The Little Girls Who Invented Spiritualism in Victorian America

Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox
On the evening of March 31, 1848, occult history was made in the tiny town of Hydesville, New York.  Two young sisters, fifteen-year-old Maggie Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate, professed to talk to the spirit of a murdered peddler that they claimed had been buried in the basement of their rented house.

The family had been hearing strange noises for several weeks, but on that particular night the rapping or clicking sounds seemed to respond to questions. The neighbors were called in to witness the phenomenon and the notoriety soon grew.

The story of the murdered peddler inspired the men of the town to dig up the basement. Unfortunately, they struck water at four feet down and had to discontinue their search. The two girls were sent to live with two older siblings in separate towns, but the knocking and rapping sounds continued regardless of their domicile.

Kate moved in with her 34-year-old sister Leah, who lived in nearby Rochester and was fascinated by the ghostly communications. Soon she was inviting curious neighbors in for séances and the news spread widely that the spirit world was talking to the Fox sisters through their own version of a spiritual telegraph.

Skeptics began to question the nonsense and demanded to examine the young sisters to identify how they were actually creating the mysterious noises. The girls appeared in public before a jeering crowd and were "investigated" by several committees who ultimately could not explain the phenomenon. The public performances and the investigations were widely reported in the press, as far away as New York and the girls were soon celebrities.

By 1850, the Rochester Rappers, as the papers called them, were touring numerous cities and conducting séances for many well known individuals, including the author James Fenimore Cooper. Leah Fox managed her young sisters' appearances and "interpreted" the rappings.

Though many clergymen denounced spiritualism as either sideshow hokum or dangerous and demonic, the craze spread faster than a wildfire through America of the 1850's and 60's. Thousands wanted to communicate with their lost love ones and countless spiritualists began to practice the trade.

Mediums were so numerous, they formed professional associations and hosted annual meetings attended by practitioners from throughout the young country. A grieving Mary Todd Lincoln tried to contact the spirit of her deceased son during a séance conducted at the White House.

For the famous Fox sisters, the party came to a shocking end in 1888. Maggie Fox publicly announced that the actions of her and her sisters had been a colossal hoax. Before a large audience, she told that world that she and Kate had produced the sounds by popping their toe joints and snapping their toes together as one would snap one's fingers. She demonstrated this to the assembled group who clearly heard the sounds she made. Though Kate was present at the event, she neither confessed nor contradicted her sister.

A year later, Maggie recanted her confession. She claimed she had been destitute and a reporter had paid her $1500 to offer the exposé. The damage was done, though, and the reputation of the Fox sisters was ruined. Their story might have ended there--both Maggie and Kate were alcoholics and were dead within five years of the confession--but in 1905 the Rochester Rappers were back in the news.

Back in Hydesville, a wall in the basement of their childhood home collapsed, revealing a second wall which purportedly held the bones and a tin chest belonging to the murdered peddler. The story appeared in many newspapers, but skeptics claim this was just another hoax.


The Possibility of Ghosts: The World of the Victorian Occult--and its Modern (Televised) Counterpart

As readers of my last two mystery novels, Seance in Sepia and The Second Glass of Absinthe, know, I love researching--and writing about--the world of the Victorian occult. I plan on profiling at least one major figure in that world each week, starting soon.

Why am I doing this? Well, it actually has something to do with the novel I am currently writing. In it, the main character is an expert on the subject of Modern Spiritualism ("modern" in this case referring to the late 19th century) and has written a book on the subject which does just what I plan to do: profile prominent mediums and other practitioners who were famous in their own time.

Were they legitimate or were they fraudsters? Many were exposed during their lifetime to be charlatans, others were self-confessed hoaxers. Some were suspected of fraud but defied detection.  True believers in spiritualism, even today, still ask, did they successfully contact that other world that may exist in "the undiscovered country," as Shakespeare called death.

Now modern (21st century) readers are too sophisticated to believe in spiritualism, right? Wrong, that is, if you take note of the fact that there are currently on television more than three dozen shows about ghosts, haunted houses, and mediums!

Here is a partial list of shows that are currently or have recently been available for your viewing pleasure--if you subscribe to basic cable:

The notorious Fox sisters who are widely credited
with founding the movement called spiritualism in 1848

A Haunting
Haunted Hotels
American Paranormal
Celebrity Ghost Stories
Dead Famous
Extreme Paranormal
Ghost Adventures
Ghost Detectives
Ghost Hunters
Ghost Lab
Ghost Stories
Ghost Trackers
Ghostly Encounters
Ghosts Caught On Tape
Ghosts: Fact or Fiction
Haunted History
Haunted Homes
Haunting Evidence
Living with the Dead
Long Island Medium
Most Haunted
My Ghost Story
Mystery Hunters
Paranormal Cops
Psychic Witness
Scariest Places On Earth
The Haunted
The Othersiders
The Unexplained

What does this astoundingly long list tell us? That Americans in the 21st century believe in ghosts as much as their 19th century ancestors? I don't know if this is true, but I am certain that we love the possibility of ghosts.

Why? Well, for one thing, it's fun. It's fun to imagine that ghosts might exist. And it's scary and Americans love to be scared. (Just look at Stephen King's sales figures, if you don't believe this.)

A fascination with ghosts speaks to a deep and profound yearning in the human soul to know what happens after death. Most religions are grounded on this very basic fear and longing for an explanation. Plus the possibility of contacting or interacting in some way with the departed answers another kind of  longing in the hearts of all grieving people.

Of course, grief stricken people tend to be easier to exploit than more emotionally objective individuals and less-than-scrupulous 19th-century mediums were quick to capitalize on this fact. I tackled this issue in my recent novel, Seance in Sepia, when I explored the world of spirit photography. (Several posts in my blog archive on this subject can be found here. ) My current work in progress also poses the question of whether a spiritualist is committing fraud or not.

Stay tuned for weekly supernatural profiles in upcoming posts here at The Victorian West. First up will be the little girls who started it all: The Fox Sisters.