Crookes, Sir William (June 17, 1832 – April 4, 1919): A Victorian Man of Science

Crookes, Sir William (June 17, 1832 – April 4, 1919): A Victorian Man of Science

The Dictionary of National Biography refers to Sir William Crookes (June 17, 1832 to April 4, 1919) as a “Victorian Man of Science” and tells of his many contributions to physics and chemistry. However, it 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. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1910 and received honorary degrees in law and science from Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge, Ireland, Cape of Good Hope, Sheffield, and Durham universities. Knighted in 1897 for his scientific work, he was not someone to be easily duped or to fabricate strange stories.

Crookes ventured into psychical research in 1869, primarily to investigate mediumship. He is most remembered for his investigations of mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Florence Cook. While he expected to discover fraud, Crookes came away from his investigations as a believer in mediumship and related psychic phenomena.

“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,” Crookes wrote in his 1904 book, Researches into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism. “[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.’”

Over a period of some three years, ending July 2, 1873, Crookes had 29 sittings with Home and observed many different phenomena, including levitations, phantoms, a floating accordion playing music, luminous hands, luminous clouds, and communication from invisible entities. At one sitting, Crookes and his guests observed a phantom form come from the corner of the room, take an accordion in its hand, and then glide about the room while playing the instrument. Home was clearly visible and separate from the phantom. The form was visible for “many minutes” before it simply vanished.

“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,” Crookes explained, going on to mention that in one sitting with Home a small lath moved across the table (in the light) and delivered a message to him by tapping his hand. Crookes recited the alphabet and the tap would come at the right letter as the message was slowly spelled out.

In another sitting, Crookes reported that “a luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose up over our heads, gradually fading into the darkness.”

Crookes clearly observed Home being levitated by spirits. “The most striking cases of levitation I have witnessed have been with Mr. Home,” he recorded. “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.”

On another occasion, Ellen Crookes, his wife, was levitated while sitting in a chair.

On June 28, 1871, Home went into a trance and a strange voice began speaking through him. Crookes asked who was speaking. “It is not one spirit in particular,” came the reply. “It is a general influence. It requires two or three spirits to get complete control over Dan. The conditions are not very good tonight.” The communicating influence then explained that trying to get Home to do as they wanted was “like trying to get a wayward child to do what you wish.” Nevertheless, they (the spirits) were continuing to experiment with him. They further explained that not all spirits have the ability to communicate through a medium. “There are two standing here right now who would like to communicate but it would be quite impossible for them to make the slightest manifestation to you,” the intelligence explained. “They will be obliged to get others to tell what they wish to say.”

Apparently, the “intelligences” had more to say through Home, but Crookes seemed to be more interested in the physical phenomena and did not record much of it, something he was later criticized for by other psychical researchers. He often invited his fellow scientists to study Home with him, but most of them wanted nothing to do with such “humbug.” Those who did accept his invitation were for the most part silent on what they observed. Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, was an exception.

Crookes became convinced that Home was no charlatan and that some form of “psychic force” was taking place through him. ‘There is a wide difference between the tricks of a professional conjurer, surrounded by his apparatus, and aided by any number of concealed assistants and confederates, deceiving the senses by clever sleight of hand on his own platform, and the phenomena occurring in the presence of Mr. Home, which take place in the light, in a private room that almost up to the commencement of the séances has been occupied as a living room, and surrounded by private friends of my own, who not only will not countenance the slightest deception, but who are watching narrowly everything that takes place,” Crookes further wrote.

From 1872 to 1874, Crookes studied Florence Cook, whose mediumship involved the materialization of a spirit calling herself Katie King. Because darkness and a materialization cabinet were required, there was much suspicion that Cook was changing costumes in the cabinet and impersonating a spirit. However, Crookes reported observing both of them at the same time, thoroughly examining Katie King, and photographing her. “…to imagine, I say, the Katie King of the last three years to be the result of imposture does more violence to one’s reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms,” Crookes stated.

The scientific community was shocked by Crookes’s endorsement of Home and Cook. As a result, he came under attack by many closed-minded scientists – those who shared Sir David Brewster’s attitude that such phenomena were completely opposed to scientific law and therefore there was no explanation other than that Crookes had been duped. Various theories were offered as to how he had been deceived. It mattered not that Wallace had observed Home’s ability as had a number of other scholars and scientists. Moreover, rumors circulated that Crookes had a romantic interest in Miss Cook and that this fogged his judgment.

Apparently wearied by the attacks and rumors, Crookes gave up psychical research and returned to orthodox science. While he maintained a private interest in psychical research, he spoke very little of the subject in public, often very guarded and occasionally saying things that implied that the “psychic force” he had witnessed may not have been the work of spirits. However, in a speech before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1898, he said he had nothing to retract. His writings in subsequent years indicate that he returned to a belief in spirits and, concomitantly, the survival of consciousness at death. In 1917, a year after his wife’s death, Crookes is said to have had a lively conversation with her at a London séance. He died in 1919 at age 86.

One of the scientists who lambasted Crookes for not debunking Home and Cook was Dr. Julian Ochorowicz, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of Warsaw and one of the founders of the Polish Psychological Institute in Warsaw. After he began investigating psychical phenomena, he changed his views. “I found I had done a great wrong to men who had proclaimed new truths at the risk of their positions,” he confessed. “When I remember that I branded as a fool that fearless investigator, Crookes, the inventor of the radiometer, because he had the courage to assert the reality of psychic phenomena and to subject them to scientific tests, and when I also recollect that I used to read his articles thereon in the same stupid style, regarding him as crazy, I am ashamed, both of myself and others, and I cry from the very bottom of my heart. ‘Father, I have sinned against the Light.’”

Dr. Charles Richet, the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, was another scientist who initially scoffed at Crookes. However, he dedicated his 1924 book about psychical research to Crookes, commenting, “The idolatry of current ideas was so dominant at that time that no pains were taken either to verify or to refute Crookes’s statements. Men were content to ridicule them, and I avow with shame that I was among the willfully blind. Instead of admiring the heroism of a recognized man of science who dare then in 1872 to say that there really are phantoms that can be photographed and whose heartbeats can be heard, I laughed. This courage had, however, no immediate or considerable effect; it is only today that Crookes’s work is really understood. It is still the foundation of objective metapsychics, a block of granite that no criticism has been able to touch.”

May 5th, 2017 by

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