After an otherworldly encounter in their bedroom, two young women found fame and fortune helping nineteenth-century mourners speak to their dead. The religion they inspired lives on to this day—and so does the suspicion that it was all a childhood prank.
“Rap, rap, rap! Rap, rap, rap! Rap, rap, rap! Lov’d ones are rapping to-night.
Heaven seems not far away; Death’s sweeping river is bright, Soft is the sheen of its spray.”
—Emma Rood Tuttle, “Spirit Rappings,” c.1880
“THERE IS NO DEATH. THERE ARE NO DEAD.”
— Engraving on a stone Spiritualists erected in 1927 on the site of the Fox family home
The vibrant, pretty Fox sisters played in this western New York forest until their mother called them in for dinner. In their simple dresses, coats, and long dark braids, they ran through weeds and stomped in ice puddles. Clever Maggie, fourteen, and ethereal Kate, eleven, lived in a land of magic, sprites, and the devil, known in these parts as Mr. Splitfoot. Whether romping among the trees or going about their chores, they kept each other entertained with stories and songs. And when they lay down to sleep at night, it was side by side.
“Hydesville is a typical little hamlet of New York State,” Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would later write of the Foxes’ hometown in his 1926 book The History of Spiritualism, “with a primitive population…[It] consists of a cluster of wooden houses of a very humble type. It was in one of these…that there began this development which is already, in the opinion of many, by far the most important thing that America has given to the commonweal of the world.”
Doyle was talking about none other than those two little girls in the woods.
* * *
The Fox Family Cottage. Hydesville, New York, March 1848
“Mama!” Maggie Fox screamed out one night about three months after moving into their rented Hydesville house. John and Margaret came running into the room. The girls were sitting bolt upright in bed, looking as though they’d seen a ghost. They’d heard something, they said. All was quiet for a moment, and then John and Margaret heard it too: rap, rap, rap. It sounded like someone was tapping on the wall.
Quaking in their beds, the girls asked their mother if she knew what — or who — was making that creepy sound. The Fox family stood there in the dark listening, and the noise repeated: rap, rap, rap.
Margaret said perhaps the girls should sleep in their parents’ room that night, and the girls dutifully moved their blankets and pillows across the hall. Then all was quiet.
But the next night, soon after the girls had gone to bed, the sound returned, more insistently this time: rap, rap, rap. It went on for hours, keeping the family awake and anxious, but then quieted.
Each night, the sounds grew louder. Now even the beds and chairs seemed to tremble.
One night, Mr. Fox heard a knocking on the front door of the house, but when he went to see who it was, there was no one there.
Kids playing pranks, he assured his wife. But the next morning Mrs. Fox told David, the girls’ twenty-eight-year-old eldest brother, she worried that the house had a ghost.
“Oh, Mother,” David replied, “when you find out the cause it will be one of the simplest things in the world.” He also asked her not to tell the neighbors, worrying the family would be mocked for being soft-headed.
That night, the rapping returned. John and Margaret searched the house. They determined that the sound was loudest in the girls’ room, but it seemed to be coming from within the house’s very walls. John stationed himself outside of the girls’ bedroom door, and Margaret stood inside. Rap, rap, rap. The knocks seemed to come from the door between them.
Another night, the girls screamed, and when their mother came into the room, they told her they’d felt something heavy, like a dog lying across their feet. Kate said she felt a cold, invisible hand on her face. Often, the girls said that they felt as though their sheets were being pulled off of their bodies as they slept, and that something was rearranging their furniture. And every night: raps. The sisters said to them it sounded like someone was inside the walls, trying to get out.
The Foxes noted that the sounds only happened when their daughters were nearby, and ended around the same time the girls fell asleep, usually around midnight. They wondered if something about the spirits required the girls’ presence.
What they knew for sure, though, was that they hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, and they were starting to feel like they were losing their minds.
Then came the night of March 31.
Mrs. Fox was so exhausted that she felt an illness coming on. She insisted they all go to bed early, right at dusk, and all in the same room, for safety. All was quiet for a moment, and then the rapping began.
“Here it is again!” Maggie cried. They listened very carefully, and the noise grew louder and louder.
