The clientele of Daniel Dunglas Home was one of the most exclusive that ever gathered around any one medium: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mark Twain, Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie, Tolstoy, and many other notables on both sides of the Atlantic. Home was poked and probed and examined by dozens of scientists, and he graciously submitted to hundreds of tests by psychical researchers. No skeptical investigator ever succeeded in exposing him, and two of the most prestigious scientists of the day, Sir William Crookes (1832–1919) and Dr. Robert Hare (1781–1858), stated that, in their opinion, the phenomena manifested by Home was genuine. Home conducted over 1,500 seances and produced phenomena at all times, under all manner of conditions, in broad daylight, under artificial lighting, indoors, outdoors, in private homes, in hotel rooms, and on public lecture platforms.
Born near Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 20, 1833, Home was said to have been rocked in his cradle by unseen entities. His mother was also said to have had the gift of "second sight," as clairvoyance was called in those days, and Mary McNeal Cook, an aunt who adopted Home when he was but a year old, began noticing clairvoyant impressions from the child almost as soon as he began to speak. At the age of four he began having visions which proved to be accurate. A frail child who contracted tuberculosis at an early age, Home's early childhood was marked by long periods of convalescence. When he was nine, his aunt and uncle moved to the United States, where they settled in Greeneville, Connecticut.
Home was 17 when the physical phenomena which was to direct the course of his life began to occur around him. In his memoirs, Home writes that he first heard "…three loud blows on the head of the bed as if it had been struck by a hammer." His first impression was that someone had hidden in his bedroom to frighten him, but the next morning at breakfast, the table at which he had seated himself was shaken nearly to pieces by a wild flurry of rappings.
His aunt, near hysteria, left the home to summon three clergymen from the village to drive the devil out of her house. Unable to make the rappings cease with their prayers, the ministers advised Cook to ignore the disturbances.
While it may have been possible to heed the ministers' advice regarding the mysterious rapping sounds, Cook found it impossible to ignore the activity of the furniture when tables and chairs began to move about the rooms. As the townspeople gathered to watch the strange, unexplainable occurrences, Home gave his first impromptu seance. According to an account in the local newspaper, scores of people from Greeneville and nearby communities came to ask questions of the "talking table" in the Cook residence. The table would raise or lower a leg and tap out answers to queries put to it by the astonished villagers, and even a strong man could not make the heavy table duplicate such movements when Home was not there to control it.
By the early 1850s, his fame had spread, and the teenager was soon beleaguered by scientists, clergymen, and medical doctors, each seeking to be the first to explain his mysterious talents. Home's powers began to grow stronger, and numerous individuals testified to instantaneous healings accomplished by the young medium. At the same time, Home displayed an amazing ability to divine the future and to clairvoyantly determine happenings at great distances.
In 1852, when, at the age of 19, he made his first trip to New York, Home was eagerly received by those who had been awaiting an opportunity to see firsthand the various wonders that had been attributed to the youthful medium. Dr. Robert Hare, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, attested to the absolute authenticity of Home's strange talents, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science refused to hear the report of its distinguished member. Although the association declined even to examine Home or to witness any phenomena produced by him firsthand, the elite of New York society outdid themselves in bidding for the medium's appearance at their homes.
In 1855, after three years of exhaustive tests with those scientists who were not fearful of risking their reputations by examining his mediumistic talents, Daniel Dunglas Home set out for England and France. The overseas press had been awaiting the medium's arrival, and so had the greatest hostesses of London society. Home soon captivated England as thoroughly as he had the United States. Those who attended his seances could expect to see spirit lights, to hear raps and the voices of disembodied spirits, and perhaps even to experience the thrill of being lifted into the air by unseen hands.
The English novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1831–91), who was well versed in the occult, reported a series of seances held in his home in which the medium had set heavy tables rolling like hoops, and invisible musicians had played familiar melodies on accordions. Spirit hands and arms materialized, and Bulwer-Lytton claimed to have seen objects being transported about the room by ethereal fingers.
In Florence, Italy, Home is reported to have caused a grand piano, at which the Countess Orsini was seated, to rise into the air and to remain levitated until she had completed the musical number that she had been playing. Home's mediumship was witnessed by such members of the aristocracy as Prince Murat, Napoleon III, and the Empress Eugenie. During one seance, Napoleon Bonaparte appeared and signed his name, and his grandson attested to its authenticity. The young medium's demonstrations in Florence were of such a dramatic nature that frightened whispers began to circulate that Daniel Dunglas Home was one of Satan's own. Public fervor became so heated that Home was attacked and wounded by an unknown assailant.
