It began in the 1850s with Ann Heathman of Ohio, an 11-year-old girl cast upon the world by an impoverished father, then by a jealous foster mother. Finding shelter with a family of spiritualists, the girl saw an opportunity and began to exhibit abilities as a spirit medium. She was discovered and taken under the wing of Henry Melville Cummings, a spiritualist and con man who tutored the blue-eyed blonde and monetized her skills under the name of Anna Eva Fay. (Henry, who changed his name often, began going by Fay in order to trade upon the name of William Fay who worked with the Davenport brothers, popular spiritualist magicians.)
Henry and Anna Eva Fay lived as man and wife, or brother and sister, depending upon the local circumstances, and in 1877 their variable union was blessed with a son, John Truesdale Fay. Much of Anna’s early work involved séances with small groups and spirit readings in hotel rooms. Detective Allan Pinkerton described her as “a woman possessing a terribly fascinating power and capable of any devilish human accomplishment.” Once, after failing to con a wealthy man via spiritualism, she simply put a derringer to his forehead and took all his money.
In 1894, when spiritualism wore thin, Henry put Anna on the vaudeville stage and she was an instant hit, filling theater seats across the nation, billed as “the indescribable phenomenon” and “the modern oracle of Delphi.”
Her first act involved a “locked cabinet” illusion, with Anna bound with ropes, the knots sealed with wax, while spirits she summoned played instruments. It wasn’t much, but it gave her assistants time to go into the audience to prepare for the second act. Members of the audience were given a pad and pencil and asked to write down questions, then tear off the slip of paper with the question and hold it tightly in their hand. Only the blank notepads were returned to the stage.
Anna was blindfolded, seated in a chair, and passed into a state of “somnolency.” Suddenly she would call out the name of a person in the audience, point to them, repeat their exact question and follow with an answer. At the end of the act, she would swoon into the arms of an assistant, exhausted by her feats of “thought transference.”
Anna’s methods were exposed on occasion, by other illusionists or disgruntled former employees. Her mind-reading bit was lifted from magician S.S. Baldwin, “The White Mahatma,” but audiences didn’t care. They loved the show and people came back two and three times to see it, not caring how she knew the question, but just wanting to hear her answer.
The one who knew the most about the inner workings of her act was her son John, who had grown up behind the curtain. John was not the most principled of sons, and after he met and married Eva Norman Dean in 1898, they quickly ripped off Anna’s act and went on tour as “The Marvelous Fays.”
Eva Fay, easily confused with Anna Eva Fay (and that was the point) performed the same act only with an Egyptian theme, and an even stronger dose of drama. One observer described her entrance:
“Clad in a long, flowing robe of glittering gold, her russet-brown hair bearing a head-piece of ancient Egypt, her bare feet sandaled, her bare arms encircled with quaintly carved bracelets of gold, her hands toying with a long, flexible silver snake in the head of which glistens an emerald of deepest green; her face oval and dark, lighted by deep-set eyes that glow and burn; lips that turn upwards to the corners to relieve the somberness of a thoughtful countenance, Eva Fay, tall and generously proportioned, suggests the seeress of older times whom philosophers and poets rhapsodize.
“When she slowly ascends the few steps leading to her high-back chair, the front of which is a great tiger skin, there is a silence that can be felt throughout the huge auditorium. She drops a handful of pungent incense into the two great Egyptian braziers that flank her chair. As the odour is wafted out over the footlights, the feeling of suspense has settled down upon the audience. She blindfolds herself. She is alone on the stage.”
John and Eva, “the High Priestess of Thaumaturgy,” raked in the money, between $700 and $1,000 a week. Anna Eva Fay was rich, and now John and Eva Fay were getting rich, too. But mind-reading on the road can be tiring, and so in June of 1905, John and Eva Fay took a break and came to Skaneateles, renting what the Syracuse papers described as “the Shepard estate” for the summer.
The Shepard “estate” was actually just a large house on the corner of Genesee and Hannum Streets, today the Sherwood House. The property was once the home of Shuler Conover (and owned by Spencer Hannum before that). It had been sold to Norman O. Shepard in 1898 by Conover’s daughter, Carrie Converse, who was tidying up the estate after her father’s death in 1895. Norman O. Shepard and his son, Norman J. Shepard, summered with their families in the Thousand Islands, running a boat rental business, and so the Shepard house was available to summer residents.
Sadly for me, there is no record of the Fays performing wonders or summoning spirits, or of strange lights in the windows.
Three years later, after a successful run in Oakland, California, the Fays rested up again, at that city’s Hotel St. Mark, before going to Denver as part of a 40-week tour that was bringing them $1,000 a week. But for John, at least, the Mile High City was not to be.
After dinner, alone in a room, John shot himself in the face and died instantly. The initial reports said it must have been suicide, but there was a more reasonable explanation. In spite of a morbid fear of death, John got a thrill from handling loaded pistols. He’d once put a bullet into a wall at his mother’s house. The evidence on this night pointed to a clumsy accident.
But, it wouldn’t be right to end without giving one more version of the events. It has been said that Eva Fay had a “spirit rapping hand,” designed by the legendary Martinka magic shop, that enabled a spirit who was invoked during séances to answer questions with soft, tapping noises. And the particular spirit that communicated through Eva’s hand had become jealous of John. When his body was found, the spirit hand was on the floor next to the gun. Perhaps John just wanted to see what kind of shot the hand was.
After a brief interval, Eva returned to the stage to complete the tour.
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Theatrical poster of Eva Fay from the Courier Lithograph Company of Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1910.