Suddenly, Kate suggested they try to talk to whatever was making the noise, to see if it might answer. “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do!” she called out, giving two claps.
There was a pause, and then two raps answered.
“Now do as I do,” Maggie called, joining in, and she clapped four times.
Four raps answered.
Kate then held up two fingers. The spirit rapped twice.
“Look,” Kate told their mother, “it can see as well as hear.”
Mrs. Fox marveled. Could this be a ghost trying to communicate with them out here in this little house in the woods? Was their cottage really a portal to the world beyond?
“Now you,” Maggie said to their mother. “Ask it a question.”
Shivering, Mrs. Fox called out into the dark house: “How many children do I have?”
A pause, and then: rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap. Six.
“But I only have five,” Mrs. Fox said, almost relieved that the ghost had made an error.
The girls reminded their mother that she’d had a baby who died in infancy.
“Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly?” Mrs. Fox asked.
“Is it a spirit? If it is, make two raps.”
Two loud raps came, shaking the bed.
“Were you injured in this house?”
Questions and corresponding raps revealed that the spirit was a man who had been murdered in the house when he was thirty-one years old, and that his body was buried in the cellar, ten feet deep. She learned that he was a husband and father to two sons and three daughters, and that his wife had died after he did, orphaning his children.
“Will you continue to rap,” Mrs. Fox asked, “if I call in my neighbors that they may hear it too?”
Mr. Fox went out into the cold country evening and called for a Mrs. Redfield to come and see what was taking place in their home. Mrs. Redfield showed up, sure it was the Fox girls playing a joke on their parents, but she was moved when she saw the sisters sitting up in bed, looking pale and frightened.
Upon hearing the raps, Mrs. Redfield called her husband to join them. More questions were asked and answered in raps. Then Mr. Redfield went and got the Dueslers. The Dueslers called the Hydes and the Jewells. Soon the house was packed with about fifteen people, all baffled by the talking ghost.
Mrs. Fox asked the spirit if anyone in that room had hurt him. He replied no.
The neighbors had follow-up questions, and in the course of their long interview, they determined that the spirit was a traveling salesman who had been killed in the east bedroom about five years earlier, on a Tuesday night at midnight, with a butcher knife. The motive: money. One of the neighbors wanted to know how much money, and the spirit rapped that it was five hundred dollars, a substantial fortune at the time.
Mrs. Fox took the children and stayed with a neighbor that night, and Mr. Fox and Mr. Redfield stayed up all night in the house listening for further messages, though no more came.
In the days that followed, the Fox family was besieged. Simple farmers came straight from the field, dirt under their fingernails; shopkeepers in their best work clothes came from their places of business. Walking in, they asked if the ghost was still accepting questions. Were they too late? they wondered. Had the ghost returned to the other side? Or was it still here among them?
The ghost had not left. The visitors asked the spirit about dead relatives, about the afterlife, about their crops and their lives and their children’s futures. They walked away consoled that death was not the end, that those who they had lost were still around them, and were at peace. By the end of the weekend, three hundred people surrounded the house, eager to hear messages from the great beyond.
“Oh, Mother,” Kate had said at one point that first night, as their house filled with neighbors, “I know what it is; tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, and it’s somebody trying to fool us.” But as the days rolled on, the spirit didn’t leave.
Nor did the town want it to. Mrs. Redfield returned to the house one evening to ask the spirit something that she had long wanted to know. She knelt beside the Fox girls’ bed. “Is there a heaven to obtain?” she asked.
The spirit knocked yes.
Another woman in the room said, “I’m afraid.”
“God will protect you,” Mrs. Redfield told the woman. “The raps are a gift from God, aren’t they?” she gently asked the spirit.
And the spirit said yes.
We have all this detail and dialogue thanks to the fact that a local lawyer named E.E. Lewis went around town in 1848 gathering up testimonies from the Foxes and their neighbors, and published them that same year as A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County.
In the course of those first rapping events, the spirit named his killer as John Bell, a former inhabitant of the house, and he identified himself as one Charles B. Rosna. No one could find a record of any Rosnas, but neighbors went to find Bell, who had since moved to Moravia. They accused him of having committed a murder in the house. Bell rushed back to Hydesville eager to clear his name and ranting about slander. No one believed him, but they did not try him for the killing, there being only one witness — a ghost — so Bell returned home annoyed, but a free man.
