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Weird History Wednesday: The Fox Sisters

Weird History Wednesday: The Fox Sisters

As we inch closer and closer to the holiday season, one might contemplate the ‘reason for the season,’ which is often based in faith. In Rochester, one of the greatest religious movements of the 19th century was born right here in Rochester. Spiritualism, although not outwardly celebrated this time of year, got it’s start in Rochester with the Fox sisters (Leah, Margaret [aka Maggie], and Kate) and their claims of being able to commune with the dead.

It all got started in 1848 in nearby Hydesville, New York (Arcadia, New York today). Maggie and Kate, who were young girls at the time, consistently claimed to hear rappings, or knockings, in their bedroom at nighttime. They claimed a murdered peddler haunted the house, and the rappings were his way of communicating. They invited their mother into their bedroom one evening to investigate, and upon several commands from their mother, the rappings seemed to respond appropriately. ‘Count to fifteen,’ fifteen knocks would follow. Their mother did not take into consideration that it was April Fool’s Eve and maybe her daughters were just playing a trick on her. She quickly took her family and deserted the house, and eventually sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, and single mother, Leah, in Rochester. At the time Rochester was teeming with people interested in religious reform. Word got around Rochester about the Fox sister’s abilities and local Rochester community leaders Isaac and Amy Post, took interest in the girls and their story The Post’s invited them for a gathering at their home in hopes of being able to witness the spirits themselves. And soon, the Fox sister’s first séance was underway. Attendants were blown away by the rappings and responses to questions. Leah even went so far as to communicate with the Post’s recently deceased daughter.  Taken away by the whole experience, the Post’s rented a large space in the city, and invited hundreds of people to witness the impossible. Some skeptics still remained, but no one could figure out how the sister’s could fake this ability.


(An obelisk erected on Troupe St. where the Fox sisters used to live.)

[Photo Credit: India Lombardi-Bello]

Upon hearing about the frenzy the sisters were causing in Rochester, Andrew Jackson Davis, a healer and medium, invited the sisters to his home in New York City in hopes of seeing what they were capable of. Upon seeing it for himself, Davis took the girls under his wing, and quickly became a leader for the new Spiritualist movement, which was gaining a lot of traction with Americans interested in religious reform. Spiritualism gave people the sense that they were not at the mercy of some higher power for salvation, but they were in charge of their own eternal fate. Being able to communicate with the dead gave people a sense of what the afterlife might be like.

[Photo Credit: India Lombardi-Bello]

The sisters toured the country and sought to convert skeptics into believers, even going so far as to spell out in rappings, ‘Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.’ As years went on Kate and Maggie continued to tour, while Leah stayed in New York to give private sessions.

Maggie went on to marry a devout Christian, while Kate’s life went in the opposite direction, with her marrying a devout Spiritualist. Kate continued to practice and perfect her medium powers. She developed several new ways of communicating that had more depth and possibilities than the rappings had. Many people in mourning came to her for comfort and in hopes of speaking with their deceased loved ones. Many of those in mourning had lost family members during the Civil War, which was raging at the time. Spiritualist Emma Hardinge estimated that two-hundred million new believers had joined the movement due to the war and in the 1880s there were six million Spiritualist in the US and Europe. But there were a lot of misunderstandings about what a medium such as Kate was capable of. She could never summon a visible apparition, which disappointed many, and started to wear on Kate.

Both Maggie and Kate had taken to alcohol abuse, and in the midst of such turmoil, Maggie decided to publicly denounce spiritualism, as she had become disenchanted with the culture, and the fact that they were criticizing Kate, a key player in the movement, for her alcoholic tendencies.

She stated publicly: ‘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.’ Mary went on to describe how the sisters developed a new way of making sounds by manipulating their toe knuckles and joints to make loud, knocking 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, […] 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.’ She even gave a demonstration of the knuckle and joint manipulation techniques they used to fool people. Maggie told the crowd that all along Leah knew the rappings were fake and saw this as a money-making and fame-seeking endeavor and exploited her sisters to reach these goals. At the end of her speech, Maggie gave thanks to God for giving her the strength to expose the lies that surrounded Spiritualism.

Some sympathized with Maggie’s recant, while others claimed that since she couldn’t make good money as a medium, she was trying to make money by being a fierce critic of the movement, and that her motives were insincere.

One year later, Maggie took back what she had previously said, by saying that she had been led astray by her spirit guides at the time. This obviously did not sit well with many, and Maggie was effectively shunned at many Spiritualist gatherings. Maggie never reconciled with Leah before Leah’s passing in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a bender, and Maggie passed away shortly after that.

Spiritualism never passed away despite the controversy. Although it might not be as popular as it was at the beginning, there are still several Spiritualist communities pocketed all over the country. In the 21st century, Spiritualism has even developed some mainstream intrigue with celebrity mediums such as Theresa Caputo (The Long Island Medium) and others of her ilk.

A religion born out of Rochester due to faith-based restlessness, and Civil War-era distress became so extensively successful all due to a spark (the Fox sisters) and good timing. It makes you wonder what other movements might sweep the nation due magic of good timing.

[Photo Credit: India Lombardi-Bello]

If you’re interested in reading more about the Fox sisters and the times in which they lived, check out Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters by Hubert Haddad, which is a fact-based fictionalization of the sisters lives and the start of Spiritualism. The book is published by the University of Rochester’s publishing house Open Letter Books.

[Photo Credit: India Lombardi-Bello]

(The Fox Sisters sources: The Fox Sister's Monument, The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism's Unlikely Founders, The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.)

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