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.

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