* * *
The Move to Rochester
It was May before the girls’ domineering older sister, Leah, caught wind of what had been happening back in Hydesville. She went home to find her family hiding out at David’s house, fending off increasingly hostile thrill seekers.
Mrs. Fox begged the spirits to leave her family alone, but they did not honor her request. The days when they would have been burned at the stake as witches were long gone, but some of the religious did recommend exorcism.
Leah decided to take Kate with her when she went back to Rochester. Maybe if the girls were separated the ghost would leave. Strangely, the ghost only seemed to acquire the ability to be in two places at once. The family was amazed that the rappings continued at David’s house after Kate left, and also mysteriously followed Kate to Leah’s in Rochester. Leah reported that the noises were even heard on the boat as they traveled home. The family marveled: Had the spirit adhered to both Kate and Maggie?
Back in Rochester, Leah, toughest of the Fox children (she had grown even more rigorously practical since her husband had abandoned her as a teenage mother) came up with a plan to exploit her sisters’ gift for their profit, as well as her own. She wrote and asked for Maggie and their mother to join her and Kate in Rochester. She offered to take a break from her work as a piano teacher to help her little sisters reach their full potential as mediums. Some of Rochester’s leading intellectuals became intrigued by the story of the Fox girls, and invited them over for demonstrations. One rich couple, the Grangers, had lost their daughter Harriet, and wanted to speak with her.
The resulting séance is described in several books, including David Chapin’s 2004 Exploring Other Worlds. Walking into their parlor, Leah set ground rules. The table had to be wood. The room had to be dark. They had to open with a prayer. Questions were to be phrased such that the spirit could answer yes or no. If the spirit wanted to expand, it would “call for the alphabet,” by rapping five times. At that point, someone in the group would recite the alphabet until the spirit heard the letter it wanted, at which point it would rap once. If the spirit felt disrespected at any point, it would leave.
The party sat at a cherry table laden with cakes and tea. A Methodist preacher in attendance, Reverend Clark, said a prayer, and as soon as he did, the rapping began. The Fox girls said it was the murdered peddler, calling for the alphabet. Charles Rosna, Hydesville spirit, told the now-famous story of his murder.
“Did God send you?” Reverend Clark asked.
The rapping signified yes.
“But what can have been his object?” Clark asked. “Has He any important purposes to accomplish, the fulfillment of which depends on such manifestations from the spirit world as you are now making?”
Loud rapping replied, and the table began to move, shaking the teacups.
Suddenly Maggie Fox announced that the spirit of Harriet Granger had appeared.
Her parents had one question: had her husband murdered her?
Yes, the spirit rapped. And now, the rapping testified, he planned to hurt Mr. and Mrs. Granger as well.
Reverend Clark asked about heaven. Harriet assured him that it was more wonderful than he could imagine.
The girls would go on to do this hundreds and hundreds of times.
* * *
The Fox Sisters’ first big public séance was held on November 14, 1848, at Corinthian Hall, Rochester’s largest venue. Advertisements placed in the local paper and reprinted in various books, including Eliab W. Capron’s 1855 Modern Spiritualism: Its Facts and Fanaticisms, Its Consistencies and Contradictions, read, “Let the citizens of Rochester embrace this opportunity of investigating the whole matter, and see if those engaged in laying it before the public are deceived, or are deceiving others, and if neither, account for these truly wonderful manifestations…Come and investigate.” The admission fee was twenty-five cents per person.
The evening began with a speech by a respected local figure telling the story, by now well known, of the girls and the murdered peddler. He compared the girls’ discovery to those of Galileo, Newton and Fulton. People laughed at them, too, he said. This was new science, not just religion, he said. The girls would be tested before the crowd, he insisted, and found to be sincere.
Young Kate was said to be indisposed. Leah took her place. Leah led Maggie, looking even younger than her fifteen years in a pale blue dress, onto the stage and they tried to tune out the audience’s crude comments.
