THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
THE MAN WHO COULD FLY
THE MYSTERY OF DANIEL DUNGLAS HOME
If there was a single word that best fit Daniel Dunglas Home (pronounced “Hume”), it was “mysterious”. Considered by many to be the most gifted medium who ever lived, Home avoided contact with other Spiritualists, declaring that he had nothing to learn from them. And perhaps he was right, or perhaps it was because he chose not to mingle among the common people for Home used his purported paranormal powers to mingle among the rich, the royal and the famous. Regardless of what he did with these skills though, he remains an enigma to many researchers today, especially those who consider Spiritualism to have been nothing more than entertainment and illusion for the masses. Home stands unique in that many of the feats that he allegedly performed have yet to be duplicated by anyone!
Home was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in March 1833 and his psychic talents, said to have been inherited from his mother, began to show themselves when he was only an infant. His aunt reported that his cradle would rock by itself, as though moved by an unseen hand, and at age 4, Home accurately foretold the death of a cousin. He was a sickly and strange child and believed by his family to have remarkable powers. When he was just nine years-old, Home moved to America to live with an aunt in Connecticut. His health continued to decline and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Unable to exert himself as most boys could, he spent most of his time walking in the woods and reading his Bible. He came to believe that the spirits of the dead constantly surrounded him.
Shortly after he turned 15, the Fox sisters created a sensation with their table-rapping and Spiritualism was embraced by the public. Not long after, Home’s own paranormal talents began to increase. He was living with his aunt, Mary Cook, at the time and she grew to believe that the eerie events that took place around the boy were the work of the devil and she threw him out. For most of the rest of his life, Home had no place of his own to live. Staying in various households as a guest, he traveled about, holding séances for those who were interested. His séances however, were different than most others as he always held them in brightly lit, rather than darkened, rooms. Home had attended many other séances in the past and regarded most mediums as frauds. He decided to do the opposite of what was being done elsewhere, showing the public that he had nothing to hide.
During these sessions, he produced spectral lights, rappings, ghostly hands which ended at the wrist and which reportedly shook hands with audience members, moved tables, chairs and other objects, played spectral music, spelled out messages from the dead using lettered cards and amazingly seemed to be able to shrink his body in size. While he was doing these things, he would ask the sitters to hold his hands and feet to prove that he was not somehow manipulating the objects with secret devices or wires. He claimed that all of his feats were made possible by friendly spirits over whom he had no control.
In August 1852, Home moved beyond what many would consider to be parlor tricks (although darn clever parlor tricks!) and first accomplished the feat that would make him famous. To put it bluntly, Home managed to fly!
The séance took place in the Connecticut home of Ward Cheney, a wealthy businessman. Also present that night was a local journalist, F.L. Burr, whose assignment it was to find something incriminating against Spiritualism in general and especially about Home, who had debunkers in an uproar with his excellent reputation. However, instead of writing an article that exposed Home as a fraud, Burr wrote:
"Suddenly, without any expectation on the part of the company, Home was taken up into the air. I had hold of his hand at the time and I felt his feet -- they were lifted a foot from the floor. He palpitated from head to foot with the contending emotions of joy and fear which choked his utterances. Again and again, he was taken from the floor, and the third time he was taken to the ceiling of the apartment, with which his hands and feet came into gentle contact."
But how was this accomplished? Home claimed not to know himself. He stated that an “unseen power” simply came over him and lifted him into the air. Needless to say, most readers who came upon this article (and it was re-printed many times) were skeptical, as are most who come across it today. Full-body levitation is, and always has been, considered impossible. Throughout history, only a few saints had ever been alleged to be able to lift themselves from the ground in such a manner, although some practitioners of strict meditation techniques claim to be able to manage a few inches from the floor today. Who knows? But back in America of the middle 1800’s, there was only one man, Daniel Douglas Home, who could levitate with the aid of mirrors, ropes or even a safety net.
In 1855, Home traveled to Europe, where he began associating with the rich and famous. He conducted séances in England and on the Continent, gaining supporters and wealthy patrons. In 1858, he was married to the daughter of a Russian nobleman with whom he had a son, Gregoire. His wife passed away in 1862.
