The Fox sisters were three sisters from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism: Leah (1814–1890), Margaret (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Kate (also called Catherine) Fox (1837–1892). The two younger sisters used "rappings" to convince their much older sister and others that they were communicating with spirits. Their older sister then took charge of them and managed their careers for some time. They all enjoyed success as mediums for many years.
In 1888, Margaret and Kate confessed that their rappings had been a hoax and publicly demonstrated their method. Margaret attempted to recant her confession the next year, but their reputation was ruined and in less than five years they were all dead, with Margaret and Kate dying in abject poverty. Spiritualism continued as if the confessions of the Fox sisters had never happened.
In 1848, the two younger sisters – Kate (age 12) and Margaret (age 15) – were living in a house in Hydesville, New York with their parents. Hydesville no longer exists but was a hamlet that was part of the township of Arcadia in Wayne County, New York just outside Newark. The house had some reputation for being haunted, but it wasn't until late March that the family began to be frightened by unexplained sounds that at times sounded like knocking and at other times like the moving of furniture.
In 1888, Margaret told her story of the origins of the mysterious "rappings":
- "When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young."
During the night of March 31, Kate challenged the invisible noisemaker, presumed to be a "spirit", to repeat the snaps of her fingers. "It" did. "It" was asked to rap out the ages of the girls. "It" did. The neighbours were called in. Over the course of the next few days a code was developed where raps could signify yes or no in response to a question or be used to indicate a letter of the alphabet.
The girls addressed the spirit as "Mr. Splitfoot" which is a nickname for the Devil. Later, the alleged "entity" creating the sounds claimed to be the spirit of a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered five years earlier and buried in the cellar. In his writings on the Fox sisters, Arthur Conan Doyle claimed the neighbors dug up the cellar and found a few pieces of bone, but it wasn't until 1904 that a skeleton was found, buried in the cellar wall. No missing person named Charles B. Rosna was ever identified.
Margaret Fox, in her later years noted:
- "They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer 'yes,' not three as we did afterwards. The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house. Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer."
Emergence as mediums
Kate and Margaret were sent to nearby Rochester during the excitement – Kate to the house of her sister Leah (now the married Leah Fox Fish), and Margaret to the home of her brother David – and the rappings followed them. Amy and Isaac Post, a radical Quaker couple and long-standing friends of the Fox family, invited the girls into their Rochester home. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena, they helped to spread the word among their radical Quaker friends, who became the early core of Spiritualists. In this way appeared the association between Spiritualism and radical political causes, such as abolition, temperance, and equal rights for women.
On 14 November 1849, the Fox sisters demonstrated their spiritualist rapping at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester. This was the first demonstration of spiritualism held before a paying public, and inaugurated a long history of public events featured by spiritualist mediums and leaders in the United States and in other countries.
The Fox girls became famous and their public séances in New York in 1850 attracted notable people including William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. They also attracted imitators; during the following few years, hundreds of people claimed the ability to communicate with spirits.
Kate and Margaret became well-known mediums, giving séances for hundreds of people. Many of these early séances were entirely frivolous, where sitters sought insight into "the state of railway stocks or the issue of love affairs," but the religious significance of communication with the deceased soon became apparent. Horace Greeley, the prominent publisher and politician, became a kind of protector for them, enabling their movement in higher social circles. But the lack of parental supervision was pernicious, as both of the young women began to drink wine.
The cracking of joints was the theory scientists and skeptics most favored to explain the rappings, a theory dating back to 1850. The physician E. P. Longworthy investigated the sisters and noted how the knockings or raps always came from under their feet or when their dresses were in contact with the table. He concluded that Margaret and Kate had produced the noises themselves. John W. Hurn who published articles in the New-York Tribune also came to a similar conclusion of fraud. The Reverend John M. Austin would later claim the noises could be made by cracking toe joints. The Reverend D. Potts demonstrated to an audience that the raps could be made by this method.