The Fox sisters had done séances now many times, with Leah occasionally sitting in for one or the other of her sisters, but never before hundreds of people at once. They were seated at a wooden table. The lights were dimmed. Five influential members of Rochester society sat in chairs on stage, providing a silent endorsement.
Silence filled the great hall, and then someone asked if the spirit was with them. After a dramatic moment, a clear, loud rapping broke the silence: Yes.
The demonstration continued with a series of questions and responses. When Leah and Maggie left the stage, the applause from the believers was deafening, but there were plenty of jeers, too. Either way, they were instant celebrities — divine to some, absurd to others. And for two more nights, the girls would return to Corinthian Hall, where investigators would declare that they had been able to uncover no deception. The insinuation that the girls had let themselves be “investigated” signified to some in Rochester that whether the girls were lying or not, they were certainly not ladies.
The groups of respected local figures charged with verifying the girls’ authenticity had indeed looked them over closely. Soon after the performance, Maggie and Leah were brought into a private room, where a committee examined them for concealed tricks. The examiners put Maggie on a feather bed both with and without her dress on (the second test was supervised by a group of deputized women), and the raps continued.
The sisters stayed in Rochester, by now a city of 70,000, for four years, holding séances at the Fox-Fish home and elsewhere, day and night. They received a steady stream of mostly enthusiastic press. Newspapers called them the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester,” and they began to collect invitations to visit Troy and Albany.
The dark side of fame was soon in evidence. Men yelled vulgar things at the girls as they entered and left theaters. Many men assumed that these mediums fell into the category of girls who did things in the dark for money. Having been groped and catcalled repeatedly, Maggie was already growing tired of the routine. But Leah wouldn’t let her quit. In 1850, Leah even decided they needed a bigger platform. She told her sisters that it was time to move to New York City.
* * *
The mid- to late-1800s brought ever more new inventions: electric lights, safety pins, dynamite, rubber bands, anesthetic, concrete, elevators, typewriters, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, the modern bicycle, chewing gum, bullets. Why not also a way to talk to the dead? And after the Civil War began, nearly every family in the nation was in mourning. People wanted to hear that their dead relatives were not truly gone. They craved the chance to say to the departed, “I love you,” “I miss you,” or “Goodbye.”
When she moved into the White House, President Franklin Pierce’s wife, Jane Appleton, was in mourning for her two dead children, especially eleven-year-old Benny, whose death she had witnessed. He had been killed by falling luggage in a train accident. The First Lady insisted black bunting be placed throughout the White House, and one day, according to Barbara Weisberg’s great Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rose of Spiritualism, Mrs. Pierce invited the famous Maggie Fox there to facilitate a conversation with Benny.
There is no good account of this meeting, but it’s safe to assume that the First Lady wanted to know why Benny had been taken from them. She reportedly worried that it was cosmic payback for her husband’s political ambition. We might also assume that in a darkened room of the White House, Maggie translated as Benny rapped out reassurances to his mother.
The pushback against the rapping craze matched its supporters’ enthusiasm. By April 1854, “rappomania”—as it was called by critics of the time like Adin Ballou, who wrote a book titled An Exposition of Views Respecting the Principal Facts, Causes and Peculiarities Involved in Spirit Manifestations, referring to Maggie and Kate’s promotion of “atheism…fanaticism, madness, idiocy”—had swept the nation.
In the spring of that year, two members of the U.S. Senate, General James Shields of Illinois and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, presented a petition from 15,000 Americans demanding a commission to study spiritualist phenomena like rapping. The discussion about whose job it was to look into the matter was lively; someone said it should be the Post Office, because of the prospect of a “spiritual telegraph” between this world and the next.
In New York City, the Fox women stayed at Barnum’s Hotel, a major destination on the Bowery and Maiden Lane, owned by a cousin of P.T. Barnum, the great showman. The sisters held regular séances in Barnum’s hotel parlor. They also spent two weeks as houseguests of Horace Greely, the New York Tribune’s editor. He invited over friends and introduced them to the Fox sisters, telling everyone that at last, here was proof of the afterlife, and verification that death was not the end. (In 1872, as Greely lay dying, he would speak of the girls: “Tell the Fox family I bless them. I have been made happy through them. They have prepared me for this hour.”)
