There are certain people throughout history that seem to leave a trail of mystery and intrigue. These are the enigmatic individuals who have lives that are peppered with anomalies and strange occurrences for which we have no sound answer to, and which have gone off into the annals of history to be cryptic specters. One of these was a legendary 19th century psychic and medium who managed to convince many that his powers were completely legitimate, a truly mysterious individual who leaves a legacy of weirdness that we will perhaps never fully unravel.
The life of one of the most celebrated mediums and psychics of the 19th century began in 1833, when Daniel Dunglas Home was born in Currie, Scotland, and was soon adopted by a childless aunt and uncle when he was just a baby, as his own parents were unable to handle all of their eight children and Home was a sickly and weak child that was proving to be a burden. Even as a baby there were weird stories starting to orbit Home, as he had come from a long line pf psychics and seers in his family, including his mother, and it was claimed that his cradle would sometimes rock by itself, and as a young child he allegedly accurately predicted the death of a cousin. In other words, he was a creepy kid from the beginning, but things would really get interesting when he emigrated to America when he was just 9 years old, and the next chapter of his strange life would begin.
He and his aunt and uncle settled in Greeneville, Connecticut, and Home would be mostly a loner and friendless, yet he did form a bond with another boy named Edwin, with who he took an oath that if ever either of them died they would try to contact the other from the afterlife. This would lead to his first real full-blown spiritual vision, when one day Edwin appeared to him surrounded by a bright light and it would turn out later that the boy had died three days before, which should have been impossible for him to know as they had moved to Troy, NY, which is about 155 miles from Greeneville. A few years after this he would also predict the death of his own mother after she appeared to him in a vision, allegedly right down to the very hour. Then there was the poltergeist activity, such as moving objects or furniture and anomalous noises such as strange raps and knocks from within the walls. This only ever seemed to happen when Home was around, and all of this proved to be too odd for his adopted family. Believing him to be possessed by the Devil, they kicked Home out when he was just 17 and he was left on his own.
This seemed to have done little to deter Home, who began to believe that he had a powerful gift and started arranging séances, which were all the rage at this time when spiritualism was en vogue. He certainly made an impression, as during his first séance in March 1851, a table reportedly moved on its own, despite efforts of the guests to physically stop it. This incident would hit the news and make Home practically an overnight sensation, launching his career as a medium. He would begin travelling all over New England performing séances, sometimes six or seven a day, in which he reportedly was able to cause moving objects or inexplicable lights, heal people of ailments, and provide uncannily accurate information and divulge details gleaned from the spirits of the dead that he could not have possibly known. These apparent potent psychic abilities caused Home’s fame to spread far and wide.
Making it all the more interesting is that Home at no point ever asked for money in exchange for performing these seemingly miraculous feats, although he did receive donations and gifts, and he was also very willing to carry out his séances in well-lit conditions and under the scrutiny of more skeptical observers. Indeed, many skeptics, including scientists and trained observers, often came away from Home’s séances convinced that they had not been deceived in any way. He was not totally without his critics, for instance Vanity Fair writer William Makepeace Thackeray once called his act “dire humbug dreary and foolish superstition,” yet even he was supposedly impressed when Home had a table move during one of his sessions without any discernible trickery.
Home really got people’s attention when he began demonstrating the apparent ability to actually levitate. His first show of this power was in August 1852, in South Manchester, Connecticut, where he was reported as levitating twice, floating all the way up to the ceiling in full view of an astonished audience. Some reports of this even claim that when people tried to pull him down they were lifted up off the floor as well. When the levitation was added to his bag of tricks, Home became more popular than ever before, becoming a common fixture at the homes of society’s elite, yet he still refused any payment for these performances and séances despite money being shoved at him. While all this was going on, Home decided to pursue a profession that he could do to make a stable living on his own, and to this end he began to study medicine at Newburgh, Connecticut, but this was cut short when he fell ill with tuberculosis in 1854. Doctors recommended that he return to Europe to recover, and so in March of 1855 he departed America’s shores on his way to the next chapter of his unusual life.
Home would settle in London, where he lived for free at a sprawling hotel owned by a fan of his named William Cox, and it was not long before he was back to performing séances. As in America, he quickly made a name for himself and was soon entertaining the high class, elite, and royalty, including Napoleon III, the Czar of Russia, and Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, at the same time adding to his bizarre repertoire by including so-called “phantom hands,” which would appear to poke or touch people present, and the ability to hold white-hot embers in his bare hands without injury. Most of these witnesses to his apparently vast powers were convinced that it was all genuine, and both shocked and awed by what they saw in Home’s presence. Queen Sophia would say of the séances she participated in:
I saw him (Home) four times…I felt a hand tipping my finger; I saw a heavy golden bell moving alone from one person to another; I saw my handkerchief move alone and return to me with a knot… He himself is a pale, sickly, rather handsome young man but without a look or anything which would either fascinate or frighten you. It is wonderful. I am so glad I have seen it.
