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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 31486

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Mysterious Mr. Home

"So you've brought the devil to my house, have you?"

"No, no, aunty, no! It's not my fault."

With an angry gesture the woman, tall, large boned, harsh visaged, pushed back her chair and advanced threateningly toward the pale, anemic looking youth of seventeen, who sat cowering at the far end of the breakfast table.

"You know this is your doing. Stop it at once!"

The other gazed helplessly about him, while from every side of the room came a volley of raps and knocks. "It is not my doing," he muttered. "I cannot help it."

"Begone then! Out of my sight!"

Left to herself and to silence,-for with her nephew's departure the noise instantly ceased,-she fell into gloomy meditation. She was an exceedingly ignorant, but a profoundly religious woman. She had heard much of the celebrated Fox sisters, with tales of whose strange actions in the neighboring State of New York the countryside was then ringing, and she recognized, or imagined she recognized, a striking similarity between their performances and the tumult of the last few minutes. It was her firm belief that the Fox girls were victims of demoniac influence, and no less surely did she deem it impossible to attribute the recent disturbance to human agency. Her nephew was not given to practical jokes; there had been nothing unusual in his manner; he had greeted her cheerily as usual, and quietly taken his seat. But with his advent, and she shuddered at the remembrance, the knockings had begun. There could be only one explanation-the boy, however unwittingly, had placed himself in the power of the devil. What to do, however, she knew not, and fumed and fretted the entire morning, until upon his reappearance at noon the knockings broke out again. Then her mind was quickly made up.

"Look you!" said she to him. "We must rid you of the evil that is in you. I will have the ministers reason with you and pray for you, and that at once."

True to her word, she despatched a messenger to the three clergymen of the little Connecticut village in which she made her home, and all three promptly responded to her request. But their visits and their prayers proved fruitless. Indeed, the more they prayed the louder the knocks became; and presently, to their astonishment and dismay, the very furniture appeared bewitched, dancing and leaping as though alive. "Verily," said one to his irate aunt, "the boy is possessed of the devil." To make matters worse, the neighbors, hearing of the weird occurrences, besieged the house day and night, their curiosity whetted by a report that, exactly as in the case of the Fox sisters, communications from the dead were being received through the knockings. Incredible as it seemed, this report found speedy confirmation. Before the week was out the lad told his aunt:

"Last night there came raps to me spelling words, and they brought me a message from the spirit of my mother."

"And what, pray, was the message?"

"My mother's spirit said to me, 'Daniel, fear not, my child. God is with you, and who shall be against you? Seek to do good. Be truthful and truth loving, and you will prosper, my child. Yours is a glorious mission-you will convince the infidel, cure the sick, and console the weeping.'"

"A glorious mission," mocked the aunt, her patience utterly exhausted,-"a glorious mission to bedevil and deceive, to plague and torment! Away, away, and darken my doors no more!"

"Do you mean this, aunty?"

"Mean it, Daniel? Never shall it be said of me that I gave aid and comfort to Satan or child of Satan's. Pack, and be off!"

In this way was Daniel Dunglas Home launched on a career that was to prove one of the most marvelous, if not the most marvelous, in the annals of mystification. But at the time there was no reason to anticipate the remarkable achievements which the future held in store for him. He was fitted for no calling. Ever since his aunt had adopted him in far-away Scotland, where he was born of obscure parentage in 1833, he had led a life of complete dependence, not altogether cheerless but deadening to initiative and handicapping him terribly for the task of making his way in the world. His health was broken, his pockets were empty, he was without friends. Cast upon his own resources under such conditions, it seemed but too probable that failure and an early death would be his portion.

Two things only were in his favor. The first was his native determination and optimism; the second, the interest aroused by published reports of the phenomena that had led to his expulsion from his aunt's house. Already, although only a few days had elapsed since the knockings were first heard, the newspapers had given the story great publicity, and their accounts were greedily devoured by an ever-widening circle of readers, quite willing to regard such happenings as evidence of the intervention of the dead in the affairs of the living. It was, it must be remembered, an era of wide-spread enthusiasm and credulity, the heyday period of spiritism. So soon, therefore, as it became known that young Home was at liberty to go where he would, invitations were showered on him.