As he lay in pain recovering from his wound, the spirits appeared to deal Home a psychological blow. They informed him that they would remove his powers for a period of one year, beginning on February 10, 1856. True to their word, Home found that he was unable to summon any spirit control or to produce any phenomena whatsoever after that date.
The 23-year-old medium traveled to Rome, where he sought consolation in the Roman Catholic Church. He was without funds, ill, and sorely disillusioned with his spirit guides for having deserted him. Home expressed a wish to shun everything pertaining to the material world, and for a time he considered entering a monastery. Although the church became a mainstay to Home during his period of despondency, the relationship was terminated at the stroke of midnight on February 10, 1857, when Home's bedstead resounded with hearty spirit raps, and a voice from the other side announced the return of his powers of mediumship.
Father Ravignan, who had been Home's confessor and close friend, was convinced that the young man had been sincere about his embracing the church, but the Roman Catholic clergyman could in no way sanction mediumship and the contacting of spirits. Although Home was grateful to the church that had ministered to him during his hour of greatest need, he saw clearly that there could be no more harmony between them.
The wealthy and powerful of Europe had been waiting to see if the medium's powers would truly return to him after their year of desertion. When Home reappeared on the scene, once again materializing spirit forms and producing raps on the walls, his elite clientele immediately restored him to celebrity status. He demonstrated his dramatic control of unseen forces before the courts of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie, and Prince Murat, and won hundreds of new supporters.
Back in Rome, Home married Alexandrina, the wealthy sister-in-law of a Russian nobleman. Alexander Dumas (1802–1870), the French novelist, was Home's best man. The marriage ceremony was performed with both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox rites—a gesture that Home intended as an expression of his good will toward the church, in spite of the interminable religious controversies in which he was embroiled.
It was in the presence of the Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy that Home first produced the phenomenon with which he has come to be most commonly associated in the annals of psychical research. In full view of several sitters and with Tolstoy's hands firmly clasping his feet, Home levitated from his chair until he was seen floating above the heads of the members of the seance circle.
Home's wife died in London in 1862, and without her contributions to their upkeep from her family's wealth, he was forced to give lectures and other public demonstrations that proved to be exhausting. He decided to return to Rome and express his creativity through sculpturing, rather than mediumship, but he was ordered to leave Italy on the charge of sorcery. He promised once again to abandon the summoning of spirits, but Italian officials put little faith in such vows. Home was forced to leave the country, and he returned to Britain in 1864.
The single event in Home's remarkable psychic career that is most remembered occurred on the evening of December 13, 1868, when he was seen to float out of the window of a third-floor home in Ashley House and return through another window to rejoin the men who witnessed the extraordinary act of levitation. Among those who observed the feat were Captain Wynne, the Earl of Dunraven, and the Earl of Crawford, all men of solid character and integrity. Ever since the phenomenon was first reported, skeptics have insisted that the witnesses themselves helped to perpetuate a fraud. Others have suggested that Home merely hypnotized the illustrious men into believing that he floated in and out of the windows on the third floor or that he had discovered nasty secrets about all of them and used blackmail to pressure them into going along with his account.
In 1869, William Thackeray's publication The Cornhill Magazine printed an article which created a sensation in all of England. The author told of another seance in which Daniel D. Home levitated from his chair to a height of about four feet, then assumed a horizontal position and floated about the room.
By then the controversy over the "Wizard Home" had reached such proportions that the press was demanding a scientific investigation of such remarkable feats. Sir William Crookes seemed to be the scientist most likely to succeed in revealing Home's alleged wonders as hoaxes, if he was a hoaxster. Crookes, a member of the Royal Society, was a chemist and physicist, inventor of the X-Ray tube, and a scientist eager to test the medium under the strictest of laboratory conditions. Home did not shrink from the challenge. On the contrary, he appeared as eager as Crookes to enter into a full series of experiments and tests. He imposed no restrictions on Crookes's probings, and he voiced no objection to producing all spiritistic phenomena in a bright light.
Crookes found that Home's strange talents were strong enough to resist the antagonistic influence of the laboratory. In one of his reports on the medium, Crookes stated that he was prepared to attest that the phenomena he had witnessed "are so extraordinary and so directly oppose the most firmly-rooted articles of scientific belief—[such as]…the ubiquity and invariable action of gravitation—that even now, on recalling the details of what I witnessed, there is an antagonism in my mind between reason, which pronounces it to be scientifically impossible, and the consciousness that my senses both of touch and sight—and these corroborated, as they were, by the senses of all who were present—are not lying witnesses when they testify against my preconceptions."
