The Fox sisters were three sisters from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualisn.
Leah (1814–1890), Margaret (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Kate (also called Catherine) Fox (1837–1892)
Maggie and Kate Fox, then 15 and 11 years old decided one night that it would be entertaining to play a trick on their mother who was a believer in spirits and frequently shared ghost stories with her young daughters.
One night a mysterious rapping noise was heard throughout the Fox household. Mrs. Fox was certain that the house was haunted. After a brief search of the house, John attributed the incident to loose floor boards. The rapping continued, and Kate decided that it was time to communicate with the apparent ghost. She was the first to call out the spirit that she referred to as Mr. Splitfoot (also a reference to the Devil).
At first, the girls tied strings to apples, then repeatedly and rhythmically dropped them on the stairs to mimic ghostly footsteps. According to an interview Maggie gave the New York World 40 years later, she and Katy soon learned to make popping, cracking and thumping sounds on their own. While the exact method they used has never been fully explained, Maggie claimed that they did so by popping or cracking the knuckles of their toes or by snapping their big and second toes much as one snaps one’s fingers. Eventually the girls became so adept that they performed the trick in their stocking feet and even while standing in shoes. These rapidly repeated sounds were allegedly so loud that the elder Foxes had been awakened from their sleep.
Maggie later claimed that she and Katy planned a final performance for their mother in which they would talk to the ghost. After the rapping sounds had begun in the evening of March 31, 1848, Mrs. Fox rose, lit a candle and began searching the house. When she reached her daughters’ bed, Katy peered into the darkness and boldly addressed the ghost. ‘Mr. Split-foot, do as I do, she said, snapping her fingers in the cadence of the earlier noises. The appropriate raps followed. Maggie then clapped her hands four times and commanded the ghost to rap back. Four knocks followed. As if on cue, Katy responded by making soundless finger-snapping gestures that, in turn, were answered with raps.
Taking pity upon her terrified mother, Katy then offered a hint of explanation for the sounds. O, mother, I know what it is. Tomorrow is April-fool day and it’s somebody trying to fool us, she began.
But Mrs. Fox apparently refused to consider the suggestion of a prank. The ghost, she believed, was real and, terrified though she was, she decided to test it herself. Initially, she asked the ghost to count to 10. After it responded appropriately, she asked other questions, among them, the number of children she had borne. Seven raps came back. How many were still living? Six raps. Their ages? Each was rapped out correctly. As Mrs. Fox later related, she then demanded, If it was an injured spirit, make two raps. Promptly two knocks were returned. Mrs. Fox then wanted to know who the ghost was in life. Maggie and Katy quickly concocted an answer. The spirit, they claimed, was a 31-year-old married man, dead for two years, and the father of five. Will you continue to rap if I call in the neighbors, their mother asked, that they may hear it too?
The sisters would have imagined that their lives would be completely different after that night!
This domestic drama might have ended there had Maggie and Katy failed to respond. But Mrs. Fox’s reaction took them aback. To confess that what they had begun as a prank had evolved into a cruel joke was unthinkable. To do so would surely incite their parents’ wrath. After an awkward pause, the spirit rapped out its agreement to talk to the neighbors.
The first to arrive was Mary Redfield. Initially skeptical, the matron nevertheless asked the spirit questions about her own life and received such accurate answers that she scurried across the road to tell others.
Maggie and Katy were now in even more trouble. If they admitted their trickery, their mother, indeed the entire Fox family, would have been widely ridiculed. We could not confess the wrong without exciting very great anger on the part of those who we had deceived. So we went right on, Maggie explained in her 1888 memoir, The Death Blow to Spiritualism.
A restless spirit
The next night, before a curious crowd of neighbors, a spirit began its rappings. Frustrated by the clumsiness of the communication, one of the visitors proposed a code. He assigned numbers to letters of the alphabet so that the ghost could not only spell out words but whole sentences. (The girls would use some version of this system, often adapted and simplified, from then on.) While frightened, the girls then knocked out messages that they claimed came from a murdered peddler who was buried in the farmhouse basement. In reaction, the neighbors decided to excavate the cellar to see if there was any truth to the tale. But fate intervened. Heavy spring rains and the farmhouse’s location near a creek filled the excavation pit with groundwater, making further investigation impossible for weeks.