In 1851, the Reverend C. Chauncey Burr wrote in the New-York Tribune that by cracking toe joints the sounds were so loud, they could be heard in a large hall. In the same year three investigators Austin Flint, Charles E. Lee and C. B. Coventry from the University at Buffalo examined the raps produced by the sisters and concluded they were produced by cracking their bone joints such as toes, knees, ankles or hips. From a control, they discovered the raps did not occur if the sisters were placed on a couch with cushions under their feet.
In 1853, Charles Grafton Page of Washington, D.C investigated the Fox sisters. As a patent examiner and patent advocate, Page had developed a keen eye for detecting fraudulent claims about science. He applied these skills in exposing some of the deceptions employed by the Fox sisters during two sessions which he attended. In his book Psychomancy (1853), Page observed that the rapping sounds came from underneath the girls' long dresses. When he asked if the spirits could produce a sound at a distance from their own bodies, one girl climbed into a wardrobe closet where her dress touched the wood, whence the sound transmitted into the wood plank — however, she was unable to control this sound sufficiently to produce spirit communications. Page devised contraptions that emulated the rapping sounds produced by the girls, which could be concealed under long clothing. He declaimed the girls' means of hiding from bodily examination that would expose their fraud:
- The feminine security of these rappers against the inspection of their actual quomodo... if by search warrant, stratagem, or vi et armis, the rapping instrument of these Fox girls had been exposed to the public, there would not have been one doubt about the nature and origin of the spiritual communications.
In 1857, the Boston Courier set up a prize of $500 to any medium who could demonstrate paranormal ability to their committee. The Fox sisters attempted to win the prize and were investigated by three Harvard professors. They failed the test, the committee concluded the raps were produced by bone and feet movements.
A report by the Seybert Commission in 1887 stated that after investigating various mediums including Margaret; the phenomena could have easily been produced by fraudulent methods. The report noted that the raps were heard close to Margaret and a séance sitter, Professor Furness had felt pulsations in her foot.
Kate was one of mediums examined by William Crookes, the prominent physicist, between 1871 and 1874, who concluded the raps were genuine. However, Crookes was described as gullible and the mediums he investigated were caught using trickery.
In 1904, the body associated with the peddler spirit was supposedly found in the cellar when a false wall fell down. The Boston Journal published a story about the discovery on November 22, 1904. The tin box of the peddler was found in the cellar and is now in the Lily Dale Museum. Skeptical researcher Joe Nickell concluded after researching the box and the primary sources of the bones that they constituted further hoaxing. The bones were, at least in part, those of animals. There has been no confirmation that the peddler existed. Also, the alleged false wall appears to be due to an expansion of the foundation, not concealment of a secret grave.
Leah, on the death of her first husband, married a successful Wall Street banker. Margaret met Elisha Kane, the Arctic explorer, in 1852. Kane was convinced that Margaret and Kate were engaged in fraud, under the direction of their sister Leah, and he sought to break Margaret from the group. Kane married Margaret nonetheless, and Margaret converted to the Roman Catholic faith. When Kane died in 1857, Margaret returned to her activities as a medium. In 1876 she joined her sister Kate, who was living in England.
Kate had traveled to England in 1871, the trip paid for by a wealthy New York banker, so that she would not be compelled to accept payment for her services as a medium. The trip was apparently considered missionary work, since Kate sat only for prominent persons, who would let their names be printed as witnesses to a séance. In 1872, Kate married H.D. Jencken, a London barrister, legal scholar, and enthusiastic Spiritualist. Jencken died in 1881, leaving Kate with two sons.
In 1851, Mrs. Norman Culver, a relative of the Fox family, admitted in a signed statement that she had assisted them during their séances by touching them to indicate when the raps should be made. She also claimed that Kate and Margaret revealed to her the method of producing the raps by snapping their toes and using their knees and ankles.
Over the years, sisters Kate and Margaret had developed serious drinking problems. Around 1888, they became embroiled in a quarrel with their sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who were concerned that Kate was drinking too much to care properly for her children. At the same time, Margaret, contemplating a return to the Roman Catholic faith, became convinced that her powers were diabolical. Eager to harm Leah as much as possible, the two sisters traveled to New York City, where a reporter offered $1,500 if they would "expose" their methods and give him an exclusive on the story. Margaret appeared publicly at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, with Kate present. Before an audience of 2,000, Margaret demonstrated how she could produce – at will – raps audible throughout the theater. Doctors from the audience came on stage to verify that the cracking of her toe joints was the source of the sound.
