are two separate individuals so far as their bodies are concerned. Several little marks on Miss Cook’s face are absent on Katie’s. Miss Cook’s hair is so dark a brown as almost to appear black; a lock of Katie’s, which is now before me, and which she allowed me to cut from her luxuriant tresses, having first traced it up to the scalp and satisfied myself that it actually grew there, is a rich golden auburn.

“On one evening I timed Katie’s pulse. It beat steadily at 75, whilst Miss Cook’s pulse a little time after was going at its usual rate of 90. On applying my ear to Katie’s chest, I could hear a heart beating rhythmically inside, and pulsating even more steadily than did Miss Cook’s heart when she allowed me to try a similar experiment after the séance. Tested in the same way, Katie’s lungs were found to be sounder than her medium’s, for at the time I tried my experiment Miss Cook was under medical treatment for a severe cough.

“Crookes took forty-four photographs of Katie King by the aid of electric light. Writing in THE SPIRITUALIST (1874, p. 270), he describes the methods he adopted:

“During the week before Katie took her departure, she gave séances at my house almost nightly, to enable me to photograph her by artificial light. Five complete sets of photographic apparatus were accordingly fitted up for the purpose, consisting of five cameras, one of the whole-plate size, one half-plate, one quarter-plate, and two binocular stereoscopic cameras, which were all brought to bear upon Katie at the same time on each occasion on which she stood for her portrait. Five sensitizing and fixing baths were used, and plenty of plates were cleaned ready for use in advance, so that there might be no hitch or delay during the photographing operations, which were performed by me, aided by one assistant.

“My library was used as a dark cabinet. It has folding doors opening into the laboratory; one of these doors was taken off its hinges, and a curtain suspended in its place to enable Katie to pass in and out easily. Those of our friends who were present were seated in the laboratory facing the curtain, and the cameras were placed a little behind them, ready to photograph Katie when she came outside, and to photograph anything also inside the cabinet, whenever the curtain was withdrawn for the purpose.

“Each evening there were three or four exposures of plates in the five cameras, giving at least fifteen separate pictures at each séance; some of these were spoilt in the developing, and some in regulating the amount of light. Altogether I have forty-four negatives, some inferior, some indifferent, and some excellent.

“Some of these photographs are in the author’s possession, and surely there is no more wonderful impression upon any plate than that which shows Crookes at the height of his manhood, with this angel-for such in truth she was-leaning upon his arm. The word “angel” may seem an exaggeration, but when an other-world spirit submits herself to the discomforts of temporary and artificial existence in order to convey the lesson of survival to a material and worldly generation, there is no more fitting term.

“Some controversy has arisen as to whether Crookes ever saw the medium and Katie at the same moment. Crookes says in the course of his report that he frequently followed Katie into the cabinet, “and have sometimes seen her and her medium together, but most generally I have found nobody but the entranced medium lying on the floor, Katie and her white robes having instantaneously disappeared.”

“Much more direct testimony, however, is given by Crookes in a letter to the BANNER OF LIGHT (U.S.A.), which is reproduced in THE SPIRITUALIST (London) of July 17, 1874, p. 29. He writes:

“In reply to your request, I beg to state that I saw Miss Cook and Katie together at the same moment, by the light of a phosphorus lamp, which was quite sufficient to enable me to see distinctly all I described. The human eye will naturally take in a wide angle, and thus the two figures were included in my field of vision at the same time, but the light being dim, and the two faces being several feet apart, I naturally turned the lamp and my eyes alternately from one to the other, when I desired to bring either Miss Cook’s or Katie’s face to that portion of my field of view where vision is most distinct. Since the occurrence here referred to took place, Katie and Miss Cook have been seen together by me and eight other persons, in my own house, illuminated by the full blaze of the electric light. On this occasion Miss Cook’s face was not visible, as her head had to be closely bound up in a thick shawl, but I specially satisfied myself that she was there. An attempt to throw the light direct on to her uncovered face, when entranced, was attended with serious consequences.