Rumors about the alleged haunting at Hydesville nevertheless continued to spread throughout the countryside, and before long the Fox farmhouse was overrun with visitors who lingered until nightfall when Maggie and Katy again felt compelled to serve as mediums for the spirits. Inevitably, the tales of their séances elevated the girls to a new status. Some of their neighbors now regarded them with awe, as divinely inspired individuals chosen to interpret messages from the dead — an attitude that may have contributed to Maggie and Katy’s continued reluctance to confess to the prank.
In contrast, a restive group of locals treated the girls with contempt, convinced that they were either tricksters or witches. Emotions ran so high in their nearby Methodist Episcopal church that ultimately the minister asked the Fox family to leave the congregation. In his view the girls had engaged in unholy practices and their parents must be held accountable.
Rumors of the events in the Fox house continued to spread far and wide, inspiring attorney E.E. Lewis of nearby Canandaigua to visit Hydesville to investigate. Losing no time, he questioned the neighbors, interviewed former tenants of the farmhouse and asked the elder Foxes to describe the events in their own words. By late May 1848, Lewis published a pamphlet titled A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County.
Once again, the story might have ended there except that Maggie and Katy’s eldest sister, Leah Fox Fish, a divorced 33-year-old mother living in Rochester, happened to read the report. Stunned to learn that the hauntings involved her family, Leah promptly booked passage on an Erie Canal packet boat to Newark and continued on by carriage to Hydesville. Beyond Leah’s immediate concern for her family’s welfare was an even more provocative thought: Might these strange events be fulfillment of a prophecy about the imminent approach of the spirits that had appeared in a recent best-selling book?
To Leah Fox Fish, who had personally witnessed that evolution, the community seemed ripe for a new religious expression. A practical woman with an opportunistic bent, she had hastened to investigate the rappings associated with Maggie and Katy.
The Older Sister
Determined to plumb the mystery, Leah drew her sisters aside and, promising to keep their confidence, wrested the secret of the raps from them. Repeatedly, Leah tried to reproduce the noises under Maggie and Katy’s tutelage, but could make only the faintest of sounds. Later, after inviting Katy to Rochester, perhaps to practice the rapping skills herself, Leah shrewdly claimed in her memoir that the ghost had followed her to Rochester and so disturbed her household that she was forced to move. Yet, Leah’s next residence, half of a two-family house, was adjacent to a cemetery — an odd choice for someone eager to escape hauntings.
Mrs. Fox soon joined Leah and Katy, with Maggie in tow. No sooner were the younger sisters united than they grew bolder, filling the house with even more raucous ghost disturbances. Leah eventually decided that it was time to share the spirits with others. Appointing herself as official interpreter of the raps, she demanded that Maggie and Katy conduct séances in Rochester under her tutelage. To bolt was impossible, Maggie later explained, for Leah threatened to accuse her and Katy of deceiving her with raps — just as they had their parents and the Hydesville community. Thus intimidated, an embittered Maggie later told the New York World, Katie and I were led around like lambs.
The very first to be invited were Leah’s closest friends, Amy and Isaac Post, a Quaker couple who were abolitionists, members of Rochester’s underground railroad and leading social reformers. Earlier, the middle-aged couple had rejected their Hicksite Quaker sect because of its intolerances and thus seemed well suited to receiving Leah’s new idea of spirit communication as a faith. When Leah described the hauntings in June 1948, the Posts initially laughed and then asked if the family were suffering under some psychological delusion.
The couple, however, like others of that era, had lost several youngsters to illnesses, and ultimately they agreed to participate in a séance. To their surprise the messages Maggie and Katy rapped out and which Leah translated were so personal as to be convincing. The Posts immediately became believers and were soon enthusiastically promoting their belief in the Fox sisters’ spiritual manifestations to others.
