Today we have a guest post from Lisa Tuttle, author or the forthcoming The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – a seriously enjoyable, mysterious romp around Victorian London with a dynamic new detective duo, Miss Lane and Jasper Jesperson.
I have always been fascinated by histories of spiritualism and occultism, and especially by the various characters who turn up in those circles in Victorian and Edwardian London – I call them “characters,” but of course they were real people.
Some of them inspired fictional characters you’ll meet in the pages of my first novel about the private investigating firm of Jesperson and Lane – The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, and I thought it would be fun to take a look at them here.
I’ll begin with “Miss X.”
In 1893, W.T. Stead – the controversial English newspaper editor who pioneered investigative journalism – announced that he was launching a new publication, Borderlands. It would not have been possible, he wrote, without the assistance and collaboration of “a lady who in the papers [of the Society for Psychical Research] is always referred to as Miss X.”
Her real name was Ada Goodrich Freer. She was a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research from 1888 until 1902, knew all the founding members, wrote papers on subjects such as clairvoyance and crystal-gazing, led three investigations into the Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (funded by Lord Bute), and was responsible for the 1897 enquiry into the alleged haunting of Ballechin House in Perthshire. But although as an investigator she always took a sceptical – if open-minded – approach, Miss Freer also claimed mediumistic powers of her own. These came into play most famously in the summer of 1895, when she began channelling messages she claimed were from the spirit of Sir Richard Francis Burton, who had died five years earlier.
The full story of this “attractive but duplicitous young Englishwoman” (so described by Ronald Black, senior lecturer in Celtic studies at the University of Edinburgh) is to be found in a fascinating book by John L. Campbell and Trevor H. Hall, Strange Things: The story of Fr Alan McDonald, Ada Goodrich Freer, and the Society for Psychical Research’s Enquiry into Highland Second Sight.
Next, the most famous psychic celebrity of the Victorian era: Daniel Dunglas Home.
Mr Home (pronounced “Hume”) was born in Scotland in 1833, and inherited clairvoyant gifts from his mother, who claimed descent from the famous “Brahan Seer.” The family moved to the America when Daniel was nine, and it was in Connecticut, ten years later, that he first experienced spontaneous levitation. His powers, which he believed were bestowed upon him by spirits and outside his control, continued to increase. Witnesses described how he materialized ghostly forms, moved objects without touching them, made musical instruments float and play, and changed his height, shrinking or stretching, as well as going into trance to levitate or allow the spirits to speak through him.
In 1855 D.D. Home travelled to England and made a number of famous and influential friends, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He avoided the company of other mediums, considering most of them frauds, and even wrote a book exposing their techniques. To avoid charges of doing the same, most of his séances were held in dimly lit (rather than completely dark) rooms. One of his most famous demonstrations took place in London in 1868, when he reportedly floated out a window on the third floor, and then back inside through another one.
Home’s first wife was a wealthy member of the Russian nobility. She died after only four years of marriage, leaving him with a young son, but no money (her estate was tied up in Russia for many years), so, once again, he had to rely on patrons for support. In the early 1870s, Home agreed to be tested by Sir William Crookes, the famous English chemist and physicist, discoverer of thallium and pioneer of vacuum tubes, who took an interest in this new science of parapsychology. Over several years of testing, Crookes found no evidence of fraud, and became convinced that Home possessed genuine psychic powers.
But many did not agree. It was not only scientists who remained suspicious; Robert Browning’s poem “Mr Sludge the Medium” was a direct attack upon Daniel Home. Several stage magicians, including Harry Houdini, promised to replicate Home’s more astonishing feats, but how he managed to levitate (or at least to convince eye-witnesses that he had done so) was never explained. In 1873, Daniel Home announced his retirement as a medium. He died in 1886.
And, possibly my favourite – Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), an unapologetically unrefined Italian peasant woman who became an international star as a physical and psychic medium, invited into the drawing rooms of the rich and powerful, studied by famous scientists in Italy, France, England and the United States. In 1891, Cesare Lombroso (professor and physician who established the new field of criminology) had a sitting with Eusapia that convinced him of the reality of her powers, and had the greatest impact on the course of her career.
Tests in Milan, where séances were held in lighted rooms and attended by scientists led to further tests and reports in Rome and in France — in all, more than a hundred reliable witnesses, including many eminent scientists, testified that their experiences left no room for doubt: Eusapia had extraordinary powers.
But in 1895, in England, members of the Society for Psychical Research caught her cheating. She did not try to deny it, but shrugged it off as important. And although the SPR thought this invalidated all previous test, her European investigators did not agree. Already aware of her propensity for cheating, they claimed that as long as she was properly controlled – that is, her hands, head and/or feet were restrained – she still produced remarkable effects. Eventually, after a series of European tests had consistently good outcomes, in 1908 the SPR agreed to send carefully chosen investigators to Naples, where, to the Society’s own surprise, Eusapia’s powers were vindicated. Even stage magicians were impressed by her and unable to explain everything away as tricks. She is still, along with D.D. Home, held up as the best evidence for the existence of psychokinetic powers.