The phantom hoax that sparked a craze for spiritualism in the 19th century

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In March 1848, two young sisters in Hydesville, New York invented what they may have considered an amusing prank. Teenage Maggie Fox and her younger sister Kate claimed there was a spirit communicating with them by making otherworldly raps on the walls and furniture in their home. When their mother asked how many children she had had, the spirit seemed to rap the correct number. One of their neighbors would have witnessed these noises and the rumor spread that something strange was happening at the Foxes.

Maggie and Kate made the noises by cracking their knuckles, toes and other joints – a fact Maggie confessed to the New York world 40 years later, in 1888. By then, the childhood farce had gotten out of hand and the now adult sisters had become famous mediums. The Fox sisters and their public seances helped spark a craze for Spiritualism in the United States and Europe, based on the belief that it was possible for living humans to communicate with the dead.

The Fox sisters’ home in Hydesville, New York, as shown in 1848.

The affair of spiritualism

Shortly after Maggie and Kate’s supernatural discoveries, the girls went to live with their older sister Leah in Rochester. As the supernatural events continued, Leah “decided to make a small business out of it,” says Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox.

In November 1849, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, Maggie and Kate demonstrated their powers to a paying crowd of nearly 400 people. Newspapers began reporting on the girls, and the sisters soon staged public protests in New York.

Many people denounced the girls as fake – and some correctly guessed that the sisters were just cracking their joints – but many others believed they were witnessing a real spiritual phenomenon. Soon other people began to open their own shows in which they claimed to be “mediums” who could communicate with the dead.

The Fox sisters, Leah, Kate and Maggie, who played a role in the birth of Spiritualism.

The Fox sisters, Leah, Kate and Margaretta (Maggie), who were instrumental in the birth of spiritualism.

One of the key aspects that differentiated the Spiritualism craze from the religious and spiritual beliefs that preceded it was its connection to the growing media and entertainment industries in the United States and Europe. People working in the field of spiritualism gave paid theatrical performances with elaborate lighting, music, and table-tilting sessions. The Fox sisters have become celebrities, as have other self-proclaimed psychics.

In the 1850s, Ira and William Davenport became famous for what was essentially a magic show whose tricks they attributed to spiritual intervention. Many stage magicians differentiated themselves from Spiritualists like the Davenport Brothers by exposing what the Spiritualists did as a hoax (something illusionist Harry Houdini later became famous for). Despite these revelations, Spiritualism remained extremely popular throughout the 19th century.

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The lure of spiritualism

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All those who have attended spiritualistic shows did not believe what they saw. Some went as skeptics who wanted to see for themselves if there was anything convincing about what the Fox sisters or other mediums had done. Some attendees may have gone simply for the entertainment value. Yet, for many people, the displays of spiritualism were not only believable, but deeply comforting.

During and after the Civil War, many Americans found solace in the idea that they could communicate with the people they had lost. One of those people was Mary Todd Lincoln. During Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the first lady held seances at the White House in an attempt to communicate with her deceased children.

The craze for spiritualism also found many followers in Europe. After the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, the Queen held numerous seances at Buckingham Palace in order to speak to him.

Mourning jewelry for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria, pictured wearing mourning jewellery, including a bracelet featuring an image of Prince Albert, vs. 1895.

READ MORE: 8 famous people who believed they could communicate with the dead

Maggie’s confession to New York world in 1888 that her and her sister’s communication with the dead had been a hoax—along with her public display of how she cracked joints to make “rapping” noises—was big news among those interested in spiritualism.

At the public demonstration, attended by Kate and held shortly after Maggie’s confession was published, the New York Herald reported that Maggie “was greeted with cheers and whistles”.

“When I started this deception, I was too young to tell right from wrong,” Maggie told the crowd, according to the Herald. “That I played a vital role in perpetuating the fraud of Spiritualism on an overconfident public, many of you already know. It is the greatest sorrow of my life.”

Yet for believers, the news was not necessarily a blow to the credibility of spiritualism.

“There are many situations in which spirit mediums have been caught pretending, committing fraud, or spirit mediums have made statements similar to [Maggie’s confession]says Simone Natale, professor at the University of Turin in Italy and author of Supernatural Entertainment: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. “But that never really stopped people from believing it.”

It is unclear what motivated Maggie to confess that it had all been a hoax in 1888, or why exactly she retracted that confession the following year. Regardless of Maggie and Kate’s true feelings about their careers as psychics, the spiritualist craze they had unwittingly helped start continued to be popular well into the 20th century.

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