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An “Interview” with Sir William Crookes by Michael E. Tymn

Put “Sir William Crookes” into an Internet Google search and you will receive some 95,000 hits.  One of the links is to the Dictionary of National Biography, which refers to him as a “Victorian Man of Science.”  It tells of his many contributions to the fields of physics and chemistry, but makes only passing reference to his controversial “excursions into psychical research,” seemingly excusing him for such an indiscretion by explaining that Sir William thought all phenomena worthy of investigation, and refused to be bound by tradition and convention.


A Fellow of the Royal Society, Crookes studied and taught at the Royal College of Chemistry before becoming a meteorologist at the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford.  In 1858, he inherited enough money to set up his own laboratory in London,  In 1861, he discovered the element thallium, and later invented the radiometer, the spinthariscope, and the Crookes tube, a high-vacuum tube which contributed to the discovery of the X-ray.  He was founder and editor of Chemical News and later served as editor of the Quarterly Journal of Science.  Knighted in 1897 for his scientific work, he was not someone to be easily duped or to fabricate strange stories.  In fact, Crookes undertook psychical research with the intent of demonstrating that the alleged phenomena of spiritualism were all fraudulent.  He opined that the increased employment of scientific methods would drive the “worthless residuum of spiritualism” into the unknown limbo of magic and necromancy.

Crookes is best remembered for his investigation of mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Florence Cook, but he sat with a number of other mediums, including Kate Fox.  This “interview” is based on Sir William’s 1904 book, Researches into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism, which deals primarily with the Home phenomena. Except for material in brackets and parentheses, inserted to permit a flow of words and proper transition, the words of Sir William are verbatim from the book.  The questions have been tailored to fit that verbiage. 

Sir William, when it was first announced that you would be conducting an investigation of D.D. Home and other mediums, didn’t your scientific peers applaud, assuming you would expose it as all fraudulent and thereby rescue science?

“When I first stated in the [Quarterly Journal of Science, October, 1871] that I was about to investigate the phenomena of so-called Spiritualism, the announcement called forth universal expression of approval.  [It was said] that ‘if men like Mr. Crookes grapple with the subject, taking nothing for granted until it is proved, we shall soon know how much to believe.’  These remarks, however, were written too hastily.  It was taken for granted by the writers that the results of my experiments would be in accordance with their preconception.  What they really desired was not the truth, but an additional witness in favor of their own foregone conclusion.  When they found that the facts which that investigation established could not be made to fit those opinions, why – ‘so much the worse for the facts.’  They try to creep out of their confident recommendations of the enquiry by declaring that ‘Mr. Home is a clever conjurer, who has duped us all.’”

Is there even a remote possibility that Mr. Home was a master magician?

“It is idle to attribute these results to trickery, for I would [point out] that what I relate has not been accomplished at the house of a medium, but in my own house, where preparations have been quite impossible.  A medium, walking into my dining room, cannot, while seated in one part of my room with a number of persons keenly watching him, by trickery make an accordion play in my own hand when I hold it keys downward, or cause the same accordion to float about the room playing all the time. He cannot introduce machinery which will wave window curtains or pull up Venetian blinds eight feet off, tie a knot in a handkerchief and place it in a far corner of the room, sound notes on a distant piano, cause a card-plate to float about the room, raise a water bottle and tumbler from the table, make a coral necklace rise on end, cause a fan to move about and fan the company, or set in motion a pendulum when enclosed in a glass case firmly cemented to the wall.” 

As I understand your reports, all this tomfoolery was simply an attempt by the “intelligences” behind them to demonstrate to you that they were real.  How did you communicate with these “intelligences”?

