The Power of Belief: A History of Spiritualism (Part I)


How Two Young Girls Started a New Religion Without Even Trying

Spiritualism was an accident, and it was an accident of humble and disturbing origin.

It began in a rented two-story cottage in rural Hydesville, New York, in the spring of 1848. The Fox family had just moved to the area in December of the previous year, with plans to build a new home. At that time the household consisted of John and Margaret Fox, both in late middle age, and their two youngest daughters, Margaretta (called Maggie) and Catherine (called Cathie or Katie). John was a blacksmith and farmer with a history of alcoholism. Margaret had threatened to leave him more than once. At this point in their lives, however, they seemed to be handling domestic life. Both were devout Methodists, with many Quaker friends.

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the ages of the Fox daughters. Family members and supporters, wishing to portray Maggie and Katie as innocent youngsters, would shave several years off the girls’ ages in their accounts of the events at Hydesville, and their ages fluctuated wildly in later retellings. Maggie herself would insist she was just 8 years old in 1848, and Katie 6. In reality, Maggie was born in 1833 and Katie in 1837. They were 14 and 11. All of the earliest reports describe the girls as teenagers.

John and Margaret had other grown children. A son named David was married with kids of his own and lived on a farm about two miles from the Hydesville cottage. The Foxes’ oldest was Ann (called Leah), a single mother who would become central to the events that unfolded that spring. Her age is even more difficult to pin down than her sisters’, because Maggie would say Leah was a whopping 23 years her senior. This was impossible. Margaret and John married in 1812, and Leah was likely born a year or two into their marriage. That would mean she was in her early- to mid-thirties in 1848, rather than approaching middle age. This is reinforced by the fact that she bore children in the late 1850s. However, Leah would say she was in her very early twenties in 1848.

Leah had been abandoned by her first husband, a man named Fish, as a teenager and supported herself and her daughter, Lizzie, by giving music lessons in Rochester.

Almost as soon as they moved into the cottage, the Foxes began hearing nocturnal thumps and tapping sounds. These noises seemed to come from the walls, the floors, the stairs, the ceilings. They disturbed everyone’s sleep. Margaret, in particular, was flustered and mystified by these strange noises and made every effort to discover their origin, with no success. Her girls swore they were not making the noises, and that appeared to be true; when Maggie and Katie were in the bedroom they shared, the knocking and thumping could sound like it was coming from the roof or the stairs.

Maggie and Katie, as they revealed in middle age, were only pretending to be as baffled as their parents. Secretly, they had become adept at creating the raps via several different methods. They would drop apples to the floor, or tie one to a string and bounce it quickly before stowing it under their bedcovers. Most often, they covertly cracked the joints of their toes and fingers. They learned to flex their toes against hard surfaces, such as bedsteads and floors, and crack the joints loudly enough to simulate a knocking sound.

Then there was a startling development that simultaneously horrified and intrigued Mrs. Fox: The rapping sounds responded to Katie and Maggie when the girls clapped their hands or snapped their fingers. Katie would snap as she circled a room, and raps would resound from the walls after each snap or clap. Mrs. Fox now suspected that her daughters were possessed by a spirit. The girls only encouraged her belief. Disturbingly, they referred to the entity as “Mr. Splitfoot”, another name for the Devil.

The noises increased throughout the early spring and disrupted their parents’ sleep all through the last two weeks of March.

Why did Maggie and Katie – one already a teenager, the other nearing adolescence – carry on these pranks for so long? Was it out of boredom? Was it just mischievous fun? Or were they genuinely unhappy, being in a new home in an isolated hamlet? Maggie had resented the move from bustling Rochester to a rented farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Maybe all the toe-cracking was the only aggression the sisters felt safe in unleashing on their parents. Watching their mother scurry around the cottage, desperate to pinpoint phantom noises, must have brought them a great deal of satisfaction. The spirits soon interfered with their father’s morning prayers and disrupted family meals.

According to Leah’s memoir, the family may have been inclined to believe in ghosts and the supernatural (though they all insisted they were nonbelievers at this early stage). Mrs. Fox’s maternal grandmother, Margaret Rutan, had spoken of attending “phantom funerals” in her sleep. She would see a ghostly procession heading to a graveyard and witness the burial. Afterwards, the person she had envisioned going into the grave would actually die.

Family legend had it that Margaret’s sister had seen the date of death on her own gravestone in a dream, years before she died.

A fourth Fox sister, Marie Smith, could perform a neat trick of placing her fingers lightly on a tabletop and challenging grown men to lift it. They would be unable to do so, finding the table unbearably heavy.

Methodists may have been inclined to accept the rappings more readily than people of other denominations, as John Wesley himself had experienced a haunting during the winter of 1716-1717, when he was a child in the rectory at Epworth. Wesley and his siblings heard footsteps, chain-rattling, wood-sawing and other phantom sounds every night. The spirit, which the family nicknamed Old Jeffrey, would occasionally respond to insults or questions with knocking.

According to a sworn statement by Mrs. Fox dated April 11, 1848, Maggie and Katie were terrified by the sounds in the cottage.

Neighbours began to show up to witness the ghost-rapping. William Duesler, a 30-year-old local who had once lived in the cottage with his father, laughed when a Mrs. Redfield excitedly told him that a ghost was making strange sounds over at the Fox residence, but he gamely accompanied his wife to the cottage to see the nonsense for himself.

Up to a dozen people were thronging the hallway outside the girls’ room and the room itself. Some were curious, others nervous or even scared. Duesler calmly strolled into the bedroom and took a seat on the bed. Mrs. Fox was calling out questions to the unnamed spirit in the presence of her daughters, and the spirit was responding with knocks and thuds. Raps meant “yes” and no raps meant “no.” To Duesler’s surprise, some of the responses were strong enough to rattle the bed.

Mrs. Fox invited Duesler to ask the spirit questions. He had experienced nothing unusual while living there years earlier. Nonetheless, he asked if he or his father had harmed the spirit in any way. No response. Asked if they had not harmed the spirit, there was a tapping on some hard surface.

Duesler named another local who had lived in the cottage about five years earlier, a man named John Bell, and asked if he had harmed the spirit. Several extremely loud sounds shook the bed. “Were you murdered for money?” Duesler ventured. Again, knocks resounded. With a series of questions, Duesler and the other spectators learned that they were communicating with the ghost of a peddler, aged 31 and a father of five, killed by Mr. Bell for the sum of $500.

It should be noted that most of this information had already been obtained from the ghost by Mrs. Fox. Rumours that a man had been killed in the cottage then spread among neighbours, and Duesler was likely forming his questions around those rumours. The spirit later identified itself as Charles Rosna, but no person of that name was ever identified.

It is difficult to imagine two sweet-faced Methodist girls being so vicious as to accuse a man they didn’t know of murder. But this is what happened one night in 1848. It would not be the last time they accused a stranger of murder.
Much later, Maggie would express remorse for this. She said that a cloud of suspicion hung over Mr. Bell for years.

William Duesler walked away from his former home convinced that something real and weird was happening there. The spirit had somehow known his age and his wife’s age, as well as the ages of other people in the room. How could the Foxes know these things, having been residents of the area for only a few months? The spirit even knew how many deaths had occurred in local families.

Whether they knew it or not, Maggie and Katie were carrying out an eerie re-enactment of a very strange incident that occurred in London 86 years earlier.

The Ghost Who Named Her Killer

In 1762, an 11-year-old named Betty Parsons became haunted. Every night, her bedroom in her parents’ house on Cock Lane was filled with tapping and scratching noises that came from nowhere. Over time, the noises would respond to questions even if Betty was asleep in her bed, and curious neighbours began to fill her bedroom every night. Betty’s mother would call out questions, and the ghost would respond.

