Anna Eva Fay
The Modern Oracle of Delphi
by Jim and Lis Warwood
This Article first appeared in Psychic News on 10th April 2010 and is reproduced by permission of the editor
By 8th April 1905 when The Salt Lake Herald published an article, 'Anna Eva Fay - The Modern Oracle of Delphi Lays Bare Life's Mysteries,' Anna was established as a major vaudeville performer whose peculiar 'abilities' were the highlight of her travelling show.
The article described the glamour and mystery with which Fay surrounded her activities. It reported in vivid terms the experiences she claimed to have had as a young woman - an 'American Girl,' residing in the "town of Burmah, India." It was there, she claimed, in a "pyrimidical [sic] tent," that Anna sat communicating telepathically with a "High Priest, known the breadth and length of India," learning all the occult secrets with which she went on to "startle the world".
The Frankfort Roundabout, a Kentucky newspaper, went even further on 24th November 1906 in its review of her impending visit, boldly claiming Anna Eva Fay was "endowed with a full understanding of the limits of spiritualism [sic]," and was "the most remarkable occultist," who "while still a child went to India where she studied the supernatural arts of the Mahatmas. So proficient did she become...the high priests bestowed upon her the title of Fair Mahatma." Such fanciful tales created a wonderful and exotic image of Anna Eva Fay, and helped to project an aura of mystery and occult skill. In reality, it is highly unlikely that Anna Fay was ever in India, or for that matter "Burma"!
Anna was born Ann Eliza Heathman, in February 1851, at Southington, Ohio, the daughter of a cobbler. After troubled family circumstances she apparently left home at an early age and began to exercise skills which indicated abilities as a medium. Around 1871, Anna met the man who would become known as her husband though it is doubtful they ever married. Henry Melville Cummings 'Fay' also became her business partner and it was he who allegedly helped her develop her 'mediumship' skills.
Henry was a medium with a very dubious reputation. In The Spiritual Magazine of 1st Dec 1867, Benjamin Coleman wrote an article on 'H. Melville Fay inEngland'. Coleman made clear that Henry Fay was not to be confused with William Fay, the man accompanying the Davenport Brothers. This was a common error made at the time, and one which Barry Wiley, in a 1983 article, 'The Fay Family Fight', indicated may have been deliberate on Henry's part. Coleman also claimed that Henry's "power as a medium was too feeble to enable him to live" and that in fact he had therefore made his living by touring to "expose the 'imposture' practised by Spirit Mediums".
When Henry toured England he travelled to Huddersfield where he met Mr Howarth, a leading Spiritualist, who invited him to run a seance.
Unfortunately for Henry, Professor Gunning, a citizen of Boston, was present and denounced him as one who had been exposing Spiritualism. Henry claimed he had done so on one occasion only, and the seance went ahead, without the Professor, who left in disgust.
When the Professor returned the next day with a copy of Banner of Light containing a report on Henry's full career, the mood of the Spiritualists turned unsympathetic and Henry was obliged to leave quickly.
This, then, was the man who became Anna's partner for the first seventeen years of her career, up to his death in 1889. Yet, when he and Anna came to London in June 1874 to work, no one was overly concerned with their past.
Their act drew great acclaim, notably attracting the interest of both Sir William Crookes and the magician J. N. Maskelyne. In 1932, Maskelyne's grandson Jasper published a book called White Magic. It records that Anna set up as a Spiritualist rival to Maskelyne's Egyptian Hall Magic Show and states "at first no supernatural aid was claimed", but that after some time she was achieving her seance performance with the aid of a spirit called "Sweet William".
William Crookes undertook to investigate Anna Fay. The tests were spread over several days but the key seance occurred on 19th February 1875. On this evening Sir William was joined by several other scientific researchers, including Serjeant Cox, his helper in the research on D. D. Home. The key control method used was a galvanometer, which required the medium to grip a handle either side of a battery to ensure a complete energy circuit.
A similar control was used in experiments with Florence Cook, and the scientists pointed out a weakness. Adjustments were made to overcome potential problems, and with Mrs Fay in position the lighting was reduced to one very dim gaslight. Almost immediately a variety of visual and audible events occurred, with items also appearing in the room from other parts of the house. At the conclusion of the session all observers agreed that the phenomena which had occurred were genuine and that the flow of current was maintained.
