Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism

Spiritualism was a 19th century movement based on spirits communicating with the living through mediums. It drew on the work of 18th century Australian healer Franz Mesmer and Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. While Mesmer introduced hypnotism as a way to induce trances and contact supernatural beings, Swedenborg theorized a multidimensional afterlife in which spirits acted as mediums between humans and the divine. A 19th-century American seer named Andrew Jackson Davis eventually combined the two approaches and predicted a new spiritualist era on the horizon. Shortly thereafter, the Fox sisters began receiving messages from the beyond in Hydesville, New York. Their account of the spirit world was outrageous – and helped spawn a spiritual movement with millions of adherents.

The Fox family lived in the sleepy hamlet of Hydesville and inhabited a supposedly haunted house. In 1848, Cheerful Margaretta, who was 14 years old, and spirited Kate, who was 11, began telling of rapping on their bedroom walls at night. Later, Maggie and Kate would admit to dropping apples on strings to mimic footsteps and other sounds. They also learned to make popping and thumping noises with the knuckles of their toes. In the meantime, they told their superstitious mother stories of invisible hands and a mysterious presence in the walls.

Events came to a head on the night before April Fool’s Day, when Mrs. Fox searched out the sounds. Once in the girls’ room, she addressed the spirit as “Mr. Split-foot” and asked him to imitate her finger snapping and answer several questions. While Maggie insisted that it must be an April Fool’s Day joke, Mrs. Fox brought over 15 neighbors to witness the phenomena. Eventually, the spirit identified himself as Charles B. Rosna, a 31-year-old father of 5 and traveling salesman who had been killed in the bedroom 5 years earlier. However, according to Maggie’s adult confession, it was simply a joke that got out of hand – and one that they felt they could not take back.

Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
The Fox sisters’ home, Hydesville, New York.

A New Spiritualism

After reading local attorney E.E. Lewis’ account of the rapping, the eldest Fox sister, Leah Fox Fish came home to a community that blamed her family for trickery. As the family prepared to abandon their home, 33-year-old divorcee Leah suggested that the girls live with her family in Rochester. She made ends meet by giving music lessons to the wealthy, but, upon the arrival of her sisters, she moved them into a house beside a cemetery and began honing her rapping abilities. Publicly, Leah claimed that the ghost had followed them; privately, she threatened her younger siblings if they did not go along with her plan.

Meanwhile, Rochester had become the nation’s first inland boom town with the arrival of the Erie Canal in 1825. It was overcrowded with poor sanitation, high mortality rates, and regular epidemics. As part of the Second Great Awakening, the Finger Lakes region on the whole had given rise to world-denying religions like Mormonism – and the cynicism that soon followed. At the same time, factory-made products offered a new positivism that made traditional, punitive religions seem irrelevant. As a new humanitarianism arose in the 40s, so did the new spiritualism, each with progress at its core. In short, the area was primed for the Fox sisters to awaken belief in another world.

Rapping in Rochester

Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
[Image via wikipedia.org]

In Rochester, the Fox sisters were soon deluged with requests. Their arrival had coincided with the rise of the concept of a collective spirit that gave each person the ability to right the world’s wrongs. Leah followed this concept in theorizing that it was the foundation for a new universalism of the human spirit. Still, they needed popular support, so Leah turned to community leaders for help. In particular, social reformers Isaac and Amy Post likely saw the Fox sisters as the fulfillment of Davis’ prophecy of a spiritual awakening.

As former Quakers, they were skeptical but were persuaded by distinct thumping and communication with their late daughter during a séance. The sisters required a wooden table in a dark room, at which they would perform an opening prayer and song before joining hands in silence. The rapping would commence, first with yes/no questions and then using a number to alphabet code. Although some local clergymen and laypeople saw the girls as the embodiment of evil, their act was soon so popular that a much larger venue was required.

Related: A Victorian Ghost Story: The Haunting of 50 Berkeley Square

In the fall of 1849, the sisters rented the city’s largest auditorium, Corinthian Hall. from November 14th to 17th, the girls performed to a massive and unruly audience of four hundred people. They were introduced as the heirs to Galileo and Newton for their discovery of this spiritual telegraph. By the final night, tensions were high, with a barrel of warmed tar found in one of the venue’s stairwells. People wanted an official investigation, and a public committee intervened to test the girls and search their clothes for hidden devices.