This is how the public came to learn that the ghost was a former lodger of the Parsons household, a friend of Betty’s named Fanny Kent. Fanny and her husband, William, had been thrown off the property the previous year over a disputed debt. Fanny had been heavily pregnant at the time, and was diagnosed with smallpox at nine months. Both she and the baby died. This was a blow to William Kent, because his first wife – Fanny’s older sister – had died in childbirth and his baby son had died at two months of age. Now he faced the same loss all over again, on his own.

As William grieved, the ghost at Cock Lane became more and more forthcoming. “Fanny” revealed that she had been murdered – poisoned by her husband, William.

This didn’t make much sense. Fanny Kent had been desperately ill at the end of her pregnancy. The Kents were living in a shabby single room not fit for a sick woman. The doctor who diagnosed her could attest she really did have smallpox, an often fatal disease.

Also, bizarrely, the scratching and tapping noises in Betty’s bedroom had been occurring even before Fanny died. In fact, Fanny herself had heard them when she lived in the house.

Yet many who heard the ghost tapping out answers to Mrs. Parsons’ questions had no doubt that William Kent had killed his second wife. It was simply too real to be fake. Maybe, people murmured, Kent had also killed his first wife so he could inherit her money and marry her younger sister.

Kent was very upset when he learned of the allegations against him. He demanded to be present for the Q&A sessions that happened every night in Betty’s bedroom, and he brought along an Anglican minister who soon denounced the communications as a hoax or a delusion. Meanwhile, the Parsons family had gained the support of their Methodist brethren. This was a spiritual showdown, with the more mystically-inclined Methodists arguing that ghosts were real and capable of influencing physical reality, and the Anglicans retorting that ghosts are not real and taps on a wall are not reliable indicators of guilt or innocence.

The controversy reached such a fever pitch that both sides agreed to an inquiry by a committee that included Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the most respected men of letters of his time (or any time, for that matter).

Dr. Johnson

The committee examined the circumstances of the haunting and determined that Betty’s father, Richard Parsons, had been pressuring the young woman to pretend she was haunted by the ghost of Fanny Kent. They were assisted in the hoax by a household servant. Parsons had been very upset when his lodger Kent demanded he repay a loan, and this was his peculiar means of getting revenge on the man.

It also emerged that William and Fanny had not actually been married, as Anglican canon law forbade a man from marrying his sister-in-law if his late wife had a surviving child. His son had lived for about two months, so marriage to Fanny had been impossible.

This was the first known instance of a ghost supposedly revealing her killer to the living, and it did involve criminal proceedings. Richard Parsons and his servant were prosecuted for making false allegations of murder, and Richard spent time in the pillory.

The Fox sisters would receive no such punishment. Instead, their accusation led to the blooming of a new system of belief that continues to this day.



As weird as all this might seem to us, 19th-century New York was quite accustomed to visitations from the spirit realm. Just 25 years earlier, a young farmer named Joseph Smith had claimed to receive a set of inscribed golden plates from an angel at a hill called Cumorah. These plates were the original version of The Book of Mormon. Cumorah became a sacred site to the Latter Day Saints, just as the Fox cottage would become a shrine to Spiritualists.

From roughly 1837 to the mid-1850s, Shakers in New York and beyond experienced a period of visions and revelations they called the Era of Manifestations. Shakers had always believed in an open line of communication between the living and the dead. Among other manifestations, they practiced an odd form of automatic writing, jotting down symbols that were unfamiliar even to them. They called this “spirit drawing.”

These are just two examples of supernatural events in New York. The region stretching from Buffalo to Syracuse saw so many Christian revivals during the early 19th century that it became known as the “burned-over district.”

In a way, contact with the dead had been forecast by a man known as the Poughkeepsie Seer, Andrew Jackson Davis. His extremely influential book,  The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, was published just one year before the events in Hydesville. Davis was only 21 years old at the time, and he had already been demonstrating clairvoyance and mesmeric healing for years. In his book, he explained that the afterlife is merely a continuation of earthly life and that spirits “in the body” can communicate with spirits out of the body. He predicted that a demonstration of this would appear soon.

Compared to angelic visitations and divine revelations, the haunting of the Hydesville cottage wasn’t spectacular. Yet the crowds mushroomed night after night as people came in from surrounding communities to witness the spectacle of a talking ghost that had attached itself, for whatever reason, to two young girls. Many believed there were multiple spirits in the Fox house, or that the Fox girls had limitless contact with the world of the dead.

A few neighbours believed so strongly in the story of the murdered peddler that they dug along a nearby creek, Ganargua, where the spirit hinted his body was buried. At other times, the spirit suggested the peddler had been buried in the cellar. Such contradictions didn’t set off enough alarm bells to put an end to the haunting.

Two men who lived near the cottage in 1844 signed a statement to the effect that in the summer of that year, water from the well located roughly 30 feet from the cellar had been “offensive and bad.”

There was also at least one local, Lucretia Pulver, who swore that she had heard mysterious noises in the cottage five years earlier. She had been boarding with and working for the Bell family while going to school, and a few days after a peddler visited the house, she began to hear the knocking and stumbled upon a depression filled with loose dirt in the cellar. After her discovery, John Bell hauled several loads of dirt down to the cellar to fill in what his wife described as “rat holes.”

A Mr. and Mrs. Weekman, the most recent residents of the cottage, also claimed to have been troubled by noises, including phantom footsteps in the cellar, during the year and a half they lived in the cottage with their children. Their servant-girl said she saw a strange man lurking in a room off the kitchen at a time when no one could possibly have entered it.

David Fox, the girls’ brother, was just as convinced of the reality of the phenomenon as his mother was, and worked out a system to communicate more effectively with the spirit(s) by instructing them to rap as someone called out the alphabet, painstakingly creating words and sentences.
He also attempted to unearth the grave in the cellar by asking the spirit questions about its location. The raps indicated that the peddler was buried in the centre of the floor. Digging had to be stopped after water rushed into the hole.

Leah Fish, busy with her music pupils and her daughter in Rochester, was oblivious to the haunting of her family until May, when a student’s mother showed her a pamphlet published by lawyer E. E. Lewis of Canandaigua, and demanded to know if Leah was related to these Foxes. Lewis had interviewed and taken statements from members of the Fox family and their neighbours.

Leah and Lizzie promptly took a boat to Newark and made their way to Hydesville. By the time they arrived at the cottage, the family had moved in with David for a while. They were all confused, frightened and exhausted. They felt overwhelmed by the continuous rapping and the stream of curious visitors. They were tired of the whole thing. Mrs. Fox felt they might be under a curse, and was deeply depressed. She told Leah she wished the entire family could die.

The Foxes decided to separate Maggie and Katie for a time, to see if that would stop the rapping. Maggie was to stay with David’s family and her father, while Mrs. Fox and Katie traveled to Rochester with Leah.

David’s household became calmer after the split, but Leah and Katie claimed that the rapping followed Katie to the boat that bore them to Rochester. Given later events, it’s not easy to determine how much of this haunted-boat story is true. Did Katie continue her rapping tricks in protest of her separation from Maggie? Did she do it to amuse herself? Or did she and Leah, as the sisters later claimed, discuss the  mechanics of the hoax and make a pact to continue it with or without Maggie?

That summer, David ordered further excavations in the cellar of the cottage in search of the peddler’s remains. Leah claimed that human bones and teeth were discovered there, but if so they were not retained and nothing is known of them. Hard evidence would not surface again until 1904.

