Victorian Psychics

For the Psychic and the Sleuth I got to dig into some juicy material. Take a society obsessed with death, add a backlash against science and the age of Darwinism--and you have the makings of world in which spiritualism was bound to thrive.   

The characters of that age seem so much more colorful than today’s mediums, showmen, and hacks. Here are two of my favorite famous psychics from the past:

Madame Blavatsky, a Russian living in London, founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Theosophy means “knowledge of the divine” It was (and still is) based on uniting practitioners with more enlightened spiritual beings from another plane.

From a website celebrating Madame Blavatsky:
In the 1800's they [the spirits from another dimension] had been searching for a century for the next messenger and finally settled upon Helena Blavatsky, born to a noble Russian family. She saw the master who would be her teacher in her dreams as a child. She met him in Hyde Park in London when she was 20. She managed to enter Tibet and was trained by those masters in Tibet from 1868 to 1870. From 1875 through her death in 1891 she spread that message around the world.

Not everyone is impressed by Madame B. though.  Simon Doonan describes her as
Fantasist, fabulist, spiritualist, Theosophist and all-round bullshit artist, Madame Blavatsky was as savvy as L. Ron Hubbard and as batty as Anne Heche, circa 2001. Born in the Ukraine in 1831, Helena Petrovna Hahn inherited a vivid imagination from her romance novelist mother and a massively bossy disposition from her colonel dad. . .

Spiritual authority came to Madame via dead holy men, "The Mahatmas," via whom she channeled massive unreadable texts which she published as Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, among others. . .
At various points in her career, she was busted for fakery and for plagiarism. Her worst moment came when some associates, a Mr. and Mrs. Coulomb, ratted on her, revealing all the trap-door tricks of her side-show Mahatmas and her “apparitions.”
(From the Daily Beast.)

Daniel Dunglas Home (he took the middle name to prove he was related to Scottish royalty) is probably my favorite because he put on such a good show. He was a Scottish medium who counted on more than just the words of the ancients to capture an audience. 

the hair! the cloak! the skull! 
During his sessions, he levitated--and sometimes furniture and other people did too. He spoke with the dead, and there were all sorts of rappings and noises as well as a mysterious accordion that could play itself. Harry Houdini described him as 'one of the most conspicuous and lauded of his type and generation'. 

Home managed to impress Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who pointed out that the psychic (the first to use that term) was unusual in that he could manage all four different types psychic power:  

direct voice (the ability to let spirits audibly speak); trance speaker (the ability to let spirits speak through oneself); clairvoyant (ability to see things that are out of view); and physical medium (moving objects at a distance, levitation, etc., which was the type of mediumship had no equal)

Home conducted hundreds of séances with some fabulous spooky fun. Spirit hands of dead babies touched the visitors and appeared on Home's arm. Tables flew up to the ceiling and then floated down as lightly as a snowflake.  Here's a great picture of some levitation action at one of his sessions (from an article when Home was only twenty-two).

Like Marsh, the medium we wrote about in the Psychic and the Sleuth, Home had relatives who were also supernatural—his own mother had a reputation as a seer. She supposedly even predicted her own death. The young Home eventually ended up in the custody of his aunt, who hauled him to the US. The aunt grew so upset by the “unearthly conversations” Home held with the spirits, she booted him out when he was seventeen.

Home gained a reputation as a medium in New England. Eventually he sailed off to Europe where he impressed people like Elizabeth Barrett Browning (though not her husband, Robert Browning, who wrote the funny dramatic monologue, Sludge the Medium, about Home. I love that thing.)

Here’s a description of what Home saw during one of his sessions. (This is from "The North British Review" Volume 39 from 1863) Channeling the spirit of the deceased, Hanna Britten:

“Mr Home began to exhibit signs of deepest anguish. Rising from his seat, he walked to and fro in the apartment, wringing his hands, and exhibiting a wild and frantic manner. He uttered bitter lamentations, exclaiming, “Oh, how dark! What dismal clouds! What a frightful chasm! Deep down, far down! –I see the fiery flood! Hold! Stay! Save them from the pit! I’m in a terrible labyrinth! I see no way out! There’s no light! How wild! Gloomy! The clouds roll in on me! The darkness deepens! My head is whirling! Where am I?”

Then, before his audience got too spooked, Home revealed that Hanna Brittan told him that she had “become insane from believing in the doctrine of man. The burning gulf with all its horrible imagery, existed only in the traditions of men! And in her own distracted brain.”

He,  like the other mediums of the time, knew enough to offer his audience comfort--along with a good dollop of drama.


  1. As long as people want to believe in communicating with the dead, there will be charlatans as well as those who can just guess really well what the seeker wants to hear.
    "They want you to know they're okay". What a crock. What else can the dead say, they're dead!!!

    But they do make for wonderful reads and there's always that little niggling hope that, well, maybe this one is for real....

  2. The good mediums are tuned into their audience and give them something in return for their money.

    Lurid, is that woman bowing? drinking? or throwing up into her coffee?

  3. Some great pictures and stories there.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I love these kinds of tales. I sure wish there was a bit more showmanship in reality TV? He who levitates last gets voted off the island!

  5. Interesting blog. Thanks for all the information. My family and I are making a California trip soon and plan to visit The Winchester Mystery House as we breeze through San Jose. It always amazes me how people in this era really believed anything their psychic experts told them.

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