The most notable physical medium in the history of Spiritualism. There was a certain mystery about Home’s parentage. According to a footnote in his Incidents in My Life (1863), his father was a natural son of Alexander, the tenth earl of Home. Through his mother he was descended from a Highland family in which the traditional gift of second sight had been preserved. He was born on March 20, 1833, in Scotland.
Home was a sensitive, delicate child of a highly nervous temperament and of such weak health that he was not expected to live. Adopted by Mrs. McNeill Cook, a childless aunt, he passed his infancy at Portobello, Scotland, and was taken to the United States at the age of nine, growing up in Greeneville, Connecticut, and Troy, New York. It was noticed that he had keen powers of observation and a prodigious memory. He saw his first vision at age 13. A schoolfellow, Edwin, died in Greeneville and appeared to him in a bright cloud at night in Troy, thus keeping a childish promise with which they had bound themselves that he who died first would appear to the other. Home’s second vision came four years later. It announced the death of his mother to the hour.
From that time on his thoughts turned more and more to the life beyond. One night he heard loud, unaccountable blows, the next morning a volley of raps. His aunt, remembering the Hydesville rappings that had occurred two years before, believed him to be possessed by the devil and called for a Congregationalist, a Baptist, and a Methodist minister for exorcism. This being unsuccessful, she turned him out of doors. Thenceforth, although he never asked for or received direct payment, Home appears to have lived on the hospitality of friends attracted by his curious gift.
The first scientist to investigate Home’s phenomena was George Bush, a distinguished theologian and Oriental scholar from New York. The celebrated American poet William Cullen Bryant and a Professor Wells of Harvard University testified in a written statement to the reality of the phenomena. Professors Robert Hare and James Mapes, both famous chemists, and John Worth Edmonds of the United States Supreme Court owed much of their conversion to Spiritualism to this young man of frail health.
Home’s first levitation occurred in the South Manchester house of Ward Cheney, an eminent American manufacturer. Strains of music were heard when no instrument was near.
Nobody understood at that time the part the physical organism plays in the production of the phenomena. The demands made on Home were very heavy and the drain of nervous energy excessive. His intended medical studies had to be broken off because of illness; a trip to Europe being advised, Home went to England in April 1855. He first stayed at Cox’s Hotel in Jermyn Street, London, and was later the guest of J. S. Rymer, an Ealing solicitor.
The conversion of many of the later leaders of the Spiritualist movement in England was attributed to Home’s phenomena. When these phenomena attracted public attention Home found himself in the midst of a press war. Among the first who asked Home to attend a séance was Lord Brougham, who came to the sitting with Sir David Brewster. Home was proud of the impression he made upon these two distinguished men and wrote about it to a friend in the United States. The letter was published in the United States and found its way to the London press, whereupon Brewster at once disclaimed all belief in Spiritualism and set down the phenomena to imposture. At the same time his statements in private supported Home, and they too found their way into the newspapers.
More lasting harm was done to Home’s reputation by Robert Browning ‘s poem, “Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” which was generally taken to refer to Home. Browning and his wife, who accepted Spiritualism, had attended séances with Home. The poem was a malignant attack, since Browning had never claimed in public to have caught Home at trickery and in private admitted that imposture was out of the question. The reason for this vicious attack may have been jealousy over his wife’s enthusiasm for Home’s phenomena.
Other famous men of the day, such as Bulwer Lytton and William Thackeray, never spoke of their experiences in public. Thackeray made Home’s acquaintance in the United States when he lectured there. Both there and in London Thackeray availed himself of every opportunity of sitting with Home. He admitted to have found a genuine mystery and warmly endorsed Robert Bell’s anonymous article “Stranger than Fiction,” published in the Cornhill Magazine, which Thackeray then edited.
Bell’s account of a séance with Home starts with a quotation of a Dr. Treviranus to Coleridge: “I have seen what I would not have believed on your testimony, and what I cannot therefore, expect you to believe upon mine.” Thackeray was bitterly attacked for the publication of the article and it was said that the Cornhill Magazine dropped considerably in circulation as a consequence.