The Rochester Knockings

Later in 1848, the entire Fox family returned to Rochester and lived in a new house on Prospect Street with Leah and Lizzie. This is where the haunting ratcheted up several notches. The family, which included an orphaned young man named Calvin Brown, allegedly experienced much darker phenomena in the Rochester house. Though this residence had never been occupied by anyone else, thus should not have been haunted in the conventional sense, it was close to a cemetery.

In addition to showers of knocks, the Foxes heard what they described as buckets of blood being poured onto floors and experienced poltergeist activity that included objects flying through the air and striking people. On one occasion, the sleeping family was pelted with vegetables that had made their way up from the cellar. They suffered slaps to the face and saw the spectre of a man wrapped in a winding-sheet. Leah later wrote of hearing “loud whispering, giggling, scuffling, groaning, death-struggles, murder scenes” during this time. Leah and several visitors thought they could hear the spirits constructing wooden coffins, though how one could distinguish the sounds of coffin-making from other types of woodworking they did not explain.

Calvin seemed to be a favourite target of the poltergeist. He was both fearful and defiant when it acted up, urging the other members of the family not to give in to the whims of “fiendish spirits.” He would find himself bombarded with flying objects or struck on the head with his own walking stick as he tried to sleep.

It was during this period that a very strange incident occurred. Katie had just received a slap to the face from an invisible hand when she appeared to fall unconscious. The family feared she was dead. When she woke, Katie began to sob and babbled a long poem or prayer that no one in the room had ever heard. Afterwards, they could not remember it. Leah only recalled the repeated phrase, “To be with Christ is better far.” This echoed Mrs. Fox’s wish, expressed at the beginning of the haunting, that the entire family would die.

This hysterical episode could be an indication that Katie was more deeply immersed in the drama than she had been back at the cottage. Possibly, she had talked herself into being haunted and was truly afraid. This wouldn’t be far removed from what had happened at Salem Village in the late 17th century, when young girls dabbling in folk magic inadvertently brought on hysteria that included convulsions, fits and visions. Like the Fox sisters, those girls engaged in extraordinarily vicious behaviour, accusing neighbours of afflicting the community with witchcraft.
In both cases, it isn’t easy to discern where deception ends and delusion begins.

Not all the manifestations were vicious. Leah would claim that she once felt the hands of her departed 3-year-old sister laid upon hers, which imbued her with a feeling of calm.

Historians of Spiritualism generally agree that from the very beginning of her involvement with the “haunting”, Leah Fish saw an opportunity to exploit her sisters for money. This is what Maggie and Katie alleged years later. However, Leah did not immediately move to make money from what was happening in her household. She may have believed that even if her little sisters were faking some of the manifestations, something real was still occurring. She reportedly urged the girls to believe in the spirit world, as their mother did.

At some point, though, things could not continue as they were. The haunting had drawn a great deal of attention in Rochester, and the house was thronged with people just as the Hydesville cottage had been months earlier. There were complaints to the landlord, and the family relocated to Troup Street. All of this disrupted Leah’s career as a music teacher. She had to make money somehow. Whether she believed the spirits to be real or not, they were real enough to secure an income and support her family.

The Fox family haunting gradually morphed from violent and upsetting poltergeist activity into benign messages from the beyond. The tone of these messages was not accusatory, but evangelistic. The spirits – and there were many of them – wanted the world to be persuaded of their reality.

Through the alphabet system of communication devised by her brother, the spirits were encouraging Leah and her sisters to recruit prominent people to witness and investigate the “Rochester knockings”, as they were being called. Then the spirits announced that the family had a duty to make the spirits known to a wider circle.  The first spirit to speak was Jacob Smith, Mrs. Fox’s father. He implored them, “The time will come when you will understand and appreciate this great dispensation. You must permit your good friends to meet with you and hold communion with their friends in heaven.”

In Rochester, the sisters gained the support of Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post (longtime friends of the family) and newspaper editor Horace Greeley. The endorsement of such respected people brought a sense of gravitas to the sisters’ performances at a time when their antics could have degenerated into a dog-and-pony show.

The family did as the spirits instructed and held private sittings for various locals, in their homes. These were prominent people – doctors, lawyers, editors. Frederick Douglass, a friend to the Posts, was present for one such seance. The spirits carefully tailored their messages to each audience. When speaking to the Posts, for instance, they used “thee” and “thou” and spoke of social causes that would change the world.

As with all seances, success relied on the sitters receiving accurate information about themselves, their loved ones and their departed. So the Fox sisters had to present themselves – via the laborious alphabet system – as dead babies, long-deceased parents and distant ancestors. It was a powerful experience for parents to make contact with their late children. The Reverend Charles Hammond became an early convert to spirit communication when the Foxes summoned his infant son, who had died in 1843 (he later acted as a medium himself). The Posts, who had lost more than one child, were also won over to belief in spirits in this way.

Whether the Foxes considered this a way to con the bereaved or a way to comfort the bereaved, we will never know. What we do know is that, if the testimonies of these prominent sitters were truthful, the Foxes were able to collect information about the families of their sitters and convey it in a way that rang true. How they obtained such details isn’t known, but it could be imagined that they used any means within their grasp – casually asking questions of people acquainted with the sitters, eavesdropping, perhaps even poking into public records or employing planted sitters who could covertly let them know when to rap out a response. Cold reading was also an option with the alphabet system, because a keen observer could keep an eye on the sitter who was asking questions and detect which letter of the alphabet they expected to hear from the spirits.

After a period of private seances, the spirits began pressing for a public demonstration. They were very specific. “Hire Corinthian Hall,” they told the Foxes.

This is when the fraud began in earnest.

It has been said that roughly a year after the rappings started, Leah Fish became, in essence, her sisters’ talent manager. This is not entirely accurate. While Leah did help arrange for a series of public appearances at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall in November of 1849, an Auburn newspaperman named Eliab Capron was the driving force behind it and soon took over the sisters’ business affairs. He also published the first book-length treatise on the knockings, Singular Revelations: Explanation and History of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits (1850), which went into a second edition in the same year it was published. Capron was among the Foxes’ most stalwart supporters, and it is doubtful they would have become so beloved without his endorsement. It should be noted that Capron and other early devotees applied great pressure to the Foxes when it came to giving seances for well-connected people or submitting themselves to tests that would supposedly prove their abilities. Leah was certainly not the only aggressive promoter.

The Corinthian Hall events were extravagant. Katie, being just 12 (or 8, if you accept her revised age), was excluded from these events. Leah took her place on stage, as the spirits now responded as readily to her as they did to Maggie and Katie. Leah had extra-long dresses made for them so that their feet would be well-concealed at all times.

The demonstrations were not billed as religious events. Rather, they were marketed to the curious and open-minded, and in his opening lecture Capron spoke in scientific terms, reminding the audience that the theories of Gallileo, Newton and Fulton had once been ridiculed.

After audience members asked questions of the spirits, several were selected to test the sisters by examining their skirts for weighted objects that could be used to create noises, holding their hands to make sure they were not using them, etc. Most testers seemed satisfied that there was no fakery going on. However, the doubters in the audience were annoyed enough with the whole circus to set off firecrackers inside the theatre.

These appearances were so successful that they led to a statewide tour, then tours of other states. Katie eventually joined her sisters on stage. Audiences would pay to see the girls and query the spirits, then people paid for private sittings in hotel rooms. Soon, they were able to attract to their seances such notables as James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant.

