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Good Skeptics 2
by Guy Lyon Playfair
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Peter Lamont on D. D. Home
There have already been several biographies of the Victorian medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-86), who must head most people’s lists of those who have produced the most convincing evidence for just about all the phenomena traditionally associated with physical mediumship, from the production of knocks, raps and other percussive effects to the materialisation of luminous objects, including levitating tables and even people.
The biographers have tended to be either totally for or totally against their subject. Most favourable, understandably, has been Home’s widow (D.D.Home: his life and mission, 1888), closely followed by Elizabeth Jenkins, whose The Shadow and the Light (1992) is subtitled 'A defence of Daniel Dunglas Home the medium', and the Dutch researcher George Zorab, who called his book (not yet available in English) 'A biography and a vindication'. No doubt where their sympathies lay.
Least favourable have been Trevor Hall (The Enigma of Daniel Home; medium or fraud?, 1984) and Gordon Stein (The Sorcerer of Kings,1993), both of whom appear to have been hell-bent on destroying Home’s credibility once and for all. This they failed to do, as his latest and to date best biographer Peter Lamont shows in The First Psychic: The peculiar mystery of a notorious Victorian wizard (2005). His is the first biography that includes the best evidence for and against Home’s supposed abilities, and provides meticulously researched arguments in favour of both, based on careful reading of primary source material. He combines the roles of the prosecution and the defence, leaving it to members of his reader jury to make up their own minds, which is what Good Scepticism is all about.
An interesting feature of the evidence is that those expressing favourable opinions of Home were those who knew him best, had attended several sessions with him and were able to give detailed descriptions of what they had witnessed. William Crookes, for example, tested him in his own laboratory no less than twenty-nine times over a three-year period, in front of numerous witnesses, and concluded confidently that he had identified a new force, which he could only call ‘psychic force’.
The medium’s most outspoken critics, on the other hand, frequently based their denunciations on second- or even third-hand allegations, having had no first-hand experience of their own. Dickens, for example, regularly denounced Home as an impostor, yet when invited to attend a seance, replied that ‘personal inquiry on my part is out of the question’. As for
Michael Faraday, he agreed to attend one, but only on his conditions. He had to be provided in advance with ‘a programme’, apparently assuming that Home knew exactly what effects he was going to demonstrate and in what order, and if their ‘delusive character were established and exposed… would he help me expose it?’ Moreover, ‘if the effects are miracles, does he admit the utterly contemptible character of them?’ (Faraday, it should be remembered, was a member of the extreme fundamentalist Christian Sandemanian sect, to whom anything associated with Spiritualism was blasphemy). How closed-minded can you get?
One way and another, Home had more than his share of bad luck when it came to serious investigation of his talents. Darwin, intrigued by his cousin Francis Galton’s enthusiastic endorsement of what he had witnessed at one of Crookes’s experiments, showed interest in attending the ‘dozen séances at which only our two selves and Home were together’, which Galton promised to try to arrange, but Darwin then became too ill to travel, and by the time he had recovered Home had gone to Russia where, among other things such as finding his second wife Julie, he bumped into Leo Tolstoy who told him he was ‘surprised and disgusted’ by what he had seen. So no endorsement from him.
Other would-be celebrity investigators who never got to see Home in action were the very enthusiastic John Ruskin, and the sympathetic Tennyson, who was not put off by Browning’s tedious fulminations against ‘Mr Sludge the Medium’. Who knows what poem might have resulted if he had managed to meet Mr Home the medium? Or what essay Ruskin might have produced?
Curiously enough, it was the extreme but very well-informed sceptic Frank Podmore who contributed some of the best evidence for Home’s defence when he declared, correctly, that he was ‘never publicly exposed as an impostor; there is no evidence of any weight that he was even privately detected in trickery.’ Indeed, the combined masses of the evidence for and against him are as balanced as a see-saw with an elephant sitting on one end and a mouse on the other.
As a member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh and a past president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle, Lamont is better qualified than any of his predecessors to answer the question: was Home an exceptional medium or an equally exceptional magician? He must have been one or the other, or perhaps a combination of both. Lamont’s summing-up in his final chapter (p.261) is admirably concise and pertinent:
What are we to make of Daniel Dunglas Home? He might have
been a charlatan, but how can we be sure? We might begin by
arguing that he must have been a charlatan, since his feats contravene the laws of physics. But that would be to place theory
before evidence, and as theories are themselves based upon evidence, they must always be open to revision in the light of new and conflicting evidence.
Lamont is of course entitled to his own opinion, and to his credit he saves this for his Notes (p.276) where he admits that ‘my belief… is that Home was a charlatan whose feats have never been adequately explained’, adding that ‘I might be wrong’. This is honest and constructive scepticism at its best – Lamont, unlike a good many of his fellow sceptics, is prepared to question his own scepticism.
The First Psychic should be required reading for parapsychology students as an example of how to do primary source-based research into controversial subjects, allowing the evidence to speak for itself and not letting one’s personal beliefs influence the way it is presented.
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