“At a very early stage of the enquiry, it was seen that the power producing the phenomena was not merely a blind force, but was associated with or governed by intelligence….During a séance with Mr. Home, a small lath, which I have before mentioned, moved across the table to me, in the light, and delivered a message to me by tapping my hand; I repeating the alphabet, and the lath tapping me at the right letters.  The other end of the lath was resting on the table, some distance from Mr. Home’s hands. The taps were so sharp and clear, and the lath was evidently so well under the control of the invisible power which was governing its movements, that I said, ‘Can the intelligence governing the motion of this lath change the character of the movements, and give me a telegraphic message through the Morse alphabet by taps on my hand?’  I have every reason to believe that the Morse code was quite unknown to any other person present, and it was only imperfectly known to me.  Immediately as I said this, the character of the taps changed, and the message was continued in the way I had requested.  The letters were given too rapidly for me to do more than catch a word here and there, and consequently I lost the message; but I heard sufficient to convince me that there was a good Morse operator at the other end of the line, wherever that might be.” 

Could the accordion you mentioned have had some special mechanism built into it, as with a self-playing piano?  Of course, I realize that this would not explain how it floated about the room.

“The accordion was a new one, having been purchased by myself for the purpose of these experiments, at Wheatstone’s, in Conduit Street.  Mr. Home had neither handled nor seen the instrument before the commencement of the test experiments.” 

One of your reports referred to you and the others present observing a phantom playing the accordion.  Would you mind elaborating on that incident?

“A phantom form came from a corner of the room, took an accordion in its hands, and then glided about the room playing the instrument.  The form was visible to all present for many minutes, Mr. Home also been seen at the time.  Coming rather close to a lady who was sitting apart from the rest of the company, she gave a slight cry, upon which it vanished.” 

You also reported on luminous appearances.

“I have had an alphabetic communication given by luminous flashes occurring before me in the air, whilst my hand was moving about amongst them.  I have seen a luminous cloud floating upwards to a picture.  Under the strictest test conditions, I have more than once had a solid, luminous crystalline body placed in my hand by a hand which did not belong to any person in the room.  In the light, I have seen a luminous cloud hover over a heliotrope on a side table, break a sprig off, and carry the sprig to a lady; and on some occasions I have seen a similar luminous cloud visibly condense to the form of a hand and carry small objects about.” 

Can you say a little more about the hands?  Were Mr. Home’s hands observed during all this?

“A hand has been repeatedly seen by myself and others playing the keys of an accordion, both of the medium’s hands being visible at the same time, and sometimes being held by those near him.  The hands and fingers do not always appear to me to be solid and lifelike.  Sometimes, indeed, they present more the appearance of a nebulous cloud not equally visible to all present…I have more than once seen, first an object move, then a luminous cloud appear to form about it, and lastly, the cloud condense into a shape and become a perfectly-formed hand.  At this stage the hand is visible to all present.  It is not always a mere form, but sometimes appears perfectly life-like and graceful, the fingers moving, and the flesh apparently as human as that of any in the room.  At the wrist, or arm, it becomes hazy, and fades off into a luminous cloud.  To the touch, the hand sometimes appears icy cold and dead; at other times, warm and life-like, grasping my own with the firm pressure of an old friend.  I have retained one of these hands in my own, firmly resolved not to let it escape.  There was no struggle or effort made to get loose, but it gradually seemed to resolve itself into vapour, and faded in that manner from my grasp.” 

Mr. Home is best remembered for his levitations.  Did you actually see him levitate?

“The most striking cases of levitation which I have witnessed have been with Mr. Home. On three separate occasions have I seen him raised completely from the floor of the room. Once sitting in an easy chair, once kneeling on his chair, and once standing up.  On each occasion, I had full opportunity of watching the occurrence as it was taking place. 

Did you observe him under full light?

“The occurrences have taken place in my own house, in the light, and with only private friends present besides the medium…The power possessed by Mr. Home is sufficiently strong to withstand this antagonistic influence (bright light); consequently he always objects to darkness at his séances.  Indeed, except on two occasions, when, for some particular experiments of my own, light was excluded, everything which I have witnessed with him has taken place in the light. 

You recorded some 28 sittings with Mr. Home.  Why didn’t he levitate more often than three times?

“In the case of Mr. Home, the development of this force varies enormously, not only from week to week, but varies from hour to hour; on some occasions the force is inappreciable by my tests for an hour or more, and then suddenly reappears with great strength.  It is capable of acting at a distance from Mr. Home not unfrequently as far as two or three feet, but it is always strongest close to him.”     

