Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Fox Sisters

The Fox sisters were three women from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism, the religious movement. The three sisters were Kate Fox (1837–1892), Leah Fox (1814–1890) and Margaret Fox (also called Maggie) (1833–1893).

In 1848, the two younger sisters – Kate and Margaret – were living in a house in Hydesville, New York with their parents. Hydesville was a hamlet which no longer exists but was part of the township of Arcadia in Wayne County. The house had some prior reputation for being haunted, but it wasn't until late March that the family began to be frightened by unexplained sounds that at times sounded like knocking, and at other times like the moving of furniture.
In 1888, Margaret told her story of the origins of the mysterious "rappings" :
"When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to 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. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young."
During the night of March 31, Kate challenged the invisible noise-maker, presumed to be a "spirit", to repeat the snaps of her fingers. "It" did. "It" was asked to rap out the ages of the girls. "It" did. The neighbours were called in, and over the course of the next few days a type of code was developed where raps could signify yes or no in response to a question, or be used to indicate a letter of the alphabet.

The girls initially addressed the spirit as "Mr. Splitfoot" which is a nickname for the Devil. Later, the alleged "entity" creating the sounds claimed to be the spirit of a peddler named Charles B. Rosma, who had been murdered five years earlier and buried in the cellar. Doyle claims the neighbours dug up the cellar and found a few pieces of bone, but it wasn't until 1904 that a skeleton was found, buried in the cellar wall. No missing person named Charles B. Rosma was ever identified.
Margaret Fox, in her later years noted:
"They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer 'yes,' not three as we did afterwards. The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house. Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer."

Kate and Margaret were sent away to nearby Rochester during the excitement — Kate to the house of her sister Leah, and Margaret to the home of her brother David — and it was found that the rappings followed them. Amy and Isaac Post, a radical Quaker couple and long-standing friends of the Fox family, invited the girls into their Rochester home. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena, they helped to spread the word among their radical Quaker friends, who became the early core of Spiritualists. In this way appeared the association between Spiritualism and radical political causes, such as abolition, temperance, and equal rights for women.

The Fox girls became famous and their public séances in New York in 1850 attracted notable people including William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. They also attracted imitators, or perhaps encouraged people who previously had hidden their gifts. At any rate, during the following few years, hundreds of persons would claim the ability to communicate with spirits. Both Kate and Margaret became well-known mediums, giving séances for hundreds of "investigators," as persons interested in these phenomena liked to call themselves. Many of these early séances were entirely frivolous, where sitters sought insight into "the state of railway stocks or the issue of love affairs," but the religious significance of communication with the deceased soon became apparent. Horace Greeley, the prominent publisher and politician, became a kind of protector for the girls, enabling their movement in higher social circles. But the lack of parental supervision was pernicious, as both of the young girls began to drink wine.

Over the years, sisters Kate and Margaret had developed serious drinking problems. Around 1888 they became embroiled in a quarrel with their sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who were concerned that Kate was drinking too much to care properly for her children. At the same time, Margaret, contemplating a return to the Roman Catholic faith, became convinced that her powers were diabolical.
Eager to harm Leah as much as possible, the two sisters traveled to New York City, where a reporter offered $1,500 if they would "expose" their methods and give him an exclusive on the story. Margaret appeared publicly at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, with Kate present. Before an audience of 2,000, Margaret demonstrated how she could produce – at will – raps audible throughout the theater. Doctors from the audience came on stage to verify that the cracking of her toe joints was the source of the sound.
Margaret recanted her confession in writing in November, 1889, about a year after her toe-cracking exhibition. Kate's first letters back to London after Margaret's exhibition express shock and dismay at her sister's attack on Spiritualism, but she did not publicly take issue with Margaret. Within five years, both sisters died in poverty, shunned by former friends, and were buried in pauper's graves.


adam said...

hi, i found this blog while researching G.Northcott.
now i return often for it's fresh content.
the theme for this blog is wonderful.
also 2thumbs up for the right sidebar with short facts, though the Classical Art table seems slightly cut to it's right.
thanks for sharing these interesting facts.

Rob Velella said...

Sorry to respond to an older post - but I loved this one. The Fox sisters are fascinating, and a real indication of the state popular thinking about death at the time. One of the Fox sisters met with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of all people, at his home in Cambridge, where she performed an impromptu spirit-rapping session.

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