In the end, the committee could find no evidence that it was fake. So, Leah expanded their reach. In June 1850, the three travelled to Albany, Tory, and New York City, booking a suite in Barnum’s Hotel on Broadway and Maiden Lane. Many celebrities visited their séances in the hotel parlor, at 10 AM, 5 PM, or 8 PM respectively. They made 90 dollars a day – or 1600 modern US dollars. Their popularity increased, with a Broadway song on the Rochester Rappers, new publications on spiritualism, and a new respect for this spiritual telegraph. Men still jeered at and groped the girls on the street, but change was in the air.

A Prophecy Fulfilled

Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
Wood engraving from a 19th century seance.

At this point, the seer Andrew Jackson Davis invited the girls into his New York City home to witness their abilities himself. He claimed that, on the day of the Fox sisters’ first haunting, he had felt a warm breath and heard a voice say “Brother, the good work has begun – behold a living demonstration is born.” Yet, aligning himself with the girls did more to elevate his own status. As the fulfillment of his prophecy, the Fox sisters made Davis relevant again.

At the same time, new spiritualist mediums appeared in cities all over the USA, from Boston to St. Louis and San Francisco. They brought new methods like table tipping, spirit music, and dancing lights. For the most part, they were young women that society viewed as pure and incorruptible. In mediating the supernatural, though, these subservient members of society shattered Victorian propriety. Indeed, they were able to speak out and earn a living independent of men – often working toward women’s rights, abolition, and temperance, too.

Related: The House the Devil Built: America’s Most Haunted House

For a time, Kate and Maggie took their show across the United States, while Leah remained in New York City to entertain callers. With the Civil War, the spiritualism business boomed. People not only found comfort in its promise of an afterlife but also took solace in speaking to their loved ones through the mediums. So it was that around 2 million new believers joined the movement, with around 8 million estimated members in the USA and Europe by the 1880s. Yet, with rising expectations, the Fox sisters’ rapping soon faded in popularity.

Kate married a devout spiritualist and began upping her game with new techniques. She practiced automatic writing, reverse transcription, and even materialization or creation of matter. Maggie, meanwhile, met and married an Arctic explorer and Navy surgeon named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane had originally attended one of the girls’ séances, but the aristocrat had fast started courting the young spiritualist. Although she was 13 years his junior, he regularly visited Maggie, bringing gifts, taking her on rides and walks, and even writing polite notes to her mother. With Kane’s support, she gave up ghosts and pursued an education, marrying the explorer just before his death in 1857.

Giving Up the Ghost

Despite Kate’s efforts, by 1888, the Fox sisters had very much fallen into obscurity. That was all about to change. In October of that year, ahead of an appearance at the New York Academy of Music, New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in which she denounced spiritualism. By the time of her talk, tensions were high. With her sister cheering her on from the audience, Maggie explained that the rapping had always been a fraud and demonstrated how she and her sister had made sounds with their knuckles and joints.

The mainstream press called the event spiritualism’s death blow, but advocates took different positions. While some called the Fox sisters alcoholics, others saw them as corrupted mediums or dissatisfied hacks who had been unable to succeed. Just one year later, Maggie recanted, which only increased frustration with the Foxes. Even then, the former medium also attended the Manhattan Liberal Club in disguise to reveal the tricks of the spiritualist trade. In the end, she never reconciled with Leah, who died in 1890. Kate passed away during a drinking spree two years later, and Maggie died of heart failure in 1893.

Both Kate and Maggie Fox died in poverty and were only buried together in Cypress Hills cemetery thanks to their friends. Even after their death, though, the controversy continued. In 1904, schoolchildren discovered a skeleton in the walls of the Fox family’s former home, then known as “the spook house.” Experts claimed that the bones were around 50 years old, but, upon further investigation 5 years later, the bones were bits of mostly chicken bones. Much like the Fox sisters themselves, the truth is far more complicated than the pleasing lies we humans prefer.

Speaking with Spirits: The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
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— Engraving on a stone Spiritualists erected in 1927 on the site of the Fox family home.

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