A Prank By Two Sisters Spun Into A Complete Spiritualism Mania In The 19th Century

Nestled in the country outside the township of Hydesville, New York, was a house that quickly developed the reputation of being host to supernatural happenings. Mysterious knocks and rapping could be heard throughout the home, notably when someone was in the presence of two of the young girls who resided there with their parents. On the eve of April Fool's Day in 1848, 14-year-old Maggie Fox and her 11-year-old sister Kate hosted a neighbor girl over to hear the eerie sounds that they attributed to spirits. They began to communicate with a spirit, asking it questions, to which a loud rapping was heard in response (via Smithsonian).

The stories about the Fox house and its spirits spread like wildfire. Soon after, the Fox sisters' mother sent the young ladies to live with their elder sister, Leah. But the tales of spiritual activity surrounding the girls only gained more traction. As they settled in Rochester with their sister, their notoriety followed them. The Spiritualism that was pervasive in the region only added fuel to the fire, particularly when Isaac and Amy Post became involved. The Posts were well-networked in town and were taken by the Fox sisters' stories of communication with the spirit world. 

The Posts arranged for the Fox sisters to hold a séance in their home, to which the girls were able to "speak" with the spirits via a series of knocks and rapping. Whatever doubt either of the Posts might have had before the event were extinguished afterward, as the sisters allowed Amy Post to examine them after they disrobed to look for signs of a hoax. She found none (per HistoryNet).

Rising up the ranks of Spiritualism

The Posts rented a large hall in Rochester and invited the public to witness firsthand the medium abilities of the Fox sisters. (Above, from left: Margaret, Catherine, and Leah.) Smithsonian Magazine reports that the venue hosted an estimated 400 people who attended to see firsthand the young mediums they had heard so much buzz about. 

This caught the attention of renowned Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis, who invited the Fox sisters to visit his New York home. Davis wrote a book titled "The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind," which combined the philosophies of his predecessors, healer Anton Mesmer and philosopher and Spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg. Recognizing that their abilities to communicate with the spirit realm would further cement him among other Spiritualists, Davis used the Fox sisters to declare the prophecy he wrote of in his book to have been fulfilled. He claimed that he had written in his diary on the date of the Fox sisters first channeling spirits that "about daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying 'Brother, the good work has begun — behold, a living demonstration is born.'"

The two younger Fox sisters began working with their older sister Leah on an intense tour. In New York, the three sisters entertained many prominent members of that city's high society, including author James Fenimore Cooper and New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Their successes and fame were growing by the day. But it all came crashing down in 1888 after a startling admission by Maggie Fox.

The confession

The sisters were in high demand, with reports of their abilities to communicate with a person's deceased loved ones on the tip of a lot of tongues. Pressure to perform got the better of Kate Fox, who tried to cope by abusing alcohol.

Weary and tired, Maggie Fox accepted a $1,500 fee to publicly denounce the world of Spiritualism (per Smithsonian). The exclusive interview with the New York World newspaper might have had other motives than just coming clean on the scam she and her sisters had been running for 40 years. She was reportedly tired of Leah controlling her and her younger sister, and of other leaders in the Spiritualist movement that was critical of Kate's alcoholism. 

In her statement, Maggie revealed that she and Kate made rapping and thumping sounds by stealthily bobbing an apple from a string, allowing it to hit the floor. The trick of "communicating" with the spirit realm evolved from using a piece of fruit to the two girls being able to manipulate the joints on their hands and feet to make loud noises. She explained how these noises were used to answer the questions asked of the spirits they were allegedly communicating with. The noises they made were convincing, and lead to the greater power of suggestion. She explained, "A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them." After making the rapping on a chair, it wasn't uncommon for someone to declare that they could "feel" the spirit in the room touching them. "Of course, that was pure imagination," she said.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The aftermath

You can't have a famous medium publicly renounce her trade without it making a giant splash. Smithsonian reports that this was considered to be a "death blow" for the Spiritualist movement, despite Maggie Fox recanting her confession a year later. It's believed she did so due to financial pressures, wanting to return to the one way she could always count on to make a living (per Smithsonian). But her demonstration of the parlor trick that duped so many people into believing that she was a real medium forever tarnished her image among believers. Maggie later made an appearance at the Manhattan Liberal Club under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer. There, she once again revealed the tricks of the trade that mediums use to lure audiences into believing that they can communicate with the dead.

The Fox sisters didn't make it into the 20th century. Leah died first, in 1890. She and Maggie never reconciled, partly fueled by Maggie's accusation that her elder sister knew all along that the seances were fake and that she was only going along with it so that she could financially exploit her younger sisters. Kate's drinking got the better of her and she died from alcoholism in 1892. Maggie's death was not far behind, occurring in early 1893 (via HistoryNet).

Unlike the Fox sisters, Spiritualism did make it into the 1900s. While notable figures like magician Harry Houdini crusaded against it, the belief still garnered support from all walks of life in America and Europe, including relatives of actor Dan Akroyd