In the early autumn of 1855 Home went to Florence to visit Thomas A. Trollope. His name and fame soon spread there, too. False rumors arose among the peasants that he was a necromancer and administered the sacraments of the church to toads in order to raise the dead by spells and incantations. This rumor may explain an attempt against his life on December 5, 1855, when a man ambushed him late at night and stabbed him three times with a dagger. Home had a narrow escape. The attacker was never arrested, but Home was warned the following month by Signor Lan Ducci, minister of the interior to the grand duke of Tuscany, of his sinister reputation among the populace.
About this time he was told by the spirits that his power would leave him for a year. In Home’s state of seclusion from supernormal contact, Catholic influences found an easy inroad into his religious ideas. He converted to Catholicism and decided to enter a monastery. He was received by Pius IX and treated with favor. Home changed his mind, however, and left Italy for Paris, where, to the day from the announced suspension, his powers returned. The news reached the French court and Napoleon III summoned him to the Tuilleries.
The story of Home’s séance with Napoleon was not made public. The curiosity of the press was aroused, however, when the first séance was followed by many others.
An account of the first séance in Home’s autobiography, Incidents in My Life, tells how Napoleon followed every manifestation with keen and skeptical attention and satisfied himself by the closest scrutiny that neither deception nor delusion was possible. His and the empress’s unspoken thoughts were replied to, and the empress was touched by a materialized hand that, from a defect in one of the fingers, she recognized to be the hand of her late father.
The second séance was more forceful. The room was shaken; heavy tables were lifted and then held down to the floor by an alteration of their weight. At the third séance a phantom hand appeared above the table, lifted a pencil, and wrote the single word Napoleon in the handwriting of Napoleon I.
Prince Murat later related to Home that the Duke de Morny told Napoleon III that he felt it a duty to contradict the report that the emperor believed in Spiritualism. The emperor replied, “Quite right, but you may add when you speak on the subject again that there is a difference between believing a thing and having proof of it, and that I am certain of what I have seen.”
When, soon after these séances, Home left Paris for the United States, rumors were rife that his departure was compulsory. On his return to Paris, however, he was speedily summoned to Fontainebleau, where the king of Bavaria was interested in a séance. Home was in great power at the time and so much sought after that the Union Club, where fashionable sophisticates congregated, offered him 50,000 francs for a single séance. Home refused. A book, privately printed in France, recorded the strange experiences of the high society with Home’s mediumship.
Earlier, in Italy, Home had been introduced to the king of Naples. The German emperor and the queen of Holland soon joined the ranks of the curious who were besieging Home with requests for séances.
While enjoying the benevolence of crowned heads and the highest members of the aristocracy, Home had to wage a desperate struggle against the scandalmongers. Fantastic stories began to circulate as soon as he left Paris, and while he was regaining his shattered health in Italy it was even rumored that he was in the prison of Mazas.
In Rome during the spring of 1858 Home was introduced to Count Koucheleff-Besborodka and his wife. Soon after he became engaged to Alexandrina de Kroll, the count’s sister-inlaw. The wedding took place in St. Petersburg. It was a great society affair. Count Alexis Tolstoy, the poet, and Count Bobrinsky, a chamberlain to the emperor, acted as groomsmen. Alexandre Dumas, a guest of Count Koucheleff-Besborodka, was one of the witnesses.
Many of Dumas’s fantastic stories about spirits entering into inanimate objects were derived from Home’s mediumship. In Russia, as well as in many other countries, rumors circulated regarding Home’s mysterious powers. For instance, it was said that a great number of cats slept with him and by this means his body became so charged with electricity that he could produce raps at pleasure! In Paris the favorite story was that he carried a trained monkey in his pocket to twitch dresses and shake hands during the séances. From chloroforming and magnetizing the sitters, to possessing a magic lantern, to hiring secret police to obtain information for the sittings—every sort of wild explanation was attempted. Yet none of them could match the inspired inanity of one woman who was reported to have said, “Lor, sirs, it’s easy enough, he only rubs himself all over with a gold pencil first.”