Among these was one from the nearby town of Willimantic, and thither Home journeyed in the early spring of 1851. It was determined that an attempt should be made to demonstrate his mediumship by the table tilting process then coming into vogue among spiritists, and the result exceeded all expectations. The table, according to an eye-witness of the first séance, not only moved without physical contact, but on request turned itself upside down, and overcame a spectator's efforts to prevent its motion. True, when this spectator "grasped its leg and held it with all his strength" the table "did not move so freely as before." Still, it moved, and Home's fame mounted apace. From town to town he traveled, holding séances at which, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, he gave exhibitions of supernatural power far and away ahead of all other of the numerous mediums who were by this time springing up throughout the Eastern States. On one occasion, we are told, the spirits communicated through him the whereabouts of missing title deeds to a tract of land then in litigation; on another, they enabled him to prescribe successfully for an invalid for whom no hope was entertained; and time after time they conveyed to those in his séance room messages of more or less vital import, besides vouchsafing to them "physical" phenomena of the greatest variety.

What was most remarkable was the fact that the young medium steadfastly refused to accept payment for his services. "My gift," he would solemnly say, "is free to all, without money and without price. I have a mission to fulfil, and to its fulfilment I will cheerfully give my life." Naturally this attitude of itself made for converts to the spiritistic beliefs of which he was such a successful exponent, and its influence was powerfully reinforced by the result of an investigation conducted in the spring of 1852 by a committee headed by the poet, William Cullen Bryant, and the Harvard professor, David G. Wells. Briefly, these declared in their report that they had attended a séance with Home in a well lighted room, had seen a table move in every direction and with great force, "when we could not perceive any cause of motion," and even "rise clear of the floor and float in the atmosphere for several seconds"; had in vain tried to inhibit its action by sitting on it; had occasionally been made "conscious of the occurrence of a powerful shock, which produced a vibratory motion of the floor of the apartment in which we were seated"; and finally were absolutely certain that they had not been "imposed upon or deceived."

The report, to be sure, did not specify what, if any, means had been taken to guard against fraud, its only reference in this connection being a statement that "Mr. D. D. Home frequently urged us to hold his hands and feet." But it none the less created a tremendous sensation, public attention being focused on the fact that an awkward, callow, country lad had successfully sustained the scrutiny of men of learning, intelligence, and high repute. No longer, it would seem, could there be doubt of the validity of his claims, and greater demands than ever were made on him. As before, he willingly responded, adding to his repertoire, if the term be permissible, new feats of the most startling character. Thus, at a séance in New York a table on which a pencil, two candles, a tumbler, and some papers had been placed, tipped over at an angle of thirty degrees without disturbing in the slightest the position of the movable objects on its surface. Then at the medium's bidding the pencil was dislodged, rolling to the floor, while the rest remained motionless; and afterward the tumbler.

A little later occurred the first of Home's levitations when at the house of a Mr. Cheney in South Manchester, Connecticut, he is said to have been lifted without visible means of support to the ceiling of the séance room. To quote from an eye-witness's narrative: "Suddenly, and without any expectation on the part of the company, Mr. Home was taken up in the air. I had hold of his feet at the time, and I and others felt his feet-they were lifted a foot from the floor.... Again and again he was taken from the floor, and the third time he was carried to the lofty ceiling of the apartment, with which his hand and head came in gentle contact." A far cry, this, from the simple raps and knocks that had ushered in his mediumship.

Now, however, an event occurred that threatened to cut short alike his "mission" and his life. Never of robust health, he fell seriously ill of an affection that developed into tuberculosis. The medical men whom he consulted unanimously declared that his only hope lay in a change of climate, and, taking alarm, his spiritistic friends generously subscribed a large sum to enable him to visit Europe. Incidentally, no doubt, they expected him to serve as a missionary of the new faith, and it may be said at once that in this expectation they were not deceived. No one ever labored more earnestly and successfully in behalf of spiritism than did Daniel Dunglas Home from the moment he set foot on the shores of England in April, 1855; and no one in all the history of spiritism achieved such individual renown, not in England alone but in almost every country of the Continent.

