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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 seance, 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 seances 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 seance 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 seance 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 seance 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
seance 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 seance 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 seances 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 seance. 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 three, 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 seance 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 seances, 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 seances 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 seances, in
which he enacted the role 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 seance 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.





Next: The Watseka Wonder

Previous: The Seeress Of Prevorst



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