A panel including some of New York’s most respected men — including the novelist J. Fenimore Cooper — visited the girls, grilling them and trying to catch them in lies. They passed muster, and charmed their examiners, clearing their path for success in the city’s highest echelons of society.
In New York, Leah allowed her sisters little free time, causing them to resent her more and more by the day. She had the girls presiding over groups of 30 three times a day: at ten a.m., five p.m. and eight p.m., charging each person one dollar. They were pulling in $90 a day, the equivalent of about $1,600 now. The spirits sometimes delivered inspirational messages, spelled out laboriously by the guests listing letters and the ghost rapping to signal to stop there. An abolitionist, for example, heard the spirits rap out this message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”
The money was coming in, but competition was growing. Others around the country, and especially in New York, were claiming to be mediums, and adding effects: furniture floating through the air, messages magically written in foreign languages, and music played by unseen orchestras. Kate did the most work to expand her craft. She learned how to do “automatic writing” and spiritualist drawing, as well as “materialization,” the mysterious creation of matter, like ectoplasm.
There were hoaxes everywhere, but believers insisted that, though some bad actors may prey on the gullible, the spirits undeniably had spoken to the Fox girls. They were too young, too uneducated, and too innocent, the logic went, to have tricked so many learned people.
The girls occasionally attended other mediums’ séances, and were shocked by what they saw. One summoned a young female ghost, naked except for gauze-like wrappings. Other times, things happened in the dark that made the young girls confused and scared. Maggie was appalled by these sexually charged events. No wonder men suspected her of being a prostitute, she thought. Plenty of mediums seemed to be just that. (There are some wonderful books describing medium practices of the time, including Charles Grafton Page’s 1853 Psychomancy: Spirit-Rappings and Table-Tippings Exposed, Joseph McCabe’s 1920 Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, and more recently Peter Washington’s 1995 Madam Blavatsky’s Baboon.)
These grown-up environments, coupled with the lack of supervision, led the Fox sisters to kill time between séances by drinking wine, and daydreaming aloud about handsome men who might one day take them away from Leah, whom they had grown to truly hate. Kate would manage to escape to England, where she would marry a Spiritualist and have two children. And Maggie, too, would find love. One day, as if she had conjured him, a dashing older man appeared at her door.
* * *
“The Love-Life of Elisha Kane”
A hero of the age, handsome thirty-two-year-old Arctic explorer and Navy surgeon Elisha Kent Kane stood on the bow of his ship in his furs, scanning the tundra for any trace of Sir John Franklin, who went missing with two ships and 128 crewmembers in a famous 1845 expedition. Charged by the U.S. Navy with determining what had happened to his colleague, Kane — who had stared down into the Taal Volcano in the Philippines, served as doctor to the U.S. embassy in China, and explored Bombay, Rio, Cairo and Athens — sailed into some of the most brutal waters in the world, trying to keep his crew alive in extreme temperatures.
As a child, Kane had suffered rheumatic fever, and he had never been strong, but in spite of — or, the holders of the Elisha Kent Kane papers suggest in a background note — because of his ill health, he was fearless, and took risk after risk around the globe, earning a reputation for bravery and heroism.
Of aristocratic American stock (his father was a U.S. district judge, and his brother was a Civil War general and lawyer), Kane was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the world. He was famous enough that his love life was tabloid fodder and that it was a publishing event when in 1865 a collection of his love letters was published under the title The Love-Life of Dr. Kane.
Captain Kane first saw nineteen-year-old Maggie Fox sitting and reading in a window of an elite Philadelphia hotel. She had been presiding over séances all day. Dozens of people had streamed in and out of the Webb’s Union Hotel suite where she and her mother were staying, all of them wanting Maggie’s help speaking to their dead relatives. They were a blur, except for one: Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, who arrived skeptical of Spiritualism but found himself intrigued by the beautiful young woman in the window.
He began visiting her every day, bringing gifts, siting in on séances, and taking her out for rides and walks. He wrote flattering, polite notes to Mrs. Fox about her lovely daughter. His own family couldn’t know, so they had to be discreet, but he still showed the Foxes every courtesy, and keeping to the rules of his class, he ensured that every date was appropriately chaperoned.
