In his book Researches into the Phenomena of Spiritualism (1874), Sir William Crookes (1832–1919), the famous and respected British scientist, states that he walked with a materialized spirit form, talked with it, and took more than 40 flashlight photographs of the entity. The lively and charming spirit form was named Katie King, and she materialized through the mediumship of a teenager named Florence Cook.
When she was 15, Cook began sitting in seances with her mother in their home in Manchester, England, and she soon found that she was capable of producing writing she claimed was dictated by spirits from the other side. Her mediumship progressed rapidly, and within a short period of time, she was conducting dramatic demonstrations of spirit phenomena at meetings of the Dalston Society, a Spiritualist group. At some of these meetings the phenomena became so powerful that Cook was levitated above the heads of the sitters.
It was at this time that the teenaged medium met the spirit personality of "Katie King," who claimed to be the daughter of John King, alias Henry Owen Morgan, the infamous buccaneer. King promised to be Cook's spirit control and to produce many types of remarkable phenomena for a period of three years.
Cook was conducting her seances only at her parental home, and her father, mother, two sisters, and their household maid served as her steady circle of sitters. The teenager's reputation as a medium of remarkable talents had spread, and wealthy citizens of Manchester were offering retainers that would guarantee their attendance at her spirit circles whenever they required them.
In April of 1872, Katie King made an attempt to materialize, and she appeared only as a deathlike face between the gauze curtains of a seance cabinet. As spirit and medium strengthened their spiritual bond, King's ability to materialize became more and more advanced. Then, after a year's time, the spirit being could step out of the cabinet and show herself in full body to those who had gathered for Cook's seances. Sitters were allowed to touch her and even to photograph her.
As the spirit responded to questions concerning her life before death, she told a story of having been in the crowd that watched King Charles I of England lose his head at the chopping block in 1649. She had been but 12 then, and within a few more years, she was married. King confessed, however, to having been a violent, rather than a domestic, type; and she related with a macabre kind of eagerness how she had herself "done in" many people with her own hands before her death at the age of 23.
In a letter written February 3, 1874, Sir William Crookes described a seance in which Cook entered the spirit cabinet and slipped into trance. Moments later, Katie King emerged to say that the medium was not well enough that night to permit her to materialize to the level where she might wander very far from the cabinet. The spirit form did come a short distance amidst the sitters, but all the while they could hear the moanings and sobbings of Florence Cook.
Crookes stated that he sat in a position where he could clearly see the entranced form of Florence Cook and the materialized form of Katie King at the same time. Although he was impressed by the lifelike quality of the spirit control and by the fact that he could both see and hear Florence Cook while Katie King moved elsewhere in the seance room, the scientist was not firmly convinced by the demonstration.
At a later sitting, when Cook was feeling better, Katie King materialized for nearly two hours. Crookes reported that the charming spirit took his arm as she walked, and he found it hard to believe that his lovely companion could indeed be a visitor from beyond the grave. He asked permission to clasp King in his arms and was astonished when his request was granted.
During that same seance when he was allowed to touch the materialized spirit form, Crookes was also able to compare the features of the young medium and the spirit when King stood behind the form of the entranced Florence Cook. The medium lay in her customary black velvet dress, and the spirit form stood behind the couch in her flowing white drapery. Then, holding one of the medium's hands in one of his, Crookes knelt before the spirit and passed a lamp slowly up and down the whole figure of Katie King. Such a meticulous and brightly illumined examination thoroughly satisfied the eminent scientist that he had beheld a materialized spirit being and not "the phantasm of a disordered brain."
Crookes repeated the process three times, in each instance pausing to examine yet another aspect of either the spirit or the medium, whose psychic energy had manifested the spirit form. Later, in addition to a number of decided differences between the medium and the spirit, he listed various points of physical dissimilarities that he had observed between Florence Cook and Katie King: King was a good four and one-half inches taller than the medium. The skin of the spirit form's neck was very smooth both to touch and to sight, while Florence had a large blister on her neck that was distinctly visible and rough to the touch. Katie's ears were unpierced, while Florence habitually wore earrings. King's complexion was very fair, while Cook's was very dark. The spirit entity's fingers were much longer than the medium's, and King's face was also much larger.
