The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders

6/12/2006 • American History, Andrew Jackson, Underground Railroad, Womens Rights

Whether skeptic or believer, few Americans have been able to ignore the phenomenon known as spiritualism — the belief that spirits can communicate with the living, usually with the help of certain sensitive individuals called mediums. During the last half of the 19th century, some Americans believed that the strange rappings heard in early séances were a spiritual telegraph, the otherworldly equivalent of Samuel F.B. Morse’s new invention. Others insisted that the noises were a sleight-of-hand trick used to prey upon vulnerable mourners. Even so, the religious and social movement inspired child mediums, outraged American clergymen, infuriated scientists and, at its peak, attracted more than 1 million American adherents.

The origins of America’s first spiritualist movement began humbly, in the hamlet of Hydesville, N.Y., just a few miles outside the Erie Canal town of Newark, about 20 miles west of Rochester. There, during the winter of 1847-48, 15-year-old Maggie Fox and her little sister, Katy, 11 1/2, schemed to frighten their mother, Margaret Fox, by creating sounds that echoed through their farmhouse at night.

At first, the girls tied strings to apples, then repeatedly and rhythmically dropped them on the stairs to mimic ghostly footsteps. According to an interview Maggie gave the New York World 40 years later, she and Katy soon learned to make popping, cracking and thumping sounds on their own. While the exact method they used has never been fully explained, Maggie claimed that they did so by popping or cracking the knuckles of their toes or by snapping their big and second toes much as one snaps one’s fingers. Eventually the girls became so adept that they performed the trick in their stocking feet and even while standing in shoes. These rapidly repeated sounds were allegedly so loud that the elder Foxes had been awakened from their sleep.

The superstitious Mrs. Fox soon became convinced that their farmhouse was haunted. In contrast, her blacksmith husband, John, scoffed, insisting that the sounds came from a loose board or shutter that rattled in the night winds.

Maggie later claimed that she and Katy planned a final performance for their mother in which they would talk to the ghost. After the rapping sounds had begun in the evening of March 31, 1848, Mrs. Fox rose, lit a candle and began searching the house. When she reached her daughters’ bed, Katy peered into the darkness and boldly addressed the ghost. ‘Mr. Split-foot, do as I do, she said, snapping her fingers in the cadence of the earlier noises. The appropriate raps followed. Maggie then clapped her hands four times and commanded the ghost to rap back. Four knocks followed. As if on cue, Katy responded by making soundless finger-snapping gestures that, in turn, were answered with raps.

Taking pity upon her terrified mother, Katy then offered a hint of explanation for the sounds. O, mother, I know what it is. Tomorrow is April-fool day and it’s somebody trying to fool us, she began.

But Mrs. Fox apparently refused to consider the suggestion of a prank. The ghost, she believed, was real and, terrified though she was, she decided to test it herself. Initially, she asked the ghost to count to 10. After it responded appropriately, she asked other questions, among them, the number of children she had borne. Seven raps came back. How many were still living? Six raps. Their ages? Each was rapped out correctly. As Mrs. Fox later related, she then demanded, If it was an injured spirit, make two raps. Promptly two knocks were returned. Mrs. Fox then wanted to know who the ghost was in life. Maggie and Katy quickly concocted an answer. The spirit, they claimed, was a 31-year-old married man, dead for two years, and the father of five. Will you continue to rap if I call in the neighbors, their mother asked, that they may hear it too?

This domestic drama might have ended there had Maggie and Katy failed to respond. But Mrs. Fox’s reaction took them aback. To confess that what they had begun as a prank had evolved into a cruel joke was unthinkable. To do so would surely incite their parents’ wrath. After an awkward pause, the spirit rapped out its agreement to talk to the neighbors.

The first to arrive was Mary Redfield. Initially skeptical, the matron nevertheless asked the spirit questions about her own life and received such accurate answers that she scurried across the road to tell others.

