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The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism

Katherine (Kate), 1836-1892
(Ann) Leah, 1811-1890
Margaret (also Margaretta), 1833-1893
[the year each was born seems to be unclear, but the dates of death are in agreement; I'm deferring Randi for the dates]

It's amazing how a talent like being able to crack the joints of one's toes could lead to the birth of a whole movement (spiritualism/spiritism)—in fact, a new quasi-religion. But it did and we have the inimitable (or judging from the growth of the movement, perhaps imitable, after all) Fox sisters.

The girls lived in the village of Hydesville, New York (no longer extent), near Rochester (the beginning of it all is sometimes referred to as the "Rochester rappings"). An added note: the house had had reports of mysterious noises and such by previous owners. This, of course, helped suggest there was more than a grain of truth to the stories of the girls and their parents (and soon anyone who visited).

It was 1848 (a year after they moved in) when teens Katherine and Margaret began saying that they were hearing noises in their room (which were called "rappings"). Others heard them too, as the curious, credulous, and skeptical all came to experience the strange phenomenon of sounds seemingly coming from tables and furniture. But of course, it only occurred when the girls were present.

It was thought that the pattern of sounds was too "intelligent" not to be something supernatural—since, try as they might, no one was able to discover the source of these sounds. Later the family became convinced that someone had been murdered in the house and was attempting some sort of communication (see confession below). It was reported (I have found no firm confirmation) that the family had found some teeth, hair and bones in the basement.

Finally, the noises became so distracting to the family, that it moved out of their "haunted" house. The parents sent the girls to live with older sister Ann Leah Fish in Rochester. In short time, Leah was managing the girls, who went from small gatherings in people's homes to "shows" and tours. In 1850, they moved to New York City and began not only attracting substantial audiences for their séances, but the intellectuals and writers of the period, as well.

Their "message" that communication from beyond was not only possible but right there in front of the audience was something that interested people enough to see and speculate, believe and promote. What gave the added bonus was its apparent lack of being a hoax due to no one being able to determine where these patterns of pops and raps and knocks came from (over time they had became more developed, complex, and patterned—from simple raps for yes and no to letters of the alphabet to give fuller messages).

Many scientists and skeptics came out to examine the sisters and other people claiming to speak with the "other side." Many were simply puzzled, some became believers. The English chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes (who discovered thallium and is noted for cathode-ray work) was convinced. He stated in 1871 that "I have tested [the raps] in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means" (Randi). They were "true objective occurrences" and not technically "mechanical." It is the nature of the just what the occurrence was that Crookes (and many, many others) was mistaken about (one reason why skeptics suggest that experienced magicians—people highly skilled at discovering ways to deceive an "audience"—be present when similar studies and examinations take place).

This is not to say that all were deliberate frauds. There were many earnest and honest true believers that actually thought they had some "gift." On the other hand, that does nothing to change the facts of the Fox story or to prove the claim.

Meanwhile, the stories of the sisters and their contact with the spirit world had captured the imagination and belief of many Americans. Within months

thousands of Americans across the northern states and eastern seaboard sat around their parlor tables to see whether they might not witness manifestations similar to those occurring in the presence of the Fox sisters. Fueled by rumor, curiosity, and persistent hunger for contact with the dead, Spiritualism spread "like a prairie fire," unhindered by the need for special facilities or trained emissaries.... Anyone might be a medium, and the only way to find out who could communicate with the spirits was to try and see.
Not surprisingly, this aspect—that anyone could do it—appears often in many New Age beliefs (very little of which is actually new but merely recycled, shuffled, and renamed conglomerations of older ideas). It is a feeling of empowerment that appeals to many, wishing to unlock the powers we all (wish we) have. It was also important because it empowered the women (a majority of whom made up the numbers of "mediums"—"media" would just be silly) at a time when they were not allowed much power, politically, socially, and even religiously—some think that the weight the various religions threw against the movement had such baggage added to the usual proscriptions against such things from the bible.

As the century progressed, a great number of newspapers, magazines, and books on the subject (interestingly few authored by women) were published. As noted, these "séance events" and beliefs became common among many social and intellectual strata. Horace Greeley was an outspoken believer. Robert Owen was another. (Hard to leave out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a big time promoter of spiritualism.) Mary Todd Lincoln "spoke" with her deceased son and even had mediums conduct séances at the White House. An interesting note is that Ellen Gould White, self-proclaimed prophetess and integral part of Seventh-Day Adventism was also firmly convinced that the rappings were real—of course the source was not the departed but Satan.

Back to the sisters. Eventually Leah found the managing of her sisters to be burdensome and went off on her own. Following the "familiy tradition," she became a popular medium, herself (not sure what ultimately happened to her). The Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge was created in 1855 and sponsored Katherine's sittings. She added more showmanesque features, like music, materialization, and spirit writing/automatic writing. A conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1858 seemed to diminish Margaret's medium duties. Meanwhile, the stress of all the touring and "performing" began to take its toll on the younger sisters and both turned to drink. Spiritualism spread to England, helped in no small part by the sisters' visit in the 1870s (it was already quite popular). Katherine married there and later returned to the United States in 1885.

Then in 1888, it happened. The two sisters confessed. From the New York World Newspaper 21 October 1888:

My sister Katie was the first one to discover that by swishing her fingers she could produce a certain noise with the knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet—first with one foot and then with both—we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. No one suspected us of any trick because we were such young children.... They were convinced someone had been murdered in the house. They asked us about it, and we would rap one for the spirit answer "yes," not three, as we did afterwards. We did not know anything about Spiritualism then. 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. They finally 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 these noises came from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer. As far as spirits were concerned, neither my sister nor I thought about it.... I have seen so much miserable deception that I am willing to assist in any way and to positively state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description. I do so before my God, and my idea is to expose it.... I trust that this statement, coming solemnly from me, the first and most successful in this deception, will break the break the force of the rapid growth of Spiritualism and prove that it is all a fraud, a hypocrisy and a delusion.
Margaret Fox
It further came out that earlier attempts at noises were orchestrated by tying a string to an apple and secretly bouncing it on the floor.

This bombshell wasn't taken kindly to by fans and true believers. Charges of them doing it for money or because they were drunk or forced to lie were quickly laid at them (charges that continue today by some). Some have even tried to reconcile the confession with belief by claiming that the sisters really were mediums but didn't realize it.

In the long tradition of ignoring disconfirming evidence in the face of cherished belief, Spiritualism continued to thrive and went on to ebb and flow into the following century, often being added to or changed to fit the current trend of similar beliefs. But the ride was over for the sisters. Katherine continued to do some touring (lecturing on the hoax) but also continued to do private sittings. Her alcoholism was also a constant. She had been arrested in 1888 for "drunkenness and idleness." She lost charge of her children due to her drinking problems. The sisters later recanted their confession and toured together for a time but eventually stopped because both of them had problems with alcohol and lecturing became too difficult to continue.

Both women spent their final years in poverty. In 1892, Katherine died and a few months later her sister followed.

The 1890 census reported forty-five thousand Spiritualists in thirty-nine states and territories, but this included only those formally affiliated with an organized society. An estimate of the number of Spiritualists by contemporary observers ranged from a few hundred thousand to eleven million (out of a total population of twenty-five million).
To find out how popular (and lucrative) modern day forms of Spiritualism are should be a fairly easy task with any search engine, access to late night infomercials or the Bestseller lists....

(Sources: James Randi An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, 1995, www.csun.edu/~ig28545/mw2.html, www.britannica.com, www.ellenwhite.org/egw54.htm (confession), The Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, 2001 at www.bartleby.com)

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