David Brewster

David Brewster


     A SHORT excursion of the famous Victorian scientist into Spiritualism in 1855 led to bitter public acrimony. The medium was D. D. Home, to whom he was introduced by Lord Brougham. A sťance was held in Mr. W. Cox's hotel in Jermyn Street, Mr. Cox also participating. Both of the distinguished guests were very deeply impressed. Home wrote to a friend in America a description of their visit, stating that they were unable to account for the phenomena by natural means. The letter was published and commented upon in America and found its way into the London Press. Sir David Brewster who, in the meantime, had had another sťance at Ealing in the house of Mr. Rymer, a London solicitor, promptly wrote to The Morning Advertiser, which reprinted the letter, forcefully disclaiming all belief in Spiritualism and setting down to imposture all the phenomena. His letter ended:

"I saw enough to satisfy myself that they could all be produced by human hands and feet."

A heated newspaper controversy arose. Cox wrote to The Morning Advertiser, contradicted Sir David Brewster and cited his expression of astonishment: "This upsets the philosophy of fifty years." Sir David Brewster replied that he had not been allowed to look under the table. In this he was again contradicted by both Cox and the well-known author, T. A. Trollope, who was also present at the Ealing sťance.

Yet another statement, one by Benjamin Coleman, quoting Sir David Brewster's admission of the reality of the phenomena in private conversation, was published. Sir David Brewster replied in an angry tone, gave a full description of the sitting and declared that:

"rather than believe that spirits made the noise, I will conjecture that the raps were produced by Mr. Home's toes, and rather than believe that spirits raised the table, I will conjecture that it was done by the agency of Mr. Home's feet, which were always below it."

He further said that the spirits were powerless above the table but were very active beneath a large round table with copious drapery, beneath which nobody was allowed to look. After describing how a handbell from the neighbourhood of Mr. Home's feet came across and placed itself into his and afterwards into Lord Brougham's hands, he concludes:

"How these things were produced neither Lord Brougham nor I could say, but I conjecture that they may be produced by machinery attached to the lower extremities of Mr. Home."

Throughout this passionate controversy Lord Brougham preserved an inflexible silence. Sir David Brewster never appealed to him. D. D. Home, on the other hand, challenged Lord Brougham's testimony. This was half-promised but not given. A conversation is, however, recorded on the subject by Sergeant Cox in his What Am I? in which Lord Brougham stated to him: "We were both perfectly satisfied at the time that it was no trick, and that some unknown power was in action. I said "Well, Brewster, what do you think of it?" and he said only "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy." Lord Brougham also declared that Brewster never told him that he had changed his opinion. The only reason why he himself did not pursue the investigation was that he was then deeply immersed in experiments in optical science and had not the necessary leisure.

The late Earl of Dunraven in his preface to the original private edition of Lord Adare's records on his experiences with D. D. Home, expresses the belief that Sir David Brewster acted out of fear of ridicule. He writes:

"He was present at two sťances of Mr. Home's where he stated as is affirmed on the written testimony of persons present, his impression that the phenomena were most striking and startling, and he does not appear then to have expressed any doubt of their genuineness, but he afterwards did so in an offensive manner. I mention this circumstance because I was so struck with what Sir David Brewster - with whom I was well acquainted - had himself told me, that it materially influenced me in determining to examine thoroughly into the reality of the phenomena."

In 1863 Home's Incidents in My Life was published. In it Home brought forward evidence that Sir David Brewster treated certain of his scientific contemporaries even worse than himself. Brewster threatened a libel action but though, in the second edition, Home enlarged the evidence, he never carried out his threat. The final word in this interesting encounter was said in 1869 when The Home Life of Sir David Brewster was published by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon. A note is printed from the private diary of the scientist which narrates the phenomena he witnessed in company with Lord Brougham in the following manner:

"Last of all I went with Lord Brougham to a sťance of the new spirit-rapper, Mr. Home, a lad of twenty, the son of a brother of the late Earl Home. He lives in Cox's Hotel, Jermyn Street; and Mr. Cox, who knows Lord Brougham, wished him to have a sťance and his Lordship invited me to accompany him in order to assist in finding out the trick. We four sat down at a moderately-sized table, the structure of which we were invited to examine. In a short time the table' shuddered, and a tremulous motion ran up all our arms; at our bidding these motions ceased and returned. The most unaccountable rappings were produced in various parts of the table; and the table actually rose from the ground when no hand was upon it. A larger table was produced and exhibited similar movements. A small hand-bell was then laid down with its mouth on the carpet: and, after lying for some time, it actually rang when nothing could have touched it. The bell was then placed on the other side, still upon the carpet, and it came over to me and placed itself in my hand. It did the same to Lord Brougham. These were the principal experiments. We could give no explanation of them and could not conjecture how they could be produced by any kind of mechanism."

It should be pointed out that in his letter to The Morning Advertiser Sir David Brewster expressly stated that the bell did not ring and that the table "appeared" to rise. A detailed comparison of the two statements reveals many other discrepancies. It seems that The Spectator was right in a review of Home's book in saying:

"The hero of science does not acquit himself as we could wish or expect."

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).


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