Deborah Bloom, in Ghost Hunter, records that around the same time Frederick Myers of the Society for Psychical Research persuaded Anna to attend a separate test seance with his colleague Henry Sidgwick. With different controls no phenomena occurred and they both dismissed the claims that Anna was able to produce genuine phenomena. Despite such contrary indications, Crookes' findings that Anna was a genuine physical medium were published in the 1875 Spiritualist under the title 'A Scientific Examination of Mrs Fay's Mediumship'.
Maskelyne, among many others, did not accept the validity of the tests, and suggested ways in which Mrs Fay could have beaten Sir William's controls. The magician soon incorporated all of Anna's phenomena into his shows, and regularly stopped to explain to the audience how it was done.
Years later Maskelyne's ideas on both Mrs Fay and the Davenport Brothers were the subject of a newspaper article, entitled 'A Chat with John Maskelyne', which was circulated widely.
On 27th July 1885, a copy was published in the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand. In the article Maskelyne claimed that on 12th May 1875 he had received a letter from Anna offering to expose all Sir William's scientific tests for a guaranteed sum of money. He alleged he had also been informed by Mrs Fay's manager that for a sum of money they were willing to pass on the way by which Miss Fay conducted her show.
Maskelyne declined the offer, already being sure he knew how she had beaten the tests and how all the tricks were done. Anna returned to America in July 1875, and from then on she neither suggested spirit was involved nor ever admitted her performances used trickery. She made no public statement about cheating in the galvanometer test, although there is some suggestion she privately boasted about it.
Those wishing to debunk the claims of Spiritualists often targeted Anna Fay. On 18th May 1876 Irving Washington Bishop, a one-time assistant, and possibly manager of Anna, gave a public exhibition at Chickering Hall, New York, at which he performed all of Anna's feats and explained to the audience how they had been done. This was widely reported in newspapers and magazines.
One editorial, headed 'Spiritualist Humbug Explode [sic]', in the June 1876 Manufacturer & Builder Magazine, drew a letter response from Dr Von Vleck, the "Spiritualist Medium Detective", published in August.
Von Vleck's letter stated that in late August 1871 he had met Henry Fay in Cincinnati, Ohio, just before a seance. On inquiring whether Mr Fay had any new additions to his repertoire, he was informed of a new one involving the use of iron rings. Von Vleck claimed that Henry, concerned that Von Vleck would seek to expose the Fays, would not go ahead with the seance until Von Vleck promised to remain silent, which he did, provided they did not make mention of spirit intervention and allowed him to learn the new trick.
Such exposures did not, however, stop Anna from performing, and she continued to travel around the country, with newspapers generally presenting her act as one of wonder, be it trickery or not. By the late 1880s, however, she appears mainly to have worked only in the provincial towns. This preference may relate to two incidents. The first, in New York, where The New York Times wrote on 9th December 1886, in an article headed 'No Bodies Materialised', that her feats were nothing more remarkable than those of everyday magicians. It suggested "the audience went out with vigorous growls of disappointment".
The second event occurred in Chicago on 6th March 1887, where 6,000 people attended her seance at a charge of 50 cents each. On 7th March The New York Times called it an "impudent exhibition of stale tricks" and the audience only left happy after driving Anna and her helpers off stage and smashing up her equipment.
Throughout her career, the first section of Anna Eva Fay's act involved being tied up in a cabinet after which a variety of tambourines, buckets and banjos would be thrown out. In the early years this spectacle, reminiscent of the work of the Davenport brothers, was shrouded in mystery; however, in the later years her approach made it far more humorous than mysterious.
The second part of her public act involved "thought transference" whereby Fay answered questions written by audience members on notepads provided for the purpose by Anna's attendants. The written slip would remain with the individual while the blank notepads were returned to the stage.
After going into a state of "somnolency", as the Fays defined it, Anna's eyes were bandaged and she was wrapped in a sheet and placed in a chair. The particulars of the act may have varied over time, but by 1905 the regular pattern involved her suddenly pointing her arm forward then swinging it round until settling on one direction, following which she would call out the name of a person in the audience, then their question followed by an answer, which was invariably confirmed as correct.
