The Fox Sisters
The World’s First Celebrity Ghost Whisperers
On one cold Spring evening in 1848 in a small house in Hydesville, NY, something went bump in the night. In fact, there had been disembodied banging in this house nearly every night for a month. As soon as the family of seven climbed into their beds, raucous banging would thunder through the house, frightening any ounce of sleepiness out of the family members. There was seemingly no explanation, no solution for the strange noises that the parents, John and Margaret Fox, could find. When no logical answer became apparent, Margaret determined that there was only one possibility left: a demon.
The Foxes knew that they were not prepared to handle a demon alone, and perhaps they were still unsure and wanted witnesses to the noises that had been tormenting them nightly for so long. When they couldn’t take any more they called upon their neighbors to help. In fact, an entire committee of neighbors, 20 total, arrived at the house to determine whether or not the entire family had gone crazy. One neighbor in particular, William Duesler, seemed to believe Mrs. Fox’s claims of demonic haunting. He called out when the rapping arrived, asking various questions and receiving mystifying knocks in reply. A system was devised for the demon to communicate effectively to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions. Pretty soon the entity had disclosed to the astonished crowd that it was not, in fact, a demon but was instead the ghost of a murdered peddler who was still buried under the Fox home. The events of that night were recorded by E.E. Lewis in a 40-page book titled, “A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox at Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne county.”
Despite the paranormal-induced frenzy that the crowd was in that night, nobody took up a shovel to go searching for the murder victim. Apparently satisfied with, or frightened by, the otherworldly message, the neighbors went home, leaving the Fox family to sort out their skeletons on their own. Yet, the banging persisted.
Mrs. Margaret Fox was no stranger to the paranormal. She came from a long line of “seers,” people who could predict with astounding accuracy events like births and deaths in the community. If her gift was passed along genetically, then it was two of her daughters, Maggie (15-years-old) and Kate (12-years-old) who inherited it. Unlike the other three children, these two were more excited than frightened by the noises, and after the townsfolk’s interrogation of the ghost they picked up where the conversation had left off. The girls devised a method that allowed the spirit to communicate more information by spelling out messages. Through this method, they discovered that their murder victim was called Charles B. Rosna, and Charles shared a great deal of information about his life.
Each conversation with the dead earned the Fox sisters a little more infamy in town. When word of their gift began to spread outside the borders of Hydesville, the Fox parents decided that it was time to separate Maggie and Kate from their otherworldly friend. They were sent away to Rochester to live with their eldest sister, Leah Fish. The only problem was that the girls didn’t leave the knocking behind.
Leah couldn’t have been happy the first time she heard the knocking in her home. After all, she had enough to deal with. Living alone in poverty, Leah as still adapting to life after her husband left her, trying to make enough money to survive by teaching piano. She certainly didn’t have time to lose sleep over some ghost that wanted to chat. However, unlike her mother, Leah suspected that small and very mortal hands were at work. Under Leah’s stern gaze the sisters couldn’t hold out for long, and they soon admitted to the deception. Leah learned that it was not hands, but rather toes that had been causing such a fuss across the state. Maggie and Kate demonstrated the strange talent that they shared by imperceptibly cracking their toes against the floor, producing a surprisingly loud noise that reverberated around the room.
Leah had solved the mystery, but she wasn’t finished with the girls yet. But rather than sending them home in shame, Leah saw an opportunity and took it.
Since the time of the Salem witch trials, hunting down and killing witches had fallen out of vogue in the U.S. If times had not changed then the Fox sisters could easily have found themselves at the end of a noose for the crime of communing with the dead. However, by the 1850s the U.S., and the world as a whole, was rapidly changing.
Starting in 1848, revolutions swept across Europe, altering the faces of governments that had stood for centuries, women were agitating for equal rights, and scientific advancement was both demystifying the world and expanding humankind’s vision of the universe. All of this came on the back of the industrial revolution with its transformations that would forever change the way society functioned. Meanwhile, the U.S. was expanding its territory through conquest and the nation was swept up in gold fever. The boundaries of geography and understanding were falling way, giving glimpses into previously unknown worlds and sparking the imaginations of a largely optimistic public.
