The birth of Spiritualism (the belief that spirits of the dead are able to communicate with the living) began March 31, 1848 at the home of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York. Margaretta and Catherine, also called Maggie and Kate, ages 15 and 12, moved into a house in Arcadia township in Wayne County on December 11, 1847 with their parents, John David Fox and Margaret Smith Fox. The prior residents reported they believed the house to be haunted but nothing strange occurred until the rapping began in March. Mrs. Fox held no beliefs of the supernatural. She and her husband reasoned there must be a logical cause to the noises and searched the house trying to discover the source of the knocks and rapping that were beginning to disturb their sleep at night. The noises continued while they searched. Though they found nothing to explain the strange noises, they felt the vibrations of the rapping on the floor and bed. This continued for two weeks when the girls, who shared the same bedroom as their parents, tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers. At each snap from Kate’s fingers, the strange rapping noise occurred again. She and her sister repeated this several times until Maggie asked the noise to “Do as I do.” She clapped her hands four times and the rapping responded four times.
Mrs. Fox then asked it to count to ten and the rapping responded ten times. She asked it to tell her the ages of her children and it did so correctly. She asked if it was a human being making the noises and silence followed. When she asked if it was a spirit making the noise, the rapping sounded. Mrs. Fox continued with a series of questions followed by knocks or silence. In doing so, she ascertained that the spirit was that of a 31 year-old peddler who had come to the house and been murdered. His body was buried in their cellar.
Mr. Fox was soon dispatched to collect Mrs. Redfield, their next door neighbor. After explaining about the noises and responses, Mrs. Redfield accompanied him back to his home where she at first suspected them to be playing a prank. Soon she was convinced that something strange was going on and sent for her husband. Shortly after, several of their neighbors visited the home, each witnessing the eerie knocks and rapping in response to the questions asked. They searched the house, looking for any reasonable explanation for the noises but could find none. The girls referred to the spirit as “Mr. Splitfoot”, a common synonym for the devil. After a long and complicated interrogation involving the use of the alphabet to spell out words for communication, the spirit revealed himself as a man named Charles B. Rosma. Two days later, Mr. Fox and his neighbors began to dig the floor in the cellar to search for the buried remains of the peddler. They dug until water halted their efforts. No record of Charles B. Rosma was ever found, but later, in 1904, a human skeleton was discovered buried in the walls of the cellar.
In April 1848, an attorney named E.E. Lewis took the personal testimonies of those members involved and published the accounts in a pamphlet called A Report of theMysterious Noises, Heard in the House of John D. Fox. When news of the ‘Hydesville Rappings’ reached Maggie and Kate’s elder sister, Mrs. Leah Fox Fish, she saw an opportunity to capitalize on the fame of her sisters. Leah’s husband had recently abandoned her and their daughter and she was in desperate need of way to support herself. She became Maggie and Kate’s manager of sorts, leading them to perform séances, meetings and stage performances where they talked to the spirits of the dead. For several years, they travelled and performed their mediumistic talents for both believers and non-believers. And in massive numbers, people flocked to see them. Knowledge of the sisters spread and with them the Spiritualist movement spread far and wide. Other mediums were discovered to have abilities to speak with the spirits and began to perform. By 1855 Spiritualism claimed 2 million followers. The séances they performed went beyond the loud rapping from the Fox sister’s childhood home. Tables elevated out of reach, people were touched by unseen hands, objects moved unassisted within the room. Many skeptics charged the Fox sisters with fraud, claiming they cracked their toes, ankles and knees joints, or they used ventriloquism and other mechanical devices. They willingly allowed committee after committee to perform lengthy investigations with numerous tests on them, but no trickery was ever discovered.
After falling in love with an arctic explorer named Elisha Kent Kane, Maggie abandoned her medium duties. However, their families did not approve of the match. Although they exchanged private vows they were never officially married. Tragedy struck on a voyage to England in 1857, when Kane took ill and died soon after. Maggie was left broken-hearted and almost penniless. She was forced to go back to performing her medium talents on stage for her living. The sisters were growing weary of the grueling performance schedules and celebrity status. Maggie turned to alcohol as her health and mental state began to decline.
Kate also began drinking which proved detrimental to her performances on stage. In 1871, she traveled to England to perform for the British Spiritualists. A year later she married a barrister named Henry Dietrich Jencken with whom she bore two sons, Ferdinand and Henry, Jr. She lived happily in England with her family, only attending a few private séances a year until 1881 when her husband suffered a stroke and died three days later. Kate returned to New York with her boys. With her husband gone, she succumbed to alcohol once again and was arrested in 1888 for drunkenness and neglecting her children. The boys were taken from her and placed in the Juvenile Asylum until Maggie arranged for their custody to be placed in their Uncle Edward’s care, Henry’s brother.
The ‘death-blow’ to Spiritualism occurred on October 21, 1888 when Maggie made an appearance on the stage of the New York Academy of Music. After years of loneliness, grief and alcohol abuse Maggie chose to confess to the world that Spiritualism was a sham. She admitted that she and her sister, Kate, had misled the world by creating the noises of the rapping and knocks by the simple cracking of their toes. What started out as a simple prank escalated to national acclaim. She also stated that her elder sister, Leah, had forced them to perform as mediums for the public. A year later, however, Maggie recanted her confession. Some suspect the confession itself was the sham. Maggie and Kate believed Leah had been behind the reports of child neglect that resulted in the seizure of Kate’s children. Their sister Leah had profited greatly from their early years of séances and stage performances and had married a wealthy businessman, Daniel Underhill. They wished to embarrass and discredit Leah since she continued her success with published books on Spiritualism. Maggie and Kate’s financial decline might have also prompted them to accept payment from an anti-Spiritualist group who wished for the sisters to denounce the new religion.
Although many critics applauded that they were right all along, there were enough Spiritualist believers to keep the movement going strong until the early 20th century. Even today there is still a strong belief for many in the ability for humans to communicate in some manner with the spirits.
Kate Fox died in July 1892 from alcoholism. Maggie Fox died at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, March 1893. She was penniless at the time of her death. They were both buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.