Maggie and Katy were now in even more trouble. If they admitted their trickery, their mother, indeed the entire Fox family, would have been widely ridiculed. We could not confess the wrong without exciting very great anger on the part of those who we had deceived. So we went right on, Maggie explained in her 1888 memoir, The Death Blow to Spiritualism.

The next night, before a curious crowd of neighbors, a spirit began its rappings. Frustrated by the clumsiness of the communication, one of the visitors proposed a code. He assigned numbers to letters of the alphabet so that the ghost could not only spell out words but whole sentences. (The girls would use some version of this system, often adapted and simplified, from then on.) While frightened, the girls then knocked out messages that they claimed came from a murdered peddler who was buried in the farmhouse basement. In reaction, the neighbors decided to excavate the cellar to see if there was any truth to the tale. But fate intervened. Heavy spring rains and the farmhouse’s location near a creek filled the excavation pit with groundwater, making further investigation impossible for weeks.

Rumors about the alleged haunting at Hydesville nevertheless continued to spread throughout the countryside, and before long the Fox farmhouse was overrun with visitors who lingered until nightfall when Maggie and Katy again felt compelled to serve as mediums for the spirits. Inevitably, the tales of their séances elevated the girls to a new status. Some of their neighbors now regarded them with awe, as divinely inspired individuals chosen to interpret messages from the dead — an attitude that may have contributed to Maggie and Katy’s continued reluctance to confess to the prank.

In contrast, a restive group of locals treated the girls with contempt, convinced that they were either tricksters or witches. Emotions ran so high in their nearby Methodist Episcopal church that ultimately the minister asked the Fox family to leave the congregation. In his view the girls had engaged in unholy practices and their parents must be held accountable.

Rumors of the events in the Fox house continued to spread far and wide, inspiring attorney E.E. Lewis of nearby Canandaigua to visit Hydesville to investigate. Losing no time, he questioned the neighbors, interviewed former tenants of the farmhouse and asked the elder Foxes to describe the events in their own words. By late May 1848, Lewis published a pamphlet titled A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County.

Once again, the story might have ended there except that Maggie and Katy’s eldest sister, Leah Fox Fish, a divorced 33-year-old mother living in Rochester, happened to read the report. Stunned to learn that the hauntings involved her family, Leah promptly booked passage on an Erie Canal packet boat to Newark and continued on by carriage to Hydesville. Beyond Leah’s immediate concern for her family’s welfare was an even more provocative thought: Might these strange events be fulfillment of a prophecy about the imminent approach of the spirits that had appeared in a recent best-selling book?

That work, The Divine Principles of Nature, written by seer Andrew Jackson Davis, was based on the writings of the 18th-century European mystic, theologian and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. All human experience, Swedenborg had written, was only a reflection of a larger spiritual universe. By 1847 Davis had popularized Swedenborg’s theories by suggesting that the material world was only the shadow of a spiritual universe. The dead, Davis claimed, were in daily contact with the living, even if the latter did not realize it. This truth will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration, he predicted. And the world will hail with delight…that era when the interiors of men will be opened and the spiritual communion will be established.

Leah wondered, was it possible that Davis’ predictions were coming true in her parents’ home in Hydesville?

By the 1840s, American preoccupation with death was widespread. The nation’s new cities were expanding, its immigration was at an all-time high and its factories and ports booming, all of which contributed to urban overcrowding and poor sanitation, which spawned epidemics of cholera, whooping cough, influenza and diphtheria. The mortality rate was on the rise. Nearly one-third of all city-born infants died before reaching their first birthday, and young mothers — bearing an average of five children each — were often fatally struck with puerperal fever. Death thus touched all families, leaving behind millions of relatives with memories of those who had passed to the other side.

Simultaneously, prosperity born of America’s urbanization and expanding economy flooded the marketplace with factory-spun textiles, dishes and furniture, prompting a new hope and materialism. In such an atmosphere, traditional religions like Calvinism, with its punitive doctrine of original sin, no longer seemed relevant.