It is from this point that the mystery of his career really becomes conspicuous. Hitherto, with the exception of the Bryant-Wells investigation, which could hardly be called scientific, his pretensions had not been seriously tested, and operating as he did among avowed spiritists he had enjoyed unlimited opportunities for the perpetration of fraud. But henceforth, skeptics as well as believers having ready access to him, he found himself not infrequently in a thoroughly hostile environment, and subjected to the sharpest criticism and most unrestrained abuse. Nevertheless, he was able not simply to maintain but to augment the fame of his youth, and after a mediumship of more than thirty years, could claim the unique distinction of not once having had a charge of trickery proved against him.

Besides this, overcoming with astounding ease the handicaps of his humble birth and lack of education, his life was one continued round of social triumphs of the highest order; for he speedily won and retained to the day of his death the confidence and friendship of leaders of society in every European capital. With them, in castle, chateau, and mansion, he made his home, always welcome and always trusted; and in his days of greatest stress, days of ill health, vilification, and legal entanglements, they rallied unfailingly to his aid. Add again that Kings and Queens vied with one another in entertaining and rewarding him, and it is possible to gain some idea of the heights scaled by this erstwhile Connecticut country boy.

He began modestly enough by taking rooms at a quiet London hotel, where, his fame having spread through the city, he soon had the pleasure of giving a séance to two such distinguished personages as Lord Brougham and Sir David Brewster. Both retired thoroughly mystified, though the latter some months later asserted that while he "could not account for all" he had witnessed, he had seen enough to satisfy himself "that they could all be produced by hands and feet,"-a statement which, by the way, was at variance from one he had made at the time, and involved him in a most unpleasant controversy. After Brougham and Brewster came a long succession of other notables, including the novelist Sir Bulwer Lytton, to whom a most edifying experience was granted. Rapping away as usual, the table suddenly indicated that it had a message for him, and the alphabet being called over in the customary spiritistic style, it spelled out:

"I am the spirit who influenced you to write Zanoni."

"Indeed!" quoth Lytton, with a skeptical smile. "Suppose you give me a tangible proof of your presence?"

"Put your hand under the table."

No sooner done, than the invisible being gave him a hearty handshake, and proceeded:

"We wish you to believe in the-" It stopped.

"In what? In the medium?"

"No."

At that moment there came a gentle tapping on his knee, and looking down he found on it a small cardboard cross that had been lying on another table. Lytton, the story goes, begged permission to keep the cross as a souvenir, and promised that he would remember the spirit's injunction. For Home, of course, the incident was a splendid advertisement, as were the extravagant reports spread broadcast by other visitors. Consequently, when he visited Italy in the autumn as the guest of one of his English patrons, he gained instant recognition and was enabled to embark with phenomenal ease on his Continental crusade.

In order to reach the most striking manifestations of his peculiar ability, we must pass hurriedly over the events of the next few years, although they are perhaps the most picturesque of his career, including as they do séances with the third Napoleon and his Empress, with the King of Prussia, and with the Emperor of Russia. In Russia he was married to the daughter of a noble Russian family, and for groomsmen at his wedding had Count Alexis Tolstoi, the famous poet, and Count Bobrinski, one of the Emperor's chamberlains. This was in 1858, and shortly afterward he returned to England to repeat his spiritistic triumphs of 1855, and increase the already large group of influential and titled friends whose doors were ever open to him. Had it not been for their generosity, it is difficult, indeed, to see how he could have lived, for his time was almost altogether devoted to the practice of spiritism, and he was never known to accept a fee for a séance. As it was, he lived very well, now the guest of one, now of another, and the frequent recipient of costly presents. From England he fared back to the Continent, again traversing it by leisurely stages. Thus nearly a decade passed before the occurrence of the first of the several phenomena that have won Home an enduring place among the greatest lights of spiritism.

