Duncan Campbell (16801730)



  • Soothsayer

Biographical details

Note: the 19th-century biography below preserves a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

CAMPBELL, DUNCAN (1680?–1730), a professed soothsayer, was descended from a native of Argyllshire, who, having been shipwrecked in Lapland, married a ‘lady of consequence’ in that country, from whom the son professed to have inherited his gift of second sight. The father, after the death of his wife, returned to Scotland, bringing with him the boy, who was deaf and dumb. He received instruction in reading from a ‘learned divine of the university of Glasgow,’ and having already manifested the possession of remarkable gifts, went in 1694 to London, where his predictions soon attracted wide attention in fashionable society. So expensive, however, were his habits that, notwithstanding the large sums he obtained from those who consulted him, he became deeply involved in debt, and to escape his creditors went to Rotterdam, where he enlisted as a soldier. Returning in a few years to London, he read a wealthy young widow's fortune in his own favour, and having taken a house in Monmouth Street, he found himself a greater centre of attraction than ever. ‘All his visitants,’ says a writer in the ‘Tatler,’ No. 14, ‘come to him full of expectations, and pay his own rate for the interpretations they put upon his shrugs and nods;’ and he is thus referred to in the ‘Spectator,’ No. 560: ‘Every one has heard of the famous conjuror who, according to the opinion of the vulgar, has studied himself dumb. Be that as it will, the blind Tiresias was not more famous in Greece than this dumb artist has been for some years last past in the cities of London and Westminster.’ Among those whom Campbell seems to have specially impressed was Daniel Defoe, who in 1720 published ‘The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, a gentleman who, though deaf and dumb, writes down any strange name at first sight, with their future contingencies of fortune. Now living in Exeter Court over against the Savoy in the Strand.’ Like other persons of eminence, Campbell succeeded in obtaining the notice of royalty, as appears from the following in the ‘Daily Post’ of Wednesday, 4 May 1720: ‘Last Monday Mr. Campbell, the deaf and dumb gentleman—introduced by Colonel Carr—kissed the king's hand, and presented to his majesty “The History of his Life and Adventures,” which was by his majesty most graciously received.’ On 18 June of the same year there appeared a pamphlet entitled ‘Mr. Campbell's Pacquet for the Entertainment of Ladies and Gentlemen, containing: I. Verses to Mr. Campbell occasioned by the History of his Life and Adventures. II. The Parallel, a Poem comparing the Productions of Mr. Pope with the Prophetical Productions of Mr. Campbell, by Captain Stanhope. III. An Account of a most surprising Apparition, sent from Launceston in Cornwall. Attested by Rev. Mr. Ruddle, minister there.’ The third section of the pamphlet was written by Defoe. A second edition of the ‘Life of Campbell’ appeared on 10 Aug. 1720; it was reissued 14 March 1721; and in 1728 the same book appeared under the title ‘The Supernatural Philosopher; or the Mysteries of Magic in all its Branches clearly unfolded by Wm. Bond, Esquire.’ In 1724 there was published ‘A Spy upon the Conjuror; or a Collection of Surprising Stories with Names, Places, and particular Circumstances relating to Mr. Duncan Campbell, commonly known by the name of ‘the Deaf and Dumb Man; and the astonishing Penetration and Event of his Predictions. Written to my Lord—, by a Lady, who for more than twenty years past has made it her business to observe all Transactions in the Life and Conversation of Mr. Campbell. London, sold by Mr. Campbell.’ The pamphlet has been attributed to Eliza Hayward, but there is every reason to suppose that the real author was Defoe, Campbell supplying him with the necessary information. About a third of the pamphlet consists of letters— generally very amusing, sometimes of the most extraordinary character—written by Campbell's correspondents. Defoe also published in 1725 ‘The Dumb Projector; being a surprising account of a Trip to Holland made by Mr. Campbell, with the manner of his Reception and Behaviour there.’ In 1726 Campbell appeared in the additional character of a vendor of miraculous medicines. He published ‘The Friendly Demon; or the Generous Apparition. Being a True Narrative of a Miraculous Cure newly performed upon that famous Deaf and Dumb Gentleman, Mr. Duncan Campbell, by a familiar spirit that appeared to him in a white surplice like a Cathedral Singing Boy.’ It consists of two letters, the first by Duncan Campbell, giving an account of an illness which attacked him in 1717, and continued nearly eight years, until his good genius appeared and revealed that he could be cured by the use of the loadstone; the second on genii or familiar spirits, with an account of a marvellous sympathetic powder which had been brought from the East. A postscript informed the readers that at ‘Dr. Campbell's house, in Buckingham Court, over against Old Man's Coffee House, at Charing Cross, they may be readily furnished with his “Pulvis Miraculosus,” and finest sort of Egyptian loadstones.’ Campbell died after a severe illness in 1730. An account of his life appeared in 1732, under the title ‘Secret Memoirs of the late Mr. Duncan Campbell, the famous Deaf and Dumb Gentleman, written by himself, who ordered they should be published after his decease. To which is added an application by way of vindication of Mr. Duncan Campbell against the groundless aspersion cast upon him that he had pretended to be Deaf and Dumb.’ A striking proof of the superstitious character of the times is afforded by the fact that among the subscribers to the volume were the Duke of Argyll and other members of the nobility.

[The pamphlets mentioned in the text; the Lives of Defoe by Walter Wilson and William Lee.]

T. F. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p. 50
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
356 ii 15 f.e. Campbell, Duncan : for Hayward read Haywood