For a period of over six months, Crookes studied the phenomena of Florence Cook at close hand. For as long as a week at a time, the young medium would be a guest at the Crookes's residence, constantly in the presence of some member of his family. Crookes became so familiar to the spirit that Katie King would allow him to enter the seance cabinet whenever he wished or to touch her at any time. The scientist wrote that it was a common thing for the seven or eight workers in his laboratory to view the materialized King in full glare of the electric lights.
After he had seen the spirit many times in the full light of his laboratory environment, Crookes added to the points of difference between the medium and the spirit form. In an article for a newspaper, he stated that he had the most absolute certainty that Florence Cook and the materialized entity were two separate individuals, so far as their physical bodies were concerned. There were several small blemishes on Cook's face which were absent on King's. The medium's hair was a very dark brown, whereas the spirit's hair was a rich golden auburn.
On the evening of Katie King's final appearance in the seance cabinet, she gave each of the members of the circle a farewell message and relayed a few general directions for the future well-being of Florence Cook. Crookes stated that after the spirit being had closed the curtains of the cabinet, she conversed with him for some time, then walked across the room to where the medium was lying on the floor in a state of deep trance. Stooping over her, King touched Cook and said, "Wake up, Florrie. Wake up! I must leave you now."
Crookes testified that the medium and the materialized spirit conversed with one another for several minutes, as Cook begged King to stay with her a little longer. "My work is done," King told her. "God bless you."
Sir William Crookes was outspoken in his defense of the validity of the phenomena produced by the young medium Florence Cook and her spirit control, Katie King. "Every test that I proposed [Florence Cook] agreed to," he told his scientific colleagues in the Royal Society. "She is open and straightforward in speech.…Indeed, I do not believe she could carry on a deception if she wished to try.…And to imagine that an innocent school-girl 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 seance, and should meet with even better success in my own house…does more violence to one's reason and common sense than to believe [Katie King] to be what she herself affirms."
The controversy over the scientist and his "pet ghost" has not been quieted to this day. One of the most common theories proposed by the detractors of the phenomena produced by Florence Cook is that Sir William Crookes fell in love with the 15-year-old medium and thereby became blinded to her trickery. Although the issue has been muddied by such charges, the experiments and reports of an illustrious scientist with the courage to bring his knowledge and training to psychic research stand as a matter of public record.
Florence Cook married Elgie Corner in 1874 and about the same time acquired a new spirit control named Marie, who followed in Katie King's ghostly footsteps by stepping out of the spirit cabinet, even singing and dancing to the delight of those clients assembled for a seance. At a sitting on January 9, 1880, during a materialization seance, Sir George Sitwell reached into the spirit cabinet and grabbed Marie. When the lights came up, the lively spirit Marie was found to be the medium Cook clad only in her corsets and petticoat and wrapped in white drapery.
Apologists for the medium argue that all of the incredible phenomena produced by Florence Cook Corner and witnessed by numerous psychical researchers, including the eminent scientist Sir William Crookes, should not be dismissed because of one incident of cheating. Skeptics counter that all of Cook's mediumistic materializations of Katie King and Marie were really dramatic impersonations for true believers in Spiritualism and that Crookes had become too infatuated with the young medium to be effectively objective.
Cook withdrew from public mediumship until 1899, when she accepted an invitation from the Sphinx Society in Berlin to sit under test conditions and demonstrate her abilities. According to many observers, the remarkable phenomena that Cook produced during those tests went a long way toward clearing her somewhat tarnished reputation.
Sir William Crookes stoutly maintained that Florence Cook had produced genuine spirit phenomena under the strictest of controls imposed upon her. When he learned of her death, he expressed his deepest sympathy for her family in a letter dated April 24, 1904, and declared that for many people their belief in an afterlife was strengthened because of the mediumship of Florence Cook.