No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

The Advent of Spiritualism.

A simple schoolgirl prank spawned a new belief with millions of followers.
September 4, 2012
...
...

The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
More...
Strange Company - 5/17/2021

`
LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/13/2020
The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 5/15/2021

Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Street Arabs and Gutter-Snipes. | The Last Dip of the Season.

The Advent of Spiritualism.

fox-sisters2
Kate Fox Maggie Fox Leah Fox

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.

Extra Fox Home in Hydesville

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.

Extra

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.


Sources:

  • Barnum, P. T. The humbugs of the world An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages.. New York: Carleton, 1866.
  • Stuart, Nancy. The reluctant spiritualist: the life of Maggie Fox. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005.
  • Todd, Thomas Olman. Hydesville: the story of the Rochester knockings, which proclaimed the advent of modern spiritualism. Sunderland [Eng.: Keystone Press, 1905.

 The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism's Unlikely Founders