At that time his English patrons included the Viscount Adare and the Master of Lindsay, who have since become respectively the Earl of Dunraven and the Earl of Crawford. They were sitting one evening (December 16, 1868) in an upper room of a house in London with Home and a Captain Wynne, when Home suddenly left the room and entered the adjoining chamber. The opening of a window was then heard, and the next moment, to the amazement of all thre

e, they perceived Home's form floating in the dim moonlight outside the window of the room in which they were seated. For an instant it hovered there, at a height of fully seventy feet above the pavement, and then, smiling and debonnair, Home was with them again. Another marvel immediately followed. At Home's request Lord Dunraven closed the window out of which the medium was supposed to have been carried by the spirits, and on returning observed that the window had not been raised a foot, and he did not see how a man could have squeezed through it. "Come," said Home, "I will show you." Together they went into the next room.

"He told me," Lord Dunraven reported, "to open the window as it was before. I did so. He told me to stand a little distance off; he then went through the open space, head first, quite rapidly, his body being nearly horizontal and apparently rigid. He came in again feet foremost, and we returned to the other room. It was so dark I could not see clearly how he was supported outside. He did not appear to grasp, or rest upon the balustrade, but rather to be swung out and in."

To Lord Dunraven and Lord Crawford again was given the boon of witnessing another of Home's most sensational performances, and on more than one occasion. This may best be described in Lord Crawford's own words, as related in his testimony to the London Dialectical Society's committee which in 1869 undertook an inquiry into the claims of spiritism.

"I saw Mr. Home," declared Lord Crawford, "in a trance elongated eleven inches. I measured him standing up against the wall, and marked the place; not being satisfied with that, I put him in the middle of the room and placed a candle in front of him, so as to throw a shadow on the wall, which I also marked. When he awoke I measured him again in his natural size, both directly and by the shadow, and the results were equal. I can swear that he was not off the ground or standing on tiptoe, as I had full view of his feet, and, moreover, a gentleman present had one of his feet placed over Home's insteps.... I once saw him elongated horizontally on the ground. Lord Adare was present. Home seemed to grow at both ends, and pushed myself and Adare away."

The publication of this evidence and of the details of the mid-air excursion provoked, as may be imagined, a heated discussion, and doubtless had considerable influence in inducing the famous scientist, Sir William Crookes, to engage in the series of experiments which he carried out with Home two years later. This was at once the most searching investigation to which Home was ever subjected, and the most signal triumph of his career. Sir William's proposal was hailed with the greatest satisfaction by the critics of spiritism in general and of Home in particular. Here, it was said, was a man fully qualified to expose the archimpostor who had been so justly pilloried in Browning's "Mr. Sludge the Medium"; here was a scientist, trained to exact knowledge and close observation, who would not be deceived by the artful tricks of a conjurer. It was pleasant too to learn that in order to circumvent any attempts at sleight of hand, Sir William intended using instruments specially designed for test purposes, and which he was confident could not be operated fraudulently.

But Home, or the spirits proved too strong for even Sir William Crookes and his instruments. In Sir William's presence, in fact, there was a multiplication of mysteries. The instruments registered results which seemed inexplicable by any natural law; a lath, cast carelessly on a table, rose in the air, nodded gravely to the astonished scientist, and proceeded to tap out messages alleged to come from the world beyond; chairs moved in ghostly fashion up and down the room; invisible beings lifted Home himself from the floor; spirit hands were seen and felt; an accordeon, held by Sir William, played tunes apparently of its own volition, and afterward floated about the room, still playing. And all this, according to the learned investigator, "in a private room that almost up to the commencement of the séance has been occupied as a living room, and surrounded by private friends of my own, who not only will not countenance the slightest deception, but who are watching narrowly everything that takes place."

In the end, so far from announcing that he had convicted Home of fraud, Sir William published an elaborate account of his séances, and gave it as his solemn belief that with Home's assistance he had succeeded in demonstrating the existence of a hitherto unknown force. This was scarcely what had been expected by the scientific world, which had eagerly awaited his verdict, and loud was the tumult that followed. But Sir William stood manfully by his guns, and Home-bland, inscrutable, mysterious Home-figuratively shrugging his shoulders at denunciations to which he had by this time become perfectly accustomed, added another leaf to his spiritistic crown of laurels, and betook himself anew to his friends on the Continent, where, despite increasing ill health, he continued to prosecute his "mission" for many prosperous years.

