Brewster, Sir David (1781–1868)
Famous nineteenth-century scientist whose brief investigation
of Spiritualism in 1855 led to bitter public acrimony.
Brewster was born on December 11, 1781, in Jedburgh, Scotland.
His formal education was as a divinity student at the University
of Edinburgh, but while there, he maintained and interest
in physical science which he had become interested in as a
child. The controversy was sparked when Brewster attended a
séance with a Lord Brougham in Cox’s Hotel in Jermyn Street
in London’s West End. The medium was D. D. Home, to whom
Brewster was introduced by Lord Brougham. Reportedly both
were deeply impressed. Home subsequently wrote to a friend
in America, describing the visit and stating that they were unable
to account for the phenomena by natural means. The letter,
published and commented upon in America, found its way
into the London press. Sir David Brewster who, in the meantime,
had had another séance at Ealing in the house of Mr.
Rymer, a London solicitor, promptly wrote to the Morning Advertiser,
forcefully disclaiming all belief in Spiritualism and ascribing
all the phenomena to imposture. 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. Edward W. Cox,
sergeant-at-law, who was present at the séance, wrote to the
Morning Advertiser, to contradict Brewster, and citing Brewster’s
expression of astonishment ‘‘This upsets the philosophy of
fifty years.’’ When Brewster replied that he had not been allowed
to look under the table, both Cox and the well-known author
T. A. Trollope (brother of novelist Anthony Trollope) also
present at the Ealing séance, contradicted him. Yet another
statement, one by Benjamin Coleman, quoting Sir David Brewster’s
admission of the reality of the phenomena in private conversation,
was published.
Brewster replied in an angry tone, gave a description of the
sitting, and declared ‘‘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 neighborhood of Mr. Home’s feet came
across and placed itself into his and afterward into Lord
Brougham’s hands, he concluded ‘‘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. Brewster never appealed to
him. D. D. Home, on the other hand, challenged Lord
Brougham’s testimony. This was half promised but not given.
However, a conversation is recorded by Cox in his book The
Mechanism of Man (1876), in which he claimed that 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 did not have 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, expressed the belief that Brewster acted out of fear
of ridicule. He wrote ‘‘He was present at two séances 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 Home’s Incidents in My Life (1863), Home wrote that
Brewster treated certain of his scientific contemporaries even
worse than he treated Home, claiming the credit for other people’s
inventions. Brewster threatened a libel action but despite
Home enlarging the evidence in the second edition of his book,
Brewster never carried out his threat.
Brédif, C. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
The final word in this public debate was uttered in 1869
when The Home Life of Sir David Brewster was published, after his
death in February 1868, by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon. A note
is printed from the private diary of the scientist, which narrated
the phenomena he witnessed in company with Lord
‘‘Last of all I went with Lord Brougham to a séance 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 séance 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.’’
The version from Brewster’s posthumous book conflicts with
his letter to the Morning Advertiser, in which Sir David 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. The Spectator stated in its review of
Home’s book, ‘‘The hero of science does not acquit himself as
we could wish or expect.’’
There is no doubt that Brewster came out of the affair badly.
He was guilty of misrepresentation when he refused to stand by
his original puzzlement at the séance, and thereby was criticized
for later contradicting himself. What he actually exclaimed
at the time was typical of the last ditch materialist unable
to believe his own senses ‘‘Spirit is the last thing I will give
in to!’’