Leah Fish in the 1850s

At some point prior to 1851, Lizzie Fish left Rochester to live with her father. Katie Fox allegedly told David’s sister-in-law, Ruth Culver, that Lizzie left her mother because she was “too conscientious to become a medium.” Maggie would tell her biographer, Reuben Briggs Davenport, that her niece was simply too outspoken and honest to go along with the hoax. This is a very revealing statement. Maggie and Lizzie were close to the same age, and if Lizzie could opt out of the whole thing because she knew it was wrong, Maggie could surely have done the same.

Maggie and Katie kept at it, they later said, because they didn’t want the believers to be angry with them. This fear of alienation increased exponentially as they began to earn the trust of more prominent citizens.

The Era of the Dead

Maggie and Katie became the first spirit mediums of the modern age. Their vicious pranks birthed a movement that would spark abiding devotion, hoaxes and scams, fiery disputes and scientific scrutiny for the next century. A new religion, Spiritualism, would develop around the notion that there is barely any division between life and the afterlife, and that the spirits of the dead can manifest themselves and manipulate physical objects (particularly in dark rooms, at night). At the same time, Spiritualism was an intellectual pursuit that drew some of the best scientific minds of the age. Thanks to the involvement of prominent Quakers and other Christians, progressive social causes like abolition of slavery, opposition to capital punishment and suffrage became interwoven with Spiritualism.

As David Alexander Chapin has pointed out in his doctoral dissertation, Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, the Fox sisters deftly crafted the spirit messages to suit their various audiences. When the rappings began, the messages transmitted a ghost story that struck a chord with a close-knit rural community. In Rochester, among Quakers and social reformers, the messages evolved into predictions of a great awakening. During and after the Corinthian Hall demonstrations, the messages shifted subtly to envelop popular theories of mesmerism and electricity and appeal to the scientifically curious.

In this way, a cross-section of people were drawn to spirit communication. Throughout Rochester, Auburn and other New York communities, people began to hear knockings in their own homes. Lyman Granger of Rochester reported this his teen daughter could receive messages from spirits in the same manner as the Fox girls while in a mesmeric trance. A woman named Sarah Tamlin showed the same ability. She soon became as in tune with the dead as the Fox sisters.

Granger and his wife had attended some of the earliest Fox seances in 1848, and they experienced a repeat of the Cock Lane affair when their daughter Harriet spoke to them through the raps and accused her living husband of having poisoned her to death two years earlier. It should be noted that Maggie was not present at this particular seance, so the accusation was likely manufactured by either Leah or Kate.

Fortunately for Harriet’s widower, no legal action was pursued. But the Grangers clearly believed in the spirits. Lyman Granger attended the Foxes’s first public demonstration at Corinthian Hall a year later as a member of a panel of supporters.

The girls quickly found that they – in the guise of the spirits – had tremendous power over certain people, if they worked at it. Whether they had assistance from the adults around them or not, they were able to engineer quasi-miracles. When George Willets, a relative of Isaac Post, attended one of their seances, one of the sisters relayed messages from his deceased father urging him not to move his family to Michigan as he had been planning. There were dark hints that if he did, some of his family members would not survive. Incredibly, Willets found the experience so overpowering that he visited a man named by the spirits, purchased land from him and moved to Rochester as his dead father advised. The spirits later steered him to a job with the railroad. Willets became one of the Foxes’ most ardent and vocal supporters.

Once mobilized, new converts worked to spread the word of spirit communication with evangelistic zeal. Thanks to the irreproachable character of the Quaker activists they converted, the Foxes quickly gained street cred. Their progress was not at all stymied by the open ridicule of the Rochester newspapers.

The spirits promised wonderful things. As one communication informed the sitters, “There will be great changes in the nineteenth century. Things that now look dark and mysterious to you, will be laid plain before your sight…I sign my name, Benjamin Franklin.”

Among Spiritualists, Franklin was credited with being one of the first and most forceful spirits to make contact with the living, and was hailed as the discoverer of the “spiritual telegraph” (rapping out responses to questions). He was even busier in the afterlife than he had been on Earth, appearing at countless seances all over the world for many years. He would attach himself strongly to Katie Fox in years to come. One witness to her seances of the 1870s, William Taylor, concluded that Benjamin Franklin must have handpicked Maggie and Katie to bring spirit communication to America.

The three Fox sisters (Leah centre) in the 1850s, the first decade of Spiritualism

In 1850, Americans began holding simple seances in their living rooms to see if they could replicate the rappings. The ones who were good at it could become professional spirit mediums. In Connecticut, 17-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home learned to create the rapping phenomenon, to the horror of his aunt. He was destined to become the most famous medium of his day.

Seances were called circles, and their audience members sitters. In these early seances, table-tipping or “dancing tables” were most often used as the means of communication. Sitters and the medium rested their fingers lightly on a tabletop and asked questions. The spirits responded by tipping or sometimes levitating the table.

Fortunetelling had been around for centuries, of course, but Spiritualism was presented as a more refined and less occult version of that ancient practice. It was a religion, a form of entertainment and a new science all at once. Rather than being limited to the fringes of society, it could be practiced by anyone in any place. For some, Spiritualism was an easy source of income or just a new kind of parlour game. For others, it was a rich field for scientific inquiry. For a few, it was the answer to everything and anything.

The table seances soon evolved into spirit mediumship, in which the medium would go into a trance state and directly channel the spirits. Because a certain spirit took control of the medium’s body and vocal cords during trances, this spirit guide became known as the medium’s “control.” The same kinds of controls made themselves known at seances all over the country: Native American chiefs and princesses, saints and archangels, dead presidents, Benjamin Franklin, pirates.

The craze spread to England in 1852 and was embraced by many as a source of amusement and enlightenment. A bartender named James J. Morse astounded audiences with his ability to discuss the deepest aspects of philosophy and religion – through the spirits, of course.
Alfred Russel Wallace became a firm believer in Spiritualism. The family of the exiled Victor Hugo held regular seances for several years. A Scottish medium, Daniel Dunglas Home, would become one of the  most famous (and controversial) figures in the history of Spiritualism. From England, Spiritualism made its way to the Continent, where French mediums perfected the use of the planchette to spell out words.

Mediums would introduce increasingly complicated props and instruments into their seances as time went on: Musical instruments that the spirits would play (the Fox girls produced music on command), megaphones known as “spirit horns” that the spirits could use to project their voices or other sounds, spirit slates for ghostly writing.

Apports became a main attraction of seances for a time. Apports were objects that mysteriously appeared during seances, supposedly materialized from the spirit world. Feathers, coins, stones, jewels and flowers would shower down on the seance table or appear inside locked boxes.

Apports were soon overtaken by materializations in which spirits would reveal their hands, their faces and sometimes their entire bodies. In the 1870s, a teenage medium, Florence Cook, astonished London sitters with full-form materializations of lovely young women who would actually mingle with sitters and allow their pulses to be taken.

Seances became so dazzling in such a short span of time that when the Foxes were examined by three Harvard professors In 1857, their tricks were already old hat. As the Boston Courier reported, Katie and Leah produced a few noises “easily traceable to their persons” and nothing else; “not a table or piano lifted or anything moved a single hair’s breadth; not a bell rung, not an instrument played upon; not any phenomenon or manifestation exhibited or even attempted.” Their successors had outpaced them.


There were doubters and allegations of fakery from the very beginning. As early as 1851, David Fox’s sister-in-law claimed that Katie had revealed all her secrets. She allegedly told Ruth Culver that the knockings were made by toe-cracking, and advised her that if she wished to host seances, she should pretend that her young daughter was the medium to shift attention away from herself. This revelation caused some key supporters – like Horace Greeley – to distance themselves from Spiritualism.

