James Knapton Thompson was born around 1850 in Yorkshire. By profession he was a Civil Engineer and he held a number of Patients in his professional field. It was one of these that led him to be prosecuted and found guilty of the defamatory libel of Henry Leggott in 1892. He appears to have believed that Leggott had stolen a part of one his patents on smoke-free stoves. Thompson had written a number of letters, including a diatribe to The Lancet asserting that his patient had been breached. The editor of The Lancet noted in 1892 ‘We have received a very lengthy communication from Mr. J. Knapton Thompson, C.E., of Leeds, claiming that a portion of the construction of Leggott and Marsh’s patent fire-range violates an invention and patent of Mr. J. Knapton Thompson.’
In 1876 he had published a pamphlet Decimal Acreage … Shewing … the comparative and relative value in statute measure of any decimal part of an acre. However, in a letter to The Teesdale Mercury dated 3 January 1877 L. Railton writes that the pamphlet had been written by himself and W.H. Boynes some time earlier. The letter implies that Thompson had plagiarised their work and published it as his own.
However, it is in a totally different area of activity that Thompson became deeply involved. Spiritualism was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and mediums were common. Many of these were consciously fraudulent. In 1907 E. Katherine Bates published Seen and Unseen, a book about her experiences in the psychic world, including details of some séances she had attended in New York. At a séance held by the medium Mrs Stoddart Gray she recounts
‘During this visit to America I also came across a Mr Knapton Thompson, a hard-headed Yorkshire man, who had invented a new kind of smokeless combustion stove, which must have been a good one, for our shrewd American cousins were employing him to put up these stoves in several public buildings, including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.’
Mrs Stoddart Gray had been outed as a fraud – one one occasion her son, who used the name De Witt C Hough, had ‘manifested’ as the deceased wife of a bereaved merchant. The role that Thompson played in her séances appears to have been to add the gravitas of a serious professional man to the occasion. He was described in a newspaper report at the time of her death as ‘ a man who bad been more or less identified with her ventures for years Dr Thompson Knapton.’ He appears to have had a relaxed attitude towards his name.
It was her death that brought Thompson’s name into the American press and attracted the attention of the New York police. She was holding a séance under an assumed name of Mrs James A. Snyder in early August, 1904 when she died. Both her son and Thompson were present at the time. The séance appears to have been a stressful occasion as the neighbours reported it ‘ was a very noisy one and that they could not sleep because of the racket in the house. It broke up in a lot of yelling and moaning.’ Mrs Stoddard Gray was in her early seventies and appears to already have had a series of ‘attacks’ which she treated by ‘transferring the vitality of her followers.’ The death had not been formally notified and the funeral director attending her body contacted the Coroner who subsequently involved the police. Her son explained that ‘Mrs Gray was a demonstrator of the philosophy and science of life commonly called a Spiritualist and like all Spiritualists she did not mind these earthly ills. She regarded these breakdowns of hers as simply psychic manifestation and not to be treated materially. She has had such attacks for twelve years and has always been kept up by a transfer of the vitality of her followers to herself. I have frequently treated her myself by kneeling at her bedside and gently managing the region around the heart at the same time saying soothingly “Mother you are not ill God will give you strength. Don’t you feel that He is now transferring strength to you” This method always worked until today.’ (The Evening World , 3 August. 1904)
The Coroner reported that ‘all those present, seemed to be in a highly wrought up condition. Especially was this the case with Mr. Knapton. He assured the Coroner that the Spiritualist séances would go on though Mrs Snyder was dead, and that she would return and tell them about the spirit world. He wanted to explain the doctrines of the cult to Coroner Scholer, despite the fact that the official told him he had little time to listen to anything save an official explanation of the woman’s death.’ Thompson (using the name Knapton and claiming to be a barrister from the Middle Temple) and the son were eventually arrested. (New York Times, 4 August, 1904).
De Witt Hough continued to be active as a medium, in December 1904 he is working with a partner, Mrs Conklin, in New York. In 1907 The Moving Picture World noted cynically ‘we paid a visit to a materialization séance by the Rev.(?) De Witt Hough … and saw some beautiful spirits (?) materialize to the number of fifteen, which held seventeen dollars’ works of audience spellbound. James Knapton Thompson was still alive in 1911. One of his sons, Alban Ruddock Thompson died in the First World War.