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He Was One of the World’s First Psychics. But You’ve Almost Certainly Never Heard of Him

From Scotland to England and France, tourists can follow the trail of a wizardly and controversial man.

I’m standing in Edinburgh’s tourist-soaked Old Town, staring at something that no longer exists. In my mind’s eye, it is still right there, outside the 17th-century Canongate Church–a tall, stone fountain erected in the late 1800s to commemorate an extraordinary man, Daniel Dunglas Home. Sometime in the 1900s, that monument disappeared, just as Home himself often did to great acclaim.

As a toddler, Home exhibited eerie abilities in Edinburgh. As a teenager, he was declared possessed by Satan in his new home in Connecticut. As a man, he traveled the globe performing for popes, tsars, and emperors, impressing Charles Darwin and Mark Twain and disgusting Harry Houdini and Charles Dickens.

Home was one of the world’s first psychics. In the mid-1800s, this magician, illusionist, and medium became a celebrity, dumbfounding audiences from Europe to the U.S. with his apparent ability to levitate, speak with devils, and move objects with only his mind. Yet his story is now little known.

When just a toddler, Home reportedly behaved strangely, upsetting his mother. This contributed to the boy being adopted by his mother’s sister, who, in 1842, took him to Greeneville, Connecticut, a quaint town midway between New Haven and Providence.

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It wasn’t until 1850 that Home began claiming to receive extraordinary visions from another realm. A year later, his adopted mother became spooked by apparent poltergeist activity in their home–objects randomly moving and sounds occurring inexplicably. Soon, Home began to communicate with the dead.

This was too much for his auntie. She disowned the demonically possessed 17-year-old. Word of his supposed gift spread through Connecticut and beyond, with many wealthy families accommodating him for periods until he moved on to his next host.

Spiritualism, the belief that the deceased can interact with the living, had not yet been debunked, and many people found it fascinating. Home held seances for his hosts in return for board and gifts, talking with spirits via knocks on a table. All the while, objects in the same room shifted or even flew through the air, supposedly controlled by Home’s powerful mind.

This was all a ruse, of course, but a sophisticated and convincing one. Home grew increasingly adept at creating the illusion he possessed supernatural abilities. In dimly-lit spaces, to camouflage his tricks, the Scotsman levitated, shot beams of light from his body, clutched hot coals with bare hands, elongated his torso by up to a foot, and summoned visible ghosts.

A portrait of Daniel Dunglas Home.Bibliothèque nationale de France

In his early 20s, he moved to England. Nowadays, tourists pour through London’s majestic Piccadilly Arcade, unaware this was where Home lived in 1855 when Cox’s Hotel occupied this site. Home held regular seances in London, attended by many influential Brits. His notoriety soon spread across Europe, and he was invited to perform in Italy and France.

In Rome, he earned an audience with Pope Pius XII, Home claimed in his 1863 book, Incidents in My Life. That same year, 1857, Home was summoned by French Emperor Louis Napoleon, for whom he displayed the dark arts. The following year he exhibited his powers to the Queen of Holland and cemented his lofty status by marrying into Russian royalty. While living in Russia, he performed for the rich and powerful, including the Tsar.

For the following three decades, Home traversed Europe, living in the good graces of well-off hosts. Finally, in 1886, he died in Paris, where tourists can now visit his grave at Saint Germain-en-Laye Old Communal Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of the French capital.

Even after death, he’s continued to confound. Houdini, perhaps the most famous magician in history, was not a fan of Home. In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini devoted an entire chapter to Home, whom he portrayed as a scammer who manipulated people with a “magnetic personality” and suave appearance.

Yet history records no instances of Home being caught in the act of fraud. In fact, history records little of Home at all, particularly in comparison to Houdini, who has museums dedicated to him in New York, Pennsylvania, and Budapest.

Tourists who want to trace Home’s tale will find no statues of him in Scotland or Connecticut, and only a sidewalk remaining where that Edinburgh fountain once stood. They can, however, visit London’s British Museum, which has drawings of a levitating Home. While in the English capital, tourists can also head to the National Portrait Gallery, which owns an 1860s photograph of Home, staring into the distance with an intense gaze.

They can also travel 400 miles north to the place where Home’s life began. Perched on the western fringe of Edinburgh, at the foot of the majestic Pentland Hills, is the attractive Scottish town of Currie. It was there that Home was born in 1833, a short distance from the stately, 18th-century Currie church. Home, meanwhile, survives largely as a specter who casts his mysterious shadow over Edinburgh, London, Paris, and Connecticut.