On a cold winter night in 1848 two young girls thought it would be amusing to invoke false spirits into their modest home in the small town of Hydesville located in upstate New York. A modest attempt to frighten their mother into thinking that ghosts inhabited their home turned in into a lifelong obsession and a childhood prank led into one of the largest spiritual movements in history. A superstitious mother along with a greedy older sister helped mold these two young girls into the country’s most recognized mediums of their time. The young and attractive sisters drew the attention of the rich and the famous in America and in England. Unfortunately, their addiction to fame came with its share of misfortune and heartbreak.
The product of a mischievous joke played on Margaret Fox, mother to Leah, Maggie (Margaretta) and Kate Fox, ballooned into a movement that was scientific, spiritual, and in many cases fraudulent. Maggie and Kate Fox, then 15 and 11 years old decided one night that it would be entertaining to play trick on their mother who was a believer in spirits and frequently shared ghost stories with her young daughters. Her husband John was a skeptic and he was disinterested in the subject of ghosts. One night a mysterious rapping noise was heard throughout the Fox household. Mrs. Fox was certain that the house was haunted. After a brief search of the house, John attributed the incident to loose floor boards. The rapping continued and Kate decided that it was time to communicate with the apparent ghost. She was the first to try can call out the spirit that she referred to as Mr. Splitfoot (also a reference to the Devil).
Margaret Fox recalls that evening in a letter dated April 8th 1848,
“My youngest child Cathie, said: “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do, : clapping her hands. The sounds instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped, the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, “Now, do just as I do. Count one, two, three, four: striking one hand against the other at the same time; and the raps came as before.. She was afraid to repeat them.”(Doyle, 1926, p. 66).
To put her mother at ease, Kate joked and said that someone must be playing an April Fool’s joke on them. Margaret continued to question the spirit with yes or no questions in an effort to discover the identity of this restless soul. From this line of questioning, it was determined that a peddler by the name of Charles Rosna was murdered in the house and his remains lie in the basement. Neighbors volunteered to dig in the basement finding a few bones, but many years later a human skeleton would be found. It could not be identified as a Charles Rosna.
Word spread quickly that Kate could commune with the dead. Imagine that? There was now proof that there is an afterlife! What you have to understand is that this was a time when mortality rates were very high and, just like today, the undying need to know what happens to us when we depart this life was very apparent. Neighbors began to arrive to be entertained by the two young girls and the spirit of the Fox household. This was the beginning of the Fox sisters becoming instant paranormal celebrities thanks to the controlling personality of their older sister Leah.
Leah was the brains behind the movement as she saw a means improve her quality of life and she took advantage of every luxury afforded to her. Coincidentally— do you believe in coincidences?— Leah had read The Devine Revelations by Andrew Jackson Davis, also known as the Poughkeepsie Seer. He spoke of such a revelation in which the spirits would show themselves as a “living demonstration”. Leah found herself pondering these events. Were the ongoing occurrences in the Fox household the event that Davis had foreseen? Under Leah’s guidance the two young girls developed their spirit communication skills as Leah became the self-proclaimed interpreter of the messages from beyond. Maggie was not as confident or willing as a performer as Kate and did not always agree with Leah. She was forced to succumb under pressure.
The girls’ first séance was held at the home of Leah’s old family friends Amy and Issac Post who had lost a number of children to illness. This was commonplace during this period when childhood disease was widespread.. Kate and Maggie contacted the spirits and produced rappings while Leah translated. The Post’s were immediately taken with the sisters. They felt that the messages sent to them from beyond were so personal that the contact had to be genuine and they became loyal supporters of the spiritually gifted sisters and the spiritualist movement.
Leah decided to bring the sisters’ talent to the world and go on tour. The first exhibition was held in Rochester, NY at Corinthian Hall. The hall was crowded and the people demanded that a committee be formed to determine the source of this mysterious rappings. The committee included the most renowned citizens of Rochester and a special group of women to examine the girls clothing to be certain that there was no sign of trickery involved. There was no explanation for the strange noises that emanated though the hall. The Fox sisters were allowed to continue their demonstrations. Now known as the Rochester Rappers, the sisters traveled to Albany, Troy and then headed south down the Hudson River to NYC.
The Fox sisters became all the rage in New York City as they gave public séances. They caught the attention of wealthy, prominent citizens such as P.T. Barnum, James Fenmore Cooper, and more importantly Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribute who acted as a guardian of the sisters. Mr. Greeley, grieving over the loss of his son, became very interested in Spiritualism. He was convinced the mediums authenticity and took the Fox sisters into his home. Greeley publicly endorsed the sisters in his newspaper. This kind of attention launched them even further into the limelight. People were so taken with the sisters that they were willing to pay for their services. They were showered with gifts and gratitude. Over time their appearance became more elaborate. The spirits were able to communicate in various ways from spirit writing to table tipping and even the more impressive appearance of ghostly apparitions. The sisters endured more rigorous testing. So, much so that is was almost a violation. They were bound by the ankles, made to stand on glass and their undergarments were frequently checked for apparatuses that could render the noise of rappings.