You reported also seeing tables and chair levitated.  Why is it that tables and chairs are so often the objects of levitation in Mr. Home’s case and with other mediums?

“I might reply that I only observe and record facts, and do not profess to enter into the why and wherefore; but indeed it will be obvious that if a heavy inanimate body in an ordinary dining room has to rise off the floor, it cannot very well be anything else but a table or chair.  That this propensity is not specially attached to furniture I have abundant evidence, but like other experimental demonstrators, the intelligence or power, whatever it may be, which produces these phenomena can only work with the materials which are available.”

What do you mean by “force”?

“These experiments appear conclusively to establish the existence of a new force, in some unknown manner connected with the human organization which for convenience may be called the Psychic Force…According to this theory, the ‘medium’ or the circle of people associated together as a whole, is supposed to possess a force, power, influence, virtue, or gift, by means of which intelligent beings are enabled to produce the phenomena observed. What these intelligent beings are is a subject for other theories.” 

Some of your critics claimed that you were outside your area of expertise in dealing with psychic matters and therefore your findings are not credible.  How do you respond to them?

“My greatest crime seems to be that I am a ‘specialist of specialists.’ It is indeed news to me that I have confined my attention only to one special subject. Will my reviewer kindly say what that subject is? Is it general chemistry, whose chronicler I have been since the commencement of the Chemical News in 1859?  Is it thallium, about which the public have probably heard as much as they care for?  Is it chemical analysis, in which my recently published Select Methods are the result of twelve years work?  Is it disinfection and the ‘Prevention and Cure of Cattle Plague,’ my published report on which may be said to have popularized carbolic acid?  Is it photography, on the theory and practice of which my papers have been very numerous? Is it metallurgy of gold and silver, in which my discovery of the value of Sodium in the amalgamation process in now largely used in Australia, California and South America?  Is it physical optics, in which department I have space only to refer to papers of some phenomena of polarized light, published before I was twenty one; to my detailed description of the spectroscope and labours with this instrument, when it was almost unknown in England; to my papers on the solar and terrestrial Spectra; to my examination of the optical phenomena of opals, and construction of the spectrum microscope; to my papers on the luminous intensity of light; and my description of my polarization photometer?  Or is my specialty astronomy and meteorology, in as much as I was for twelve months at the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, where, in addition to my principal employment of arranging the meteorological department, I divided my leisure between Homer and Mathematics at Magdelen Hall, planet-hunting and transit tracking with Mr. Pogson, now Principal of the Madras Observatory, and celestial photography with the magnificent heliometer attached to the observatory?  My photographs of the moon, taken in 1855, at Mr. Hartnup’s observatory, Liverpool, were for years the best extant, and I was honoured by a money grant from the Royal Society to carry out further work in connection with them. These facts, together with my trip to Oran last year, as one of the Government Eclipse Expedition, and the invitation recently received to visit Ceylon for the same purpose, would almost seem to show that astronomy was my specialty. In truth, few scientific people are less open to the charge of being a ‘specialist of specialists’.”

I understand that many of your friends and colleagues from the scientific world have been present at these experiments in your home.  Except perhaps for Alfred Russel Wallace, we haven’t seen much from them attesting to your observations.  Why is that?

“It argues ill for the boasted freedom of opinion among scientific men, that they have so long refused to institute a scientific investigation into the existence and nature of facts asserted by so many competent and credible witnesses, and which they are freely invited to examine when and where they please.  For my own part, I too much value the pursuit of truth, and the discovery of any new fact in nature, to avoid inquiry because it appears to clash with prevailing opinions.  But as I have no right to assume that others are equally willing to do this, I refrain from mentioning the names of my friends without their permission.” 

And yet your scientific colleagues still scoff at your reports?

“Science has trained and fashioned the average mind into habits of exactitude and disciplined perception, and in so doing has fortified itself for tasks higher, wider, and incomparably more wonderful than even the wisest among our ancestors imagined. Like the souls in Plato’s myth that follow the chariot of Zeus, it has ascended to a point of vision far above the earth.  It is henceforth open to science to transcend all we now think we know of matter, and to gain new glimpses of a profounder schede of Cosmic Law …There are at least a hundred recorded instances of Mr. Home’s rising from the ground, in the presence of as many separate persons, and I have heard from the lips of this kind – the Earl of Dunraven, Lord Lindsay, and Captain C. Wynne their own most minute accounts of what took place.  The accumulated testimony establishing Mr. Home’s levitations is overwhelming.” 

