Once upon a time in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, there lived two sisters who loved to scare family and friends with their vivid imaginations. One day in late March 1848, the girls told a neighbor about spooky happenings in their bedroom. Eager to disprove the girls’ claims that the ghost of a murdered traveling salesman inhabited their home — a tale with which they’d already terrified their mother — the neighbor accompanied fourteen-year-old Maggie Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate into their bedroom … where the neighbor, too, was dutifully terrified by the apparently sentient wall-rapping in response to the girls’ questions.
After having their worst fears seemingly confirmed, the Fox family abandoned the farmhouse, sending Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York. That may not have been the wisest decision. Rochester was a hotbed of religious activity. Mormonism and the movement that later became Seventh Day Adventism both saw their genesis in the Rochester area.
Upon hearing the tale of the murdered salesman and the unearthly sounds, a group of Rochester residents examined the Fox homestead and found strands of hair and bits of bone in the basement. At a subsequent community meeting, the girls were put to the test: Could they communicate with the dead in Rochester, too?
The girls proved they could by summoning raps on the floor. In addition, Leah seemed to communicate with one community leader’s deceased daughter. All three Foxes were escorted into a private room after the demonstration, where they disrobed and were examined for any hints of duplicity. None were found.
Word of the sisters’ uncommon abilities reached Andrew Jackson Davis, later to become known as “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism.” Davis claimed to have received a Divine message on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits on the family farm. In response to the dreary Calvinist teachings of the day, people could not wait to adopt a new spiritualism that taught each individual was the master of his own salvation. The spirits of those who had passed on were there to guide them to their ultimate fate, as they, in turn, would guide those who came after them.
The Fox Sisters embarked on a tour of New England and the Midwest, demonstrating their abilities to notables including newspaperman Horace Greeley, author James Fennimore Cooper, and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. Many accused the girls of perpetrating a hoax, but a growing number of people, convinced by the knocking and apparent communication with dead relatives, embraced the Spiritualist movement.
In 1857, Maggie married explorer Elisha Kent Kane, a man thirteen years her senior who, though he reportedly loved her to distraction, insisted she was a fraud. He died an untimely death shortly after the wedding. Maggie began drinking heavily and abandoned Spiritualism to honor his memory. Kate married a devout Spiritualist leader and continued to develop her skills as a medium, including the use of blank cards upon which messages from the Beyond seemed to appear magically. Among the hazy apparitions she allegedly summoned was Benjamin Franklin’s.
By the end of the Civil War, more than two million believers had converted to Spiritualism; by 1880, adherents grew to more than eight million.
In 1888, Maggie received $1,500 to tell her story in front of a large audience at the New York Academy of Music. By then doing her best to live a life of sobriety, Maggie confessed to the hoax that started the mass hysteria.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” the New York World reported. “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 sisters soon discovered they could manipulate their knuckles, toes, and other joints to make a variety of unusual sounds. Maggie demonstrated by removing her shoe, placing her foot on a small stool, and producing “rapping” noises
“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” Maggie said. “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.”
Spiritualists quickly split on the matter, one camp saying Maggie was a true medium who had been consumed by spirits intent on deceiving humanity, and the other claiming she had sold out her religion because, as a poor widow, she needed the money.
Leah, a popular medium in New York City, disowned her younger sister. Kate hit the bottle with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. The sisters never reconciled, even after Maggie recanted her confession a scant year after she embarrassed the family.
Leah, embittered by her sister’s betrayal, died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking binge. Maggie followed eight months later, in March 1893. Later that year, the diverse Spiritualist groups came together to found the National Spiritualist Association, the forerunner of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, which exists today.
Postscript: In 1904, a group of children discovered what appeared to be a skeleton among the ruins of the abandoned and crumbling Fox homestead. A doctor who examined the bones estimated they had been in the basement for about fifty years. Although the find lent some credence to the Fox sisters’ tale about the murdered salesman, the media and society at large continued to scoff at Spiritualists.
Five years later, another doctor examined the bones and pronounced them a clear attempt to defraud. The alleged skeleton was composed of bits and pieces from several bodies, including those belonging to chickens and other animals.
The Fox homestead burned to the ground in September 1955. A marker now stands on the spot where Modern Spiritualism was born:
Upon this site stood the Hydesville Cottage
The home of the Fox Sisters
Through whose mediumship communication
with the Spirit World was established
March 31, 1848
THERE IS NO DEATH
THERE ARE NO DEAD
The dearly departed who refuse to depart cause problems for the hero and heroine in “Family Tradition,” one of two related stories that compose Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts. The book releases Friday, but it’s available for pre-order now at Amazon.com.
The Worst Outlaw in the West
Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family’s honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan’s long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family’s bank from her brother’s reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy…if either can find a map.
Haunted by his kin’s tradition of spectacular failure, bank robber Tombstone Hawkins is honor-bound to prove his family tree produced at least one bad apple. When carnival fortuneteller Pansy Gilchrist tries to help, she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Getting into the spirit of a crime is one thing…but how do you get the spirits out?
Have you ever encountered a ghost? Tell us about it in the comments! I’ll give an E-BOOK of Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts to one of today’s commenters.