Daniel Dunglas Home – The Victorian Spiritualist

Daniel Dunglas Home, Author's Collection

Daniel Dunglas Home, Author’s Collection

Douglas Home, sometimes spelled Hume, and whose name was lengthened to Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855, was a famous eighteenth-century spiritualist born in 1833. As a youth, he immigrated to America and settled in Massachusetts, and while living there, he claimed he was surrounded by trivial noises. The noises he heard occurred when he was in bed and came from under tables when he was eating. However, perhaps, more surprising was his claims that there was also “animation in inert matter by which he was surrounded.”

Home’s friends dismissed his claims not believing that he saw inert matter move or that he heard unexplained noises. As Home was sickly and nervous, “they assured him that the marvels he heard were the mere effects of his disordered fancy.” This negativity caused Home to begin to wonder if he was indeed deluded, but it did not stop him from entertaining and amazing his friends with dancing chairs, roving tables, and turning chandeliers.

When Home learned that other people had similar experiences — hearing noises and seeing inert matter move — he decided he was not deluded and that he must be a spiritualist or a medium. As a spiritualist, it did not take long before he became one of the most successful in Boston: He first displayed his talent in a séance where the table moved without anyone touching it. Newspapers reported on the amazing feat, which soon resulted in him traveling as a spiritualist to heal the sick and speak to the dead. As his fame grew, Home acquired many wealthy clients, and, although he never asked for money, his clients began to offer him money, as well as free lodging and gifts. 

During Home’s time in Boston, his health continued to worsen and his physicians decided he needed to travel to Europe to rest and recuperate. He first went to Florence where he attracted the public’s attention and where he gave several “soirees.” With nothing more than Home issuing a command, “credible witnesses assert[ed] … they saw heavy tables move, immense candlesticks dance…bells ring, and inert matter act as though it was possessed of remarkable animation.” In fact, Home even caused a piano to play a sonata without a pianist and removed every women’s pocket handkerchief, despite the women’s attempts to retain them.

In April of 1855 Home’s ended up in London. There he was courted by an enamored believer named William Cox. Cox owned a large hotel and willing allowed Home’s to stay at his hotel for free. Also staying at the hotel was a well-known Welsh social reformer named Robert Owen. Owen was intrigued by Homes performances, and, in fact, Owen introduced Home to many well-known people, which included the famous novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the scientist Michael Faraday well-known for his work in the electromagnetic field, and the poet Robert Browning who was married to Elizabeth Barret Browning.

Robert Browning, Public Domain

Robert Browning, Public Domain

Unfortunately, for Home, not everyone was impressed with his spiritual skills. Robert Browning was among those unimpressed, and Browning became a vocal critic of Home’s supposed spiritual abilities. It seems that Home’s had reputedly materialized a son Browning lost in infancy, although such a thing had never happened. During the materialization, Browning maintained that he “had grasped Home’s leg under the table while at work in producing [the] ‘phenomena.'” Browning also wrote a letter to The Times noting that it was all “melancholy stuff” and that “‘the whole display of hands [and] spirit utterances etc., was a cheat and imposture.'” Further, Browning skewered Home’s in a poem titled, “Sludge the Medium,” which was published in 1864.

Despite critics, Home’s fame continued to grow, particularly after he levitated off the floor at five or six feet in the air. Such miraculous abilities also resulted in him being summoned to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where he met with Napoleon III and later he performed for Queen Sophia of the Netherlands. His fame also resulted in him being “adopted” by a wealthy English widow named Mrs. Jane Lyon who hoped that her association with him would result in an introduction into high society. When that failed, Lyon’s sued Home for the return of her money, which she received but which also resulted in Home’s being ridiculed by the press for being a charlatan.

All the talk of fraud and charlatanism prompted one man to test the validity of Home’s claims. The tester was a British chemist and physicist best known for pioneering vacuum tubes. His name was William Crookes. Besides testing the validity of Home’s claims, Crookes also tested two other spiritualists, Florence Cook and Kate Fox. Crookes’ tests occurred between 1870 and 1873, and he issued his final report in 1874. Crookes’ concluded that the phenomena produced by all three spiritualists was valid and genuine. Such a finding, of course, sparked outrage among the scientific community.

Home's Accordian Test, Author's Collection

Home’s Accordion Test, Author’s Collection

One test that Crookes gave Home involved an accordion. In this test one of Home’s hands was placed on the top of the table, and the other inside the cage which held the accordion on the non-key side, as shown in the illustration to the right. The keyed end then hung downwards so that Home’s could not reach it. Crookes reported that despite these precautions, the accordion played musical sounds. However, the room was dark and there were claims by some people the accordion made no sounds and that the noises heard actually came from some other instrument (such as a music box) that Home concealed.

In the end, despite Crookes’ claims that Home was the a genuine spiritualist, no amount of spiritualism or hocus pocus on Home’s part could prevent him from dying. He succumbed to tuberculosis on June 21, 1866, the disease that he had suffered with for a majority of his life. In his will Home wrote “I desire my funeral to be as simple as possible and that all tokens and signs known as mourning may be entirely discarded.” Home’s funeral was as he desired: He was buried without pomp or tears in the Russian cemetery in St. Germain-en-Laye, in Paris.

References:

  • Dowden, Edward, Robert Browning, 1904 
  • “Homes the American Spiritualist in Paris,” Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 12, 1857
  • Home, Mrs. Daniel Dunglas, D.D. Home, 1888

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