In 1851, a pair of enterprising brothers named Chauncey and Raymond Burr booked the same venues as the Fox sisters and gave demonstrations of how the rappings were faked. All they had to do was crack the joints of their toes. Leah sued Chauncey Burr and was awarded an astonishing $10,000 in damages.

She faced other challenges that were not so easily resolved. Maggie and Katie were now young women – 18 and 15. Contrary to Maggie’s later accounts, they were perfectly willing and able to disobey their older sister. They even “fired” her at one point, hiring a supporter named Mrs. Kedzie to take her place. That Leah Fish did not exert totalitarian control over her younger sisters is evidenced in a letter she wrote to Amy Post on July 2, 1851, in which she fumed that “Much of the trouble is caused by the girls who are always planning out something and then if they fail in their calculations, they throw the whole thing upon my shoulders.”

The girls did not have to rely upon their family any longer – they had wealthy supporters who were eager to have them stay in their homes in exchange for seances. Yet they did not break ties with Leah. In the fall of 1851, the trio was happily reunited and touring again. In 1852 Leah rented a brownstone in Manhattan where she, her new husband Calvin Brown and her younger sisters lived together and held frequent seances that were governed by a list of “Rules of Order”, apparently drawn up by Leah. These guidelines for seance etiquette were echoed in seance parlours all over America. They called for a hushed atmosphere, forbade disturbances or interference and discouraged anything that might disrupt the “Harmony” of the room.

It is likely that this period was the most lucrative for the sisters. They charged an admittance fee for each sitter and held seances twice per day, five days a week.

Then a powerful force intervened.

The Explorer and the Medium

In October of 1852, Maggie met the Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane at a Philadelphia hotel where she was giving readings. Kane, fresh from heroics in the Arctic Circle in search of the lost Franklin Expedition, had been giving wildly successful lectures about his adventures and was something of a national hero. He was basically a Victorian rockstar. He was also from one of Philadelphia’s best families. And he was single.

Kane was not a Spiritualist, but he was an enthusiastic sitter. He brought friends and relatives to seances in both Philadelphia and New York, asked questions about the Franklin Expedition and his recently deceased brother, and became very friendly with the entire Fox family.

Maggie was 20 years old at this time, but her family persisted in portraying the sisters as much younger than they were. She would later claim she was just 13 – younger than she had been when the rappings began.

After attending countless private sittings and seances without expressing any misgivings, Kane decided that this young woman was debasing herself and toying with the public, if not participating in outright fraud. He separated her from her mother long enough to convince her that she needed to mend her ways and give up Spiritualism for good.

This is where the story of Elisha and Maggie becomes murky. Kane evidently wanted to help Maggie create a better life for herself, and may even have courted her seriously for a while. A flurry of love letters passed between them. In the end, however, he saw no future with an uneducated medium. He considered her work “dreary” and far beneath him. In his letters, he continually harangued her about her seedy profession and the suspicion it was always under. When one of Leah’s sitters committed suicide in early 1853, he harped on it. He finally urged Maggie to go and live with a family in rural Pennsylvania, where she could receive some education. Maggie did not complete this “education” (which consisted mostly of music and etiquette lessons).

When he returned from his second ordeal in the Arctic in 1855, Kane did not resume his courtship of Maggie. Both families opposed a relationship. Leah questioned Kane’s intentions, and the Kanes were so mortified at the whole idea that they used the press to quash rumours of an engagement. If there was anything serious between them, it fizzled. Kane asked for the return of his letters to Maggie, which Maggie did not oblige. Kane continued to plan new expeditions and died in Cuba in 1857, having never married. That is as far as the historical record goes.

Maggie gave a very different account. After Kane’s death, she claimed that they had been secretly married in a Quaker ceremony (the only witnesses being her sister Katie, their mother and a family friend) the year before he died. She demanded a portion of his estate. She began using the surname Kane, and would continue to use it for the rest of her life (she is buried under that name). She failed to produce any convincing evidence that she and Kane had wed, or even been engaged. Her best evidence was a collection of the letters sent to her by Kane, published in 1865 as The Love-Life of Dr. Kane.

This is one of the most confusing episodes in the life of Maggie Fox. Did she conspire with her family to defraud Kane’s estate? Or was she secretly engaged to Kane, as rumours suggested, and felt entitled to make a claim? The letters do little to resolve the matter. Maggie and Elisha discussed the engagement rumour as though it was untrue and upsetting to both of them, yet in at least one letter Kane referred to Maggie as “wife.” It is possible, though not likely, that some of these letters were forgeries.

Maggie’s biographers, Davenport and Nancy Rubin Stuart, accept Maggie’s story of a secret marriage. It seems peculiar, though, that a newlywed like Kane would dash off to England to confer with Lady Franklin. From there, due to his extremely poor health, he was rushed to Cuba in November of 1865. Even in the throes of an illness that he knew could kill him, he did not insist that his wife be brought to him, nor even mention that he was married. He suffered two strokes and passed away a few months later.

Maggie’s claim on a portion of Kane’s estate was denied. She was able to blackmail the family with her cache of letters, receiving small and irregular payments in exchange for her continued silence, but her financial situation became precarious by 1860. Leah had married a third time and Katie was still a successful medium. Maggie was nothing at all – not a wife, not a widow, not a medium. She began drinking heavily, like her father had. So did Katie.

In 1865, still enraged at the Kanes, Maggie published The Love-Life of Dr. Kane, ghostwritten by newspaper editor Joseph La Fumee and Elizabeth Ellet (famous for another love-letter scandal involving Edgar Allen Poe). Both of her parents passed away the same year.

Years later, Maggie would blame two things for her life of alcoholism and aimlessless: Being widowed at a tender age by the love of her life, and her sister Leah’s tyranny.

Elisha Kent Kane

Around the same time that the Kent drama was unfolding, Leah was accused of fraud. She had given a seance in Jersey City at which lights appeared throughout the room. Leah was supposedly so overwhelmed by the power of these spirits that she had to “cool her hands in the earth.” The following day, her sitters found glowing bits of phosphorous in the soil where she had plunged her hands. Leah explained this away by saying she must have spontaneously manifested phosphorous particles from the spirit world. Only one man came strongly to her defense – a New York insurance company president and Spiritualist named Daniel Underhill. They married at Horace Greeley’s home in 1858.

Greeley’s relationship to Spiritualism was complex. He began as a cautious supporter, became an agnostic after scandal broke out, then openly denounced the entire movement as one that caused emotional instability, suicide and immorality. Nonetheless, Mr. and Mrs. Fox lived with the Greeleys for many years.

Leah remained a devoted Spiritualist and occasionally gave private seances, but did not work as a medium after her third marriage.

Katie had long been considered the strongest medium among the three sisters, and she proved this in the 1860s when she manifested full-form materializations at seances held for New York banker Charles Livermore. Grieving the loss of his wife, Livermore had turned to Spiritualism. He was not disappointed. On several occasions, while Katie was seated at a table in her trance, the sitters heard an electrical noise and watched in awe as a gauze-like material appeared in the room and took the rough shape of a human form. A smooth, shining oval materialized where a face would be. Then the features appeared – eyes, nose – and Livermore recognized his late wife. The apparition would linger up to half an hour, then rise to the ceiling and vanish.

Livermore promptly became Katie’s most generous patron.

1869 woodcut of Charles Livermore being visited by the spirit of his wife (from a lecture by Professor Louis Kaplan)

Katie Creates a Family

Maggie’s antics may have attracted all the media attention in the 1860s, but I consider the most fascinating and revealing period of the Foxes’ life stories to be the time Katie spent in rehab.

