Anna Eva Fay couldn’t wait to dock at Halifax in 1895.
The 44-year-old superstar had suffered nineteen miserable hours onboard the steamship Olivette from Boston. A reporter from the Halifax Echo noted, “Though a great traveler she is a poor sailor and was seasick during most of the voyage.”
Fay’s fame began in 1875 when she convinced the scientist Sir William Crookes that she could communicate with the spirit world. By 1895, Fay could pack any theatre to the rafters.
Anna Eva Fay opened her Halifax show tied to a stake like Joan of Arc.
She was roped by several prominent citizens, all supervised by a local doctor. Her neck was tied tight to the stake while her hands and feet were secured with cord. All the knots were sealed with wax and the rope ends were held by her captors.
Musical instruments were laid at her feet and then Fay was concealed by a fabric cabinet.
Instantly, a violin played, bells rang, and tambourines rattled— presumably the work of spirits summoned by Fay. Then all the instruments were flung out of the cabinet, sent crashing to the stage floor.
When the cabinet was whisked away the sold-out Orpheus Hall roiled with fear and astonishment. There stood Fay, still tied to the stake, her wax seals unbroken, and the men still holding the ends of her ropes.
Next, some frightened fans raced for the exits as Fay commanded a spirit to float a table in midair while an audience member tried in vain to keep it pressed tight to the floor.
Fay’s third act allowed spectators to write a question then seal it in an envelope. Blindfolded and covered in a sheet Fay looked like a ghost in the footlights. One-by-one the audience members brandished their sealed packets as Fay called out dozens of their secret questions without ever touching the envelopes.
She answered their questions about a fire in the north end, the murder of a local man named Peter Doyle and his apparent assassin “Lady Jane”, and the possibility of Halifax getting electric streetcars.
The next day an Echo reporter caught up with Fay at the Halifax Hotel on Hollis Street. The writer described her as “frail and delicate” but noted, “she is possessed of much mental force.” Fay spoke to him about her powers which she claimed were rooted in a religion called Theosophy.
After Halifax, Fay toured New Brunswick and PEI. Her final Maritime show was at the Marine Hall in Yarmouth where she was asked if Captain Kidd’s treasure was buried at Oak Island.
She replied, “No, there was no treasure there. The treasure was buried at Campobello and several articles have already been recovered but the matter is being kept very secret.”
The next day Fay boarded the SS Yarmouth for her return to Boston.
Throughout her 50-year career Anna Eva Fay was routinely betrayed by reporters, including the Halifax Echo writer, who exposed her methods after chatting with loose-lipped stagehands.
Newspapermen loved revealing how Fay’s manifestations were nothing more than magic tricks.
But rarely would they spoil the same illusions offered by male performers.
After meeting Fay, Harry Houdini noted in his diary, “She spoke freely of all her methods. Never at any time did she pretend to believe in spiritualism.”
But just like the mean-spirited reporters, Houdini didn’t give Fay enough credit; her famous persona was possible only because she was a clever magician, a practiced escape artist, and a skilled actress.
The bad press didn’t hurt business in the Maritimes. At every stop on Fay’s tour, theater managers had to dust off their beloved SRO sidewalk signs—standing room only.
Maritimers have always loved a good mystery. And they loved Anna Eva Fay.