Exploring the House of Mystery
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
A look back at an Omaha magician who changed the world of illusions and exposed spirit mediums
David Phelps Abbott was a magician, author, inventor, and investigator of spiritualist mediums. Throughout his life, he exposed several tricks used by mediums and performed magic shows and séances in the parlor of his home in Omaha, Nebraska. He was best known for creating such effects as the floating ball, talking teakettle, and the talking vase.
Abbott was born on September 22, 1863 near Falls City, Nebraska where he grew up on a farm. His formal education only consisted of three months each year in a country schoolhouse and nine months in Falls City High School. Although his education was limited, he was well versed in arts and science, which included the skill to play several musical instruments and the ability to explain Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in an article published in the Omaha World Herald. After moving to Lincoln and later to Omaha, Abbott made a career through the trade of money lending for personal loans, but his great passions involved science, philosophy, and magic.
Much like Harry Houdini, Abbott was an early skeptic of spirit mediums who claimed to contact and speak with the dead. By utilizing their techniques he exposed their use of deception to gain wealth and adapted their skills for his own magic tricks. Although Abbott worked diligently to expose fake spirit mediums, he did not rule out the possibility of genuine supernatural experiences.
Throughout his career, he wrote several books including his most famous Behind the Scenes with the Mediums published in 1907. The book represented one of the earliest accounts of exposing spirit mediums who falsely claimed to communicate with the dead. Abbott reveals various tricks and techniques used by mediums to deceive patrons of being able to contact their deceased loved ones. One particular illusion included in his book shows how the Bang Sisters produced their spirit portrait paintings. The book also includes a séance Abbott attended in which a spirit supposedly used a trumpet to communicate. The trumpet was situated in the center of the séance where the guests were seated in chairs around the room in the form of a circle. The instrument appeared to float as soon as the lights were turned off and a voice with an Irish accent could be heard. Abbott quickly realized that the medium conducting the séance was simply speaking through the trumpet as he moved around the room. Abbott was against attempting to contact spirits in the dark as he believed the lack of light was simply used as a cheap trick. The book became a best seller and was later printed in several other editions. After receiving enough money to live comfortably, Abbott decided to devote more time to mastering illusions.
In 1914, Abbott and his wife Fannie built a home on 33rd and Center Streets in Omaha, where he constructed a stage area to perform magic tricks. As a magician, he performed privately for invited guests. He demonstrated his Talking Teakettle, an illusion he invented in 1907 in which a participant would ask questions and receive an answer via a ghostly voice coming from inside a teakettle. He also invented the Talking Vase invented in 1909 and most famously his floating ball effect in which he was able to float a metallic-looking ball around the room. The incredible nature, quality, and inventiveness of his tricks interested numerous professional magicians. Many of the greats including Harry Houdini, Ching Ling Foo, the Great Blackstone and Harry Kellar attended his performances. He was admired by many and inspired them to adopt his tricks to astound and astonish audiences of their own.
Abbott passed away on June 12, 1934 of diabetes. Before his death, Abbott had collected and written a book he intended to publish that provided step-by-step instructions on how to perform his own illusions. After Fannie’s death in 1936 a lawyer named Edith Beckwith purchased the home. Beckwith auctioned off the contents of the house, including two talking teakettles for 10 dollars. In 1966, the house was sold again and the owners of the estate were found burning several documents into a bonfire in the backyard. The purchasers asked to keep the papers and photographs. Eight years later, a local magician contacted the couple who purchased the Abbott “House of Mystery” in an attempt to discover whether any documents were still present in the home. Through pure luck, or perhaps magic, the couple shared what was saved from the bonfire. Among the documents were four green binders that contained “Abbott’s Book of Mysteries.” An Omaha magician named Walter Graham would eventually purchase the contents of the binders, which included step-by-step instructions on how to perform his illusions, along with photographs and publish the contents for the first time. Several years later, famous magician Raymond Teller of Penn & Teller would purchase the manuscript and publish a revised and updated “House of Mystery” with several other Abbott publications including Behind the Scenes with the Mediums as a two-volume set.
Abbotts other works include: Spirit Slate-Writing and Billet Tests, The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy, The History of a Strange Case, and The Spirit Portrait Mystery: Its Final Solution.
Abbott is buried at Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park in Omaha, Nebraska. The inscription on his gravestone states: “Here Lies David P. Abbott Scientist and World Famous Magician.”
For more detailed accounts of hauntings in Nebraska and the history associated with them check out: Beyond Lincoln: A History of Nebraska Hauntings by Tayden Bundy.
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