“The camera, too, emphasizes the points of difference between the medium and the form. He says:

“One of the most interesting of the pictures is one in which I am standing by the side of Katie; she has her bare foot upon a particular part of the floor. Afterwards I dressed Miss Cook like Katie, placed her and myself in exactly the same position, and we were photographed by the same cameras, placed exactly as in the other experiment, and illuminated by the same light. When these two pictures are placed over each other, the two photographs of me coincide exactly as regards stature, etc., but Katie is half a head taller than Miss Cook, and looks a big woman in comparison with her. In the breadth of her face, in many of the pictures, she differs essentially in size from her medium, and the photographs show several other points of difference.

“Crookes pays a high tribute to the medium, Florence Cook:

“The almost daily séances with which Miss Cook has lately favored me have proved a severe tax upon her strength, and I wish to make the most public acknowledgment of the obligations I am under to her for her readiness to assist me in my experiments.

“Every test that I have proposed she has at once agreed to submit to with the utmost willingness; she is open and straightforward in speech, and I have never seen anything approaching the slightest symptom of a wish to deceive. Indeed, I do not believe she could carry on a deception if she were to try, and if she did she would certainly be found out very quickly, for such a line of action is altogether foreign to her nature. And to imagine that an innocent schoolgirl of fifteen should be able to conceive and then successfully carry out for three years so gigantic an imposture as this, and in that time should submit to any test which might be imposed upon her, should bear the strictest scrutiny, should be willing to be searched at any time, either before or after a séance, and should meet with even better success in my own house than at that of her parents, knowing that she visited me with the express object of submitting to strict scientific tests-to imagine, I say, the Katie King of the last three years to be the result of imposture, does more violence to one’s reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms.*

* “Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism”

“Granting that a temporary form was built up from the ectoplasm of Florence Cook, and that this form was then occupied and used by an independent being who called herself “Katie King,” we are still faced with the question, “Who was Katie King?” To this we can only give the answer which she gave herself, while admitting that we have no proof of it. She declared that she was the daughter of John King, who had long been known among Spiritualists as the presiding spirit at séances held for material phenomena. His personality is discussed later in the chapter upon the Eddy brothers and Mrs. Holmes, to which the reader is referred. Her earth name had been Morgan, and King was rather the general title of a certain class of spirits than an ordinary name. Her life had been spent two hundred years before, in the reign of Charles the Second, in the island of Jamaica. Whether this be true or not, she undoubtedly conformed to the part, and her general conversation was consistent with her account. One of the daughters of Professor Crookes wrote to the author and described her vivid recollection of tales of the Spanish Main told by this kindly spirit to the children of the family. She made herself beloved by all. Mrs. Crookes wrote:

“At a séance with Miss Cook in our own house when one of our sons was an infant of three weeks old, Katie King, a materialized spirit, expressed the liveliest interest in him and asked to be allowed to see the baby. The infant was accordingly brought into the séance room and placed in the arms of Katie, who, after holding him in the most natural way for a short time, smilingly gave him back again.

“Professor Crookes has left it on record that her beauty and charm were unique in his experience.

“The reader may reasonably think that the subdued light which has been alluded to goes far to vitiate the results by preventing exact observation. Professor Crookes has assured us, however, that as the series of séances proceeded toleration was established, and the figure was able to bear a far greater degree of light. This toleration had its limits, however, which were never passed by Professor Crookes, but which were tested to the full in a daring experiment described by Miss Florence Marryat (Mrs. Ross-Church). It should be stated that Professor Crookes was not present at this experience, nor did Miss Marryat ever claim that he was. She mentions, however, the name of Mr. Carter Hall as being one of the company present. Katie had very good-humoredly consented to testing what the effect would be if a full light were turned upon her image:

“She took up her station against the drawing-room wall, with her arms extended as if she were crucified. Then three gas-burners were turned on to their full extent in a room about sixteen feet square. The effect upon Katie King was marvelous. She looked like herself for the space of a second only; then she began gradually to melt away. I can compare the dematerialization of her form to nothing but a wax doll melting before a hot fire. First the features became blurred and indistinct; they seemed to run into each other. The eyes sunk in the sockets, the nose disappeared; the frontal bone fell in. Next the limbs appeared to give way under her, and she sank lower and lower on the carpet, like a crumbling edifice. At last there was nothing but her head left above the ground-then a heap of white drapery only, which disappeared with a whisk, as if a hand had pulled it after her–and we were left staring by the light of three gas-burners at the spot on which Katie King had stood.*

* “There Is No Death,” p. 143.

“Miss Marryat adds the interesting detail that at some of these séances Miss Cook’s hair was nailed to the ground, which did not in the least interfere with the subsequent emergence of Katie from the cabinet.

“The results obtained in his own home were honestly and fearlessly reported by Professor Crookes in his Journal, and caused the greatest possible commotion in the scientific world. A few of the larger spirits, men like Russel Wallace, Lord Rayleigh, the young and rising physicist William Barrett, Cromwell Varley, and others, had their former views confirmed, or were encouraged to advance upon a new path of knowledge. There was a fiercely intolerant party, however, headed by Carpenter the physiologist, who derided the matter and were ready to impute anything from lunacy to fraud to their illustrious colleague. Organized science carne badly out of the matter. In his published account Crookes gave the letters in which he asked Stokes, the secretary of the Royal Society, to come down and see these things with his own eyes. By his refusal to do so, Stokes placed himself in exactly the same position as those cardinals who would not look at the moons of Jupiter through Galileo’s telescope. Material science, when faced with a new problem, showed itself to be just as bigoted as mediaeval theology.

“Before quitting the subject of Katie King one should say a few words as to the future of the great medium from whom she had her physical being. Miss Cook became Mrs. Corner, but continued to exhibit her remarkable powers. The author is only aware of one occasion upon which the honesty of her mediumship was called in question, and that was when she was seized by Sir George Sitwell and accused of personating a spirit. The author is of opinion that a materializing medium should always be secured so that she cannot wander around-and this as a protection against herself. It is unlikely that she will move in deep trance, but in the half-trance condition there is nothing to prevent her unconsciously, or semi-consciously, or in obedience to suggestion from the expectations of the circle, wandering out of the cabinet into the room. It is a reflection of our own ignorance that a lifetime of proof should be clouded by a single episode of this nature. It is worthy of remark, however, that upon this occasion the observers agreed that the figure was white, whereas when Mrs. Corner was seized no white was to be seen. An experienced investigator would probably have concluded that this was not a materialization, but a transfiguration, which means that the ectoplasm, being insufficient to build up a complete figure, has been used to drape the medium so that she herself may carry the simulacrum. Commenting upon such cases, the great German investigator, Dr. Schrenck Notzing, says*:

* “Phenomena of Materialization” (English Translation)

This (a photograph) is interesting as throwing a light on the genesis of the so-called transfiguration, I.E. the medium takes upon herself the part of the spirit, endeavoring to dramatize the character of the person in question by clothing herself in the materialized fabrics. This transition stage is found in nearly all materialization mediums. The literature of the subject records a large number of attempts at exposure of mediums thus impersonating “spirits,” e.g. that of the medium Bastian by the Crown Prince Rudolph, that of Crookes’s medium, Miss Cook, that of Madame d’Esperance, etc. In all these cases the medium was seized, but the fabrics used for masking immediately disappeared, and were not afterwards found.

It would appear, then, that the true reproach in such cases lies with the negligent sitters rather than with the unconscious medium.”

I realize that this excerpt from The History of Spiritualism was long and arduous but if you elect to read The Medium and the Scientist you will be confronted with every piece of evidence that fraud took place but you will not read any of what was quoted above.

Much love,

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