(1851 – 1927)

Anna Eva Fay was one of the twentieth century's most successful mediums and stage mentalists. This headline act could make people believe she could tap into the spirit world and contact their dearly departed. She also could convince people that she could see into their minds and read their thoughts.

Fay was a celebrity of her time who fooled some of the leading minds: she was a friend of Houdini and, in the words of her enemy J N Maskelyne, was “a fascinating little blonde” who also went under the name of 'The High Priestess of Mysticism' and ‘The Indescribable Phenomenon.’

Fay had a vibrant, enchanting personality; her act played in the best United States and European theatres. She had a sense of humour but combined it with firmness and total control of any situation. She performed in gowns and diamonds, and no one created such an impact in the spiritualist world during her 40-year conducting career. Author and magic historian David Price wrote: “She was unquestionably the most successful act of her kind ever to appear on stage.”

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 successfully toured 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 she may have started performing as early as 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.


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This article first appeared in The Magic Circular 2016.


Her ability to make people believe she could summon the shades of 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 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 starts with physical phenomena such as objects moving, bells ringing, and trumpets sounding (as in the Davenports’ Spirit Cabinet) and then follows with mental phenomena demonstrating her mind's power. 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 audience members. 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.

The manifestations she offered were unique. Her head would be seen 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 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 fooled 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 musical 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, the marriage apparently disintegrated (Melville finally died 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's 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 splendidly for Fay until her son John married a woman named Eva Norman in 1898. Eva and Fay did not get along from the start and what made matters worse was that Eva and John went off on their own and started doing an act called ‘The Marvellous Fays.’ They were basically copying Fay's act and this inevitably caused a rift in the family. In 1908, while apparently cleaning or toying with a loaded pistol, John Fay accidentally shot and killed himself. He was buried in the family plot in Massachusetts.

After a visit to see Fay in 1924, Houdini claimed she told him all her secrets although there is no real evidence that Fay revealed very much. 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.

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.)