Crookes studied firsthand the full gamut of Home's phenomena, from levitation to the movement of objects. The physicist noted that the movements were generally preceded by "…a peculiar cold air, sometimes amounting to a decided wind. I have had sheets of paper blown about by it, and a thermometer lowered several degrees." Crookes also observed luminous points of light and glowing clouds that formed and often settled on the heads of various investigators. In some instances, the scientist saw these luminous clouds form hands which carried small objects about the laboratory.
On one occasion, Crookes watched while a beautifully formed small hand rose up from an opening in a dining table and handed him a flower before it disappeared. The scientist testified that the materialization occurred in the light of his own room while he was securely holding the medium's hands and feet. During another such experiment when a hand materialized before him, Crookes reached out to clasp it, firmly resolving not to allow it to escape. He stated that there was no struggle on the part of the spirit hand, but it gradually seemed to become vaporous and slowly faded from his grasp.
A spirit form materialized in a corner of the laboratory during the course of one experiment, took up an accordion into its hands, and glided about the room playing the instrument. Crookes's report of the incident indicated that the phantom was visible for several minutes before it disappeared at a slight cry from one of the female sitters. Intrigued by this particular demonstration, Crookes designed a special cage wherein he placed an accordion which he invited the spirit to play. During the laboratory-controlled experiment, the accordion floated about the "spook-proof" cage and unseen fingers played a variety of melodies on the keyboard of the instrument.
In addition to his famous feats of levitation—a phenomenon that Crookes personally witnessed on three different occasions— Daniel Dunglas Home was well known for his ability to handle fire without being burned or incurring any ill effects. During one demonstration, Crookes watched in astonishment as "…Home went to the fire, and after stirring the hot coals about with his hand, took out a red hot piece nearly as big as an orange, and putting it on his right hand, covered it over with his left hand so as to almost completely enclose it, and then blew into the small furnace that extemporized until the lump of charcoal was nearly white-hot.…"
Sir William Crookes took extensive notes on all phases of Home's abilities, and a number of his reports were published in the Quarterly Journal of Science. However, his colleagues in the Royal Society of Science were immensely disappointed in his affirmation that the phenomena produced by Home were genuine. Most of the members of the prestigious society of scientists had long before made up their minds that Daniel Dunglas Home was a faker, and they had set Sir William Crookes to the task of exposing him. The chemist and physicist who had only a short time before been acclaimed as one of Great Britain's most brilliant scientists was now being viciously attacked by his colleagues as a gullible simpleton who had been taken in by Home's parlor magic tricks.
Crookes stood firm, and he challenged his fellow members of the Royal Society to prove his errors by showing him where the errors lay, by showing him how the medium's tricks had been performed. "Try the experiment fully and fairly," Crookes answered his critics. "If then fraud be found, expose it; if it be truth, proclaim it. This is the only scientific procedure, and this it is that I propose steadily to pursue."
Although the Royal Society stood as one in refusing to witness a new series of tests with Home, the ridicule that was heaped upon Crookes was not enough to greatly damage his solid reputation. Twenty years later, when Sir William Crookes was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he publicly reaffirmed that his previous assessment of the experiments with Daniel Dunglas Home had been valid and that he found nothing to retract or to alter in his original findings.
In 1871, Home married for the second time, and once again his wife, Julie de Gloumeline, came from a wealthy Russian family. He ceased giving mediumistic demonstrations for the public or for science during the 1870s, and on June 12, 1886, Daniel Dunglas Home died from the tuberculosis that had first assailed him in his youth. Home remains one of the most remarkable figures of the nineteenth century, and if one of the most respected scientists of that era is to be believed, he was one of the most amazing spirit mediums who ever lived.
Although Home was accused many times of fraudulent mediumism, in 1907 the respected psychical researcher Hereward Carrington stressed in his book The Physical Phenomenon of Spiritualism (1907) that in spite of such persistent accusations, Daniel Dunglas Home was never exposed as a fraud. Such prominent magicians as Harry Houdini (1874–1926) and John Mulholland, well known for their efforts to expose mediums as charlatans, claimed that they could duplicate Home's phenomena, but they never actually did so. Houdini even announced that he could duplicate the famous Home feat of levitating in and out of the third-floor windows at Lord Adare's home, but he canceled the event without explanation.