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Mr. Sludge, the Medium


Lewis Jones

Skeptical Briefs Volume 17.1, March 2007

When one considers . . . the standing of the three eye-witnesses who have testified to this, one may well ask whether in ancient or modern times any preternatural event has been more clearly proved.” These are the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the astute Sherlock Holmes.

Nor was the voice of science silent on the matter: “I have heard from the lips of three witnesses to the most striking occurrences of this kind—The Earl of Dunraven, Lord Lindsay and Captain C. Wynne—their own most minute accounts of what took place. To reject the recorded evidence on this subject is to reject all testimony whatever, for no fact in sacred or profane history is supported by a stronger array of proofs.” So wrote Sir William Crookes, discoverer of the element thallium, inventor of the radiometer, and a pioneer in the study of electrical discharge in a vacuum.

This case has become an object lesson in the fallacy of trusting the reports of “people of standing” rather than the evidence. It concerned the thirty-five-year-old medium Daniel Home (rhymes with fume rather than foam), who, in December 1868, allegedly floated out a window at Ashley House in London, then back through the window of the next room. There were three witnesses: Viscount Adare (later the Earl of Dunraven) was twenty-seven years old; Lord Lindsay (twenty-one) was an astronomer, who later became a fellow of the Royal Society; and Captain Wynne (thirty-three) was an army officer stationed at the Tower of London.

Adare was the first to describe the event in print. He said: “Lindsay and Charlie (Wynne) saw tongues or jets of flame proceeding from Home’s head. We then all distinctly heard, as it were, a bird flying round the room, whistling and chirping.”

Two spirit voices spoke through Home to Wynne. Then Home got up, was “elongated” and raised into the air, and said: “On no account leave your places.” Adare heard Home go into the next room, “heard the window thrown up, and presently Home appeared standing upright outside our window.” Adare was baffled, and Home took him to the window in the next room and invited him to watch: “he told me to stand a little distance off; he then went through the open space, head first, quite rapidly, his body being nearly horizontal and apparently rigid. He came in again, feet foremost, and we returned to the other room.”

From that point on, in the words of the investigator Trevor H. Hall, “it is hard to understand why the witnesses, believing that they had been present at a miracle, were quite incapable afterwards of giving a coherent account of what occurred.”

Even the title of Adare’s account was wrong: “Séance at 5 Buckingham Gate, Wednesday 16th.” But Ashley House was not in Buckingham Gate: it was in Ashley Place. And the séance was held not on a Wednesday but on a Sunday. And the date was not the 16th, but the 13th. Lindsay introduced further confusion when he wrote: “I saw the levitations in Victoria Street.”

Adare wrote: “Outside each window is a small balcony or ledge, 19 inches deep, bounded by stone balustrades, 18 inches high. The balustrades of the two windows are 7 feet 4 inches apart. . . .”

Ashley House is no more, but there still exist photographs of it, and Trevor Hall arranged for his architect friend Peter Bond to calculate all the necessary measurements. The distance between the two windows was about four feet, two inches.

Lindsay said the window was eighty-five feet above the street. The true height was about thirty-two feet. He also said there were no balconies at all, but they are clearly visible in the photographs. The word balcony suggests places where one could stroll outside and take the air, but to my eye, they appear to be more in the nature of large window boxes for plant pots.

It was also Lindsay who “saw two spirits on the sofa, and others in different places.” He wrote: “The moon was shining full into the room.” But on that date, the moon was new, and besides, Adare had written: “It was so dark I could not see clearly how he was supported outside.” There is also the awkward fact that Lindsay was sitting with his back to the window and also, in Trevor Hall’s words, “managing by some miracle to be in both rooms at the same time, saw Home floating outside the window in the next room.”

There were many other discrepancies, and at this late stage, there is no way of sorting out exactly what happened, though even at the time, there were speculations about the method. Some people thought that maybe Home didn’t go outside at all, but simply crept back quietly into the room he had just left.

Nor was everyone charmed by his charisma and his claims to be in touch with the spirit world. When Home had first arrived in London from the United States, the poet Robert Browning attended one of his séances, and said he had never seen so impudent an imposture. When Home called on him, Browning threatened to throw “this dungball” down the stairs. Later he wrote a sarcastic poem about Home, titled “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium.’” (“I cheated when I could, rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work. . . .”)

Even Charles Darwin was intrigued with reports of Home’s abilities, but he was too shrewd to take them at face value. “I cannot disbelieve Mr. Crooke’s statement,” he wrote, “nor can I believe in his result.” Unfortunately, he was too ill to accept an invitation to attend a séance—but what a fascinating diary entry that could have given us.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.