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Swellboy on… magic and conjuring

The ghost of a great Victorian medium walks in Switzerland

Swellboy on… magic and conjuring

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 01 2011
Nick Foulkes

The Geneva Watch Fair is over for another year and, the simplicity of the watches on show this year aside, the first of Switzerland’s annual watch exhibitions was memorable chiefly for the fashion of using magicians to wander between tables at dinner and perform feats of wonder. My favourite appeared – as if by magic – at a dinner given by Vacheron Constantin. He was a man in the sort of hairdo and frill-cuffed shirt that would have allowed him to pass unnoticed at the court of King Charles I or the on the set of Jason King; if there is another garment that will take you seamlessly from the 1670s to the 1970s, I have yet to find it.

The conjurer in question did amazing things with bits of rope and although of course you know there is a knack, that he distracts your gaze at the crucial moment or that he has a few metres of rope up his sleeve (and believe me, one could have climbed Everest with the amount of rope that could have been stored up those immense cuffs), it is hard not be impressed. It put me in mind of the great Victorian medium, DD Home.

In the face of the increasingly rapid march of science, the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and the decline of religious belief, spiritualism was something that all classes of Victorian society wanted to believe in. After all, if telegraph cables were being laid beneath the oceans (the first one linked up Queen Victoria and President Buchanan as early 1858) enabling contact with people many thousands of miles away, why shouldn’t it be feasible to get in touch with the dead, or rather those who had passed over into the spirit world?

The trouble was that Victorian mediums were, on the whole, a fairly risible bunch, doing their best to gull the credulous with all sorts of ham-fisted tricks and techniques that would not have got them into dinner at the Vacheron Constantin factory, let alone into the next world. But I suppose in the days before watching Jason King or The Pretenders on the cathode ray tube you had to fill the long winter evenings somehow. These frauds were usually unmasked by Victorian ghostbusters, although, one presumes, without Ray Parker’s memorable anthem about the paranormal.

Home, however, was different. The only Victorian medium never to be caught out, he went on to perform for Napoleon III and the Tsar, he grasped white-hot coals without burning his hands and he flew in and out of windows in front of stunned observers; he inspired a sceptical Browning to write Mr Sludge the Medium (Browning and his wife disagreed violently about him), and he divided the fashionable world; Dickens despised him, but Thackeray was a supporter. His reputation even survived a scandalous court case involving a rich widow who lavished funds on him according to instructions from her dead husband that were apparently relayed by Home. Perhaps George Osborne should get out his Ouija board and try and get in touch with Mr Home to help with the defecit.

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