In March of 1848 two young sisters in Hydesville, New York—Maggie Fox, age 15 and Katie Fox, age 11 ½ — devised a plan to fool their superstitious mother. They would discretely crack their toes and claim that the resulting “knocks” or “raps” were communications from the spirit world. Little did they dream that this simple deception would spawn a new religion with millions of followers worldwide.
The Fox family moved into a small farmhouse in Hydesville in December 1847. Out of boredom that winter, the two sisters devised several plans to convince their mother that the house was haunted. The most effective was to crack their toes on the floor in such a way that the sound would resonate through the house. They convinced their mother that the sounds were being made by a ghost who haunting their house.
On March 31, 1848, the girls set up a performance for their family during which they purported to communicate with the spirit haunting the house. Katy would peer into the darkness and say boldly, “Mr. Split-foot, do as I do,” then snap her fingers several times in succession. The responding knocks, coming as if from the darkness, would imitate the snaps. Her mother asked the spirit questions that could be answered with a series of knocks. It was determined that the spirit was a thirty-one-year-old man with five children, who had died two years previous. Neighbors were summoned to witness the performance. They arrived skeptics and left believers.
This occurred during a period known as the “Second Great Awakening” of religious fervor in America, and in a section of New York State that had been dubbed the “burned-over district” for the number of times the inhabitants had been fired up by religious movements. The area had seen the birth of the Latter Day Saints, the Millerites, the Shakers, and the Oneida Community. The spirit communication of the Fox Sisters found a receptive audience and their fame spread quickly through western New York.
A third sister, Leah Fox Fish, who was nineteen years older than Maggie, learned of the deception through her daughter Lizzie. Leah took over management of her sisters’ performances and soon they making money throughout the state. The girls were examined by medical experts in Rochester and Buffalo and were pronounced to be legitimate.
The Fox Sisters began holding private séances and public meetings in Albany, New York City and throughout the east coast. Prominent men such as editor Horace Greely and author James Fennimore Cooper became adherents. As the Spiritualist movement grew, it attracted more mediums, with even more dramatic performances. Soon the movement had millions of adherents worldwide.
But there were skeptics as well. In his 1866 book The Humbugs of the World, P. T. Barnum—himself an unabashed dealer in humbuggery—included a section on Spiritualism and a chapter devoted to the Fox Sisters. His description of how the Fox Sisters produced their raps was fairly accurate. But the accounts of skeptics had no effects on the true believers.
Then in July 1888, while on tour in England, Maggie Fox herself began to reveal, on stage, how the noises were produced. When she returned to New York, she was joined by her sister Katie in revealing the secret. On October 21 the two sisters appeared on the stage of the New York Academy of Music and together revealed how they had deceived the world for forty years. Newspapers proclaimed the death of Spiritualism, but the Spiritualist claimed that this performance was the fraud. The two sisters now both alcoholics with little income had renounced their gift in order to make money.
A national tour following the Academy of Music performance failed to generate the revenue they hoped for and in 1889 Maggie reversed herself again. She recanted her previous expose, claiming it was made at the direction of an unscrupulous manager. But by now, little attention was paid to anything she said and the Fox Sisters faded into obscurity. Both women died of alcoholism, Katie in 1892 and Maggie in 1893.