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The Mysterious Mr Home

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

"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


"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?"


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


"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


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


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.