A more significant approach to true worship of the divine, according to some, was brotherly concern for others expressed through meaningful social action. By the 1830s and ’40s, America’s new breed of humanitarians had founded dozens of charities and embraced social causes such as abolition, coeducation, temperance and prison reform. Still another symbol of that mood was the establishment of 40 utopian communities in America.

Contributing to that positive mood was America’s westward expansion. Frontier towns appeared seemingly overnight — so too did the nation’s expanding railroads, interlocking systems of canals and fleets of steam-powered boats. New inventions such as Morse’s telegraph suddenly linked once-remote cities and towns. By the late 1840s anticipation of a better life and the concept of progress had become a national expectation. It is an extraordinary era in which we live….The progress of the age has almost outstripped human belief, proclaimed orator-statesman Daniel Webster in 1847.

While perhaps neither young Maggie Fox nor her sister Katy grasped the implications of their era’s zeitgeist, their eldest sister, Leah, had long hoped to embrace that promise. For years, the single mother had struggled to support herself and her daughter by giving music lessons to the offspring of Rochester’s wealthiest citizens.

Rochester had been prosperous even before its connection to the Erie Canal. Opened in 1825, the waterway linked the city to Buffalo to the west and Syracuse, Albany, the Hudson River and New York City to the east, and turned Rochester into America’s first inland boom town, as one historian dubbed it. Its wealth inevitably attracted swindlers, wastrels and atheists who, according to the local population, brought godlessness, poverty and the abuse of alcohol.

During the period of religious revivalism known as America’s Second Great Awakening, scores of charismatic preachers consequently appeared in Rochester and other Erie Canal communities to offer salvation through a variety of evangelical and innovative sects. Among them were the Shakers, Mormons and the Millerites, whose followers abandoned their worldly goods in preparation for a Second Coming, predicted for 1843 and ’44. In the wake of the failed coming of the Day of Judgment and other religious exuberances, a spiritual cynicism settled over the area. To Leah Fox Fish, who had personally witnessed that evolution, the community seemed ripe for a new religious expression. A practical woman with an opportunistic bent, she had hastened to investigate the rappings associated with Maggie and Katy.

Determined to plumb the mystery, Leah drew her sisters aside and, promising to keep their confidence, wrested the secret of the raps from them. Repeatedly, Leah tried to reproduce the noises under Maggie and Katy’s tutelage, but could make only the faintest of sounds. Later, after inviting Katy to Rochester, perhaps to practice the rapping skills herself, Leah shrewdly claimed in her memoir that the ghost had followed her to Rochester and so disturbed her household that she was forced to move. Yet, Leah’s next residence, half of a two-family house, was adjacent to a cemetery — an odd choice for someone eager to escape hauntings.

Mrs. Fox soon joined Leah and Katy, with Maggie in tow. No sooner were the younger sisters united than they grew bolder, filling the house with even more raucous ghost disturbances. Leah eventually decided that it was time to share the spirits with others. Appointing herself as official interpreter of the raps, she demanded that Maggie and Katy conduct séances in Rochester under her tutelage. To bolt was impossible, Maggie later explained, for Leah threatened to accuse her and Katy of deceiving her with raps — just as they had their parents and the Hydesville community. Thus intimidated, an embittered Maggie later told the New York World, Katie and I were led around like lambs.

The very first to be invited were Leah’s closest friends, Amy and Isaac Post, a Quaker couple who were abolitionists, members of Rochester’s underground railroad and leading social reformers. Earlier, the middle-aged couple had rejected their Hicksite Quaker sect because of its intolerances and thus seemed well suited to receiving Leah’s new idea of spirit communication as a faith. When Leah described the hauntings in June 1948, the Posts initially laughed and then asked if the family were suffering under some psychological delusion.

The couple, however, like others of that era, had lost several youngsters to illnesses, and ultimately they agreed to participate in a séance. To their surprise the messages Maggie and Katy rapped out and which Leah translated were so personal as to be convincing. The Posts immediately became believers and were soon enthusiastically promoting their belief in the Fox sisters’ spiritual manifestations to others.

