The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism in the United States

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Leah, Kate and Maggie Fox pulled off an elaborate prank for 40 years, convincing audiences they could communicate with spirits.

Lithograph by Currier and Ives/Getty ImagesThe Fox sisters, Margaretta “Maggie”, Catherine “Kate” and Leah.

In 1848, the small town of Hydesville, New York was not known for much. But in April of that year, locals began flocking to a small farmhouse to witness the strange powers of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who seemed able to conjure spirits that mysteriously knocked on the walls.

As stunned neighbors watched, the girls apparently persuaded underworld spirits to answer a series of questions by typing in an answer. Soon after, Maggie and Kate’s sister Leah began visiting them across the state, where the ghostly “raps” shocked audiences.

But Maggie and Kate had a secret. The raps were actually produced through a technique they had developed by cracking the joints of their toes and feet. And although the Fox sisters started the spiritualism craze in the United States, they would soon expose it as a fraud.

The mysterious haunting in Hydesville

Night after night on a small farm in Hydesville, New York, a ghost seemed to appear after the family slept. It was making terrible noises in the dark, hammering “thumps” on the walls and furniture of the house. But the ghost wasn’t an evil spirit – it was the Fox sisters, Maggie, 14, and Kate, 11.

According HistoryNet, the sisters had devised a way to make loud noises with their toes. By cracking their joints and slamming their big and second toes against wooden floors or furniture, they could create a sound loud enough to wake their parents. Their mother, Margaret, was scared; their father, John, was dubious.

The sisters really enjoyed the stuffing. But on March 31, the situation got out of control. That night, as the beatings began, Kate suddenly clapped twice and shouted, “Mr. Splitfoot, do like me!

Fox House in Hydesville

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesThe Fox House in Hydesville, New York, where American spiritualism was born.

The “ghost” responded with two knocks. According Living roomMargaret Fox then engages in a kind of discussion with “Mr. Splitfoot”, asking him to tell her how many children she had (six raps), if it was a spirit (two raps, yes) and s he had been injured on their farm (two raps, yes).

The male “spirit” explained through raps that he had once been a peddler. Five years earlier, he says, according to the Paris reviewsomeone had murdered him for $500 and buried him under the Fox Farm.

Margaret Fox quickly summoned the neighbors to hear the knocks themselves. According to The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox, the Fox sisters were horrified by the sudden turn of events. As Maggie later wrote, they continued the ruse because they thought going to confession would get them in trouble with their parents and their preacher.

Left with no other choice, the Fox sisters rehearsed their performance for their disbelieving neighbors that night and the next. Before long, news of the strange ghostly rap began to spread beyond Hydesville.

Still, Maggie and Kate might have been dismissed as a weird curiosity if their sister Leah hadn’t caught wind of what was going on. She quickly traveled to Hydesville from her home in Rochester, seemingly determined to turn her sisters’ ride into a fortune.

The Fox Sisters and the Rise of Spiritualism

Table Rapper

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA depiction of 19th century “table rapping” as popularized by the Fox sisters.

By the time the Fox sisters began crunching their toes to scare their parents, interest in “the afterlife” was at an all-time high. According Smithsonian magazine, the ideas of characters like Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish mystic, and Andrew Jackson Davis, a 19th-century American “seer,” had begun to take hold in the United States.

Swedenborg believed that spirits existed on different “planes” and claimed to have seen and spoken to them. Davis took Swedenborg’s ideas a step further and wrote that “the spirits commune with each other while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres”.

At the same time, as the Paris review notes, new technologies like the railroad and the telegraph were transforming the United States. The world was different and strange, and many Americans didn’t think communicating with the dead was much more disconcerting than communicating with someone across the ocean.

Then came Leah Fox, who saw a chance to capitalize on the newfound interest in spirits with her sisters’ prank. According to Paris review, she soon began charging the public a dollar to see them communicate at her home in Rochester, New York. Maggie and Kate had confessed the truth to him, and they felt they had no choice but to obey his orders.

Despite skeptics, the Fox sisters’ act quickly spread. After playing in upstate New York, they quickly gained a wider audience in New York.

“We are in the dark like any of our readers,” wrote George Ripley of the New York Grandstandaccording HistoryNet, after seeing the Fox sisters. “The manners and bearing of the ladies are such as to create a prejudice in their favour. They have no theory to offer to explain the acts…and apparently have no control over their ins and outs.

According to Paris review“rap” became a national phenomenon in 1850. As the Fox sisters performed their feat for such figures as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and New York Grandstand Horace Greeley, editor, men and women across the United States claimed they could do the same.

Thus, between 1853 and 1855, according to HistoryNet, millions of Americans have come to believe in spiritualism. But the movement had a significant non-believer: Maggie Fox herself.

Were the Fox Sisters a fraud?

Maggie Fox Kane

Public domainMaggie Fox later denounced Spiritualism as a fraud, although she recanted a year later.

When she was 17, Maggie Fox found something more powerful than fame or spirits: love. As the Paris review writing, she met Elisha Kane in 1852 and fell in love with the young explorer. Kane, a skeptic, urged Maggie to abandon her “life of dreary similarity and alleged deception”, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Maggie soon retired, but Kane’s death five years later threw her into a deep depression. As Maggie began to drink heavily, Kate continued to practice spiritualism, which enjoyed another resurgence in popularity during the dreary and deadly Civil War years. But work began to grumble Kate, and she also became an alcoholic.

In 1888, both sisters were disillusioned with the movement – and Maggie decided to denounce Spiritualism once and for all. Maybe, like Smithsonian magazine notes, she was driven by anger at Leah and other spiritualists, who had criticized Kate for her drinking. But maybe Maggie just wanted to put their decades-old lie to bed.

“My sister Katie and I were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie announced onstage on October 21, 1888 in New York City, according to Living room. “We were very mischievous children and only wanted to scare our dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily spooked.”

Then she lifted the lid on the Fox sisters’ number. According to Maggie, she and Kate had simply learned to crunch their toes loudly. As the audience watched, she even demonstrated how it works.

“A lot of people when they hear the rap immediately imagine the spirits touching them,” Maggie added. “It’s a very common delusion. Really rich people came to me a few years ago when I lived on Forty-Second Street and I did some raps for them. on the chair and one of the ladies shouted, “I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder. Of course, it was pure imagination.”

In the aftermath, Leah claimed Maggie was simply an attention seeker who spoke out against spiritualism for a $1,500 speaking fee, according to the Paris review. And, indeed, Maggie retracted her confession a year later.

“At the time, I was in great need of money and people (…) took advantage of the situation,” she said, according to Living room. “The excitement, too, upset my mental balance. When I made these terrible statements, I was not responsible for my words.

By this time, the spiritualist movement had become much larger than the Fox sisters. They died – Leah in 1890, Kate in 1892 and Maggie in 1893 – without any fanfare. Since then, their minds have been much calmer than the Fox sisters were in life, with no raps, no peeks, to hear.


After reading about the Fox sisters, browse through these facts about the Victorian era. Or dive into the “spiritual photography” trend.

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