From Home’s marriage to Alexandrina de Kroll a son was born. Shortly after Home returned to England, friends tried to bring about a meeting between him and Michael Faraday, the famous scientist and proponent of the involuntary muscular action theory to explain table movement. As the Morning Star reported, Faraday was not satisfied with demanding an open and complete examination, but wished Home to acknowledge that the phenomena, however produced, were ridiculous and contemptible. Thereafter, the idea of giving him a sitting was abandoned.
Home derived more satisfaction from his experiences with Dr. Ashburner, a royal physician, and John Elliotson, sometime president of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, a character study of whom, as “Dr. Goodenough,” was drawn by Thackeray in Pendennis, and to whom the work was dedicated. When Ashburner became a believer in Spiritualism, Elliotson, who was one of the hardest materialists, became estranged from him and publicly attacked him for his folly. A few years later, however, Home and Elliotson met in Dieppe. The result was a séance, a strict investigation, and the conversion of Elliotson. On his return to London he hastened to seek reconciliation with Ashburner and publicly declared that he was satisfied of the reality of the phenomena and that they were tending to revolutionize his thoughts and feelings.
Home’s phenomena also radically changed Robert Chambers, coauthor, with Leitch Ritchie, of the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which startled the public by its outspoken skepticism. Chambers attended the séance Robert Bell wrote about in Cornhill Magazine. He was too afraid of losing his reputation to make a public statement, although he allegedly received startling evidence of continued personal identity from his deceased father and daughter. Nevertheless, Chambers anonymously wrote the preface to Home’s autobiography in 1862. Eight years later, during the Lyon-Home trial, he abandoned his attitude of reserve and gave an affidavit in Home’s favor.
For a time during 1859 to 1860, Home gave frequent joint séances with the American medium J. R. M. Squire, an editor of the Boston Banner of Light. Squire was introduced to London society under Home’s auspices and later in the year he was presented at court.
Home’s wife died in July 1862. Six months later his book Incidents in My Life was published. It attracted widespread notice in the press. The Morning Herald remarked, “We must note also the strangeness of the fact that Mr. Home has never been detected, if indeed he is an imposter.” The book sold very well and a second edition was published in a few months. This, however, did not relieve the money problems Home began to experience. Relatives disputed his right of inheritance to the fortune of his wife, and, looking about for a means of livelihood, he decided to develop his keen artistic perception. He hoped to become a sculptor and went to Rome to study.
The papal government, however, had not forgiven the breaking of his promise to enter a monastery. In January 1864 he was summoned before the chief of the Roman police and ordered, on the grounds of “sorcery,” to leave Rome within three days. Home claimed the protection of the English consul, and the order of expulsion was suspended on his promise that, during his stay in Rome, he would have no séance and would avoid—as much as possible—all conversations about Spiritualism. Because the manifestations were beyond his control, however, he was soon ordered to quit the papal territory. He left for Naples, where he was received by Prince Humbert, and returned in April to London to demand diplomatic representations on the subject of his expulsion. There was a debate in the House of Commons, but no representation was agreed upon.
Soon after, Home made another trip to the United States, hoping to achieve success as a reader because he had talent as a stage reciter. His public rendering of Henry Howard Brownell’s poems was very well received; on returning to Europe he continued this new career with a lecture on Spiritualism in London.
His health, however, could not stand the strain. Friends came to the rescue with the post of residential secretary at the foundation of the Spiritual Athenaeum, a kind of headquarters for London Spiritualists.
Then came the disastrous proposition of Jane Lyon, a wealthy widow, that she adopt Home, with the intention of securing his financial stability. Lyon took a fancy to Home and proposed to adopt him if he added her name to his own, in which case she was prepared to give him substantial wealth. Home assented and changed his name to Home-Lyon. Lyon transferred £60,000 to Home’s account and drew up a will in his favor. Later she repented her action and sued him for the recovery of her money on the basis that she was influenced by spirit communications coming through Home from her late husband.