As a matter of fact, throughout the period of his mediumship, that is to say, from 1851 to 1886, the year of his death, he experienced only one serious reverse, and this did not involve any exposure of the falsity of his claims. But it was serious enough, in all conscience, and calls for mention both because it emphasizes the contrast between his earlier and his later life, and because it throws a luminous sidelight on the methods by which he achieved his unparalleled success. When he was in London in 1867 he made the acquaintance of an elderly, impressionable English-woman named Lyon, who immediately conceived a warm attachment for him and stated her intention of adopting him as her son. Carrying out this plan, she settled on him the snug little fortune of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, which she subsequently increased until it amounted to no less than three hundred thousand dollars. Home at the time was a widower, and it was his belief, as he afterward stated in court, that the woman desired him to marry her.

In any event her affection cooled as rapidly as it had begun, and the next thing he knew he was being sued for the recovery of the three hundred thousand dollars. The trial was a celebrated case in English law. Lord Dunraven, Lord Crawford, and other of Home's titled and influential friends hurried to his assistance, and many were the affidavits forthcoming to combat the contentions of Mrs. Lyon, who swore that she had been influenced to adopt Home by communications alleged to come through him from her dead husband. Home himself denied that there were any manifestations whatever relating to Mrs. Lyon, whose story, in fact, was so discredited on cross-examination that the presiding judge, the vice-chancellor, caustically declared that her testimony was quite unworthy of belief. Notwithstanding which, he did not hesitate to give judgment in her favor, on the ground that, however worthless her evidence, it had not been satisfactorily shown that her gifts to Home were "acts of pure volition," the presumption being that no reasonable man or woman would have pursued the course she did unless under the pressure of undue influence by the party to be benefited.

If for "undue influence" we read "hypnotism," we shall have a sufficient, and what seems to me the only satisfactory, explanation of the Lyon episode and of the most baffling of Home's feats, his levitations, elongations, and the like. For the rest, bearing in mind the fate of other dealers in turning tables and dancing chairs, he may fairly be regarded in the light Browning regarded him, that is to say as an exceptionally able conjurer who enjoyed the singular good fortune of never being found out.[N] It must be remembered that not once was there applied to him the test which is now recognized as absolutely indispensable in the investigation of mediums who, like Home, are specialists in the production of "physical" phenomena. This test is the demand that the phenomena in question be produced under conditions doing away with the necessity for constant observation of the medium himself.

Even Sir William Crookes, who appreciated to the full the extreme fallibility of the human eye and the ease with which the most careful observer may be deceived by a clever prestidigitator, failed to apply this test to Home; and by so failing laid himself open on the one hand to deception and on the other to the flood of criticism let loose by his scientific colleagues. Thus, the apparatus used in the experiment on which he seems to have laid greatest stress, is described as follows:

"In another part of the room an apparatus was fitted up for experimenting on the alterations in the weight of a body. It consisted of a mahogany board thirty-six inches long by nine and one-half inches wide and one inch thick. At each end a strip of mahogany one and one-half inches wide was screwed on, forming feet. One end of the board rested on a firm table, whilst the other end was supported by a spring balance hanging from a substantial tripod stand. The balance was fitted with a self-registering index, in such a manner that it would record the maximum weight indicated by the pointer. The apparatus was adjusted so that the mahogany board was horizontal, its foot resting flat on the support. In this position its weight was three pounds, as marked by the pointer of the balance. Before Mr. Home entered the room the apparatus had been arranged in position, and he had not seen the object of some parts explained before sitting down."

Now, to give this "test" evidential value, the disembodied spirit supposed to be acting through Home should have caused the registering index to record a change in weight without necessitating, on the spectators' part, constant scrutiny of the medium's movements. But, in point of fact, a change in weight was recorded only when Home placed his fingers on the mahogany board. It is true, that he placed them on the end furthest from the balance, and the evidence seems sufficient that he did not cause the pointer to move by exerting a downward pressure. But as one critic, Mr. Frank Podmore, has suggested there is no proof that he did not find opportunity to tamper with the pointer itself or with some other part of the apparatus by attaching thereto a looped thread or hair. To quote Mr. Podmore:

"It is by the use of such a thread, I venture to suggest, that the watchful observation of Mr. Crookes and his colleagues was evaded. Given a subdued light and opportunity to move about the room-and from detailed notes of later séances it seems probable that Home could do as he liked in both respects-the loop could be attached without much risk of detection to some part of the apparatus, preferably the hook from which the distal end of the board was suspended, the ends [of the thread] being fastened to some part of Home's dress, e.g., the knees of his trousers, if his feet and hands were under effectual observation."[O]

Moreover, it must not be forgotten that, barring the Crookes investigation, Home's manifestations for the most part occurred in the presence of men and women who, if not spiritists themselves, had implicit confidence in his good faith and could by no stretch of the imagination be called trained investigators. Indeed, it seems safe to say that had present day methods of inquiry been employed, as they are employed by the experts of the Society for Psychical Research, Home, so far at any rate as concerned the great bulk of his phenomena, would quickly have been placed in the same gallery as Madam Blavatsky, Eusapia Paladino, and those other wonder workers whom the society has discredited.

In the matter of the levitations and elongations, however, it is not so easy to raise the cry of sheer fraud. Here the only rational explanation, short of supposing that Home availed himself if not of the aid of "spirits" at least of the aid of some unknown physical force, seems to be, as was said, the exercise of hypnotic power. The accounts given by Lord Dunraven, Lord Crawford, and Sir William Crookes show that he had ample scope for the employment of suggestion as a means of inducing those about him to imagine they had seen things which they actually had not seen. In this connection, it seems to me, considerable significance attaches to the following bit of evidence contributed by Lord Crawford with regard to the London levitation:

"I saw the levitations in Victoria Street when Home floated out of the window. He first went into a trance and walked about uneasily; he then went into the hall. While he was away I heard a voice whisper in my ear 'He will go out of one window and in at another.' I was alarmed and shocked at the idea of so dangerous an experiment. I told the company what I had heard and we then waited for Home's return."

After it is stated that Lord Crawford, not long before, had fancied he beheld an apparition of a man seated in a chair, it is easy to imagine the attitude of credulous expectancy with which he, at all events, would "wait for Home's return" via the open window. And the others were doubtless in the same expectant frame of mind. "Expectancy" and "suggestibility" will, indeed, work marvels. I shall never forget how the truth of this was borne home to me some years ago. A friend of mine-now a physician in Maryland, but at that time a medical student in Toronto-occasionally amused himself by giving table-tipping séances, in which he enacted the r?le of medium. There was no suspicion on his sitters' part that he was a "fraud." One evening he invoked the "spirit" of a little child, who had been dead a couple of years, and proceeded to "spell out" some highly edifying messages. Suddenly the séance was interrupted by a shriek and a lady present, not a relative of the dead child, fell to the floor in a faint. When revived, she declared that while the messages were being delivered she had seen the head of a child appear through the top of the table.

With such an instance before us, it can hardly be deemed surprising that Home should be able to play on the imagination of sitters so sympathetic and receptive as Lords Dunraven and Crawford unquestionably were. To tell the truth, Home's whole career, with its scintillating, melodramatic, and uniformly successful phases is altogether inexplicable unless it be assumed that he possessed the hypnotist's qualities in a superlative degree.

It may well be, however, that in the last analysis he not only deceived others but also deceived himself-that his charlatanry was the work of a man constitutionally incapable of distinguishing between reality and fiction in so far as related to the performance of feats contributing to the success of his "mission." In other words, that he was, like other historic personages whom we have already encountered, a victim of dissociation. There is no gainsaying the fact that he was of a distinctly nervous temperament; and it is equally certain that he chose a vocation, and placed himself in an environment, which would tend to make a dissociated state habitual with him. But this is bringing us to the consideration of a psychological problem which would itself require a volume for adequate discussion. Enough to add that, when all is said, and viewed from whatever angle, Daniel Dunglas Home, was, and remains, a fascinating human riddle.

FOOTNOTES:

[N] But a "conjurer" who in all probability should not be held to strict account for his deceptions. On this point, see below.

[O] "Modern Spiritualism," Vol. II, p. 242.

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