Monday, May 12, 2014

The Inexplicable Frankie Gunnell

Mary Ann Milburn Hinton and Henry D. Gunnell were married in 1854. Both of them had been widowed. They quickly had a child together called Franklin, the last child for both parents. Frankie was born in late 1854 or early 1855, making him right about the same age as his cousin T.W. Milburn. They lived only a few blocks from each other, T.W. on D Street and Frankie on G Street. But from an early age Frankie was markedly different from Tom Milburn.

Frankie Gunnell went on the stage. No, he didn’t perform as an actor—at least not any conventional one. He did magic in the mode of the Spiritualists. In the theater of Spiritualism the audience was invited to believe that the performer was a medium who was somehow in touch with invisible powers—spirits who nevertheless made themselves manifest in sight, sound, and deed. The medium was thereby demonstrating the existence of a Spirit world, and confirming for the spectators that there are “more things in heaven and earth” beyond what common understanding can reckon with.

Spiritualism was big news in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and Frankie got in toward the end of it’s great initial vogue. His public performances began at the latest in 1868, when Frankie could not have been older than thirteen. A report of his show, and how it was going over with the Washington DC audience, was published in New York by a correspondent to a French language newspaper. The writer recognized that Frankie was repeating a great deal of the spectacle developed fifteen years earlier by the much better known Davenport Brothers. These Brothers (who, like Frankie, began their public career when they were in their teens), had developed as their signature effect a trick with a large cabinet resembling a double armoire on a raised platform. The Brothers took seats in the cabinet across from each other. They were bound to their chairs, and the cabinet doors were shut. The audience would see mysterious hands emerge from small apertures in the doors. Musical instruments would sound, and bells would ring. When the doors were opened there were brothers, still tied up in their seats as they were before. Frankie’s version of the famous Cabinet manifestation was slightly different The French report notes that the cabinet doors burst open and Frankie proudly showed that he was no longer bound.

A number of appearances by Frankie Gunnell in DC are recorded in the newspapers during the next few years. His act also included a “Dark Séance” like the one that the Davenport Brothers did, and other bits of Spirit business. There was also a show done at the Gunnells’ house for selected local notables. (Such a private demonstration for special guests seems to have been de rigeur for Spiritualist acts of the period. I suppose it established the medium’s bona fides and promoted the act by gaining an association with prominent men and women.) It’s clear that Frankie traveled some outside of the District, performing at Baltimore at least (“a tip top medium”), and possibly in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. His youth was emphasized when he was mentioned in the news or in books, since people seemed to think the youth of the medium meant that he was incapable of humbug or duplicity.

from the Evening Star, March 19, 1869

In 1872 a newspaper mentioned with a wink that a certain “Professor Gunnelle” was amazing folks at a market fair in western Virginia. This suggests that Frankie was trying something new—a stage persona that sharply differed from his first “boy prodigy” appeal. Maybe the old version of the act was worn out in his hometown. Or perhaps the professional debunkers who lectured in the larger cities, caused business there to decline. In any case it was just about this time that he apparently got married to Miss Frances Miller of Salem, Virginia.

From this point on Frankie more or less disappears from view. His name comes up—his longer name: Franklin D. Gunnell—in the course of the 1875 Milburn property trial. His name appears once again in 1889 in the Washington Post notice of a transfer of property to his oldest half-sister. However, he’s not listed in DC directories during all this time, nor is he enumerated in the 1880 census or in later ones. The rest of his story belongs instead to Fanny Miller Gunnell.

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