During and after the Civil War, Katie was in and out of the Swedish Movement Cure hospital run by George and Sarah Taylor. She was an almost continuous resident of this sanitorium from 1865 to 1871. It was not until 1869 that she suddenly announced she was receiving messages from Sarah Taylor’s late grandfather.

Even in rehab, she was able to bowl over the Taylors and other sitters with remarkably accurate spirit communications from dead loved ones. The Taylors were particularly moved by messages from their recently departed children, 3-year-old Frankie and baby Leila. “The two worlds are blending together…” Sarah Taylor wrote ecstatically, as she and her family were reunited. The visitations took on the character of a family religion.

The spirits, through raps and backwards automatic writing, made it clear that Katie was the only medium worthy to carry their messages to the living. They had formed a sort of spiritual committee called The Circle that included Benjamin Franklin, various ancestors of the Taylors, Margaret Fox and eminent Spiritualists and activists who had recently died. One of the most frequent spirit visitors was Sarah’s brother Olin, who had been found dead in a pond in 1864. This committee of the dead watched over Katie, steering her away from alcohol and expressing concern for her mental state. “Not like other beings is she,” Franklin wrote, “if so we could work through every one.”

William H. Vanderbilt became a close associate of The Circle soon after his death in 1885. In the one of the weirdest episodes of American Spiritualism, contact with the dead had become a key issue in the battle over his father’s Last Will and Testament. Cornelius Vanderbilt (d. 1877) had been such a strong supporter of Spiritualism that he gave two medium sisters, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, a brokerage house in which to practice their own form of spirit-derived investing. This devotion led two of his daughters to question the validity of his Will. They took the matter to court, alleging that Cornelius had been under the influence of William and a bogus medium, who pretended to relay messages from Cornelius’s late wife. William ultimately settled with his siblings to get the matter out of the papers.

As a ghost, William Vanderbilt occasionally provided business advice to Sarah Taylor.

The Circle described the afterlife as an ethereal place overflowing with flowers, where the spirits of infants were welcomed by showers of rose petals. Spirits convened in a gorgeous banquet hall to discuss their efforts among the living, Lincoln and John Brown strolled arm-in-arm, and everyone was granted an ageless new body. Instead of food, the dead nibbled spiritual sustenance that was “beyond [human] understanding.” George and Sarah were assured that when they arrived, all of their loved ones would be residing in a great palace constructed just for them. The Circle continually urged the Taylors to be happy, and to find joy in the world around them.

Katie was able to scrawl out page after page of mirror writing, sometimes with both hands at the same time, while carrying on unrelated conversations. Sometimes, the raps (or “echoes”, as Katie called them) would sound simultaneously. Each member of the Circle had distinctive handwriting. The manifestations at the Taylor seances also included spirit drawings of the Taylor children. These would appear inside drawers or other places where the spirits deposited them, having been created in the spirit world and transported (with difficulty) into the material world.

Spirit portrait of Frankie Taylor

No dramatic full-form materializations like that of Mrs. Livermore ever occurred. The Circle spoke frequently of wishing to appear in full form, only to say things like, “We do not want you to see us before we are perfectly formed.” Any disturbance in the earthly atmosphere could prevent the spirits from appearing, including bad weather. They also could not rely on Katie as a power source, since she was often recovering from drinking binges or suffering from depression.

At most, the Taylors would glimpse a white outline of a human shape in the room or see a glowing light that announced itself to be one of their children. They also reported feeling the children brushing against their legs, braiding George’s beard or pressing flowers into their hands (these things may have occurred when they were seated around a table with eyes closed). Many times, they heard the strains of a harp that little Leila had brought with her from the spirit world, and were told that she played it while sitting in Franklin’s lap.

If anyone thought it odd that one of the 18th century’s most accomplished men wished to spend the afterlife hanging around a spa, helping a toddler play music or ferry crayon drawings to the living, no one said so. Nor did anyone find it strange that the invisible spirits had to have a window open in order to enter and exit the seance room.

Occasionally, Franklin’s spirit would provide “magnetized water” for the treatment of George Taylor’s patients, with instructions on dosage. The doctor reported successful treatments with it.

The Taylors’ son, William, witnessed many of Katie’s seances and later published a book in which he stated that Katie herself was often startled and scared by some of the spirit manifestations. He found it hard to believe that “any normal person” would refer to herself as The Circle referred to her – a lonely, broken woman in constant need of guidance. Reading their tender messages about her brings to mind the 20th-century accounts of multiple personalities displayed by women like Shirley Mason (“Sybil”), in which a coterie of alters flock to protect the core personality. The spirits would often “speak privately” with members of the Taylor family, asking that certain messages be kept from Katie because she was too sensitive to receive them.

The Taylors, particularly Sarah, also saw Katie as an extremely vulnerable woman – a child, really – and were protective of her. “Others care not for the little waif,” Sarah wrote, “only for what they can get out of her.” Katie was cherished by both the living and dead members of the Taylor family, and the hospital with its calming, spa-like atmosphere became her refuge. In this place, she could be both a child and an exalted messenger.

Sarah Taylor believed that Katie’s alcoholism enhanced her abilities as a medium, which led to a strange sort of co-dependence between Katie and the Taylors. The couple sat at hundreds of Katie’s seances and compiled what became the most comprehensive record of Katie’s mediumship, the Fox-Taylor Record. Katie gave most of these seances for free, or accepted only a nominal fee.

When Katie died, Sarah Taylor was devastated at the loss not only of a friend and patient, but of her only reliable link to the dead. She wrote, “If I could speak with a go-between with a third party but alas! I don’t know how.”

If the Foxes had always tailored their spirits to suit certain audiences, had Katie endeared and bonded herself to the Taylors in the same way? And if she did, can we blame her? Her parents had passed in 1865, the same year that she began to slide more deeply into alcoholism. Her only remaining family in New York consisted of an erratic and inheritance-obsessed sister who also drank, and an emotionally distant sister who was mortified by their drinking. She was alone in a health sanitorium, with a couple who attended to her and cared for her. Her attachment to the humble, close-knit Taylors is not so difficult to understand. It sheds a great deal of light on Katie’s complex motivations as a medium.

Katie’s supporters did everything in their power to keep Katie away from Maggie during this time. It was generally agreed that Maggie – who had refused to enter rehab – was mentally unstable and a bad influence. So in 1871, Charles Livermore packed Katie off to London, where the Spiritualist scene was thriving. She married a London barrister, Henry Jencken, the following year. Katie and her supporters were delighted that the first of her two sons, Ferdinand, was able to produce spirit writing when he was scarcely a year old.

Katie Fox in the 1870s, from the Taylor family collection


With the war raging and a President assassinated, Maggie’s tell-all book did not sell enough copies to keep her afloat. Maggie had nowhere else to turn but back to Spiritualism. And Spiritualism was thriving as widows and grieving parents attempted to contact soldiers who had died of battle wounds and disease.

At the same time, the critics were becoming more outspoken. Even P.T. Barnum denounced Spiritualism as bogus in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World, and mentioned the Fox sisters as the originators of the fraud.

In the late 1870s, Dr. Henry Seybert, a wealthy Philadephia Spiritualist, took Maggie under his wing and pledged to make her a part of his ambitious project to establish a sort of Athenaeum for the finest mediums, an undertaking he called the Spiritual Mansion. This sounds like a high-minded affair, but what it really amounted to was Seybert warehousing the best mediums he could find and paying them a salary to work out of his home.

For some reason, the arrangement between Seybert and “Mrs. Kane” collapsed. Seybert would later establish a commission that found serious failing with Maggie’s powers.

