Daniel Home, The ‘First’ Psychic: Book by Peter Lamont

Dr Peter Lamont, the author of The Rise & Fall of the Indian Rope Trick [read The legend of the Indian Rope Trick: An interview with Peter Lamont], and co-author of Magic in Theory, has published his latest book: THE FIRST PSYCHIC: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard.

Picture Credit: TOBY WILLIAMS – image sourced from The Evening News

As the title suggests the eminent historian and magician traces the life and times of the “first psychic” Daniel Dunglas Home. Judging by the reviews of the book in various publications, Peter seems to have some out with another good book on the history of the magical arts.

Sarah Howden in A spirited look at an enigma [Evening News – Scotland] quotes Peter as saying,

“He was the first, of course, and the word psychic was actually invented for him.

It’s not deception, not hallucination, the phenomena were real and it wasn’t supernatural – it was natural. So, in 1871, after experiments with him were done, scientists came up with the phrase “psychic” to explain it.”

In another part of the article, Howden writes:

“Home remains the single most interesting person in the history of psychic phenomena,” enthuses Peter. “He’s the exemplar. If you want to decide whether psychics are real or not, then look at the best case. If he’s not real, then the rest aren’t.

“It’s in my very nature to be sceptical, but when I read some of his accounts, I just don’t know how he did what he did. I’ve been a magician since I was a small boy, I’ve performed magic for years and I couldn’t do what he did under the same conditions.”

And before we start calling Peter a debunker (although he would not entirely disagree with that thought), let’s read more of what Peter has said to Howden:

“I believe the stories,” he says firmly. “As a historian, you look at the evidence. I believe that witnesses described what they feel they saw. What nobody can get at is what really happened. Is what they reported what actually happened, and if it is, how do we know there’s no trickery involved?

“But, yes, I believe the stories. Do I believe that’s what really happened, though? Well, you never know,” he adds, with a smile. “He was the best magician I’ve ever come across, and if it was trickery I have no clue how he did it.”

Kenny Farquharson in Psychic who outraged Charles Dickens[The Sunday Times – Scotland] writes:

Himself a magician, Lamont routinely uses his knowledge to demonstrate how allegedly inexplicable phenomena can in fact be easily explained. But even Lamont cannot account for some of Home’s exploits.

“Virtually everybody else in this field was caught cheating at some point, but he never was. I’ve been a magician since I was a wee boy, and I have worked in parapsychology for a decade. And I don’t know how he did some things. Nobody has explained them to date.”

The most impressive example for Lamont is a demonstration Home performed in Amsterdam in 1858, where a group of renowned sceptics gathered in a hotel dining room around a table large enough to sit 14 people.

The sceptics held candles above and underneath the table so they could see what was going on at all times, and closely observed Home himself. Yet Home was able to make the table rise off the ground, and then to make it so heavy it was impossible to lift.

“They monitored the room constantly for signs of deception, but weren’t able to find any. They refused to believe it was the work of spirits, but they said they had no idea what was going on,” says Lamont.

In A talent for ectoplasm published in The Guardian, Philip Hoare cites a case which has not been followed up in Peter’s book:

Home refused to be paid for his miracles. It was a point claimed in his favour by those who believed, but one which at the same time exacerbated his need for patrons. The homeless Home roamed from London to St Petersburg and Paris, entertaining emperors and aristocrats. Expelled from Rome for necromancy, he retreated to London, where his supporters installed him in his own Spiritual Athenaeum in Sloane Street, “a rallying-point for spiritualists and their friends, and where séances, under judicious circumstances, should be held”. Here Home was “adopted” by a wealthy widow, Jane Lyon, who settled £24,000 on him – only to claim it back when the spirits advised her otherwise.

The case ended up in the High Court, where a Wildean dialogue (sadly absent from Lamont’s book) ensued. “Did you ever kiss Mr Home?” Mrs Lyon was asked. “Well, I once just put my lips to his forehead”, she admitted. “But only once. You see, I am not so fond of kissing.” For his part, Home complained: “I was a mere toy to her, I felt my degradation more and more with every day that passed.” The final judgment flattered neither party, declaring that spiritualism was “mischievous nonsense, well calculated, on the one hand, to delude the vain, the weak, the foolish, and the superstitious; and, on the other hand, to assist the prospects of the needy adventurer”.

After stating that…

Personally, I’d rather have read more of Home’s relationships with figures such as Ruskin, who told Home: “I believe you are truly doing me the greatest service and help that one human being can do another.”

… Hoare ends his review with the words:

None the less, this is a well researched and illuminating book. […] To many, Home was just a Yankee conjuror; but Lamont’s entertaining essay in human credibility shows that he was much more than that.

While I am yet to read the book myself, knowing Peter and his earlier works, I am confident that this book would be more than an interesting read for anybody interested in the magical arts, especially mentalism and psychic entertainment.

I will of course share my thoughts after I have managed to get myself a copy of this what-sounds-to-be extremely interesting book.


More reviews:

For all its levity – and laughter arises like – oh, like a piano – this is a serious and thought-provoking book about how we witness and interpret the world. My own uncanny powers forecast a feast called Christmas, not far distant, when The First Psychic should, if there is any justice, mysteriously levitate from bookshop shelves and appear in intelligent people’s stockings.

– Hilary Mantel in Unearthly powers in The New Statesman.

This is a clever book, and occasionally a self-admiring one: Lamont’s relentlessly ironic tone can produce sentences that are too ready to slap themselves on the back. However, it is precisely this mixture of self-doubt and self-belief that keeps Lamont’s work so close to the world he is describing. Not a wonderful biography, then, but entertaining enough to keep its readers wondering.

– Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in The medium is the message in The Daily Telegraph