While the suit was in progress, an attempt was made against Home’s life. He parried the blow of the assassin’s stiletto with his hand, which was pierced. The fantastic stories that were circulated around this incident are best illustrated by a reminiscence in the New York World on the report of his death, in which the paper stated that Lyon had a false left hand and Home actually made her believe that by mediumistic power he could create life in the artificial limb.
Lord Adare, in his privately published Experiences in Spiritualism with D.D. Home (1869), covers most of Home’s work for the period 1867 to 1869, including some 80 séances. In 1869 the London Dialectical Society appointed a committee for the investigation of Spiritualistic phenomena. The committee, before which Home appeared, had some of the most skeptical members of the society on its list, including atheist spokesman Charles Bradlaugh. Four séances were held, but because of Home’s illness the manifestations did not extend beyond slight raps and movements of the table. The committee reported that nothing material had occurred, but added that “during the inquiry Mr. Home afforded every facility for examination.”
In May 1871 Sir William Crookes began an investigation of Home and reached a very favorable opinion of what he saw. Before this investigation other important events took place in Home’s life. He won the lawsuit for his deceased wife’s fortune, became engaged to an aristocratic lady of wealth, and gave several séances in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. During a lecture on Spiritualism he referred to some particulars of a séance held in the presence of a distinguished professor at the University of St. Petersburg. At the end of the lecture a Professor Boutlerof rose from his place and announced that he was the investigator to whom Home had referred. This dramatic scene was followed by an investigation by a committee from the university. The results were negative, since Home’s powers were allegedly at an ebb because of recurring illness.
In 1872 Home published the second series of his Incidents in My Life, including the principal affidavits in the Lyon lawsuit, and in 1873 he published his Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism. His opinions on fraudulent mediumship and his protest against holding séances in the dark were bitterly resented by other mediums. They said that he had little experience of the powers of others.
Kate Fox Jencken, of the Fox sisters, was the only medium with whom he was friendly. On a few occasions he sat jointly with William Stainton Moses. After the first such sitting, on December 22, 1872, Moses wrote in his notebook:
“Mr. D. D. Home is a striking-looking man. His head is a good one. He shaves his face with the exception of a moustache, and his hair is bushy and curly. He gives me the impression of an honest, good person whose intellect is not of high order. I had some talk with him, and the impression that I have formed of his intellectual ability is not high. He resolutely refuses to believe in anything that he has not seen for himself. For instance, he refuses to believe in the passage of matter through matter, and when pressed concludes the argument by saying ‘I have never seen it.’ He has seen the ring test, but oddly enough, does not see how it bears on the question. He accepts the theory of the return in rare instances of the departed, but believes with me that most of the manifestations proceed from a low order of spirits who hover near the earth sphere. He does not believe in Mrs. Guppy’s passage through matter, nor in her honesty. He thinks that regular manifestations are not possible. Consequently he disbelieves in public mediums generally. He said he was thankful to know that his mantle had fallen on me, and urged me to prosecute the inquiry and defend the faith. He is a thoroughly good, honest, weak and very vain man, with little intellect, and no ability to argue, or defend his faith.”
Home slowly broke with nearly all of his friends and spent most of his time on the Continent. In 1876 his death was falsely reported in the French press. He lived in declining health for ten more years and died on June 21, 1886. His grave is at St. Germain, Paris, and his tombstone is inscribed “To another discerning of Spirits.” In the Canongate of Edinburgh there is a fountain erected to his memory. It is not known who erected it nor why it was placed opposite the Canongate Parish Church.
Evaluating Home’s Work
Home demonstrated every known physical phenomenon of Spiritualism except apports and direct voice. He even possessed a latent faculty of direct voice. Faint whisperings were sometimes heard in his séances, but only of single words. He was mostly in a normal state during the phenomena but went into trance during the fire test, elongations, and occasionally during levitations.
The spirit teachings delivered through Home’s mouth by his control were sometimes absurd. The control, criticizing the knowledge of scientists, said that the sun was covered with beautiful vegetation and was full of organic life. When Lord Adare asked, “Is not the sun hot?” the control answered “No, the sun is cold; the heat is produced and transmitted to the earth by the rays of light passing through various atmospheres.”