In 1866, the Spiritual Anthenaeum was founded with Home as the Secretary and soon after, he became embroiled in a scandal involving a wealthy widow who would later claim that Home tried to bilk her out of a large sum of money. Home maintained that the money was freely given for his "spiritualistic services" and the widow did not demand the return of the fortune until he refused her sexual advances. The trial became an embarrassing affair and many of Home’s supporters abandoned him. When it was over, he was forced to return the money.
During the scandal, Home was apparently at his best when it came to producing incredible phenomena. In December 1868, his most famous feat took place at the home of Lord Adare. During the evening, Home reportedly went into a trance and floated out the window of the third floor, then floated back in another window - all before the eyes of a number of stunned witnesses. The event occurred in front of three irreproachable members of London’s high society, Lord Adare, his cousin Captain Charles Wynne and the Master of Lindsay.
Skeptics contend the event was a mass hallucination or was somehow accomplished through trickery. They base this on the fact that there are slight discrepancies in the accounts of Adare and Lindsay, mostly concerning the size of the windows that Home floated out of and how high they were off the ground and whether or not the night outside was dark or moonlit. The debunkers ignore the statement of Captain Wynne, which was simple and straightforward. “The fact of Mr. Home having gone out of one window and in at another I can swear to,” he wrote. “Anyone who knows me would not for a moment say I was a victim of a hallucination or any other humbug of the kind.”
It should again be noted that during Home’s entire spectacular career, he was never seriously accused of fraud (all of those accusations have come much later) and he was never caught cheating, as so many of the mediums of the day were. It is also worth noting that this feat, like his other levitation, was accomplished in the home of someone that he was visiting for the first time and was among people of limited acquaintance. Any opportunity that he had to rig up elaborate machinery or engage the services of an accomplice to do so was nonexistent. There is no evidence to say that he ever resorted to such tricks.
And who can say that he could have even if he had wanted to? When not “entranced by the spirits”, Home was not exactly a robust character, thanks to his tubercular condition. It seems that he would be the last person to have gone fumbling about on ropes and pulleys outside of the window of Lord Adare’s mansion on a cold December night. And how could he have rigged them in place anyway?
Of course, if we listen to the debunkers, it never happened at all. Home was nothing more than a hypnotist and a cheap conjurer and he convinced everyone present that he floated out the window. But isn’t it often the case that the incredible claims of the debunkers are harder to believe than accepting that the paranormal may have actually occurred?
In 1871, Home married again and that same year began a series of tests with Sir William Crookes, a scientist interested in Spiritualism. To determine if Home could somehow manipulate electro-magnetic energy, Crookes wrapped an accordion in copper wire and then placed it in a metal cage. He ran an electrical current through the wire, which he believed would block any magnetic energy coming from Home. The medium was still able to make the accordion play, leading Crookes to believe that he possessed an independent psychic force.
In 1873, after two years of testing with Crookes, Home announced that he was retiring. Tired and in poor health, he traveled with his wife and son until his death from tuberculosis in 1886.
After his death, dozens of explanations were given about how Home accomplished his feats through trickery, but not a single one of these theories was ever proven. In addition, the most prominent stage magicians in the world all claimed they could duplicate his stunts on stage but for some reason -- they never did.
Home was shadowy figure in the annals of history and soon became forgotten by all but the most stalwart Spiritualists. He is remembered today largely because of the sheer variety of phenomena he was said to have produced and for his alleged ability to fly. Whether or not Home could actually do the things that he and his followers claimed remains a mystery but most believe that it is worthy of continued research.
Most debunkers would dismiss the idea of any research into Home (or mediums of his day altogether) though and say that what he claimed to do was impossible. These debunkers may be those who profit in some way from “exposing” the unexplained or may simply have an obsession with the paranormal and a desperate need to try and destroy it before it disrupts their otherwise orderly world. Theses pundits for the rational defy the true meaning of the word “skeptic” by closing their minds to anything they don’t personally agree with instead of considering everything until proven impossible. In this way, Daniel Douglas Home, whose feats made him a foe of rationality, had many enemies in his time and still has them more than a century and a half later!