The First Psychic by Peter Lamont
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2005)
Daniel Douglas Home was a superstar of spiritualism. The enigmatic medium never accepted money for his extraordinary séance work, although he regularly accepted jewels, hospitality, and most anything else that was offered or asked for; he was once willing to "accept" a fortune from a wealthy widow, one Jane Lyon, to whom he was subsequently legally forced to return some 60,000 pounds. The claims of Home's séance feats famously included his own vertical levitation, during which he could leave marks on the ceiling or, in one legendary case, apparently float out one eighth-story window and float back in through a different one. See-sawing between poverty and wealth and back again throughout his life, ever sickly, married into Russian aristocracy, feted and THE fawned over by high society, Home was a genuine celebrity of his own era and, to PSYCHIC some, remains an enigma in ours.
Born in Scotland and emigrating to America as a child, Home claimed to have first demonstrated his mediumistic tendencies by the age of 13, when he began to produce the kind of mysterious rapping sounds that would herald the birth of spiritualism, courtesy of Kate and Maggie Fox. While the Fox sisters, in Hydesville, New York, began scaring their mother with ghostly raps in 1848, Home claimed to have first experienced the rappings two years earlier Of course, he claimed many things, since he wrote a number of accounts about his own life. But claims in and of themselves do not make for truth.
Even if we accept the reasonable assumption that Home was as much a fake as any other spirit medium, he does appear to have been a particularly clever perpetrator. Although he utilized many of the standard séance effects, he also thought up some clever tricks of his own. Despite claims by his later critics, Home was examined by skeptics in the course of his life, including a few scientists, and often endorsed by them. Despite claims by believers that Home was never exposed, that is also not quite correct, but by comparison with most of the celebrity mediums of his era, any such exposures were few and far between, and they were not of the dramatic sort; i.e., nobody ever lit a match and found him waving a reaching rod in one hand and holding a fistful of luminous cheesecloth in the other.
Home's life and exploits have generated an assortment of books and biographies, most of which have been written with distinct agendas in mind, alternately being positioned either for or against the existence of his allegedly supernatural powers. Spiritualism's last defenders still point to Home as the final proof of spiritualism and physical phenomena, the one true medium of his day. Then again, there are a few holdouts who still insist the earth is flat.
Into this pile now steps Peter Lamont parapsychologist, historian, sometime professional magician, and "psychic," (according to the dustjacket copy), and recent author of The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick (reviewed in January 2005 Genii)—with this new, thoroughly researched biography of Daniel Home. (Mr. Lamont also co-wrote, with Richard Wiseman, Magic in Theory, reviewed in January 2000 Genii.) With 26 pages of source notes, this is probably the most detailed biography of Home to date. Dr. Lamont has searched out countless primary sources, while at the same time avoiding the obvious agendas of many of his predecessors. Which is not to say he does not have any agendas of his own, but they are difficult to parse in simple terms.
The book is thorough in reconstructing the details of Home's life, but how interesting a story it tells is arguable. That Home rubbed elbows in the dark with a Who's Who of his era is thoroughly established; he was at times hosted by no less than the Emperor Napoleon III, the Tsar of Russia, and the colorful list goes on from there. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a great fan of Home's; her enthusiasm was not shared by her husband and fellow poet, Robert Browning, who detested the medium, and eventually wrote a lengthy poem, "Mr. Sludge, The Medium,'" which famously savaged Home. But celebrity mongering of the past is not in and of itself much more interesting than it is in today's newspapers
While Dr. Lamont may have avoided grinding any of the more obvious available axes, his own point of view is a tad eccentric, and will as he virtually predicts in his acknowledgements likely frustrate many of his readers, no matter their own placement on the spectrum of beliefs about Home. In Dr. Lamont's attempt to present a "balanced" approach to the story, he generally reports Home's own claims about himself as if they are fact. Hence we read without question that Home produced his rappings two years before the Fox Sisters; that he was invariably puzzled by his powers; and that, as we are repeatedly reminded, he was merely on "a glorious mission to convince the infidel of the existence of an afterlife." This posture could drive a reader to distraction—this reader, for one.
