The 1840’s were a time of great uncertainty in the United States with immigration from Germany, Scandinavia, and in particular famine hit Ireland continuing apace leading to overcrowding in the cities of the north with diseases such as cholera and diphtheria reaching almost epidemic levels; but as the north industrialised the south remained stagnant both socially and economically impeded in its progress by the institution of slavery which burned deep into the American psyche branding a nation born in freedom with the stigma of bondage.
The wilderness of the west also remained as yet un-tamed and the call for Americans to go forth to conquer the continent and achieve their Manifest Destiny was heard by the many desperate to escape the filth and poverty of the city.
With such uncertainty comes the longing for understanding and the birth pangs of the United States as a great nation corresponded with a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening as people were drawn in their hundreds of thousands to the Protestant Churches - Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian, Calvinist, Lutheran etc. More established religions such as Anglicanism and Catholicism also flourished as did religious sects such as the Shakers, Dunkers, and Mormons.
All benefited from the desire to find God in a world beset by the frailty of man.
None of this would have been of any interest to two young girls growing up in the town of Hydesville near New York but it had created the environment which would lend credence to their later claims.
They were Margaretta Fox aged 14 and her sister Catherine, aged 12.
They lived in a house that was already rumoured to be haunted.
In early 1848, the family became increasingly disturbed by peculiar happenings – there were knocking sounds akin to ghostly footsteps, doors would suddenly slam shut or windows burst open, furniture had been moved.
The girl’s mother Margaret, was clearly upset concerned there was a malevolent spirit loose but her husband John, a blacksmith and a hands-on practical man merely scoffed at such nonsense declaring it to be the result of a loose floorboard or a poorly hinged window bracket.
But his wife’s mind was not so easily put at rest.
Events reached their apex when late at night on 31 March 1848 she was awoken from a deep sleep with a start – doors were slamming and curtains flapping as the wind howled through open windows. She rose from her bed and lighting a candle nervously began to search the house before finally arriving at her daughter’s bedroom.
She was clearly frightened but Kate was awake and told her mother that she was unafraid and if it was a spirit then she would confront it.
Mrs Fox was not so sure but Kate peering into the darkness challenged it that was making the knocking sounds to repeat them, and after a slight pause, it did. She then asked it to rap out the ages of both girls, again it did.
Whereas her mother had been terrified into silence Kate appeared to be enjoying herself and using an old name for the devil demanded in a loud voice:
“Mr Splitfoot, do as I do.”
She proceeded to stamp her feet a number of times and the noises were repeated from somewhere else in the house.
She snapped her fingers and again the sound was echoed, she clapped her hands four times and demanded the spirit do the same - it did.
It appeared that Kate had made contact with the spirit world but seeing her mother so afraid Kate took pity on her and tried to explain it away:
“Oh mother, it is April Fool Day tomorrow, it is just someone trying to deceive us.”
But her mother was no longer listening, she was convinced she was in communion with the dead and her courage appeared to return as she began to question the spirit herself – how many children had she borne? How many were still alive? How old were they? Each time the spirit answered with raps, and each time answered correctly.
She wanted to know who the spirit was and so Kate told her - it was a father of five children who had died two years previously.
Would the spirit return and make its presence known if she invited her neighbours the following evening? If so could it make two raps?
There was a long delay but as she turned to leave the two raps were heard, it would return.
The following night a curious crowd gathered at the Fox family home many of whom were sceptical at Mrs Fox’s more outlandish claims including her husband John but were intrigued enough to suspend their disbelief for the time being and so once the girls had been searched for any contraptions and devices the séance began.
But their initial scepticism was only reinforced by what they heard, a series of creaking floorboards and barely audible cracking sounds and it wasn’t until one of those present devised a code related to the alphabet whereby the spirit could respond to specific questions, and did, that some were willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
As the evening drew to its close the girls, who had warmed to their task provided their own explanation as to why the house was supposedly haunted. They had been in communion with a peddler named Charles Rosma, they said, who had been murdered in the house and his body buried in the cellar.
Their revelation had unfortunate consequences for one local resident who having refused to attend the séance found that suspicion for the murder fell upon him even though there had been no report of a crime having been committed and no one could remember ever meeting a Charles Rosma.
He was later ostracised from the community and forced to leave.
Although many left the house that night shaking their heads in bewilderment those who did believe did so with enthusiasm and the excitement generated was such that Kate and Maggie were for a time separated and sent to live with relatives.
Their notoriety soared when various religious groups among them the Quakers proved willing to validate their claims but fame does not always equate to acceptance or popularity and the girls soon came under the microscope and a great deal of criticism including from their own Minister who requested the family cease attending Methodist Chapel for reasons of behaving inappropriately and causing offence.
It is possible that both Kate and Maggie frightened by what they had done might have left it there but for the intervention of their elder sister, 33 year old Leah, who lived some miles away in Rochester and had learned of the events in Hydesville from the newspapers.
Leah, who already had an interest in spiritualism having recently read a book that popularised the theories of the seventeenth century Scandinavian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg who believed that life mirrored the spirit world that ran parallel to it and that the real sphere of existence prevailed in the afterlife and would one day reveal itself.
Was this what was happening in Hydesville, were her sisters the heralds of a new revelation? She thought they might be and set off to find out.
Her disappointment when told by her sisters that it was in fact all a prank can be imagined but her interest in the afterlife had not diminished her grip on the present one and she soon saw in their notoriety a means to make money.
Death was an everyday occurrence in New York, a city where even the charismatic preachers of the Second Great Awakening had failed to make a significant impact but there remained a yearning for peace of mind and spiritualism offered solace where the mainstream religions had failed to do so.
