Daniel Dunglas Home Con-Artist.
One of the most amusing truisms is that it is never really possible to underestimate the intelligence of people, especially of people who think that they are really bright. A classic example is the life and career of Daniel Dunglas Home, (1833-1886). Called often D. D. Home.
Now D. D. Home was a psychic medium who too this day many consider to be genuine.1 Supposedly he could levitate off the ground and up to ceilings, supposedly he could elongate his body, levitate tables and all sorts of interesting phenomena, such as spirit hands appear and unearthly music echo.2
All of which is very fascinating but what does it prove? Basically D. D. Home sold himself as a Psychic, and not has a clever magician. He apparently was charming and rather convincing. Many people thought he was too charming and artless to be a con artist. Such people seemed to have forgotten that a con-artist who comes across has a con-artist will not be terribly successful at it. However a con-artist who appears to be charming and artless will be a stunning success as a con-artist.
A great deal as been made of eyewitness testimony of his miraculous feats. Well twentieth century experience of eyewitness testimony of the feats of psychics has revealed one thing in stunning detail. People, especially true believers, tend to spectacularly misremember such events. They forget key details. This is why the supposed eyewitness, (or witless) testimony of his alleged feats in such places as that house in Springfield Massachusetts, and his levitation in Ward Cheney's house are almost completely worthless.3 Despite what the Wikipedia article implies the fact that intelligent people, including Judges and inventors thought he was for real proves nothing.
The reason is simple. A Magician is skilled in deception, he / she is in effect a liar and deceiver. The pleasure is in knowing that you are being deceived and how clever the Magician is in doing his / her deception. The fact of the matter is that ordinary people are not trained to be Magicians so that they have absolutely no idea what to look for. It is further a truism among Magicians that adults are easier to deceive than children. Children have the habit of looking where their not supposed to look. Adults especially smart adults who think that they cannot be tricked are much easier to deceive.4
What is required is the presence of someone skilled / knowledgeable in conjuring to be present and of course for the subject being tested not to be in control of the experiment. Interestingly D. D. Home very carefully screened who would be present at his séances and was always very uncooperative if a Magician was present. That alone should set bells whistling. But of course the mouse was allowed to control the experiment least he get “upset”.5
What is also of interest is that D. D. Home’s levitations where performed, along with his other manifestations, apparently in the dark! Well it seems that D.D. Home would often start his séances in the light and then the lights would be dimmed and then the real miracles would happen! Today many writers about D.D. Home argue that it is a matter for debate about whether or not some of his feats were done in the dark.6 This is nothing but special pleading it is a verified fact that over and over again believers in D. D. Home’s miraculous feats describe this that or the other feat but neglect to say that the room was so dark you could barely see your hand in front of your face as mentioned by other witnesses. This occurs so often with D. D. Home as be a virtual cliché. Of course since people knowledgeable about magic were rigorously excluded, along with the feats happening mainly in the dark, there is no reason to take D. D. Home’s magic tricks seriously.
Like Geller, Home would not perform in the presence of magicians or even skeptics unless he sized up the skeptic as simple-minded. If a sitter in one of Home’s séances so much as hinted doubts, the spirits would ask the skeptic to leave. Would not such negative thoughts dampen the spirits’ spirits?7Homes was tested by the scientist William Crookes, who concluded that Homes was for real. However it appears that Crookes tests are worthless as coming from a true believer whose “precautions” were ludicrous.8
Home had a knack for making friends who he could use. Believers made much of the fact that Home’s never asked for payment for his services. However they showered him with gifts, money etc., and made him a very wealthy man. It appears all he had to do was hint that he needed something and it would be given to him without him “asking”.9
D.D. Home also required during his séances that participants not take their hands off the table. How convenient! This of course greatly increased his ability to deceive, especially in the dark. It was also another example of the mouse controlling the experiment. Of course why the spirits would require this is not clear.10
Later in his life (1866) D. D. Home meet a Mrs. Jane Lyon and convinced her to adopt him as her son and give him 24,000 pounds, not including a Birthday gift of 6,800 pounds. Which in those days was a sizable fortune. Mrs. Lyon sued to get it back and a judge ruled in her favour.8 Interestingly Wikipedia relies on Conan Doyle’s very apologetic version of these events, ignoring what the trial judge actually said and the evidence of sleaze. For example the judge accepted as a fact that D. D. Home used alleged spirit messages from Mrs. Lyon’s deceased husband to induce her to adopt him has her son give the above mentioned sums of money and give him the arms of Lyon in her will. The alleged fact that D. D. Home did not lose any friends over this says less about D. D. Home than the boundless gullibility of his marks; opps! I mean friends.11