A huge part of succeeding in the competitive world of Spiritualism was passing tests, and from the very start the Fox sisters had submitted themselves to examination by hostile strangers and experiments conducted by professors in an effort to prove that they were not faking anything. Later, they would offer themselves as guinea pigs to practitioners of a new field that they had helped spawn – psychical research.

The results were mixed.

In 1871, while plying her trade in London, Katie presented herself to psychical researcher Sir William Crookes for testing. Crookes, though a brilliant scientist, could be exquisitely gullible when it came to the spirit realm. In years to come, he would be thoroughly taken in by the teenage medium Florence Cook when she manifested a spirit known as Katie King, presenting as evidence a photo of himself walking arm-in-arm with the “spirit.” All Cook had to do was pretend to be in a stuporous trance while another young woman slipped in and masqueraded as a ghost.

It must not have been difficult for an experienced medium like Katie Fox to dazzle Crookes. She was able to manifest disembodied hands, raps that resounded like thunder, and even luminous clouds that could pick up and carry small objects. However, she often failed to show up for their sessions, and the experiments were brought to an end by her marriage.

Katie’s powers were not always so evident. At some sittings, she could do little more than scribble a note from the ghost of Benjamin Franklin beneath a table with her foot, or give a reading in which she awkwardly teased information out of her sitters. Eleanor Sidgwick, another prominent psychical researcher who studied Kate a couple of years after the Crooke experiments, was unimpressed with her.

Maggie’s efforts were also underwhelming. In 1884, she appeared before the Seybert Commission of the University of Pennsylvania, set up by the late Henry Seybert to investigate the claims of mediums.

Maggie produced her usual raps. In this way she relayed messages from Seybert himself, in which the name of Dr. Coleman Sellers was spelled out by the spirit as “Charles Ceri.” The rest of her mediumistic feats were equally dismal. If she was seated at a table, the raps sounded in the vicinity of the table. When she was asked to stand at some distance from the table, there were no raps at all and she would protest that she hadn’t been tested since she was “a child, almost” (mediums of this era often complained that the conditions of testing were not conducive to spirit contact).

When one of the commission members requested that they be allowed to look under the table, Maggie said this would not be possible; they would have to stop holding hands, and that would break the “rules” of the seance circle. When she was asked to stand atop overturned water tumblers instead of the floor, there were no raps unless she was close to a wall, and one member who touched her foot at this time could feel a pulsation.

She did produce some impressive backwards automatic writing. In the message produced by this method, Henry Seybert implored the commission to give the medium more time to impart his messages.

The members concluded that whether Mrs. Kane knew what she was doing or not, the raps were coming from her own body.

Both Maggie and Katie veered away from Spiritualism at times. Katie stepped back from public seances during her six-year marriage to Jencken, but upon his death in 1881, she returned to the fold in a limited capacity. Maggie had cards printed up that stated “Mrs. Kane does not claim any spirit power…”

By the mid-1880s, Katie was widowed with two sons and Maggie was still pretending to be the widow of Elisha Kane. Both had ongoing problems with alcohol and struggled to support themselves. Even though Florence Cook and other top mediums of the day were repeatedly caught faking manifestations, the Foxes were still deemed slightly less impressive than their peers.

Leah hadn’t spent time in England like her sisters, but did lead an interesting life. She had been briefly married to Calvin Brown before his death in 1853. She claimed that the spirits that had made his life a misery just a few years earlier produced solemn raps at his funeral.

She ceased active involvement in seances in the late 1850s, when she settled down to have more children with her third husband. She continued to support and defend Spiritualism, though, and remained so entrenched in the Spiritualist community that Robert Dale Owen (a devout Spiritualist and the victim of a particularly atrocious “Katie King” hoax by two Philadelphia mediums) stayed with Leah and her husband while writing his most famous book on Spiritualism, Foot-falls on the Boundary of Another World (1860).

Leah’s only direct contribution during this period was the publication of a slim volume, The Missing Link of Spiritualism (1885). If this memoir can be believed, Leah far outshone her sisters as a medium. She was able to produce rappings on bodies of water, heal maladies from a distance, materialize particles of glowing phosphorous without even trying and play euchre with the dead.

It appeared that all three of the sisters were quietly easing back from the movement they had launched.

Then, in May of 1888, the two youngest Fox sisters delivered a fearsome blow to the Spiritualist community.

Maggie had decided to confess to a lifetime of fakery.

The Renunciation

It began with a letter written to the New York Herald in which Maggie mentioned that her sister Katie had suffered a “sad misfortune” and was in a “depressed state of mind.” She was coming to Katie’s defense over an incident that had attracted negative publicity in the city. Katie, still a heavy drinker, had come to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and was arrested for neglect and abuse of her two teen boys.

Then Maggie got to the heart of the matter: Fraud and gullibility in Spiritualism. She derided Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, a medium who had repeatedly scandalized Spiritualists with her outrageous lies, hoaxes, and criminal acts. Born to a music professor and his wife in Kentucky, Debar claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. In a weird echo of Maggie’s own fabricated history, she said she was the wife of Tennessee statesman Joseph Hubert Diss Debar, but no evidence has ever emerged that they had a relationship. She used numerous aliases, including the moniker Swami Laura Horos.

Thanks to influential connections (she was chummy with the Woodhull sisters, among others), Debar had just enough credibility to dupe Spiritualists in England and America. She would con them out of money or persuade them to bestow her with gifts. One American lawyer gave her a townhouse. She was tried for larceny several times.

Apparently fed up with all the crackpots and fakers, Maggie declared in her letter to the Herald that “Spiritualism is a curse.” She went on to sharply criticize the believers who fell for stunts like full-body materializations, and hinted that some of the researchers who had tested her were among the most gullible. She ended with a dark warning to the true believers: “All they will ever achieve for their foolish fanaticism will be loss of money, softening of the brain and a lingering death.”

This was not a confession. Maggie was simply chiding people for being bowled over by cheap stunts when she and her sister were producing real, but less exciting, phenomena (the rappings). But it was the first step towards a total – if temporary – break with Spiritualism.

This letter was remarkable in the history of Spiritualism. Maggie Fox was the first spirit medium, and she was now the first prominent spirit medium to speak out against the entire field rather than just her direct competitors.

Her reasons for doing so remain opaque, and there were many theories. Devoted Spiritualists believed that anti-Spiritualist activists had somehow persuaded her to denounce herself. Others believed her turn away from Spiritualism was a gimmick meant to attract publicity, or the desperate act of a woman who had fallen on hard times.

She made her first full confession a short time later. She told the Herald that she was planning an appearance that would put an end to Spiritualism, the movement that had caused her so much shame and misery. She stated plainly that every spiritual manifestation she and her sister had ever displayed was fraudulent, though she had striven to make contact with real spirits in every possible way. She even camped out in cemeteries in the hopes that some stray soul would reach out to her.

To prove the knockings were a sham, Maggie reproduced them for the reporter. It was all done with the joints of the toe, she finally admitted.

She made no bones about where she would place the blame for her years of involvement in a false movement: Leah Fish (then known as Leah Fox Fish-Brown-Underhill or Mrs. Underhill). Maggie referred to her older sister as her “damnable enemy” and spat, “I hate her. My God! I’d poison her! No, I wouldn’t, but I’ll lash her with my tongue.” She even claimed that Leah was the first sister to come up with the sport of toe-cracking, which contradicted her later claim that she and Katie came up with the idea first and showed Leah how to do it after the Hydesville haunting became notorious.

There had been a rift between Leah and her sisters. The nature of the split and just why Maggie resented her sister so fiercely are not entirely clear, but Maggie betrayed jealousy in her Herald interview. “Now she turns upon us because she’s the wife of a rich man, and she opposes us both wherever she can.”