Leah’s timing had been ideal. The notion of a collective spirit — a benevolent force that endowed each human being with the capacity to right the world’s wrongs — was flowing through American thought. Spiritualism, as Leah would casually explain then and later in her memoir, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, encompassed all souls regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or other religious affiliations. Intrigued with Leah’s concept, the Posts and their circle soon accepted spiritualism as the first stirrings of a universalism or communalism — a brotherhood of the human spirit that mirrored their own resolve to find an alternative faith devoid of intolerance.
Before long the Fox sisters were besieged with requests for séances. Sometimes with only Maggie, sometimes with only Katy and sometimes with both, Leah presided over the meetings. Once guests arrived, they sat around a table, recited an opening prayer and sang. After joining hands and sitting in silence, Maggie or Katy fell into a trance. Then the audience heard the faint sound of ghostly raps.
Not everyone, of course, believed them. Members of Rochester’s clergy railed against them as witches and heretics. Some citizens considered the séances evil and unnatural. Still others thought the sisterly trio was mad. Privately, Maggie continued to wrestle with her own concept of reality. Complicating that was Leah’s sudden insistence that the spirits were real — a concept that her youngest sister, Katy, by then 12 years old, had readily accepted. Confused by her sisters’ reaction, Maggie became increasingly introverted and moody.
Only once did Maggie decide to revolt, and she did so by refusing to rap for 12 days. Abruptly the séances stopped, Leah grew tense and the household funds dwindled. The resultant upheaval was too much for Maggie to bear and finally she relented.
In the fall of 1849, Leah announced that the spirits had demanded that she and Maggie publicize spiritualism to the larger Rochester community. Hire Corinthian Hall, Rochester’s largest auditorium, they had proclaimed. The designated night was Wednesday, November 14, the time 7 p.m., the price of a ticket 25 cents. The audience, reported the Rochester Daily Democrat, was in the best possible humor, ready to be entertained by what they anticipated as an exposé of the sisters who they thought were perpetrating a fraud.
That night Maggie sat timorously on a platform at Corinthian Hall next to Leah and Mr. and Mrs. Post as a jeering audience hissed. Grudgingly, the Rochester Daily Democrat later admitted that THE GHOST was there…[but] the more the ghost rapped with that muffled tone, the higher rose the spirit of mirth.
Afterward, an outraged group of citizens demanded that a committee of Rochester’s most prominent citizens examine Maggie and Leah to discover the source of the sounds. The following morning the sisters complied, but following the committee’s investigation, its members remained perplexed. That Thursday night a committee representative confessed to the restive audience their inability to explain the phenomenon. Desperately, still other committees attempted to test Maggie and Leah — placing them on glass, on pillows and even by appointing a subcommittee of ladies to discover if they had concealed any machinery in their underclothes.
With each unsuccessful committee report, the crowds at Corinthian Hall grew increasingly raucous. On the final night, Saturday, November 17, tensions in the auditorium were palpable: Already a barrel of warmed tar had been detected in a stairway and removed. Finally, as a committee representative began to admit that the sounds defied explanation, Stamping, shrieking and all kinds of hideous noises…obliged him to desist, Isaac Post later wrote. Blinding cascades of light from firecrackers lit by raucous nonbelievers exploded in the back of the auditorium. In the resultant smoke and din, men howled that the females must have concealed lead balls in their dresses to make sounds and attempted to storm the stage. Thanks to police intervention, Maggie, Leah, the Posts and other terrified spiritualists were whisked out of the building.
Implying that the committee’s studies had been at worst rigged, or at best incomplete, the Rochester Daily Advertiser complained that the wary and eagle-eyed are kept out and excluded from an opportunity of investigation. A reporter at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune observed, It is difficult to understand why spirits, who act with as little reason as children or idiots, would spend time thumping the wall. The attendant publicity nevertheless transformed Maggie and her sisters into celebrities, and they were now recognized, for good or ill, as leaders of a new social and religious movement. They began to carry their message further afield.
In early June 1850, after touring Albany and Troy, the Fox sisters sailed down the Hudson River and arrived in New York City, where they soon began receiving guests and giving séances. Within two days of their arrival, they were invited to appear before some of Manhattan’s most illustrious literati — among them, historian George Bancroft; William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the progressive Evening Post; poet and essayist Henry Tuckerman; Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the society-minded Home Journal; and author James Fenimore Cooper.