Leah was to cajole, bully, and threaten her reluctant sisters into compliance with her plans telling them that should it ever be revealed that they had merely devised a game designed to amuse themselves, and frighten their mother then they would never be forgiven – it would have to remain a secret for the rest of their lives.
She would be their guardian, protector and manager she told them. Do as I say and I will make us all very rich - the sisters then taught her their tricks, and she was to exploit both for all they were worth.
Leah was determined to create her own faith based upon her sister’s ability to communicate with the dead forming a bridge to the recently departed with no need for prayer and the burden religious observance.
On 14 November 1849, the sisters demonstrated their ability to communicate with the spirit world at Corinthians Hall in Rochester. It was the first time such an event had been held before a paying audience and it was to spawn a thousand imitators.
Many more performances would follow as it became apparent that people were willing to suspend their disbelief in the cause of hope and that even those who were not would pay for the opportunity to voice their scepticism.
The performances stuck rigidly to a familiar and well-rehearsed format: the three sisters would sit around a table and there would be some speaking in tongues before they joined hands and a prayer was recited and a hymn sung.
Maggie and Kate would then go into a trance and the cracks, the rapping, and the eerie sounds would begin as Leah interpreted events and guided the audience through proceedings.
Most listened in silence entranced and enraptured but some would shout their scorn to which Leah would respond that the spirits were real and that the dead were always in contact with the living even if the living needed the Fox Sisters to be their conduit.
By the mid-1850’s they were regularly performing in theatres throughout the New York area where the great and good of society such as the author James Fenimore Cooper, the doyen of the abolitionist movement William Lloyd Garrison, and the great newspaper editor Horace Greely were often in attendance.
Some believed and some did not but the fee remained the same.
In 1857, the sisters entered a competition being held by the Boston Courier Newspaper to prove the existence or otherwise of paranormal activity.
Putting their reputation on the line in such a public way was high risk but the pressure on them to participate was intense and the $500 prize on offer simply too great to ignore.
Despite the experts being unconvinced and concluding that they were simply participants in an elaborate hoax it little tarnished the Fox Sisters prestige or impeded the growth of the spiritualist movement of which they remained at the forefront.
Spiritualism was given a further boost by the terrible bloodshed of the American Civil War and the deep trauma it caused. There had even been séances performed at the White House following the death of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s young son Willie, with the President even attending on one occasion though he was to leave disgruntled long before the end.
No one benefited more from the renewed interest in spiritualism than the Fox Sisters and they continued to perform before sell-out audiences and conduct private séances for wealthy clients as never before.
And they were no longer simply the purveyors of unexplained sounds but having learned the tricks of the trade they could make objects move and perform acts of levitation. They would also take questions direct from the audience predicting the winning lottery ticket number, moves in the stock market, and the future husband of lovelorn young women.
They were in the entertainment business and the audiences lapped it up but the critics remained and committees continued to be formed to investigate the validity of their claims but just as the sisters could not prove their authenticity the experts could not with any certainty show them false.
The sisters of course knew the truth but whereas Kate was willing to buy into the fiction Maggie who was herself deeply religious and had recently converted to Roman Catholicism often felt ill-at-ease and struggled with her conscience.
Indeed, she was to become convinced that spiritualism was akin to dabbling in the occult and was increasingly frightened by her association with it.
Despite the great deal of money both sisters had made over the previous decades neither was rich and both blamed Leah’s financial mismanagement for this and so when a sceptical journalist offered them $1,500 to reveal what he called the artifices of their trade the temptation was to prove great.
For Maggie it was the opportunity to relieve, herself of the burden of guilt that so tormented her; Kate on the other hand doubted it was for the best but needed the money.
On 21 October 1888, before an audience of 2,000 at the New York Academy of Music including a panel of experts who would validate their revelations Maggie with a nervous and unhappy Kate alongside her confessed all.
She was to describe how as children upon learning the house they were living in was supposedly haunted they decided to have some fun with it and how they did so but first there was a denunciation and an expression of regret:
"That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know. The greatest sorrow in my life is that this has been true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!
I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.
When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a piece of string moving the string up and down causing the apple to bump on the floor making a strange sound every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She could not understand it and did not think us capable of doing tricks being so young.”
She then described how their ruse became more sophisticated.
“My sister Kate 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 practised until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear it is astonishing how easy it is done.”
She went onto explain how it was being able to make these loud raps with the finger and toe joints on demand that was the trick.
“A great many people when they heard the rapping thought the spirit was touching them. It’s pure imagination.”
Kate had also denounced spiritualism in the press prior to their public confession though she had done so in a manner that had left her words open to interpretation.
Once Maggie had completed her address to the audience both sisters were examined by a panel of experts who sought proof that they could indeed make those mysterious rapping sounds merely by manipulating their fingers and toes with Kate who had become increasingly uneasy as the night had worn on only doing so reluctantly.
The Fox Sisters confession caused a sensation, the most famous mediums in the world who had spawned an entire movement had been propounding a decade’s long hoax – how could they!
In her written mea culpa ‘The Death Blow to Spiritualism’ Maggie stated:
“We could not confess the wrong without exacting very great anger on the part of those we had deceived. So we went right on.”
Maggie was to recant her confession the following year and along with Kate return to spiritualism as the means to make ends meet but the damage had been too great and their reputation could not be restored.
All three sisters had long been popular guests on the New York party circuit and had become heavy drinkers as a result. It had taken its toll.
Leah Fox, whose drunkenness had long been blamed for the squandering of their fortunes and with whom the other sisters were barely been on speaking terms died in 1890, aged 74.
Catherine Fox died on 1 July 1892, aged 56, from complications related to advanced alcoholism.
Margaretta Fox passed away on 8 March the following year, aged 59.
All three sisters had died in poverty the subjects of scorn and derision as the movement they had helped found continued to grow and go from strength to strength.