With the swirl of anticipation beginning to rise around Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley, it’s a good time to look back at a tantalisingly incomplete project of William Lindsay Gresham. ‘King of the Spook Workers’ is collected in the 2013 volume Grindshow from Centipede Press, which also offers a balanced overview of the writer’s life in the lengthy introduction by Bret Wood which puts his suicide in a slightly different light. Briefer bios linked the act to alcoholism and to his wife Joy Davidman’s abandonment of him to stalk and marry C. S. Lewis, but he was apparently kind of happy with his third wife, Davidman’s cousin Renee Rodriguez. He’d taken the pledge and was trying different writing projects to get back on track when he got the cancer diagnosis. Losing his sight, and having recently watched another friend suffer through desperate and ineffectual attempts to fight the same cancer (tongue), he checked in a hotel to spare his family, leaving notes behind for Renee to deal with the work he left behind.
He had hoped friend John Dickson Carr might be interested in doing something with his work on Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), ‘the one “medium” who was never exposed and discredited, the medium who never took cash for his séances’ and as far as Gresham was concerned, ‘one of the greatest con artists ever to gaze with passionate, utter sincerity into the wondering eyes of a mark.’
Gresham begins the chapter by developing an imaginative ‘you were there’ scene, putting the reader into the experience of one of Home’s readings. ‘He kisses the ladies’ hands with a stateliness already a bit old-fashioned…he is gaunt, cadaverous man…his voice hollow, low-pitched, with a faint trace of a Scottish burr. You are prepared to dislike him at once.’ Of course doubts are dispelled as the magic unfolds and the small audience is enraptured by unmistakable miracles: music from an unseen instrument, shapes moving under a table cloth, spectral evocations. The fictional observer is moved from skepticism to belief.
Gresham knows better, but his admiration for Home’s skill is clear. He puts his life story in the context of the rising phenomenon of spiritualism and the occult like the Fox Sisters of New York and the spread of ‘table rapping’ séances. Unlike most hoaxers who grabbed the cash and ran, Home was definitely in it for the long haul and his success was undeniable. As Gresham wrote:
‘I am convinced, after studying the life of Home for thirty years, that his tricks were standard mediumistic hokum improved upon and executed with consummate skill, by a master showman whose genius lay in convincing people they had seen what they had not.’
He never took a penny for a séance but he was good at dropping hints about quite nice things to buy as thank you gifts and he was invited to all the finest homes and even the literati. He had a close shave with a séance for Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, because the latter’s undying skepticism led him to seize the ‘ghostly baby’s face’ conjured and claim to friends that it was ‘the rascal’s bare foot’ but Home survived the scandal. Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced and supported Home .
At a low moment he lost his fashionable friends and even converted to Catholicism, but eventually his services were demanded once more—and by no less than Louis Napoleon (nephew of the more famous Napoleon). In the Tuileries Home thrilled the Emperor and his wife Eugenie with his dazzling skills and he was back. Queen Sophia of the Netherlands was a convert. And even better Home fell in love with a Russian, Alexandra de Kroll, goddaughter of Czar Nicholas.
Alexandre Dumas was his best man.
For a time all was well, but Alexandra caught tuberculosis from her husband, who had been carrying the disease since his childhood as a sickly boy (contagion not being well understood at the time, alas). After she died, leaving him with a son Grischa, Home struggled to make ends meet. He worked on his memoir and friends clubbed together to found a Spiritual Athenaeum in London and gave him a small stipend to be secretary.
An elderly widow adopted him but then changed her mind and sued to get all the money she’d given him back. He formed an attachment with the young Irish sportsman Lord Adare (later the Earl of Dunraven) and for a time enjoyed his favour, but the changing face of Europe in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war meant that it was harder for Home to curry favour amongst the gift-giving elite. He even marries another Russian, Julia de Gloumeline and began to retire from the spook racket.
Gresham breaks down the likely techniques used in all of his séances with convincing insider knowledge. In fact, Home’s third book after two memoirs was a guide to trapping fraudulent mediums who used a variety of techniques that he most likely knew at first hand. He died from the life-long effects of tuberculosis and was buried in Auteuil, his crown wobbling at times but still in place.