In March 1848, something strange was happening at a house in Hydesville, New York. Every night, when the girls were fast asleep, their mother heard a rap-rap-rapping noise coming from the bedroom they shared. It seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence – as if trying to speak. For several nights, this continued.
On March 31, the two younger sisters – eleven-year-old Kate and fourteen-year-old Maggie – were out for a walk and stopped to talk with a neighbor. They talked about the strange rapping noise – stating that they heard it, too, as it seemed to emerge from the walls and furniture around them. The neighbor asked to hear it, and into the house they went.
The girls’ mother, Margaret, gathered them in the bedroom.
“Count five,” Margaret said to the air.
The room shook with five heavy raps.
“Count fifteen,” she asked again. And fifteen raps and thuds were heard.
Margaret then asked the presence to tell the neighbor’s age – and thirty-three raps followed. More questions. More raps.
Other sessions with the presence helped Margaret and her daughters develop a system of communication – asking yes or no questions or using the raps to indicate letters of the alphabet. The girls soon nicknamed the presence “Mr. Splitfoot” – a nickname for the Devil. But the story from the raps revealed the presence to be a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the cellar.
After the sessions, the family left the home – Kate to live with their married older sister, Leah, and Maggie to their older brother’s home. But fate would not let the girls go.
Living in nearby Rochester, Amy and Isaac Post heard about the girls’ encounter. They invited Leah, Kate and Maggie into their home and introduced them to friends, all of whom believed in the emerging ideas of Spiritualism. Begun about forty years earlier in upstate New York, Spiritualism grew out of the Second Great Awakening and regional folk beliefs that direct communication with God or angels was possible. First recorded in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Spiritualists believed they could learn to communicate with spirits, which were intermediaries between God and humans. Often, intense mystical experiences, dreams, or visions could be signs that a spirit was trying to communicate. This belief combined with Franz Mesmer’s hypnotism technique, which was meant to induce trances and allow humans to contact spirits. Both of these beliefs were held by Amy and Isaac Post, who saw in the girls the living proof they needed and introduced them to their circle of friends. This group formed the early core of Spiritualists.
On November 14, 1849, the Posts helped arrange Kate and Maggie’s first public demonstration at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, supported by Leah as chaperone. Making money through admission tickets, the girls began what became a long series of public events as mediums holding seances – using the rapping to communicate with spirits. By 1850, some of the leading literary and scholarly minds attended the seances – and imitators had begun to claim they, too, had the ability to speak to spirits. Today, mediums throughout the world hold seances much like the Fox sisters.
As Kate and Maggie’s fame grew, so did their circle of friends. They met Horace Greeley, a publisher and politician, who enabled them to hold seances for the upper classes. Yet scandal was afoot – Kate and Maggie often held seances without their parents present, and Greeley was known to allow them both to drink wine. Leah – as the girls’ guardian – allowed it to happen, and we can only speculate what else the girls might have been subjected to. The girls also became the subject of medical investigations to disprove their abilities – and many cried fraud. Several investigators proved that the girls could be making the rapping noises by cracking their joints – notably their toe joints – especially since the rappings ceased if the girls were seated on a couch with cushions under their feet. Yet investigators could never get close enough to prove their theory. The girls’ “feminine security” – otherwise known as their modesty among the norms of the 1850s – meant that they could not be physically investigated, nor their skirts lifted, by the investigators.
In 1852, Maggie married an Arctic explorer who made her promise to give up Spiritualism – and she did, mostly. She retired to finish school, but her husband died just five years later.
Meanwhile, Kate’s career continued. She married a British barrister who was also a Spiritualist, and had two children. She continued to develop her abilities, including – according to Smithsonian magazine – “translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other; transcribing messages in reverse script; utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card. Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe.”
By the 1880s, both girls had become severely alcoholic – a product of their early exposure to alcohol. Yet it was taking a toll. Now a Roman Catholic, Maggie was convinced their powers were diabolical. And Kate was struggling as a single, alcoholic mother. Their older sister, Leah, and several friends who were leading Spiritualists, chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. The argument must have been heated and threatening, for Maggie was furious and vowed revenge.
On October 21, 1888, Maggie demonstrated to over 2,000 people how she could produce the raps – at will – throughout the theater. Removing her shoe, Maggie placed her right foot on a wooden stool and made a series of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.
That same day, Maggie’s confession was printed in an interview with the New York World, stating that the first nights of rapping at home had been the girls playing with an apple on a string, causing it to bump on the floor and make strange noises. Their mother didn’t suspect them capable of a trick. Building on neighbors’ beliefs that the Fox family home was haunted, the girls managed to trick neighbors that it was a spirit. When the girls went to Rochester, they discovered a new way to make the raps. As Maggie recalled, “My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her 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. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping is simply the result of perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow the action of the toe and ankle bones that are not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years…
Leah never spoke to Maggie again, lending proof to how much Leah had profited from her younger sisters’ performances.
But public pressure did not agree. Despite the confession, thousands still believed the Fox sisters were real mediums. A year later, in 1889, Maggie was convinced to recant her confession and attempt to return to performing – but the girls never again attracted the attention they once enjoyed. Both died in the early 1890s, in poverty.
Started by a simple trick on their mother that became a trick that captured the world, Kate and Maggie’s lives were tricky and complicated – forced to perform, the physical and psychological strain had destroyed any other prospects the girls had. Both were likely used by Amy and Isaac Post as well as Horace Greeley, given that the profits from their performances never seem to have gotten to the girls themselves. Both married for love, but their husbands passed after just a few short years for each of them. And Maggie’s confession doomed any chance the sisters had at reclaiming their fame and friends.
What the Fox sisters did do is kick off an entire movement – Spiritualism – which is alive and well today. With Halloween just behind us, recognizing the role that girls play in many of our autumnal celebrations and beliefs is crucial. From the girl accusers and witches of Salem to the Fox sisters of New York, girls have often found themselves the center of spiritual dilemmas – rooted in physical and psychological phenomenon – that change the course of history.
-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Girl Museum Inc.