As before, Home conducted these séances in brightly lit rooms or in broad daylight, and once again levitation featured in his séances. Paranormal historian Frank Podmore would say of one such instance, “We all saw him rise from the ground slowly to a height of about six inches, remain there for about ten seconds, and then slowly descend.” Indeed, these displays became more impressive than ever, including levitating chairs while people sat in them, and 1868 he reportedly pulled his greatest feat of all, purportedly levitating right out of a 3rd story window to come hovering back in through a different window. One of the more famous supporters of Home was the writer and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was impressed by the fact that Home had a vast array of psychic abilities, including the ability to let spirits speak through him or to audibly speak, the gift of clairvoyance, and most incredible of all his ability to move objects with his mind and levitate, a combination that few possessed. Indeed, his powers were so amazing and seemingly real that Home was actually expelled from Rome in 1864 on the charge of sorcery.
Of course he did have his critics, who believed that this was all trickery, illusion, and sleight of hand. One of these was famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, who was actually well-known at the time as an intrepid debunker of spiritualism and séances. Houdini claimed that Home was using the tricks of illusionists and magicians, and even proclaimed that he was able to reproduce the same results himself, although it seems he never was never able to demonstrate this, ultimately leaving even him a bit baffled by it all. However, Houdini remained convinced that Home was using some sort of illusion to pull off his stunts, it was just a matter of how, and others were willing to take Home to task through controlled experiments, which surprisingly the medium was all up for.
Perhaps one of the most well-known of these experiments was carried out over several years by the respected English chemist, physicist, and fellow of the Royal Society William Crookes beginning in 1871. The experiments were conducted in a self-built laboratory in North London, using a series of different tests in an effort to measure Home’s “psychic force.” During the experiment, Crookes would become convinced that Home’s powers were genuine, and that they could not be explained with current science. Crookes would say:
During the whole of my knowledge of D. D. Home, extending for several years, I never once saw the slightest occurrence that would make me suspicious that he was attempting to play tricks. He was scrupulously sensitive on this point, and never felt hurt at anyone taking precautions against deception. To those who knew him Home was one of the most lovable of men and his perfect genuineness and uprightness were beyond suspicion.
However, the experiment would be criticized because it was not under ideal conditions, lacked proper scientific controls and protocols, and it was not repeatable, sometimes failing to measure any phenomena at all, and so it was largely scoffed at by mainstream scientists of the day. There is also the fact that Crookes was well-known for testing a variety of other psychics, and that he truly sought to prove psychic abilities, which may have made his results somewhat biased. Home’s nemesis, Houdini, would say of Crookes and his folly of an experiment:
There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that this brainy man was hoodwinked, and that his confidence was betrayed by the so-called mediums that he tested. His powers of observation were blinded and his reasoning faculties so blunted by his prejudice in favor of anything psychic or occult that he could not, or would not, resist the influence.
Yet for all of the criticism of Home and his alleged powers, it seems that no one was ever able to figure out how he actually did it, and no one was ever able to successfully replicate any of his “tricks.” Speculation ran rampant, including that he was using secret pulley systems, magic tricks, tiny gadgets hidden on his person, mass hypnosis, or even trained monkeys to move things around, but no one knew for sure. By all accounts, if he wasn’t a real psychic then he was perhaps the greatest magician and illusionist who had ever lived. Home would continue baffling people all over Europe until his tuberculosis finally caught up to him, and he died on June 22, 1886, after a career of over 1,500 séances and countless private demonstrations.
In more modern times it has come to light that Home was in fact caught cheating on several occasions in private, and that these were simply not reported on publicly, but there is still much that is mysterious about Daniel Home, in that many of his greatest performances have never been adequately explained or recreated. If he was a fraudster and an illusionist, then he was extremely skilled and gifted, but how he did it all taken to the grave with him. The fact that he was so able to work his way into high society and impress so many, as well as that he never asked for payment only further cements his legend. Was Home a charlatan and trickster, or did he perhaps have access to powers of the mind beyond our understanding? The answer to that largely depends on who you ask, but one thing that is for certain is that he is one of the most prominent and greatest mediums and psychics who has ever lived.