Oct. 9, 2022

The William Crookes / Florence Cook Spiritualism scandal.


I have had to make this podcast into two parts as two hours was the least I could get the information down to without compromising the story. It seems that most people that have written on the subject have been sympathetic to the spiritualist arguments suggesting that there may be something in the subject that cant be explained and just because a medium has been caught cheating doesn’t mean that everything that she has done involved cheating. Trevor Hall’s book ‘The Spiritualists’ was published in 1962 and came under attack for drawing the conclusion that Crookes had sexual relations with the young female  mediums that he investigated who in turn blackmailed him.

The William Crookes, Florence Cook affair was the major scandal regarding spiritualism in the UK. Cook was a fraudulent medium, trained by her family to make money from spiritualism. For a number of reasons Spiritualism had proved very popular in the English speaking world since the mid 19th century.

The spirit guide/control that Florence Cook was relying on up until June 1874 was Katie King who was claimed to be a spirit guide/control for a number of other mediums.

After being exposed during a séance in December 1873, Florence was grabbed by a sitter while she pretended to be the spirit Katie King, they turned to Crookes who was a pro-spiritualist, famous scientist who had claimed to have discovered another medium, D.D.Home as being gifted with special powers. No other scientists believed Crookes although he was popular with spiritualists. The Cook family hoped that he would ‘prove’ that Florence Cook was a genuine medium. No other scientist wanted to be involved in investigating spiritualism whose followers viewed it as heresy to criticise their new belief. It wasn’t worth the bother to investigate something that wasn’t really possible to investigate.

Crookes investigated other young female mediums. Crookes would not have been guilty of any crime in 1974. The age of consent was 12 until 1875 when it was raised to 13 in the UK! Cook was 17 when she was first investigated by Crookes. Crookes was infatuated with Florence Cook, or perhaps with the spirit of Katie King. Crookes was manipulated and played by Florence Cook.

Crookes who was vain, intolerant and ego-centric refused to believe that he was being made to look a fool. There were various other scandals interwoven with the Crookes/Cook entanglement. This all to the backdrop of the spiritualist media and the main stream media trying to establish the truth of the new Spiritualist movement.

Few people came out of the scandal with their reputations intact. One who did was the pro-spiritualist Edward W. Cox. Many spiritualists seemed to be delusional but Cox, who was a friend of Crookes, was a reliable witness.

There was false information and cover-ups. Crookes later became president of the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) and rather disappointingly the society never had the courage to question him about his work on investigating spiritualism, instead it seems that the SPR destroyed the files on the Crookes investigation and any other files that reflected badly on previous Presidents.

Cook did not have a particularly long or happy life, dying in poverty in her 40s. Crookes died in 1919 as the grand old man of British science aged 86. Although there is no doubt that he was a brilliant scientist, his character was suspect and hypocritical.  

There was a great deal of research required to put this podcast together and I had to read numerous books. There are other reports and a few other podcasts on the subject but they do not go in depth on the background. The SPR which was not formed until 8 years after the Crookes report, did not come out of the story at all well. The early leaders of the SPR with the possible exception of the Sidgwicks and Podmore come across as arrogant and condescending.

But in my opinion, nobody was more arrogant and condescending