Fay was born Ann Eliza Heathnan at Southington, Ohio, on 3 February 1851, three years after the Fox sisters started the spiritualist movement when both they and the Davenport Brothers were successfully touring with their spiritualistic shows. The daughter of a shoemaker, she had two sisters and when her mother died she was fostered out to a spiritualist family as a servant, living in the barn and enduring a youth of unremitting farm toil in the backwoods. As a child Fay was told she was a medium for the spirits of the dead and was encouraged by her family to pursue this path, giving her first exhibition in an old schoolhouse. In his book, A Pictorial History of Magic, David Price says that she may have started performing as early as age 11. When her father remarried she changed her name to Anna Eva and, in 1869, held her first séance making a profit of 10 cents. This was the start
of a new career.
the departed brought her to the attention of H Melville Cummings, an
unscrupulous fraudulent medium and exposer of fraudulent mediums
(depending upon who was paying him the most money at the time).
Melville went by the stage name Henry Melville Fay (Fay incidentally was also a fake name, he likely appropriated it from William Fay who was touring with the Davenport Brothers). He became her manager and eventually she became his common law wife. He taught her the methods of the fake mediums, including the Rope Tie Act. Under his guidance she conquered America and then Europe, becoming Anna Eva Fay.
The early act consisted of Mr Alexander Fay (another name used by Melville) doing magic and ventriloquism, followed by Fay with her Light and Dark Séances. The Light Séance was where she presented ‘the dancing spirit handkerchief.’ This is the same trick that Harry Blackstone Sr made famous, but it is generally agreed that Fay invented it. In The
Dark Séance Fay would start with physical phenomena such as objects
moving, bells ringing and trumpets sounding (as in the Davenports’ Spirit Cabinet) and then follow with mental phenomena which demonstrated the power of her mind. In her Spirit Cabinet Act, she used a tie called The Cotton Bandage Test where she would ask audience members to tie her
to a wooden post with strips of cotton bandages, and then get volunteers to sew the bandages together with thread, after which rope would be tied around her feet. The rope would then extend outside her curtained cabinet and be held by members of the audience. Her cabinet,’ incidentally, was not a cabinet at all, but a pipe and drape set up to form a small curtained room. When the front curtain was closed, odd manifestations would occur, but every time the curtain was opened, Fay was found to be tied and in a trance-like state.
floating above the top edge of the curtain at one point; nails and a board
were put into the cabinet and moments later the nails would be found to
have been pounded into the board; a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors
were put into the cabinet and when opened the paper was cut into the
shape of a string of dolls; tambourines and other items flew about; and
one of her most convincing tests was an accordion playing after she had
been tied up. Her method of operating it,
though simple, was decidedly ingenious.
She would place a small tube in the
valve hole of the instrument and then breathe and blow into it before allowing the air to escape with excellent effect.
In the early 1870s the American stage mentalist Washington Irving Bishop became Fay’s manager and assistant for her spiritualist acts. Sadly, Bishop was not to be trusted and was the source behind an exposure article that appeared in the New York Daily Graphic in 1876. He left the show and went off on his own. Fay was regularly exposed as a fraudulent medium, known for employing assistants including several who would dig up information about séance sitters in the towns that she visited. These
exposures did nothing to slow down her success and once, responding to
a comment that the spirits did little for her, she retorted: “They procure
me a handsome income.”
In a series of experiments in London in February 1875 at the house of
William Crookes, one of the most respected scientists of the age, Fay
managed to fool Crookes into believing she had psychic powers. Crookes had Fay hold two electrodes in an electrical circuit connected with a galvanometer in an adjoining room. Movement of objects occurred in the
room and a music instrument was played. Crookes was convinced that
the electrical control had not been broken proving a lack of trickery.