Margaret told her story of the origins of the mysterious "rappings" in a signed confession given to the press and published in New York World, October 21, 1888. In it, she explained the Hydesville events.
She expanded on her career as a medium after leaving the homestead to begin her Spiritualist travels with her older sister, Mrs. Underhill:
- "Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. My sister Katie 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 practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. ... This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps."
She also wrote:
- "A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: "I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder." Of course that was pure imagination."
Harry Houdini, the magician who devoted a large part of his life to debunking Spiritualist claims, provided this insight:
- "As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland told me that an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person."
Pressured by the Spiritualist movement and her own dire financial circumstances, Margaret recanted her confession in writing in November 1889, about a year after her exhibition. She had attempted to return to Spiritualist performances, but never again attracted the attention or paying clientele of the sisters' earlier careers. Within a few years, both sisters died in poverty, shunned by former supporters and were buried in pauper's graves. All three sisters are interred in Brooklyn, New York.
Rejection of Spiritualism
Margaret and Katie made very strong statements against Spiritualism:
- "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 has been that this is true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, the whole 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." – Margaretta Fox Kane, quoted in A. B. Davenport, The Deathblow to Spiritualism, p. 76. (Also see New York World, for October 21, 1888 and New York Herald and New York Daily Tribune, for October 22, 1888.)
- "I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known." – Katie Fox Jencken, New York Herald, October 9, 1888.
The Fox sisters have become widely cited in parapsychology and spiritualist literature. According to the psychologists Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones "today, many accounts of the Fox sisters leave out their confession of fraud and present the rappings as genuine manifestations of the spirit world." C. E. M. Hansel also noted that "remarkably, the Fox sisters are still discussed in the parapsychological literature without mention of their trickery."
- Tyson, Philip; Jones, Dai; Elcock, Jonathan. (2011). Psychology in Social Context: Issues and Debates. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 196. ISBN 978-1-4443-9623-2
- Podmore, Frank. (2011, originally published in 1902). Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism. Cambridge University Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-1-108-07257-1 "In the autumn of 1888 Mrs. Kane (Margaretta Fox) and Mrs. Jencken (Catherine Fox) made public, and apparently spontaneous, confession, that the raps had been produced by fraudulent means. Mrs. Kane even gave demonstrations before large audiences of the actual manner in which the toe joints had been used at the early seances. Mrs. Jencken, at any rate, if not also Mrs. Kane, afterwards recanted her confession."
- Lehman, Amy. (2009). Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. McFarland. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-7864-3479-4 "By the 1880s, Maggie, like her sister Kate who was now widowed after losing her English husband Jenckens, had become a full-blown alcoholic. In 1888, the sisters confessed that they had faked the ghostly rapping which precipitated the age of spirit contact. They claimed to have produced knocking sounds by manipulating and cracking the joints in their feet and knees. For a while they made money giving lectures about this "deathblow" to Spiritualism. However, before she died, Maggie recanted the confession, and Kate began conveying spirit messages to close friends once again. Ultimately, trance mediumship brought the sisters neither wealth nor happiness. Both died in penurious circumstances, essentially drinking themselves to death."
- Wiseman, Richard. (2011). Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There. Macmillan. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-230-75298-6 "The only real impact of the confession was to distance the sisters from their supporters. The vast majority of Spiritualists were eager to cling to the comforting thought that they might survive bodily death, and they were not going to let a couple of rambling alcoholics stand in the way of immortality. But although Margaretta tried to retract her remarks shortly after confessing all, for the Fox sisters at least, the damage had been done. Increasingly distanced from the movement that they helped to create, both sisters died in poverty a few years later and were buried in pauper’s graves. Neither made contact from the spirit world."
- Peck, William F. (1908). History of Rochester and Monroe County. pp. 76–77. Retrieved November 14, 2009.