Leah’s timing had been ideal. The notion of a collective spirit — a benevolent force that endowed each human being with the capacity to right the world’s wrongs — was flowing through American thought. Spiritualism, as Leah would casually explain then and later in her memoir, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, encompassed all souls regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or other religious affiliations. Intrigued with Leah’s concept, the Posts and their circle soon accepted spiritualism as the first stirrings of a universalism or communalism — a brotherhood of the human spirit that mirrored their own resolve to find an alternative faith devoid of intolerance.

Before long the Fox sisters were besieged with requests for séances. Sometimes with only Maggie, sometimes with only Katy and sometimes with both, Leah presided over the meetings. Once guests arrived, they sat around a table, recited an opening prayer and sang. After joining hands and sitting in silence, Maggie or Katy fell into a trance. Then the audience heard the faint sound of ghostly raps.

Not everyone, of course, believed them. Members of Rochester’s clergy railed against them as witches and heretics. Some citizens considered the séances evil and unnatural. Still others thought the sisterly trio was mad. Privately, Maggie continued to wrestle with her own concept of reality. Complicating that was Leah’s sudden insistence that the spirits were real — a concept that her youngest sister, Katy, by then 12 years old, had readily accepted. Confused by her sisters’ reaction, Maggie became increasingly introverted and moody.

Only once did Maggie decide to revolt, and she did so by refusing to rap for 12 days. Abruptly the séances stopped, Leah grew tense and the household funds dwindled. The resultant upheaval was too much for Maggie to bear and finally she relented. Once heard again, the raps, Leah later recounted, [were] like the return of long absent friends.

In the fall of 1849, Leah announced that the spirits had demanded that she and Maggie publicize spiritualism to the larger Rochester community. Hire Corinthian Hall, Rochester’s largest auditorium, they had proclaimed. The designated night was Wednesday, November 14, the time 7 p.m., the price of a ticket 25 cents. The audience, reported the Rochester Daily Democrat, was in the best possible humor, ready to be entertained by what they anticipated as an exposé of the sisters who they thought were perpetrating a fraud.

That night Maggie sat timorously on a platform at Corinthian Hall next to Leah and Mr. and Mrs. Post as a jeering audience hissed. Grudgingly, the Rochester Daily Democrat later admitted that THE GHOST was there…[but] the more the ghost rapped with that muffled tone, the higher rose the spirit of mirth.

Afterward, an outraged group of citizens demanded that a committee of Rochester’s most prominent citizens examine Maggie and Leah to discover the source of the sounds. The following morning the sisters complied, but following the committee’s investigation, its members remained perplexed. That Thursday night a committee representative confessed to the restive audience their inability to explain the phenomenon. Desperately, still other committees attempted to test Maggie and Leah — placing them on glass, on pillows and even by appointing a subcommittee of ladies to discover if they had concealed any machinery in their underclothes.

With each unsuccessful committee report, the crowds at Corinthian Hall grew increasingly raucous. On the final night, Saturday, November 17, tensions in the auditorium were palpable: Already a barrel of warmed tar had been detected in a stairway and removed. Finally, as a committee representative began to admit that the sounds defied explanation, Stamping, shrieking and all kinds of hideous noises…obliged him to desist, Isaac Post later wrote. Blinding cascades of light from firecrackers lit by raucous nonbelievers exploded in the back of the auditorium. In the resultant smoke and din, men howled that the females must have concealed lead balls in their dresses to make sounds and attempted to storm the stage. Thanks to police intervention, Maggie, Leah, the Posts and other terrified spiritualists were whisked out of the building.