Anna Fay's son John Truesdale Fay was born in 1877, and eventually he also worked in the act. This added to the criticisms levelled against her, with the suggestion that he hid under Anna's skirts and took an active part in helping produce the phenomena.
To counter this Anna undertook a special performance, and on 13th March 1893, the Atlanta Constitution published the headline "She Convinced Them - Anna Eva Fay Shows the Newspapermen that no boy is Hidden in her Skirts."
Sadly, when John married, he and his wife Eva Dean split from Anna and set up their own act, modelled entirely upon Anna's performances but with a variation in presentation, using an Egyptian theme.
This caused a rift between Anna and her son which was only resolved shortly before John's untimely death in San Francisco in December 1908, following an accident with a revolver. Anna had her son's body interred in a specially built mausoleum (see left picture) at her home, Heathman Manor in Melrose, Massachusetts.
The feud between Anna and John's widow continued unabated until Anna's own death. Writers on Anna Eva Fay have often reported that she married David H. Pingree in 1881, after divorcing Melville Fay.
Descendants of the Pingree family, however, assert that she married Pingree in Canada in 1889, after Henry Fay had died. An obituary in The New York Times of 30th May 1889 records that on 29th May in Cleveland, Ohio, "H. Melville Fay, the wellknown spirit medium and husband of Anna Eva Fay, has justdied in hospital of cancer of the tongue."
In 1906, Anna was arrested in Pittsburgh for telling fortunes, an event recorded in The Harford Courier on 28th Dec 1906. Amazingly enough she was bailed the same day and continued with her act, and apparently the charges were dropped. In 1907 she received one of her most interesting challenges when Miss
Genevieve Cleve's announced in The Los Angeles Herald of 29th December the production of her work, Death of Modern Spiritualism: An Expose of the Work of All So-Called Spirit Mediums, with its "One Thousand Dollar Challenge to Anna Eva Fay".
Cleve's challenge to Anna was that should she or any other spirit medium come and prove they had spirit contact on the stage with her, she would pay them $1,000. Subsequently she offered to raise that to $2,000 when Anna said she would not even be bothered to consider such a small sum. Miss Cleve's said in the newspaper report "Like hundreds of thousands of spiritualists [sic] I want to see the fakers put out for they work fearful harm on the communities."
As ever, Anna quietly ignored the challenge and carried on with her shows, which continued to draw large crowds. By this time, it seems to have been accepted that she used trickery, even though it was never mentioned.
A report on the vaudeville shows for the summer season on Coney Island, in The Salt Lake Herald on 3rd July 1910, draws attention in particular to Anna's show. It describes the fact that the imprint of the pencils used leaves a mark in the notepad by the use of chemical residue and that this was used by Anna, yet indicates how enjoyable the show was, especially as it made constant reference to the local horse racing with regular requests for the winners. The article goes on to say that Anna's agents kept her up to date with news and hot tips from the stables.
In 1913, the Magic Circle, cofounded by Maskelyne and David Devant in London, where it still resides today, made Anna its first Honorary Lady Associate Member, despite her earlier conflict with Maskelyne, engendering the hostility of some magicians because she had never publicly acknowledged that she used magical trickery. In 1925 Anna retired after a leg injury sustained whilst performing. Subsequently she became friendly with Houdini and was part of the group involved in the controversial seance with Mina Crandon where both sides claimed they had been vindicated.
Anna died of heart disease on 12th May 1927, at the age of 76, and was buried in the mausoleum with her son at her Melrose home. Five years later, Houdini claimed in his book Magician Among Spirits, that Anna had told him how her tricks were done; however, her biographer Barry Wiley asserts Houdini's report was "pure fantasy".
Whether Anna Eva Fay's public performances were entirely based on trickery, or included the use of genuine psychic abilities, remains uncertain. Anna chose never to reveal the truth during her lifetime, taking the answer with her to the grave. So far as is known, she has not returned to shed light on the real nature of her act, and Anna Eva Fay remains a fascinating enigma in the annals of Spiritualist history.