As head of the “family business”, Leah was delighted at their new found fame and fortune. The sisters continued acting as a doorway to communicate with the spirits of lost loved ones beyond the veil. However, this opened the door to a rise in Spiritualist beliefs with the introduction of new and more skilled mediums entering the profession. What you have to understand about this period in time is that it was a time of significant change in science and in religion and Spiritualism offered a recipe for the undecided. It was easy to be taken by the promises of false mediums. Mediumship and Spiritualism gradually spread to England through visiting mediums coming from America.
In England mediums were viewed more as a source of entertainment than communicators with the dead. Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He was so dedicated that he felt that it was important to document the events of the period without turning every event into a fraud. The History of Spiritualism is a history of that time period written by Doyle and has become one of the best historical accounts of Spiritualism available. Not everyone embraced the idea that there is an afterlife. The great Houdini was a master of illusion and set out to expose fraudulent mediums. Houdini was frustrated by these frauds while trying to communicate with the spirit of his deceased mother. Houdini considered himself to be a psychic investigator and while he did not commit the fact that Spiritualism was a fraud, he did state in an June 1922 publication to the New York Times, “I want to be put on record that I do not say that there is no such thing as Spiritualism, but state that in thirty years of my investigation nothing has caused me to change my mind.”
Spiritualist mediums were constantly being put under the microscope and Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox each had very different experiences during that period.
Death takes its toll
As Maggie and Kate Fox were being overshadowed by other more creative mediums, Leah seemed to distance herself somewhat in order to become a medium in her own right. Leah married a wealthy businessman and was well established socially. Maggie was always indifferent to her obligatory lifestyle and when she met a man fell in love she was forced to shun Spiritualism. It was difficult for her to turn her back on her sisters and quite possible that she carried a tremendous amount of guilt about the life she was leading. Maggie’s love interest, Artic explorer Dr. Elisha Kane, held a deep disdain for the movement and forbid Maggie to partake. Maggie sought comfort in Catholicism. She lost Dr. Kane while he was on expedition, which left Maggie devastated. She was so committed to Elisa that she took his name.
Kate traveled to England and continued to give séances for prominent citizens, but did not accept payment. She met and married a London barrister and Spiritualist who also passed away and leaving her with two young sons. Suffering from this downturn in their lives, Maggie and Kate turned to the bottle and were often seen drunk in public. Leah, embarrassed by her sisters, and decided to write a memoir of her experiences as a medium. Leah was clearly living the good life as it was apparent by her expansive girth. During tough times, the younger sisters turned to séances to support themselves. Leah continued to cause problems with Kate; reporting her to child welfare. Leah was incensed and was ready to send the death-blow to Spiritualism; with the desire to take Leah out with it.
The Death-Blow to Spiritualism
In October 1888, Maggie Fox dealt a blow to Spiritualism that would rock the spiritual plane. A confession along with the offer to replicate the rappings was about to cause what is widely known as the “death-blow to Spiritualism. In Maggie’s effort to have the upper hand in the Fox family feud, she went public and recreated the rappings by cracking her large toe. As reported in an article in the New York Times on October 22, 1888,
“Mrs. Kane seated herself and a committee of physicians called by Dr. Richmond from the audience examined her to see that no deception was practiced. She slipped off one of the low shoes and place the foot covered by only a black stocking on the sounding board. There became a succession of raps loud enough to be heard by everyone.”
While Kate also denounced Spiritualism, she did not completely agree with Maggie’s method of exposing its evils. While the guilt of deceiving the public may have been lifted, being so forthcoming did not improve the sisters’ position in the community. Maggie and Kate suffered from alcoholism and had little means to support themselves. The ability to depend on séances for income was gone. Maggie tried to recant her statement, but it was too late to recover. Both women died penniless paupers.
Maggie may have created an awareness that would expose fraudulent mediums, but Spiritualism did not die. It evolved into an organized religion in which there is a strong believes that the soul continues to exist after the body has died. Spiritualists believe that spiritual mediums are gifted and often used to communicate with these souls through séance.
Communicating with the Dead
Whether the Fox sisters were frauds or not, the fact of the matter is that the idea of communicating with the dead has been around for centuries. Not much has changed since the 19th century. We are still looking for answers as to what happens when we die. We still mourn and many families suffer loss from illness or by accident. We can still be taking advantage of by people who claim to communicate with loved ones on the other side. The tools and methods may differ, but the concept is still the same. Did the Fox sisters send the grief-stricken family members on a wild ghost chase? Maybe so, but they suffered for it in the end.
This is an extraordinary piece of New York history that opened the doors to a movement that believes in that there is more to come after death is still alive today. The Fox sisters are often acknowledged as the founders of Spiritualism, which is still alive and well. Unfortunately, the original Fox family home in Hydesville is not. The home was lost by fire in 1955 after its relocation to the famed Spiritualist community in Lilydale, NY.