Their dates were friendly and traditional — far from both the daring adventures Kane usually undertook and Maggie’s shadowy hotel-suite séance world. He was formal and pompous, but could take a joke about himself from time to time. She coyly evaded his direct questions, replied to only a third of his letters, and teased him for being an old man when he suggested she learn to act like a proper lady. Once when Maggie and Kane found themselves alone in a room with a bed in it, he scolded her for her lack of decorum. She nicknamed him “The Preacher.”
And yet, one day Maggie accidentally spilled a cup of cough medicine just as Kane was arriving. Her mother and Leah elsewhere for the moment, Kane took her to the sink and washed the sticky medicine from her dress and skin, kissing her and stroking her hair.
In his letters during their time apart, he was bossy and cajoling, condescending and affectionate. “My dear sweet Maggie,” he wrote. “Night has come, and the hour which ushers in another day is chiming from the cracked bells of Washington. Yet I sit down to give you my regular record of remembrance, to show my dear little Maggie that she is not forgotten…Do, dear darling, be lifted up and ennobled by my love. Live a life of purity, and met your reward in the respect of yourself, the praise of the world, and the blessings of Heaven.”
For Leah, Kane was a menace trying to break up their family and steal their livelihood. She also didn’t trust him. A family fortune might make up for the loss of séance income, but that was only if he married Maggie, and Leah insisted he would never do any such thing.
Meanwhile, Maggie fell hard. “It is late, my beloved,” she wrote to Kane in one letter, “and I have carefully stolen from my bed, that I might write to you undisturbed even by the breathings of others. It is after midnight, and the sweet moon is the only witness to my devotion. For four days I have done naught but weep. How has our separation affected you? I am very gloomy. Without you all is darkness, and every place seems like a grave. You ask if I mix in company? No, no! I join no merry scenes. Lish, I have not laughed since we parted… On the wings of angels I send you ten thousand kisses.”
When at last they were reunited, they married secretly, in a Quaker ceremony, which didn’t require a minister. They announced the marriage to her family, but not to his. They didn’t dare live together, but from then on he called her “Dear Wife.”
Kane’s health, never good, had been weakened by another bout with rheumatic fever, and further damaged by his difficult Arctic expeditions. Within a couple of years of their secret marriage, Kane, carrying Maggie’s portrait, sailed for Cuba, where his doctor hoped the climate would help him would recover. The treatment failed. On a boat between Cuba and St. Thomas, at the age of thirty-seven, Kane had a stroke and died. Maggie, who had now known Kane for nearly her entire adult life, was a widow.
She would never remarry. Upon Kane’s death, Maggie sank into a deep depression. She sat silent and alone in dark rooms, drinking, and wishing she could give herself the same consolation she’d given to her desperate clients.
Against Leah’s objections, Maggie converted to Catholicism, which she knew would have pleased Kane, and tried to pray the way he had. She read and reread his letters. “Remember then as a sort of dream,” Kane had written in one, “that Doctor Kane of the Arctic Seas loved Maggie Fox of the Spirit Rappings.”
“You are driving me into hell!” Maggie yelled at Leah now when she insisted it was time to do another séance. “Now that you are rich why don’t you save your soul?”
Maggie, never fully committed to the life (as Nancy Rubin Stuart’s 2005 book The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox attests), had fully come around to Kane’s way of thinking. She now hated her profession. Leah told Maggie that not only did they need to keep rapping, but also that they should consider starting a new religion. Instead, they just kept on with what they had been doing, séance after séance, for years, until Maggie had finally had enough.
* * *
New York Academy of Music, New York City
On the evening of October 21, 1888, Maggie Fox, now in her mid-fifties and still wearing mourning clothes for Kane, stepped out onto the large stage of the opera house on East Fourteenth Street to face four thousand people. She had been sleepless for days, pacing her apartment in a manic state — playing the piano, talking excitedly to visiting friends about the blow she was about to deliver — and, of course, drinking.
