Ethereal spectres and their sceptics

The First Psychic
January 13, 2006

The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard By Peter Lamont Little, Brown 318pp, £16.99 ISBN 0 316 72834 9

When you pick up the biography of a spiritualist written by a former professional magician, you anticipate being not only enthralled and mystified, but also somewhat manipulated. Peter Lamont's The First Psychic matches these expectations. Although this gripping book appears to present the story of a famed Victorian medium, behind the scenes another plot unfolds. In the final chapters, the author strips away the layers of subterfuge, luring his readers on only to unveil a conjuror's conviction that true mysteries have no solution.

Ghosts began visiting Daniel Dunglas Home when he was a child, and they went on to help him escape his impoverished origins, travel and marry the tsar's wealthy goddaughter. Victorians disagreed about the credentials of a man whose presence enabled spirits to send messages, induced disembodied hands to float through the air and inspired accordions to play unaided.

Whereas Anthony Trollope (jovially described here as the man of letters who introduced the letterbox to England) was intrigued and Charles Dickens repelled, William Thackeray knew he had seen the tables turning. Women were notoriously more susceptible to psychic energies, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's enthusiasm spurred her husband into attacks on Home, including a poetic caricature, " Mr Sludge, 'The Medium' ".

As Lamont insists, even if Home was a charlatan, he remains fascinating because, uniquely, he was never caught cheating. Sceptics accused him of using hidden wires, magic lanterns and expanding tongs, but he refuted all their claims. Despite success in exposing fraudsters - including sisters whose weird knocks turned out to be clicking knee joints, and a girl who killed her baby brother to ensure that predictions of his death would come true - even the most eagle-eyed detectives failed to uncover Home's secrets (although Michael Faraday avoided losing face by wriggling out of invitations to test his authenticity).

Commendably, Lamont does not present Home's struggle as a straightforward contest between physics and psychics. For Christians who felt that Darwin's theories had eliminated God from the cosmos, an unseen universe inhabited by ephemeral beings provided a riposte to materialist explanations of life.

However, Lamont could have bolstered his case by emphasising more forcefully that many experimental investigators believed in spiritual phenomena. The coloured glows generated by electric currents in glass tubes now belong to orthodox science but then seemed just as bizarre as magnetic phenomena attributed to "odic forces" from human bodies. The disembodied tapping of telegraph keys resembled the rapping noises evoked in seances, while radio signals could be propagated through apparently empty space.

Scientists declared that electromagnetic waves were carried by an invisible ether: was it so odd to believe that the dead could communicate through this mysterious substance?

Home's most determined investigator was William Crookes, a chemist who abandoned his spectra to study spectres. Renowned for photographs of solid spirits whose human mediums were confined to another room, Crookes devised an apparatus to show how Home could push down a board without touching it and play an accordion locked in a cage. But such allegedly conclusive evidence satisfied nobody. Spiritualists were dismayed because Crookes insisted that an unknown but physical psychic force was responsible; scientists were forced to confront the paradox that supposedly irrefutable scientific knowledge rests on fallible human observers. With the final flourish of the ultimate trickster, Lamont swirls his cape to reveal "that uncertainty is real and certainty an illusion".

Patricia Fara is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.

The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard

Author - Peter Lamont Little
Publisher - Brown
Pages - 318
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 316 72834 9

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