Spiritualism was sweeping the United States in the late 1840’s. As discussed in the book Occult America, this was the first chance for women to exercise any type of religious or political leadership. There were many women who were involved with the Spiritualist practices of seances and spirit channeling. The first American-born woman to become a recognized public preacher was Jemima Wilkinson or the Publick Universal Friend as she preferred to be called (For more on her, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/publick-universal-friend/ ) The Fox Sisters were American women that took up the mantle o
f Spiritualism and their legacy is shrouded in accusations of fraud.
In March 1848, strange things started happening in the Fox home in Hydesville, New York. Strange noises were heard around bed time in the dark rooms of their home that had no explanation. Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate Fox, 11, told the tale to their neighbor, who then came over to hear for herself. Maggie ordered the room to count to five, and five loud thuds were heard as the girls were huddled on the bed. The girls soon declared the thuds were the work of spirits, who were trying to communicate with the living through the use of “spirit raps”. A system was worked out where series of knocks corresponded to letters of the alphabet, and messages began to come forth.
The girls’ parents were good Methodists and had concerns about this, and vacated the house forthwith. They sent the girls to live with their older sister Leah Fox Fish in nearby Rochester. This area of New York was known as the “burned over” region, and was a hotbed of religious reform and activity. Rumors of the girls’ experiences reached community leaders, Isaac and Amy Post. They were intrigued as rumors indicated a peddler was murdered in the Fox home prior to their residence and they believed the girls were communicating with his spirit. A group of investigators took it upon themselves to investigate the Fox home and found what they believed were fragments of bone and strands of hair. They were convinced these were the remains of the spirit the Fox girls called “Mr. Splitfoot.”
At this point, Leah Fox also got into the act saying she was a medium who could communicate with the Post’s deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and the girls put on a demonstration of the Spiritualist ability. Four hundred people came to hear the spirits rap and answer questions. Afterwards, the girls were taken into a private chamber and examined by a panel of “skeptics”. Female examiners had the girls disrobe and checked their undergarments for anything that could have produced the sounds. That had to have been embarrassing for two young girls.
Their exploits caught the attention of Andrew Jackson Davis, who was known as the Poughkeepsie Seer. He had written a book a year prior predicting the rise of Spiritualism, and he took the appearance of the Fox Sisters as the manifestation of that prophecy. With his blessing, the girls went on the road with Leah as their manager and began a professional tour to spread the word of the spirits. They played first played New York City and charged a dollar admission and offered private meetings for the more wealthy bereaved. They entertained the notables of the day including P.T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant and William Lloyd Garrison.
Leah stayed behind in New York, while Kate and Maggie continued their tour in cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Even though famous publications like the Scientific American scoffed at their sessions, people flocked to get a seat at the table to hear the messages of the spirits. Committees and forums were formed to expose the sisters as frauds, but they could not prove anything. However, there were clues there were shenanigans going on. Leah would often go into the audience and gather information, which was magically repeated back by the spirits. Also, notably the ghost of Benjamin Franklin appeared and had noticeably bad grammar. When someone mentioned this fact, Maggie is reported as stomping her foot and exclaiming angrily, “You know I never understood grammar.” Despite all this, the sisters’ fame grew and their seances were hugely popular and their services widely sought after.
At a performance in Philadelphia, Maggie met her future husband, Arctic explorer, Elisha Kent Kane. He was charmed by her even though he was convinced she was a complete fraud. He convinced her to quit the tour and go back to school, which she did exchanging a ring and vows with him in 1857. Sadly, they were not together very long before his sudden death that same year. Maggie fell into alcoholism in her grief. With nothing else, Maggie went back to being a medium although she had promised Kane she would not. At one point, she is supposed to have been called by former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, to attempt to contact the spirit of her deceased husband. The account appeared in The New York Times in February 1872, and was used in 1875 by her son Robert Todd Lincoln as evidence of her squandering the family fortune on Spiritualist foolishness. Mary was briefly committed to a sanitarium by her son.
Kate did not fair much better. She went to school paid for by Horace Greeley. He had offered to educate both young Fox sisters, but Leah did not want Maggie to quit the medium show as she was seen as more talented. Kate did spent four months in the Greeley home in Chappaqua, New York attempting to contact the couple’s deceased five year old son. When she came of age, Kate married a devout Spiritualist. After so many deaths in the American Civil War, business was booming for mediums and Kate and her husband made money hand over fist. However, fame began to take its toll and Kate drifted into drink as well. By this time, she had two sons with her husband. Her eldest, Ferdinand, she was convinced was a medium as well. Sadly, her husband died suddenly from a stroke in 1885.
That same year, Maggie was called in to a commission in New York state to prove her abilities, which she failed. Spiritualism was beginning to run its course, and it was difficult for the sisters to find work. Kate was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in 1888 and lost custody of both her children. Leah and the other Spiritualists they worked with turned their backs on the sisters for their drinking. Leah had married a wealthy man and had basically turned her back on her two sisters. It was time for a change. Maggie made the decision to denounce Spiritualism once and for all. She booked the New York Academy of Music and offered an exclusive to the New York World for $1500. Kate was in the audience lending her support as Maggie described how the two of them began the deception in their home so long ago. She claimed,
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began. At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.”
The apple dropping was soon not enough, and they moved onto manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds.
“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
Critics of spiritualism crowed this was the proof they needed that the whole movement was bunk. Spiritualists claimed it was the sad ravings of a drunk. Both Maggie and Kate recanted the recantation later and tried to perform again as mediums, but it was unsuccessful. Kate drank herself to death and was found by one of her sons. She was only 56. Maggie died a year later in 1893 penniless at the age of 59.