As a child, Fay was told she was a medium for the spirits of the dead
Fay and Melville had a son, John Truesdell Fay, who would
travel with the family and eventually became his mother’s assistant
creating ‘manifestations’ while hidden under her dress. Although the facts are inconsistent it appears the marriage disintegrated (Melville eventually passed away in 1908). In 1881 Fay married David Pingree who became her stage manager and promoted her shows, which included a two-part stage act the second of which was a clairvoyant act called ‘Somnolency.’
Over the years the spirit manifestations began to lose appeal and were replaced with Fay presenting feats of mentalism and mind reading. Her repertoire in mind reading exploded, making her one of the most famous and successful stage mentalists of her time.
In the past, parts of her act had been taken by other performers,
specifically the spirit or dancing handkerchief. Now it was her turn to
‘borrow’ from another performer. In 1894 she took Samri Baldwin’s Q & A
routine and added it to her act. By the following year she was possibly
the best performer of this type of act (now no longer performing
spiritualism items). Her act started with pads of paper being passed out
before the show to spectators who wrote down questions on the paper
and then tore the paper off and kept it. Later in the show, Fay would sit in
a chair and be covered with a light cloth before answering the questions.
She answered around three questions a minute, giving direct responses,
always in the categories of wealth, health, lost persons and marriage. Her
assistants, who handed out the tablets earlier, secretly exchanged them
for dummy tablets which were then carried down to the stage near the
footlights. The original tablets, which had an undersurface coated with
white wax, were taken backstage and it’s quite amusing to think Fay was
simply reading the notes from under her sheet! At the end of her show
the cloth covering would be removed and Fay would dramatically collapse
in the arms of her husband, David, who would carry her from the stage
to a burst of applause. Her act still included the Dancing Handkerchief,
a Floating Table and a Rapping Hand.
So amazing and believable was Fay that, regardless of the inclusion
of magic and ventriloquism, people began to believe her work was the
real thing. She never presented her offerings as legitimate spirit
manifestations. However, the disclaimer made prior to her performance
left a lot to the imagination. It basically said: “If you think what you are
seeing is real, you are welcome to think that. We present these
demonstrations for your kind consideration.” (A similar explanation
would be used by many thereafter, including the Piddingtons with their
enigmatic phrase: “You be the judge.”)
Everything seemed to be going splend
After this visit Houdini printed a photo of him and Fay gazing at a
ball in the garden. He wrote in his book A Magician Amongst the Spirits that Fay had revealed how she had fooled investigator Sir William Crookes in 1875. Houdini claimed that Fay told him that the way she cheated the galvanometer test was by gripping one handle of the battery beneath her knee joint, keeping the circuit unbroken and< leaving one hand free. Barry Wiley disagrees, suggesting that Fay beat the galvanometer tests by working with a secret accomplice Charles< Henry Gimingham (1853–90), an assistant of Crookes who had built the experimental apparatus. It seems likely that Fay had secured a resistance coil from Gimingham, after previously working her charms on him. There was however one thing she did reveal to Houdini, according to the Kenneth Silverman biography, Fay confided in Houdini< that she visited her son’s grave often, always hoping for a message from beyond but never receiving one. Fay was also on hand when Houdini was set to challenge Margery the Medium at Symphony Hall in Boston in January 1925. Fay was a good businesswoman and it is known that she was the highest taxpayer in her area. Her house, Heathman Manor, in Melrose Highlands, Massachusetts, was large and impressive. She also owned property and had a great deal of money. In her later years, in addition to her on-going stage appearances, Fay made money answering letters. She applied for a membership of The Magic Circle and in 1913, during a tour in Britain, and was elected the first Honorary Lady Associate of The Magic Circle. In 1924, Fay had an accident in Milwaukee, causing her retirement. She died on 20 May 1927 and was interred in a mausoleum in the family plot at the Wyoming Cemetery in Melrose, Massachusetts. l
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Wiley, Brian H. The Indescribable Phenomenon. (Seattle, WA: Hermetic Press Inc, 2005.)
Price, David. Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjuring in the Theatre.
Photo: TMC Archive
(Cranbury, NJ: Cornwall Books, 1985.)