Can we now discuss the medium Florence Cook and the spirit materialization called Katie King?  There is much suspicion that because Miss Cook must be in an enclosed cabinet, apparently to be protected from any light that might negatively affect the ectoplasm coming from her,  that Florence and Katie are one and the same, that Florence is somehow able to quickly change costumes and appearances and become Katie.  Is that a justifiable suspicion?

“[For approximately six months] Miss Cook has been a frequent visitor at my house, remaining sometimes a week at a time.  She brings nothing with her but a little hand bag, not locked; during the day she is constantly in the presence of Mrs. Crookes, myself, or some other member of the family, and, not sleeping by herself, there is absolutely no opportunity for any preparation even of a less elaborate character than would be required for enacting Katie King.” 

What exactly takes place in these séances?

“I prepare and arrange my library myself as the dark cabinet, and usually, after Miss Cook has been dining and conversing with us, and scarcely out of our sight for a minute, she walks direct into the cabinet, and I, at here request, lock its second door, and keep possession of the key all through the séance; the gas is then turned out, and Miss Cook is left in the darkness.  On entering the cabinet, Miss Cook lies down upon the floor, with her head on the pillow, and is soon entranced.  [Katie King then emerges from the cabinet].”

So, there is no question that Miss Cook is not masquerading as Katie King?

“I have the most absolute certainty that Miss Cook and Katie are two separate individuals so far as their bodies are concerned.  Several little marks on Miss Cook’s face are absent on Katie’s.  Miss Cook’s hair is so dark a brown as to almost to appear black; a look at Katie’s, which is now before me, and which she allowed me to cut from her luxuriant tresses, having first traced it up to the scalp and satisfied myself that that it actually grew there, is a rich golden auburn.”

But did you ever see Katie King and Miss Cook at the same time?

“ [Definitely].  During a séance here, after Katie had been walking amongst us and talking for some time, she retreated behind the curtain which separated my laboratory where the company was sitting, from my library which did temporary duty as a cabinet.  In a minute, she came to the curtain and called me to her saying, ‘Come into the room and lift my medium’s head up, she has slipped down.’  Katie was then standing before me clothed in her usual white robes and turban head dress.  I immediately walked into the library up to Miss Cook, Katie stepping aside to allow me to pass.  I found Miss Cook had slipped partly off the sofa, and her head was hanging in a very awkward position.  I lifted her on the sofa, and in so doing had satisfactory evidence in spite of the darkness, that Miss Cook was not attired in the ‘Katie” costume, but had on her ordinary black velvet dress, and was in a deep trance.  Not more than three seconds elapsed between my seeing the white-robed Katie standing before me and my raising Miss Cook on to the sofa. from the position into which she had fallen.” 

It has been many years since you investigated the mediumship of D. D. Home and Florence Cook.  Because you backed away from psychical research after those investigations, some have suggested that you have had second thoughts concerning your conclusions in those two cases.  Is that true?

“I have nothing to retract.  I adhere to my already published statements.  Indeed, I might add much thereto.  I regret only a certain crudity in those early expositions which, no doubt justly, militated against their acceptance by the scientific world.  My own knowledge at that time scarcely extended beyond the fact that certain phenomena new to science had assuredly occurred, and were attested by my own sober senses, and better still, by automatic records.” 

The skeptics claim that you had a romantic interest in Miss Cook or her sister and this clouded your judgment.
“Will not my critics give me credit for the possession of some amount of common sense?”

Thank you, Sir William. Any parting thoughts?

“Steadily, unflinchingly, we strive to pierce the inmost heart of Nature, from what she is to reconstruct what she has been, and to prophesy what she yet shall be.  Veil after veil we have lifted, and her face grows more beautiful, august, and wonderful, with every barrier that is withdrawn.”

Incidents in My Life: Part 1 by Daniel Dunglas Home is available from White Crow Books.

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