Lord Adare, then earl of Dunraven, describes Home’s character in the 1924 edition of Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home:
“He had the defects of an emotional character, with vanity highly developed (perhaps wisely to enable him to hold his own against the ridicule and obloquy that was then poured out upon spiritualism and everyone connected with it). He was liable to fits of great depression and to nervous crisis difficult at first to understand; but he was withal of a simple, kindly, humorous, lovable disposition that appealed to me…. He never took money for séances, and séances failed as often as not. He was proud of his gift but not happy in it. He could not control it and it placed him sometimes in very unpleasant positions. I think he would have been pleased to have been relieved of it, but I believe he was subject to these manifestations as long as he lived.”
Sir William Crookes summed up his opinion as follows:
“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….”
Frank Podmore, a most skeptical psychical researcher, said of Home:
“A remarkable testimony to Home’s ability whether as medium or simply as conjurer, is the position which he succeeded in maintaining in society at this time  and indeed throughout his later life, and the respectful treatment accorded to him by many leading organs of the Press. No money was ever taken by him as the price of a sitting; and he seemed to have had the entree to some of the most aristocratic circles in Europe. He was welcomed in the houses of our own and of foreign nobility, was a frequent guest at the Tuilleries, and had been received by the King of Prussia and the Czar. So strong, indeed, was his position that he was able to compel an ample apology from a gentleman who had publicly expressed doubts of his mediumistic performance (Capt. Noble in the Sussex Advertiser of March 23, 1864) and to publish a violent and spiteful attack upon Browning on the occasion of the publication of Sludge (Spiritual Magazine, 1864, p. 315). His expulsion from Rome in 1864 on the charge of sorcery gave to Home for the time an international importance.”
Podmore added: “Home was never publicly exposed as an imposter; there is no evidence of any weight that he was even privately detected in trickery.”
Between the publication of his Modern Spiritualism in 1902 and The Newer Spiritualism in 1910, Podmore nevertheless succeeded in unearthing a single piece of so-called evidence of imposture in a letter from a Mr. Merrifield, dated August 1855 and printed in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1903), in which the writer claims to have noticed that the medium’s body or shoulder sank or rose in concordance with the movements of a spirit hand and to have seen afterward “the whole connection between the medium’s shoulder and arm and the spirit hand dressed out on the end of his own.” This highly speculative statement was sufficient for Podmore to proceed to talk of Home as a practiced conjurer who dictated his own conditions in the experiments and produced his feats by trickery. The only admission Podmore made was that “we don’t quite see how some of the things were done and we leave the subject with an almost painful sense of bewilderment.”
Long after Home’s death various writers speculated on how Home’s feats might have been achieved by trickery, imputing that there must have been trickery. It is generally conceded that Home was never detected in trickery.
Attempts were also made to discredit Home’s unfortunate association with Jane Lyon and to suggest that Home tried to take advantage of a wealthy widow. But the evidence suggests that Home was pressured by a foolish and unstable woman. Her claim that Home used undue influence “from the spirit world” is refuted by her transferring allegiance to a Miss Nicholls, another medium, at the time she reneged on her commitment to Home. It was also claimed that Lyon wanted Home to be “something nearer than an adopted son,” and her change of heart stemmed from his repulsing her advances.
As far as Browning’s spiteful attack in “Mr. Sludge, the Medium” is concerned, the veteran psychical researcher E. J. Dingwall suggests in his book Some Human Oddities (1947) that Home might have given the impression of latent homosexual tendencies, which might have incensed Browning.
Home remains an enigma. He was never caught in fraud but accomplished things far beyond that which even contemporary scientific opinion admits are possible. He operated at a time when numerous others where doing similar things and were caught in fraud, often after successfully deceiving many learned and seemingly competent observers. There are two possibilities: he was either a very unusual person, capable of doing the phenomenal things reported of him, or he was one of the most clever frauds in the history of humanity. We may never know which one he was.