Had the sisters been born prior to this pivotal moment in history, perhaps Leah’s idea for them wouldn’t have worked out. But faced with a nation undergoing momentous philosophical, cultural, and geographical adjustments, the girls were met with nearly instant success when Leah opened up her home and allowed visitors to witness a séance. In fact, their show was such a success that Leah took it on the road.
They traveled throughout New England, performing in the homes of the wealthy and well-connected who were all-too willing to believe the things they were hearing and seeing. However, this isn’t to say that the sisters never encountered adversity. There were many detractors and skeptics and the girls’ youth didn’t spare them from harsh criticisms. During a trip through New York a group of men attempted to kidnap Maggie because they were offended by her claims. She never quite recovered from the trauma of this event.
What began as a childish prank to break the monotony of their lives had evolved into a grueling full-time job for the sisters. In 1849, Maggie and Kate agreed that the ruse had gone far enough. During a séance they reported that the spirits had bid them “farewell” for the final time.
True to their word, the ghosts seemed to take an extended vacation from communing with the sisters. However, after a few weeks Leah had had enough. With an iron will forged from the fires of adversity she insisted that Maggie and Kate find a way to invite the spirits back. The girls complied. However, it might have been pressure from their adoring public rather than threats from their manager that changed their minds. After only a few years in the business the Fox sisters had unleashed a craze that swept through the nation and across the sea. Some of the most recognizable figures of the time, many of whom were scientific scholars, were devotees of this new coupling of science, religion, and storytelling. The sisters counted Thomas Edison, William Lloyd Garrison, Mary Todd Lincoln, and a myriad of women’s rights leaders as their biggest fans. Soon, Leah whisked them away to Great Britain where their renown only compounded.
Leah profited most from Maggie and Kate’s fame. She married a Wall Street banker, became a wealthy socialite, and kept one foot in the now-mainstream world of Spiritualism where women wielded the lion’s share of the power. Not only had had she masterminded a new social movement that would continue to grow and develop for over a century, but she had also pioneered a movement that empowered women with the divine influence of the Great Beyond. In 1857, satisfied with the work that she had done, Leah retired as the girls’ manager.
The puppets in front of the curtain were left to dangle in Leah’s absence, but they soon found unsure footing. They continued to tour and perform séances, but the mental strain of being tested and humiliated one day and revered the next was beginning to take a heavy toll. The sisters fought often. They both longed for escape.
Maggie thought that she had found her rescuer when she met Dr. Elisha Kane, a famous Arctic explorer. At only seventeen, Maggie believe that he was her one true love who could set her free from the life of a circus sideshow, and they quickly set a date to be married. Even though his family disapproved, they exchanged rings as Dr. Kane was setting off on another expedition, vowing to be married when he returned. That day never came. Kane became sick and died during the voyage. The grief of losing the man she loved, drove Maggie to drink, she developed a loathing for her career and fell into a deep depression.
Kate moved to England where she married H. D. Jencken, a lawyer, in 1861. Kate’s life seemed to be going much better than her sister’s. Her marriage was a happy one and she gave birth to two sons. However, Jencken died in 1885 and Kate was devastated. Like her sister, Kate began to self-destruct with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol. Leah came back into the picture alongside the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who took custody of Kate’s children. This did not help Kate’s mental state and for the first time in decades she joined forces with Maggie. They were going to take revenge upon Leah.
Maggie and Kate wrote a letter that they sent to the New York Herald. In the letter, they explained everything, from the inception of their prank to Leah’s part in prolonging and promulgating the deception. The sisters emerged into the light of day and pronounced themselves frauds and Leah a heretical tyrant bent on founding her own religion. Their attempt at ruin had no affect on Leah who remained wealthy and influential until her death on November 1,1891, only one year before that of Kate. Kate succumbed to drink on July 2, 1892. Maggie spent her final years broke, relying on the kindness of friends, but she too drank herself to death on March 8,1893. The movement that they birthed had devoured them whole.
Sometimes the world’s greatest inventions and discoveries arise from accidents. The same is true for the Fox sisters. By the end of their lives, the sisters were so bitter and broken that it seems unlikely that they would take any pride in the movement that they started, but even a hoax can transform into something meaningful. Spiritualism is a quintessentially American invention and through its unique practice and the awe that it inspired it helped give power to other movements such as women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. But political movements and the people that lead them come and go, whereas Spiritualism and the specters of the women that created it are still recognized even today.
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