The Fake Ghost Who Started a Real Religion

Kathleen Rice Adams header

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.

The old fox cottageThus began a religion known as Modern Spiritualism, which is still practiced today.

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 Fox sisters: Left to right: Leah (1814–90), Kate (1838–92), and Maggie (1836–93)

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.

The Fox sisters demonstrate their ability to levitate a table (1850).

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.

The Fox sisters conduct a seance in New York (ca. 1855)

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


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


RBSH_3D_200x300_shadowEveryone should have career at which they excel. At failing to commit crimes, nobody is better than Laredo and Tombstone Hawkins. Maybe they can bumble their way into love.

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.

Family Tradition
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.


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24 thoughts on “The Fake Ghost Who Started a Real Religion”

  1. Yes, we have encountered a ghost. When my father retired from the Air Force we moved from Travis AFB in California to Riverside, CA. The house we moved to had been owned by a family that the grandmother passed away in. There was one room only that we would encounter her spirit. My brother’s bedroom. The first encounter, my brother had just put everything away in his room and had one draw he kept his books in. We all went into the kitchen for lunch. All of a sudden we heard something hitting the walls in my brother’s bedroom so we all went to see what happened and the drawer had been pulled out and the books were all over the room. Another time I was sitting on the bedroom floor listening to some records on a portable stereo when a 45 RPM record came flying out of the stack and landed in my lap (I was a good four feet away from the stereo. I took the record (Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear”) and put it in the middle of the stack again. I went further away and sat on the floor again and within a couple of minutes a record came flying over to my lap again…guess what it was….”Teddy Bear”. So needless to say the next record I played was “Teddy Bear”.

    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    • Sounds like that ghost really wanted to hear “Teddy Bear”! How did your family respond to your experience? We often hear about vengeful or malicious spirits or those that enjoy scaring the wits out of people, but it sounds like the one in your brother’s room simply wanted to be acknowledged. It also sounds like everyone just accepted the presence in your brother’s room and went on about their business. Did y’all experience more encounters? Did your brother stay in that room? I have so many questions.

      Thanks for sharing your encounter! I put your name in the Stetson. 🙂

      • Well my brother stayed in the room and after the initial “visitation” she was pretty quiet. When my brother joined the navy, we used his bedroom as our “ironing” room. When we would go in there to iron, we would open the door and make sure it was wide open. Sometimes we would just begin to iron and the door would close and latch shut. There was no breeze or anything to make it do that. I would always go over, open the door and then I talked to her and told her that she needed to leave the door open, that we weren’t hurting her. I found when we talked to her she usually left the door open.

        We also learned that while she lived with her son and his family, her son was quite abusive to her. That really made me sad. After we sold the house and moved to another city we learned that the new buyers didn’t stay long (two brothers had bought the house). They sold it and then the next owners remodeled taking out the wall of the bedroom next to the dining area to create a dining room. I understand they didn’t stay long at all either. Sad. We lived in that house over 15 years and got used to her.

    • Thanks, Kimberly! What’s the general consensus about the Fox sisters up there? I felt sorry for them. They started the whole thing as a childhood prank, it seems, and adults ran with that and exploited them. In the end, it took a terrible toll on them all.

  2. One of my mom’s husband’s ghost used to be in my mom’s house. There were many strange things that happened after he passed away. One thing was a radio turned on for no reason at all. The alarm wasn’t set and he died in his sleep. I remembered reading a book about rapping on a wall and the people tore the wall down and found money in the wall. I told this story to my mom and when she looked in the bed side table she found a wallet with a lot of money in it. When she previously looked in there, she didn’t see the wallet. So we believe he was trying to tell her to look again. Also there was the incident with a wig that she said found it’s way to the floor. He hated it when she would wear one.

    • You said “used to be.” Did he leave? I believe people often leave traces of themselves behind when they go. Because he died suddenly (I assume), maybe your mom’s husband wanted to make sure she was okay before he departed. That’s sweet, I think. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Well, that was certainly interesting! No, I have never found a ghost.. We use to joke about a ghost when one of our doors would slowly close.. The longer the train going by, the farther it would close!

  4. I myself have never seen a ghost but I did live 2 years in a old hotel converted into apartments and all the guys there swore that they would see ghosts. Now I did venture into the basement once and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up there was something in the basement but never did see anything. Lets just say if anyone ever suggested lets go in the basement again I said GOOD LUCK. I do believe there are spirits in old buildings.

    • I’m with you, Kim. If nothing else, old buildings hold lots of memories, and all that energy has to go somewhere.

      When I first moved to Galveston, I lived in a loft overlooking The Strand, a National Historic District dating to well before the Civil War. During the Civil War and the 1900 Storm, many of the buildings along The Strand were used as infirmaries and morgues. People always seem to be experiencing spectral visitations down there. The building I lived in, formerly a bank, reportedly was haunted, though I never saw any ghosts. The people who lived in the loft two doors down the hall and the one directly across the hall apparently were ghost magnets, though. They reported having all sorts of encounters.

  5. My sister has seen one for years… it has actually followed her from house to house when she moved… my little nephew can see him to. There have been noises like a person walking in her house… a touch lamp has gone on by itself once when I was there… I told him he was not funny and to turn it back off… surprisingly he did… then more recently I was babysitting and I saw a shadow of a man walk by my little nephew’s bedroom door… that got my heart racing!

  6. Hi Kathleen, terrific post! Yowzers…although I at first cracked up at the lady named Fox Fish. The historic mansion (A part of the mission at San Juan Capistrano) has a personal ghost who once left a burning cigar (it was under glass and on display) and moved around all the pictures on the wall. “George” is supposedly a friendly ghost, though. I’d love to stay at the haunted Menger hotel in San Antonio some time.

    • The Menger is a gorgeous old place, and reportedly very haunted. So is the Emily Morgan. I believe all of the ghosts in those two hotels are fairly benign, although at least one at the Menger enjoys scaring folks half out of their skin. 😀

  7. Kathleen, I just love this post! I didn’t know about these sisters–this is all news to me. VERY INTERESTING! And of course, you know I love these two stories of yours–and I’m so glad we got to put them together under one cover. And WHAT A COVER! Also love the little trailer you did. One of these days, I’m going to have some of those for my books! LOL I’m running late today, but I made it!

    • Glad you made it, Okie! 😀

      I wish I had created a few more Hawkins brothers at the outset, but I didn’t even see Stone getting his own story until I got almost to the end of Laredo’s. Historical western romantic comedy was something new for me, and I had an enormous amount of fun with those two … erm … bank robbers(?).

      Livia did an exceptional job on the cover, didn’t she?

  8. Can’t say that I have. We say there is a ghost at work when the door blows open but since it only happens on windy days…..

  9. Yes, I saw my first ghost as a child. Upon opening my bedroom door I saw a civil war ghost standing at my chalk board.When I was a child I also saw a cat ghost of a cat that had recently died . The house we lived in in Hagerstown, MD had me seeing different ghost there, at least 5. I also heard footsteps and smelled cigar smoke and roses at different times when there was no cause for those smells.

    • Goodness, Deanne. You must be exceptionally sensitive to spectral energy. Did you see them only as a child, or do you still encounter presences as an adult? It doesn’t sound like any of the ghosts scared you, and that’s a very good thing.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  10. I didn’t see the ghost but my Mom told me about seeing her mother at the end of her bed after she had died.My Mom said that my grandmother had died in her sleep at their house. Mom said she had worried so much that if she would only woke up that she might have been able to save her Mother.Mom said grandma stood at the end of the bed and told her to stop worrying that she had no pain and she had just gone to sleep and she was fine.

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