It is remarkable that so many of D.D. Home’s true believers took his alleged levitations seriously. A description from 1860 describes one of these miracle flights which took place in near pitch darkness. How did the sitters know D.D. Home floated up to the ceiling? Well he left a mark! Just how can anyone take that seriously?! Has for the white glowing hands. Well glow in the dark white rubber gloves were common among 19th century magicians and fraudulent mediums.12
Among the tricks that D. D. Home performed was the unearthly music. It is interesting to note that the music was one octave pieces like Home Sweet Home and The Last Rose of Summer, both easily played on mouth organs that can be easily concealed in the mouth.13
It is said Home was never caught this is debatable. Several incidents such has a viewer seeing that a spirit hand was continuous with Home’s body. Or that on one particular incident a viewer saw D.D. Home handle a bottle that proved to have phosphorescent oil in it. Or an incident were the viewer felt warm human fingers. Another incident involved someone seeing D. D. Home’s foot slip back into his shoe after someone near D.D. Home claimed to have been touched by the spirits.14
D. D. Home having made his bundle and married into wealth retired from the medium trade. However he wrote a book Lights and Shadows, which detailed the fraudulent means used by other psychics, although the book is very careful not to describe how to produce phenomena similar to the phenomena that D.D. Homes produced. I guess D. D. Home’s had to protect his trade secrets.15
It is of interest that one of the most inveterate boosters of the alleged psychic powers of D.D. Home’s was Conan Doyle and to this day people take his writings on spiritualist matters seriously. Why? The evidence is overwhelming that when it came to spiritualist stuff Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Homes, was incredibly gullible. Two examples should suffice. One was Doyle’s insistence, despite Houdini’s persistent denials, that Houdini had genuine psychic powers and that Houdini could dematerialize and pass through solid walls and rematerialize!14 This piece of foolishness wreaked their friendship. Then there is the Cottingley Fairies fiasco. Basically it involved two young ladies producing some, rather crude, photos of Fairies and claiming that they were of the real thing. Incredibly Doyle took this all seriously saying over and over again that the two young ladies could not possibly fool him; he was too bright to be fooled by them! Well in both those cases Doyle was spectacularly wrong. Those are just some indications about just how gullible Doyle was when it came to any thing spiritualist.16
It is fascinating to record that the age of great physical mediums, who could float, conjure ectoplasm, call for music, white hands, and physical spirits is past. They have become an extinct species. One wonders why? If the psychic phenomena was real why did it dry up? The answer is rather obvious; the invention of the flashlight makes it much harder to cheat and trick even in total darkness. So the age in which people like D.D. Home, (only the most prominent among many) who could pull off their tricks in the dark came to a crashing end. Sometimes modern technology makes life so much duller. We are reduced to psychics channelling empty headed bromides in the light.
As for séances to contact the dead T. H. Huxley said it all:
The only good I can see in the demonstration of the ‘Truth of Spiritualism’ is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper, than die and be made to talk twaddle by a medium hired at a guinea a séance.17
1. See A very favourable piece about him in Wikipedia, Here and Beloff, John, What is your Counter-Explanation?, in Kurtz, Paul, Editor, A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY,1985, pp. 359-377.
2. See Wikipedia, Footnote 1, Gardner, Martin, The New Age, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1988, pp. 79-92, pp. 175-178.
3, See Randi, James, The Truth about Uri Geller, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1975, pp. 191-216, and Flim Flam, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1987, pp. 252-326, Gardner. Martin, Science Good, Bad and Bogus, Prometheus Books, Buffalo,1981, pp. 91-112, Gardner, 1988, pp. 25-31.
5, See Footnote 2.
6, See Wikipedia, Footnote 1, It appears that D. D. Home’s table levitations and spirit rappings would often occur in the light. But since those psychic feats are easy to pull off fraudulently they cannot be taken seriously.
7. Gardner, 1988, p. 83.
8, Hall, Trevor H., The Enigma of Daniel Home, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1984, The Spiritualists, Duckworth, London, 1962, New Light on Old Ghosts, Duckworth, 1965.
9, Wikipedia, Footnote 1, Gardner, 1988, pp. 88-92, 178.
10. Gardner, 1988, p. 82.
11. See Gardner, 1988 pp. 177-178, and Coover, John E., Metapsychics and the Incredulity of Psychologists: Psychical Research before 1927, in Kurtz, Paul, A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1985, pp. 241-273, at 255.
12. Gardner, 1988, p. 82.
13, Gardner, 1988, p. 177.
14, Coover, pp. 254-255, Gardner, 1988, p. 82.
15 The book can be downloaded at Google Books, Here
16 See Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Edge of the Unknown, Echo press, New York, 2006 (Original 1930), see Chapter 1, The Riddle of Houdini, See also Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Coming of the Fairies, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1921, See Also Gardner, 1981, pp. 113-122, Randi, 1987, pp. 12-41. An over all look at this historical phenomena including a detailed look at D.D. Home is provided in Brandon, Ruth, The Spiritualists, Knopf, New York, 1983.
17. Gardner, 1988, quoting Brandon quoting T. S. Huxley, p. 178.