- Weisberg, Barbara. (2004). Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. HarperOne. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0-06-075060-X
- Houdini, Harry. (2011, originally published in 1924). A Magician Among the Spirits. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1-17. ISBN 978-1-108-02748-9
- Doyle, Arthur Conan. (1926). The History of Spiritualism. Cassell And Company Ltd. pp. 56-85
- Doyle, Arthur Conan. (1926). The History of Spiritualism. Cassell And Company Ltd. pp. 89-111
- Braude, Ann. (2001). Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21502-1
- Natale, Simone (2016). Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-07104-6.
- Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76709-6. p. 263
- Hansel, C. E. M. (1989). The Search for Psychic Power. Prometheus Books. pp. 233-236. ISBN 0-87975-516-4
- Page, Charles Grafton. (1853). Psychomancy: Spirit-Rappings and Table-Tippings Exposed. New-York, D. Appleton and Company. pp. 40-68
- Neher, Andrew. (2011). Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. Dover Publications. p. 214. ISBN 978-0486261676 "William Crookes, the noted English physicist, had endorsed Catherine Fox as genuine... Crookes also endorsed several other mediums who were later exposed, including Anna Eva Fay (who was exposed more than once and who eventually explained how she duped Crookes), Florence Cook (who was the subject of more than one expose), and D. D. Home."
- Zusne, Leonard; Jones, Warren H. (2014). Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. Psychology Press. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-805-80508-6 "The fact is that William Crookes, although very good at physics experiments, was rather weak on drawing inferences and on theorizing. Besides, he was gullible. He endorsed several mediums in spite of their demonstrated trickery. Having witnessed a single seance with Kate Fox, he became convinced that the Fox sisters' rappings were genuine."
- "Bones in "Old Spook House"". The Boston Journal. Retrieved 2013-09-06.
- Nickell, Joe. (2008). "A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism". Csicop.org. Retrieved 2014-10-11.
- Kurtz, Paul. (1985). Spiritualists, Mediums and Psychics: Some Evidence of Fraud. In Paul Kurtz (ed.). A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. pp. 177-223. ISBN 0-87975-300-5
- Carpenter, William Benjamin. (2011, originally published in 1877). Mrs. Culver's Statement. In Mesmerism, Spiritualism, etc.: Historically and Scientifically Considered. Cambridge University Press. pp. 150-152. ISBN 978-1-108-02739-7
- Davenport, Reuben Briggs. (1888). The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the true story of the Fox sisters, as revealed by authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. New York: G. W. Dillingham.
- Find-A-Grave, Margaretta (Fox) Kane, Retrieved Oct. 27, 2014.
- Find-A-Grave, Catherine "Kate" (Fox) Jencken, Retrieved Oct. 27, 2014.
- Find-A-Grave, Leah (Fox) Underhill, Retrieved Oct. 27, 2014.
- Zusne, Leonard; Jones, Warren. (1989). Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-805-80507-9
- Chapin, David. (2004). Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity. University of Massachusetts Press.
- Davenport, Reuben Briggs. (1888). The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the true story of the Fox sisters, as revealed by authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. New York: G. W. Dillingham.
- Edinger, Ray. (2015). Love and Ice: The Tragic Obsessions of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic Explorer. Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, Publisher.
- Hansel, C. E. M. (1989). The Search for Psychic Power. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-516-4
- Houdini, Harry. (2011, originally published in 1924). A Magician Among the Spirits. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-02748-9
- Mann, Walter. (1919). The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism. Rationalist Association. London: Watts & Co.
- Natale, Simone (2016) Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-07104-6.
- Page, Charles Grafton. (1853). Psychomancy: Spirit-Rappings and Table-Tippings Exposed. New-York, D. Appleton and Company.
- Stuart, Nancy Rubin. 2005. The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. New York, Harcourt.
- Wiseman, Richard. (2011). Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-75298-6
- See video and pictures of original stone foundation of the Fox sisters homestead in Hydesville, New York by Rev. Brian Kent
- The Fox Sisters: Communicating with the Beyond, Spiritualism and the Lily Dale Community by John H. Martin
- Boston Journal article from 1904 regarding the discovery of a body in the cellar of the Fox sisters' house.
- Photograph of Kate and Maggie Fox, New York, 1852. Thomas M. Easterly. From the Missouri History Museum.