Annie Eva Fay (1851-1927)
On March 31, 1848, a new religion called Spiritualism was born. Less than three years later history saw another birth, that of Ann Eliza Heathman to a simple cobbler in Southington, Ohio. While still a child, Annie was told she was a medium for the spirits of the dead, and from that point on she never looked back.
It is believed that Annie was driven out of her home by her over jealous stepmother. After she had left home she became interested in theosophy and mysticism. It is also believed that she became a pupil of Madam Blavatsky living with her and helping her in her work. When she left Blavatsky, Annie was given a shawl as a gift by Madam Blavatsky, but now had to make her own way in life. Annie had been told in her childhood, that she was a medium and so decided to make a life for herself on stage as a mind reader and psychic entertainer and gave her first public performance in a school house in New Portage, Ohio.
It was during this time that she met and married Henry Cummings Melville Fay, a self proclaimed unscrupulous fraudulent medium (or exposer of fraudulent mediums-whichever was paying best at the time). They decided to work on stage as a couple and were billed as ‘The Indescribable Phenomenon’ presenting an awe inspiring performance. Under his guidance, Annie conquered America and then Europe, Henry Fay had been denounced by many Spiritualists, and this threw some doubt on the authenticity of their performance.
However they managed to pack in the audiences where ever they performed. Annie taking her place on stage, she sat on a stool in an open fronted cabinet. Supervised by Henry, members of the audience were invited to tie her to the stool. One volunteer would tie her left wrist with a long piece of material, this tie would be made in the centre of the material and a number of knots would be put one on top of the other. A second volunteer would do the same again with her right wrist. Her arms would then be placed behind her back and the loose ends of the materials from both wrists would be tied together and again heavily knotted and tied to a harness ring that was embedded into an upright post at the rear of the cabinet. Another piece of material was tied at the back of Annie’s neck and again, passed through a harness ring which was attached to the same upright post. One end of a long rope was then tied around her ankles while the other end was held by a spectator throughout their performance.
Annie would then deem to off into a trance like state. Henry Fay would then place a hoop in his wife’s lap and proceed to close the curtains over the front of the cabinet. A second later he would throw open the curtains again and the hoop by now had moved to being around Annie’s neck. He would then remove the hoop and place on her lap a guitar; on the drawing of the curtains the sound of the guitar being strummed could be heard by the audience quite clearly, when Henry re-opened the curtains a few seconds later, the strumming would stop and the guitar would fall to the floor. This continued with a number of other instruments and the same thing would happen. Annie’s bindings still appearing to remain intact. Other phenomenon occurred; nails being driven into blocks of wood and paper dolls snipped out of paper. The great climax of the act was Henry placing a knife on the lap of his wife, and although the curtain had only been closed a second or two, the spirits seemingly had time to slice through her bonds and she would stand up and take many bows. The fays never actually billed themselves or claimed spirit intervention, even though she was bold enough to feature tricks in her main act such as; a “Spirit Dancing Handkerchief”, a “Rapping Hand, and a Levitation”.
The Fays arrived in London in June 1874 and the advertisements billing their performances mentioned “entertainments with light and dark séances every day and mysterious manifestations, with a series of bewildering effects”. There was however, no suggestion from them that they had any relationship to spiritualism. This denial however made no difference to the British Public who hailed her as a physical medium.
This caused a great deal of interest and attention from some Britain’s most notorious physical researchers. FW Myers, for instance, who was later one of the founders of the Society for Physical Research, had expressed an interest in completing an extensive investigation of Mrs. Fay’s mediumship. William Crooks, who was just finishing a series of psychic tests on Florence Cook, medium to Katie King and later Marie., stated that he wanted to be first to examine her.
By far the most important of all the experiments carried out by Crooks on Annie, were the experiments of the electrical tests. These tests were held at Crooke’s home in 1875. One of these tests consisted of an electrical control circuit that had been provided by another fellow of the Royal Society, Cromwell F Varley, during the tests carried out on Florence Cook but slightly modified. To make sure that the medium who would be seated in her cabinet was unable to slip her bonds, Crooke’s had her clench both handles of a battery, constructed in such a way, that if she was to let go of either handle, the current would send the attached meter to zero.