That evening Maggie and her sisters raised the spirit of Cooper’s sister and so precisely described her fatal horseback riding accident of 50 years earlier that the famous author instantly became a believer. The New York Tribune‘s George Ripley, who also had been present, wrote: We are in the dark as any of our readers. The manners and bearing of the ladies are such as to create a prepossession in their favor. They have no theories to offer in explanation of the acts…and apparently have no control of their incomings and outgoings. Some newspapers that formerly had accused the Fox sisters of devil baiting and fraud now retracted their comments. Even the openly scornful New York Herald admitted that its reporter believed the ladies were in every sense incapable of any intentional deception.
Predictably, the Fox sisters — or Rochester Rappers as they were dubbed — were besieged with requests for séances. By summer’s end actress Mary Taylor crooned a new song on Broadway, The Rochester Rappers at Barnum’s Hotel. Inexpensive souvenirs were sold emblazoned with the Rochester Rappers. Ladies, you are the lions of New York! Tribune reporter Ripley finally told the sisters.
The Fox sisters became all the rage in New York City as they performed public séances. They caught the attention of wealthy, prominent citizens such as P.T. Barnum, James Fenmore Cooper, and more importantly Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribute who acted as a guardian of the sisters.
Mr. Greeley, grieving over the loss of his son, became very interested in Spiritualism. He was convinced of the mediums authenticity and took the Fox sisters into his home. Greeley publicly endorsed the sisters in his newspaper. This kind of attention launched them even further into the limelight. People were so taken with the sisters that they were willing to pay for their services. The sisters were subsequently showered with gifts and gratitude. Over time their communications with the spirit world became more elaborate. The spirits were able to communicate in various ways from spirit writing to table tipping to the even the more impressive appearance of ghostly apparitions. The sisters endured more rigorous testing. So much so that is was almost a violation of their privacy. They were bound by the ankles, made to stand on glass, and their undergarments were frequently checked for apparatuses that could render the noise of rappings.
In 1851, Norman Culver, a relative of the Fox family, admitted in a signed statement that she had assisted them during their séances by touching them to indicate when the raps should be made. She also claimed that Kate and Margaret revealed to her the method of producing the raps by snapping their toes and using their knees and ankles.
In the fall of 1888 when Maggie publicly admitted that spiritualism was a fraud, nonbelievers rejoiced. Advocates blamed it on the fact that for some time Maggie — as well as her sister Katy — had been slipping into severe alcoholism. A year later when Maggie recanted her confession, the credibility of the Fox sisters shriveled, and they slipped into obscurity. Katy died of end-stage alcoholism on July 1, 1892, and Maggie on March 8 the following year.
Yet the mysterious raps heard in Hydesville in 1848 sowed the seeds of spiritualism that have continued to sprout, evolve and flourish to the present day. Even today, spiritualism, represented by celebrity mediums, the practice of channeling, descriptions of near-death experiences, New Age philosophies, hundreds of books and a spate of new television shows and movies featuring conversations with the dead, continues to fascinate.
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 noisemaker, 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. Over the course of the next few days a 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.
“Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. 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 are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is 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. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.”
She also wrote:”A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: “I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.” Of course that was pure imagination.”
Harry Houdini, the magician who devoted a large part of his life to debunking Spiritualist claims, provided this insight:”As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland told me that an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person.”
Margaret later recanted her confession in writing in November, 1889, about a year after her toe-cracking exhibition. Houdini argued that as Margaret was living in poverty, she made the confession otherwise she would have starved. He also noted that Mr. Newton the President of the First Society of Spiritualists persuaded her to make the confession for the interest of Spiritualism. However, within a few years, both sisters died in poverty, shunned by former supporters and were buried in pauper’s graves.
All three sisters are interred in Brooklyn, New York.
Hydesville no longer exists but was a hamlet that was part of the township of Arcadia in Wayne County, New York just outside of Newark.There is a viewing area at the original site where the cellar can be seen pictures are below.