Because the topic of William Crookes' investigation of D. D. Home has come up in a recent comments thread, I thought I would repost this piece, which was originally published here in November of 2009. I've made a few minor alterations, mainly involving links that no longer work.
I came across an interesting factoid in Wikipedia's entry on 19th-century medium Daniel Dunglas Home.
The article first mentions Sir William Crookes's experiments with Home, one of which involved placing an accordion in a wire cage under a dining table. A narrow opening at the top of the cage allowed Home to insert one hand and grasp one end of the instrument. It would be impossible to actually play the accordion in this fashion. Nevertheless, in the course of the experiment, the accordion did play two songs and other scattered notes.
It was reported by sitters and Crookes [that] Home's accordion played only two pieces, Home Sweet Home and The Last Rose of Summer. Both contain only one-octave. Home played his accordion with only one hand beneath a table. James Randi stated that Home was caught cheating on a few occasions, but the episodes were never made public, and that the accordion Home is supposed to have played was a one-octave mouth organ that Home concealed under his large moustache. Randi writes that one-octave mouth organs were found in Home's belongings after his death. According to Randi 'around 1960' William Lindsay Gresham told Randi he had seen these mouth organs in the Home collection at the Society for Psychical Research. Eric Dingwall who catalogued Home's collection on its arrival at the SPR does not record the presence of the mouth organs. It is unlikely Dingwall would have missed these or did not make them public. [The Wiki text has changed slightly since '09, but the gist of this passage is still the same. - MP]
The reference to Eric Dingwall, who was well-known as a scrupulous and conscientious researcher with a decidedly skeptical bent, cites Peter Lamont's 2005 book The First Psychic: The Extraordinary Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard. I haven't read this book and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the citation. If true, it obviously nullifies the hearsay evidence upon which Randi relies.
The summary of Randi's theory is accurate. It comes from his book An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. The full contents of this book were online when this post was first published, and I linked to the relevant page. Now the online edition appears to be gone, or at least nonfunctional (the table of contents is still up, but clicking on the D.D. Home entry brings up an error message).
In any event, Randi writes:
[Home] actually was discovered cheating several times, though these events were not made public.
One of the features of his act was the playing of an accordion which was locked in a cage located beneath the table at which he sat. An "accordion," in that day, was not what is usually pictured today; it was a concertina, a rather small bellows affair with a simple keyboard at one end. When Home produced music, it was said to be very thin and faint, in character with its purportedly etherial [sic] origins. But another possible origin is to be considered. Since a number of tiny one-octave mouth organs were found among Home's belongings when he died, and he wore a very full "soup-strainer" style mustache, it might be suspected that he was able to play the music by means of such an instrument hidden in his mouth. That suspicion is further supported by the observation that the only two identifiable songs reported to be played at a Home séance were, "The Last Rose of Summer" and "Home, Sweet Home," the latter just possibly a pun on the part of the spirits or of the medium himself. Both tunes are limited to a range of nine notes, and both can be played on the small one-octave mouth organs.
The eminent British scientist Sir William Crookes declared Home to be genuine in 1871, but his own accounts show how careless his investigation was. He was also an intimate friend of Home.
In passing, I note that Randi makes no attempt to substantiate his claim that Home was repeatedly caught cheating. If these "events were not made public," how does Randi know about them? I would assume this is just another instance of Randi making things up out of thin air. (Another example is found here.)
Randi also says nothing to back up his assertion that Crookes' "own accounts show how careless his investigation was." In fact, while Crookes can be criticized for his handling of some later, very different experiments involving materialization medium Florence Cook, his tests involving Home seem to have been carried out with meticulous care and were reported in extensive detail at that time.
In any event, I find Randi's theory of the case preposterous on several counts. Let's take a closer look at it.
Essentially Randi is arguing that Home concealed a mouth organ (generally known as a harmonica in the U.S.) under his bushy mustache. In order for such a scheme to work, at least three conditions would have to be met.
1. The room would have to be very dark, since even the bushiest mustache couldn't conceal a harmonica, no matter how small, if the light were good.
2. The experimenters would have to be seated far away from Home, because if they were close, they could easily determine that the music was coming from the vicinity of Home's mouth, and not from under the table.