Implying that the committee’s studies had been at worst rigged, or at best incomplete, the Rochester Daily Advertiser complained that the wary and eagle-eyed are kept out and excluded from [an] opportunity of investigation. A reporter at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune observed, It is difficult to understand why spirits, who act with as little reason as children or idiots, would spend time thumping the wall. The attendant publicity nevertheless transformed Maggie and her sisters into celebrities, and they were now recognized, for good or ill, as leaders of a new social and religious movement. They began to carry their message further afield.

In early June 1850, after touring Albany and Troy, the Fox sisters sailed down the Hudson River and arrived in New York City, where they soon began receiving guests and giving séances. Within two days of their arrival, they were invited to appear before some of Manhattan’s most illustrious literati — among them, historian George Bancroft; William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the progressive Evening Post; poet and essayist Henry Tuckerman; Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the society-minded Home Journal; and author James Fenimore Cooper.

That evening Maggie and her sisters raised the spirit of Cooper’s sister and so precisely described her fatal horseback riding accident of 50 years earlier that the famous author instantly became a believer. The New York Tribune‘s George Ripley, who also had been present, wrote: We are in the dark as any of our readers. The manners and bearing of the ladies are such as to create a prepossession in their favor. They have no theories to offer in explanation of the acts…and apparently have no control of their incomings and outgoings. Some newspapers that formerly had accused the Fox sisters of devil baiting and fraud now retracted their comments. Even the openly scornful New York Herald admitted that its reporter believed the ladies were in every sense incapable of any intentional deception.

Predictably, the Fox sisters — or Rochester Rappers as they were dubbed — were besieged with requests for séances. By summer’s end actress Mary Taylor crooned a new song on Broadway, The Rochester Rappers at Barnum’s Hotel. Inexpensive souvenirs were sold emblazoned with the Rochester Rappers. Ladies, you are the lions of New York! Tribune reporter Ripley finally told the sisters.

After that New York reception, spiritualism was hailed as one of the wonders of the age. Periodicals with titles such as Spirit World, Spiritual Philosopher, New Era and The Spiritualist Messenger appeared. To the nation’s new believers, mediumship, with its odd knocking sounds and eerie messages, was a spiritual telegraph — a name subsequently appearing on the masthead of the faith’s leading periodical.

Mediums appeared from Vermont to California claiming that they, too, had spiritualist powers. Much like Maggie and Katy, many were pubescent girls and young women who were thought to have souls so pure that they were perfect intermediaries between the two worlds. In Boston, Mrs. Sisson, a so-called clairvoyant physician, and Lucinda Tuttle, among others, attracted large followings; so too in Buffalo, N.Y., did a pretty blonde teenager, Cora Scott. In Providence, R.I., Edgar Allen Poe’s former fiancée, Sarah Helen Whitman, wrote trance-inspired spiritualist poetry. In Hartford, Conn., crowds of ailing individuals waited to see Semantha Mettler, whose trances were said to effect miraculous cures.

Spiritualism, with its guiding principle of the equality of all souls regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religious affiliation, was inspired by, and inspired the growth of, other reformist movements of the time. Like the women behind those causes, female mediums broke the rules of Victorian propriety and spoke out, albeit in a trance voice, and many became financially independent, encouraging others to follow suit. It is no wonder that there soon came to be a close link between spiritualism, temperance, abolition and women’s rights.

But the spiritualist movement was not exclusively female. Among its most prominent spokespersons were former Universalist ministers Reverend Charles Hammond, author of the 1852 Light from the Spirit World, and Reverend Samuel Byron Brittan, co-publisher of The Spiritual Telegraph. In Athens, Ohio, musical spirits directed Jonathan Koons, an uneducated farmer, to build a spirit room. In nearby Columbus George Walcutt and George Rogers painted portraits of people they never knew — which, eerily, relatives later identified as deceased members of their families. In Connecticut a young Scottish orphan, Daniel Douglas Home, was already becoming famous for his levitations during séances.