Daniel Underhill gave a hint of what had caused the estrangement between his wife and her sisters when he told the Herald that he had given financial support to both Katie and Maggie, but they had repeatedly failed to thrive because of their drinking. Had the Underhills cut off Maggie, causing her to become bitter and vicious towards Leah?

Notably, though this was Maggie’s first effort to come clean, she continued the myth that she had been no older than 9 when the knockings began.

Unsure as to whether Maggie would really proceed with her public gutting of Spiritualism or not, New York mediums and their supporters attempted to do damage control. Some told the press that Maggie was a drinker and perhaps not in her right mind, so was not to be taken seriously. Others, such as First Spiritual Society of New York president Henry J. Newton, vouched for the reality of the Foxes’ manifestations and insisted that Maggie couldn’t possibly damage the foundation of the movement.

Newton was right.

The Confessions

In the weeks leading up to her appearance, Maggie made increasingly damning statements about Spiritualism. She even hinted that elite Spiritualist circles indulged in orgies, or as she put it in an oh-so-Victorian manner, “shameless goings on that vie with the secret Saturnalia of the Romans.” For years, critics of Spiritualism had alleged that it promoted such behaviour.

While this drama was unfolding in New York, Katie was in London, keeping her boys away from the child-welfare authorities and plying her trade. She stayed for a while in the Chelsea home previously occupied by the historian Thomas Carlyle, and there were reports that mysterious tappings and knockings could be heard throughout her time there. Stories of “Carlyle’s ghost” circulated in the Spiritualist world and beyond. This was powerful stuff for believers, for Carlyle had been a skeptical man when it came to the supernatural. “No ghost has ever been seen with two pairs of eyes,” he once wrote.

In October of 1888, Katie returned to New York and promptly joined her sister in denouncing Spiritualism, calling it “the greatest humbug of the century.” She scoffed at the reports of Carlyle’s ghost.

Katie had an even heftier axe to grind with Leah than her sister did, because she suspected that the Underhills had reported her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children earlier in the year. “I don’t know why it is,” she told the Herald, “she has always been jealous of Maggie and me; I suppose because we could do things in Spiritualism that she couldn’t.”

She believed – or professed to believe – that Leah was in league with other Spiritualists who persecuted her and Maggie to prevent them from speaking out. Furthermore, her teenage sons were probably in danger from this gang. This new, conspiratorial slant made for some intriguing newspaper stories.

On October 21, 1888, the public confession was held. Maggie mounted the stage of the Academy of Music and faced a full house, which included Katie. At the end of her talk, in which she called Spiritualism “the most wicked blasphemy known to the world”, Maggie had a stool brought to the centre of the stage. She placed her foot upon it and demonstrated how she had fooled the world for four decades.

Maggie entrusted Reuben Briggs Davenport, a reporter who detested Spiritualism not only as a fraud but as an evil, to write their story. His book The Death-Blow to Spiritualism was published shortly after Maggie’s public confession. It is a florid and overly dramatic account, full of passages from Shakespeare and dripping with pity for the innocent girls who fell prey to their sister and other unscrupulous fraudsters. Again, it was stressed that Katie and Maggie had been children (8 and 6 in this account) in 1848, and far too naive to have been knowingly deceptive. They did not even realize that adults would interpret their knocking sounds as ghosts.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Fox girls had been wholly innocent victims of anyone. It’s far likelier that as middle-aged “widows” with substance issues, they were tired of being chained to a movement that they knew to be mostly – if not entirely – hokum. The field had become saturated with fraud. It must have been embarrassing to two women who treasured respectability. They wanted out. Davenport and the other critics of Spiritualism offered a gateway to a new life. Perhaps if they exposed Spiritualism, they could give paid lectures on the subject, or make money from memoirs.

Maggie had converted to Catholicism in 1858 and in her memoir it was hinted that she considered Spiritualism to be antithetical to her religion. That hadn’t stopped her from being a medium throughout the previous two decades, though. It seems she and Davenport were simply pandering to Christian readers.

She claimed to be wracked with remorse. Three months after her cutting letter to the Herald, she told the same paper that she had attempted to throw herself off the ship that returned her to New York. Crew members had saved her, she said.

If the Fox sisters had hoped that their dramatic revelations would launch a new career for themselves, they were mistaken. They gave a few demonstrations, but were never offered the opportunity to go on multiple nationwide tours or write books. Once the kerfuffle died down, Spiritualism continued on as before, barely touched by the scandal, and the Fox sisters were more or less forgotten by the general public.

The confessions are most notable for what they did not contain. The sisters did not explain how they had managed to obtain personal information about their sitters, or why they had offered unsolicited spirit messages to people like George and Sarah Taylor. Katie did not reveal how she had manifested the face and body of the late Mrs. Livermore or Benjamin Franklin, or how she had created those magical glowing clouds for William Crookes. Maggie did not confess to lying about her age, or pretending to be married to a dead explorer in order to scam money from his estate. Neither of them offered explanations as to why they had accused John Bell and Lyman Granger’s son-in-law of murder. Their remorse had clear boundaries.

So it should have surprised no one when both Fox sisters returned to Spiritualism and continued to work as mediums until their deaths several years later. They both descended into alcoholism and extreme poverty. Katie died in 1892. Her older sister died one year later.

Leah Underhill died in 1890 without ever having given a public response to her sisters’ confessions.

Katie’s son Ferdinand worked briefly as a medium before his death from tuberculosis in 1908. He was the only Fox relative to carry on his mother’s and aunts’ work.

The same year that Maggie Fox died penniless in New York, 1893, the first proper Spiritualist churches began to form under the auspices of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. The NSAC is still headquartered in the place where it began, the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York. Like Spiritualism itself, this quaint hamlet full of cottages and flowergardens seems to belong to another century.


In 1904, children playing in the cellar of the abandoned Hydesville cottage allegedly discovered several bones inside a “false wall” that had collapsed.

The false wall was later shown to be an ordinary wall. The bones turned out to be mostly animal bones of unknown origin, and were not preserved.

The Rehabilitation of the Fox Sisters

Certain Spiritualists had rejected the sisters’ 1888 confessions, and that state of affairs continued into the new century. In 1916, the Hydesville cottage was purchased and preserved by residents of Lily Dale, where it served as a meeting place and shrine until its destruction by fire in 1955. To this day, Lily Dale boasts a tin trunk – of the kind used by 19th-century peddlers – that was supposedly found in the cottage cellar at the same time as the bones. The providence of this trunk remains murky.

As complex and confounding as their lives were, the Fox sisters continue to exert a strong hold on Spiritualism. Their simple rappings and automatic writings gave birth to an astonishing array of phenomenon that, to true believers, offered the ultimate evidence of survival after death.

The story of Spiritualism is much like another marvel that excited the public in the 19th century: The roller coaster. There were ecstatic highs and stomach-crunching dips. Careers would be made and destroyed. Hearts would be broken and mended and broken again. Scientific rationalism and blind belief would intertwine, but also engage in brutal open warfare. And no one knew what would happen next. In the world of the unseen, nothing could really be foreseen.




2 thoughts on “The Power of Belief: A History of Spiritualism (Part I)

Add yours

  1. Wow, I lost a few hours discovering more about the information presented here. Utterly fascinating.

    Quite startling to think of the original falsehood following and trapping the sisters throughout their lives. I wonder if they would have preferred not to have started the whole shebang if given the chance for a do-over.

    I love the detail and research in these long form articles. Looking forward to part two. Thank you.

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