The audience whispered to each other, wondering what the legendary Maggie Fox had to say. They called out taunts and cries of support. Maggie didn’t react to either her fans or detractors. By this point, she had been famous for forty years. She surveyed the room, put on her glasses, curtseyed, and with her words sent a shock wave through the auditorium.
“My sister Katie and I were very young children when this horrible deception began,” she said (her speech was published the same day in the New York World). “We were very mischievous children and sought merely to terrify our dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily frightened.”
It took the crowd a minute to realize what was happening: Maggie Fox, star of the most famous medium family in the world, was saying that her career — and therefore the religion of Spiritualism, by then some eight million strong — was built on a childhood prank. She and Kate had made up the ghost “Charles Rosna,” Maggie said, as a joke. The girls had noticed how scared the rapping made their mother, and so they egged each other on to knock ever louder on their bedframe.
After those first few days of rapping in Hydesville, Maggie explained, the sisters had begun to add props, tying lines around objects and furniture so that they could cause things to fall, making ever-louder noises in the night. They took apples from the cellar and tied strings around them. Then they would throw the apples from their beds and yank them back under the covers, making a bumping sound along the dirt floor through the room. When their mother ran into their bedroom, they would look at her startled and wide-eyed.
As time went on, the girls also cultivated a special skill: They found they could loudly crack their toe knuckles and anklebones. They practiced throughout the day. When they did this against their bed frame at night, the wood would even produce a vibration.
“Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done,” Maggie said from onstage. “The rappings 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 a child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiff in later years. A child at twelve is almost too old. With control of the muscles of the foot, the toes may be brought down to the floor without any movement that is perceptible to the eye. The whole foot, in fact, can be made to give rappings by the use only of the muscles below the knee.”
Of the frenzied attention they received as children, Maggie said: “There were so many people coming to the house that we were not able to make use of the apple trick except when we were in bed and the room was dark. Even then we could hardly do it, so the only way was to rap on the bedstead.”
In a Chicago Tribune article called “Mrs. Fox Kane’s Big Toe,” a reporter describing the event said, “One moment it was ludicrous; the next moment it was weird.” According to the article, the Spiritualists in the audience “almost frothed at the mouth with rage,” and “muttered furious threats against their foes.”
With Kate looking on from a box and applauding, Maggie even offered a demonstration, taking off her shoes and tights to show, in bare feet, how she could strike her joint against wood to make a loud rapping sound.
Maggie was happy in that moment, knowing that her talk would infuriate Leah when she heard about it, and that wherever he was, Elisha surely approved.
* * *
After the Confession
Unfortunately, Maggie and Kate had no long-term plan. They had not cultivated any other skills, and knew only one way to make a living. Maggie was paid $1,500 for that performance, and her confession was published in the New York World. Together she and Kate published a pamphlet called The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. (Leah, under her married name, Underhill, would tell her side of the story in 1885 in a book called The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism.) Those proceeds only lasted so long, especially because the sisters seemed fully committed to drinking themselves to death.
A year later, Maggie tried to walk back her confession. “At the time I was in great need of money and persons…took advantage of the situation,” she said. “The excitement, too, upset my mental equilibrium. When I made those dreadful statements I was not responsible for my words.”
Reactions to this recantation were mixed. Some still believed the confession and thought the attempt to retract it was laughable. Others believed in her abilities and concluded that she had faked the confession. But still, no one wanted her around anymore. Even the Spiritualists at the Manhattan Liberal Club shunned her. She attempted suicide at least once.
All three sisters died within just a few years of Maggie’s confession: Leah in 1890, Kate in 1892 and Maggie in 1893.
The Fox family home’s foundation today is maintained as a Spiritualist holy site, and the Newark-Arcadia Historical Society has a good collection of material related to the Fox Sisters. (Former town historian Bob Hoeltzel’s work was a major source for this article.)
Maggie and Kate were buried together in Brooklyn, New York. Today they lie together in death, just like when, as girls, they fell asleep at midnight and slept side by side in the first haunted house in America.
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Ada Calhoun is the author of the narrative history St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street (W.W. Norton & Co., November 2015). She has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, Time, New York, NewYorker.com, Billboard, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Country Living, and The Los Angeles Times.