3. The accordion would have to be unobserved, since close observation would reveal that the instrument wasn't actually playing.
In fact, none of these conditions were met, as anyone who looks at Crookes' report can easily ascertain. The complete report, along with supplemental material, is on the Web and takes only a few minutes to read. (PDF format here, starting on page 5.)
1. Was the room dark? According to Crookes, "The meetings took place in the evening in a large room lighted by gas." In describing Home's appearance during the experiment, he writes, "His other hand was on the table, visible to all, and his feet were under the feet of those next to him." In a follow-up report concerning other tests conducted in the same room, Crookes writes, "There was always ample light in the room where the experiments were conducted (my own dining room) to see all that took place."
2. Was no one seated near Home? Crookes: "Mr Home sat in a low easy chair at the side of the table. In front of him under the table was the aforesaid cage, one of his legs being on each side of it. I sat close to him on his left, and another observer sat close to him on his right, the rest of the party being seated at convenient distances round the table. For the greater part of the evening, particularly when anything of importance was proceeding, the observers on each side of Mr. Home kept their feet respectively on his feet, so as to be able to detect his slightest movement."
There were five observers in all. The other four were "an eminent physicist, high in the ranks of the Royal Society (Sir William Huggins, F.R.S.), a well-known Serjeant-at-Law (Serjeant Cox), my brother, and my chemical assistant." All five men were closely watching Home.
3. Was the accordion unobserved? Quite the opposite. Crookes:
Very soon the accordion was seen by those on each side to be waving about in a somewhat curious manner; then sounds came from it, and finally several notes were played in succession. Whilst this was going on, my assistant went under the table and reported that the accordion was expanding and contracting; at the same time, it was seen that the hand of Mr. Home by which it was held was quite still, his other hand resting on the table.
Presently the accordion was seen by those on either side of Mr. Home to move about, oscillating and going round and round the cage, and playing at the same time. Dr. Huggins now looked under the table, and said that Mr. Home’s hand appeared quite still whilst the accordion was moving about emitting distinct sounds....
The accordion was now again taken without any visible touch from Mr. Home’s hand, which he removed from it entirely and placed upon the table, where it was taken by the person next to him, and seen, as now were both his hands, by all present. I and two of the others present saw the accordion distinctly floating about inside the cage with no visible support. This was repeated a second time after a short interval.
Clearly, Randi's hypothesis has no merit. It is contradicted by Crookes' report in every detail. That report, by the way, was seconded in print by both Huggins and Cox.
Huggins: "Your proof appears to me to contain a correct statement of what took place in my presence at your house.... The experiments appear to me to show the importance of further investigation, but I wish it to be understood that I express no opinion as to the cause of the phenomena which took place."Cox: "Having been present, for the purpose of scrutiny, at the trial of the experiments reported in this paper, I readily bear my testimony to the perfect accuracy of your description of them, and to the care and caution with which the various crucial tests were applied."
Moreover, from photo portraits of Home, it doesn't appear that his mustache was, in fact, particularly bushy, nor does it seem to have covered his mouth, so it probably couldn't have concealed a harmonica anyway.
Two photos of Daniel Dunglas Home
Randi's "encyclopedia" entry on Home, then, is a mishmash of hearsay ("tiny one-octave mouth organs were found among Home's belongings"), innuendo (Home "actually was discovered cheating several times, though these events were not made public"), questionable claims ("he wore a very full 'soup-strainer' style mustache"), and intentional omissions (the room was well lit, observers were seated directly next to Home on both sides, observers saw the accordion "expanding and contracting" and "moving about emitting distinct sounds", and even "floating" when Home's hand was not in contact with it).
Incidentally, Randi does not tell his readers that Crookes carried out a total of 28 sittings with Home over a period of approximately two years, and that Crookes personally regarded the accordion experiments as much less conclusive than other, more carefully designed tests (also reported in the PDF previously mentioned). Since Randi cannot possibly be unaware of these facts, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he withheld the information from his readers in order to make the case for Home look as weak as possible, just as he withheld so much relevant information about the accordion tests themselves.
No doubt he was betting that the great majority of his readers would never look at the original reports and would simply take his word for it. And about that, he is probably right.