Some of America’s most distinguished men also counted themselves as believers, and several, such as General Waddy Thompson, former U.S. representative from South Carolina, General Edward Bullard of New York and former Wisconsin Territory Governor Nathaniel Tallmadge, were the Fox sisters’ personal friends. To the astonishment of the scientific community, their renowned colleague, Professor Emeritus Robert Hare, the University of Pennsylvania chemist who invented the oxyhydrogen blowpipe, enthusiastically endorsed spiritualism.

By 1852 spirit circles had been formed in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and even across the Atlantic in England and Europe. Paralleling spiritualism’s spread was an array of new spiritual manifestations including table tipping, spirit music and dancing lights. There were, as well, growing demands for serious scientific investigations.

Between 1853 and 1855, spiritualism’s popularity soared so dramatically that many of America’s most prominent writers, thinkers and scientists became alarmed. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was so disgusted with the movement’s rapid spread that he denounced it as a rat revelation, the gospel that comes by taps in the wall and humps in the table drawer. Poet James Russell ridiculed the idea that spirits had the ability to raise tables and move chairs. Respect should be paid to all spiritualists, he sardonically remarked, including a certain Judge Wells, a man who was such a powerful medium that he was forced to drive back the furniture from following him when he goes out, as one might a pack of too affectionate dogs.

By 1854, followers, according to the spiritualists’ own estimates, numbered from 1 to 2 million Americans. In the spring of that year, the prevalence of reports about uncanny spiritualist phenomena appearing in America’s cities attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. On April 17, General James Shields, a senator from Illinois, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts presented a petition signed by 15,000 Americans requesting the appointment of a scientific commission to study spiritualist phenomena. Ultimately, in an executive session, there was a pleasant debate during which senators suggested that the petition be referred to one of several possible groups — including the committees on foreign relations, on military affairs or on post offices and post roads — the last because of the possibility of establishing spiritual telegraph between the material and spiritual worlds. In the end the petition was tabled.

The debate continued. Spiritualism, founding editor of The New York Times Henry Raymond lamented in September 1855, had an appeal that is wider, stronger and deeper than that of any philosophical or socialistic theory, since it appeals to the marvelous in man. He continued: In five years it has spread like wildfire over this continent so that there is scarcely a village without its mediums and its miracles….If it be a delusion, it has misled very many of the intelligent as well as the ignorant….

A month later, an increasingly alarmed Raymond added: Clergymen, formerly preachers of evangelical denominations, are now lecturing on Spiritualism and its wildest heresies to large congregations. The whole West, and to a greater extent the whole country, has been deeply infiltrated. Yet, despite the ongoing protests, by 1856 several influential religious leaders embraced spiritualism — among them prominent Unitarian ministers Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker.Ironically, spiritualism, with its promise of a joyous afterlife, the comfort it gave mourners and the confidence it imparted to America’s early suffragists and social reformers would ultimately betray Maggie and Katy. As new mediums appeared and produced increasingly spectacular effects — table tippings and levitations, for example — and subsequent investigations exposed many as frauds, the Fox sisters were often pushed from center stage. At times believing the rappings were the manifestations of spirits and at times wracked by guilt induced by their deceptions, the two quarreled with each other and their supporters.

In the fall of 1888 when Maggie publicly admitted that spiritualism was a fraud, nonbelievers rejoiced. Advocates blamed it on the fact that for some time Maggie — as well as her sister Katy — had been slipping into severe alcoholism. A year later when Maggie recanted her confession, the credibility of the Fox sisters shriveled, and they slipped into obscurity. Katy died of end-stage alcoholism on July 1, 1892, and Maggie on March 8 the following year.

Yet the mysterious raps heard in Hydesville in 1848 sowed the seeds of spiritualism that have continued to sprout, evolve and flourish to the present day. Even today, spiritualism, represented by celebrity mediums, the practice of channeling, descriptions of near-death experiences, New Age philosophies, hundreds of books and a spate of new television shows and movies featuring conversations with the dead, continues to fascinate.

This article was written by Nancy Rubin Stuart and originally published in the August 2005 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

Tags: , , ,