To kick off the narrative with the unchallenged claim that Mr. Home first experienced his spirit rappings two years prior to the Fox sisters leaves the average reader at a severe disadvantage, and abandons the author's responsibilities as a historian and biographer. Nowhere not even in his eventual statement of position—does the author point out that there is not a shred of evidence that spirit rappings began with D.D. Home, and that in fact the historical consensus is that such doings began with the Fox Sisters. The author never clarifies this point, important not only to history but to the scientific nature of Home's claims. After all, it is one thing if Home was just another follower in kind, picking up and repeating the Rochester Rappings as did countless other mediums along the telepathy tele-graph; it may be quite another if in fact such phenomena originated with the young Home. One can puzzle out from the footnotes that the claim is merely repeated from Home's own autobiographical writings, but it is the biographer's responsibility to make this clear to the reader, and also to establish that many of the elements of the narrative are in fact drawn solely from Home's own writings. A single footnote in the beginning of the book, pointing out what story elements are based solely on after-the-fact claims by Mr. Home himself and the fact that they are at odds with all other historical claims concerning the same events would put the reader on much firmer footing as he winds his way through the story of Mr. Home's life and exploits. Presenting such information uncritically from the start presents the story in a kind of vacuum, leaving this reader for whom this book does not serve as a first introduction to the tale starving for air.
This is a subtle yet significantly different framework than Barry Wiley's superb recent biography of Anna Eva Fay, The Indescribable Phenomenon (reviewed in July 2005 Genii). Although one can readily point out that not all of Ms. Fay's mysteries have been "adequately" explained depending on one's definition of "adequate Mr. Wiley chooses wisely not to play coy with his responsibility to the reader. He simply accepts the obvious which is based not only on the evidence concerning Ms. Fay, but on the evidence concerning spiritualism and indeed 150 years of paranormal research namely that Ms. Fay was a fake. And then, without polemics, without hammering any sort of further agenda, Mr. Wiley simply tells his story. And perhaps the story of Ms. Fay is a more interesting tale at that, because of the great adaptability of this woman whose life spanned such a remarkable period of time, tracking her life as a young medium to an eventual vaudeville headliner.
Dr. Lamont attempts to summarize a philosophy of science within a few pages in his story's "post-mortem" and in the notes which follow thereafter. Readers are advised to consult his conclusions before reading the book, the bet-ter to try to grasp his stance toward his subject. Here he offers that "Home was a charlatan whose feats have never been adequately explained." After explaining the philosophical ins and outs of what he means by that statement and some will consider his use of the word "adequate" debatable—he then adds that "I choose to embrace the resultant mystery, not as evidence that such extraordinary psychic phenomena really exist, but as a powerful reminder that we should never be too comfort-able with our own view of the world."
Dr. Lamont and I share an interest in mystery, but we do not share a view of how important a mystery Mr. Home is; or even, for that matter, if he is much of a mystery at all. Dr. Lamont's efforts to elevate D.D. Home beyond the level of liar, con man, and predator undermine his otherwise methodical biographical accomplishment. That Home was a magician of sorts who went to the grave with the secrets of a couple of his magic tricks tricks which may or may not have actually occurred shall cause me the loss of little if any sleep. I'd much rather know how Brooklyn's Dr. Hooker made his cards rise than how D.D. Home supposedly levitated out a window, which I have not the slightest reason to believe he ever actually did. Therefore the only missing explanation is how he managed to make his sitters think he accomplished such a thing, whereas at least I am confident that Dr. Hooker's cards actually rose. (And they were freely named, too!)
Dr. Lamont conveniently overlooks the premise that the burden of proof is on the claimant. He puts himself much in the camp of the spiritualist who claims that just because a medium cheats some of the time, doesn't mean he cheats all of the time. One is free to make this argument, but at the risk of one's reputation as a rational thinker. Parsimony in rational inquiry as summarized in Occam's Razor does not insist that the simplest explanation is always the best explanation; it merely advises that the simplest explanation is a good place to start.
Dr. Lamont also fails to remind us that while Home was indeed examined by skeptics and scientists, he was rarely if ever tested by the most qualified examiners of all: magicians. Dr. Lamont, as a magician, must himself know that psychic con artists are rarely (albeit occasionally) caught by scientists, who lack training in deception. Asa magician he also knows that once anyone is fooled even a magician it means that by definition that witness does not know what occurred. He only knows what he thinks he saw. While it may be interesting to consider what Home's witnesses think they saw, I do not find it difficult to choose between believing they were actually fooled, versus accepting that they witnessed phenomena that upends all we know of spiritualism, séance mediums, parapsychology, and physics.
Daniel Home's followers considered his feats to be cosmological in scope, but the prosaic reality of his dark-room magic tricks was anything but momentous. Dr. Lamont's dogged insistence that it is difficult to deter-mine which conclusion is more reasonable detracts from an otherwise engaging and remarkable tale, often well told and invariably well researched. Shakespeare wrote that "There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But to paraphrase another phrase of the Bard's: The biographer doth protest too much, methinks.