Review: 'The First Psychic - The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard', by Peter Lamont

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If there was one thing the Victorians were crazy for, it was a good seance.

Victorians occupied an unusual moment in history, where the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries had become professionalised and atheism, while still unusual and often distrusted, was gaining popularity. Life was hard yet - for many- more genteel than ever before, and death was romanticised while still haunting the majority of families as a danger that could strike at any moment.  The rise of the middle classes and self-made men meant that what was fashionable spread like competitive wildfire and defined how many people saw themselves in society that was increasingly critical of itself. In an uncertain world, hung between science and religion, nature and the power of man, spiritualism offered some form of compromise between the old ways and the new. The alter of spiritualism was the seance performed in a fashionable gentleman's parlour, and the grand vicar of spiritualism was the medium.

In The First Psychic Peter Lamont tells us the story of the Victorian era's most notorious medium, Daniel Dunglas Home and, through this narrative, examines all the complexities of how our ancestors (and we) witness and interpret the world around us.

Who was Daniel Home?
Daniel Home

Daniel Home was the Scottish-American son of a mother who was reported to have 'the gift' of clairvoyance and spiritual contacts. He was Christian, often sickly and effeminate in appearance, with blonde-red hair, but commanded an impressive presence when he set out on his mission to convince the world that spiritualism was truth. He conducted his 'mission' by holding regular seances for the famous and well-born of America and Victorian London. He never charged a cent and instead relied on the hospitality of his clients to keep from homelessness and quickly built up a reputation as a frighteningly talented medium. It was said that Daniel communed directly with the spirits and through them he caused tables to float and flip, instruments to play without being touched and for spirit hands to appear and interact with the audience members. But, most impressively, he was known to levitate high off the ground,even flying in and out of windows.

Naturally, plenty of people doubted Daniel and the others who followed his profession, but while his contemporaries were discovered one by one Daniel continued to perform and astound his audiences without his methods ever being found out. He made powerful enemies in Robert Browning and Charles Dickens, while utterly convincing Mrs Browning and many eminent scientists. In the meantime his wide net of acquaintances took him through the turbulent seas of poverty and wealth, even drawing him to marry a relative of the Russian tsar! Daniel polarised public opinion about one of the most controversial topics of the Victorian era.

'The First Psychic', really?

Daniel set up in one of Crook's experiments
The title of the book might be a surprise, given that soothsayers and clairvoyants are seemingly as old as time, but it perfectly encapsulates the position of this little snapshot of history. The treatment of Daniel's 'powers' by skeptics was typical of the new professionalism of the scientific method, and Daniel was famously tested by William Crookes, the scientist who famously discovered thallium. Crookes devised a series of experiments to test (and restrict) Daniel's 'powers' to determine their integrity and in doing so found that he could not disprove any of Daniel's powers. Even when in the presence of precise measuring equipment and restricted conditions the tables still moved and the accordions still played as if by ghostly hands. Having no other alternative he was forced to concede that Daniel really did have access to 'another force', a mysterious power of movement. He officially dubbed this 'psychic force' - the first use of the term - and Daniel Home became the official world's first 'psychic', sanctioned by the scientific method.
Naturally, Victorian society did not take this sitting down.

So is it worth a read?

A 1930s seance
Peter Lamont does a great job of writing in an engaging fashion in this little biopic. It took me less than 10 days to read which, for non-fiction books I typically only read in snippets at my breakfast or commute, is pretty darn good. What might have been a dry , though admittedly curious, life story in someone else's' hands actually turned out to be a well balanced well thought out piece on science, spiritualism, conjuring and the always difficult reliability of testimony. lamont reminds us that the stakes are always high, as friendships, relationships and professional reputations are built and destroyed as they orbited the controversy of spiritualism. Though showing us the remarkable life of one extraordinary man Lamont manages to tell a detailed history of the tensions victorians felt between the scientific and the spiritual, and how the various facets of private victorian societies interacted and rubbed against one another. Most importantly, lamont offers a very balanced view, not letting his own beliefs about whether Daniel's actions as a medium were real or trickery. He examines the evidence carefully as well as the counter evidence and in doing so remains remarkably without bias - a feat that previous historical writers of Daniel's life have often failed to maintain.

If you're interested in stories about remarkable people, the weird and wonderful, or the culture of fashionable Victorians, this is a book for you.

Other posts on the weird and wonderful:

- The science behind 'Bloody Mary'
- Mary Toft's Rabbit Births
- Why do so many aliens in real-life abduction stories look the same?
-Review: on Monsters and Marvels
-Running around like headless chickens

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