Monday, November 1, 2010
They Spoke with the Dead: The Lives of Kate and Maggie Fox
The year 1848 was a momentous one in New York State. It was the year the first Women's Rights Convention as held in Seneca Falls; John Humphrey Noyes established a commune in Oneida, NY that was based on Biblical communism ad 'Complex Marriage," a man named Orson Fowler built a 60 room octagonal mansion in Fishkill, NY. But it was the events in tiny Hydesville, NY that would have profound effects on the nation and the world at large. Two adolescent girls Margaretta (Maggie) and her younger sister Catherine (Kate) Fox soon became the focus for the new spiritualism movement which became a major interest not only to Americans but around the world. To this day, there is a question about whether or not the Fox sisters were genuine mediums or whether or not they were talented charlatans who managed not only to fool newspaper editor Horace Greeley but also the President of the United States, Franklin Pierce and his wife. Was it an April Fool's joke that just got out of hand and the girls didn't know how to stop it? All three sisters, Kate, Maggie and their older sister suffered from severe migraines, did that have something to do with it? Nobody knows for sure, which is why the story of the Fox Sister's has kept its hold on the imagination since 1848.
It was the coldest winter ever experienced in western New York. The Fox family had just moved into a house in Hydesville, NY. It was supposed to be a temporary move as their own house was still in the process of being built. That winter, to the delight of the two youngest Fox daughters Maggie who was about 15 and Kate, aged twelve, strange rapping sounds had turned their house into the Hydesville Horror. The sounds came not only at night but during the day as well, from the floors, the walls, the furniture, in fact everywhere the girls happened to be. The reaction in the Fox household was mixed, John Fox who was a devout Methodist was skeptical of the sounds, while their mother Margaret was frightened at the idea that spirits had invaded their home. One night, Kate called out, "Here Mr. Split-foot (a common nickname for the devil) do as I do." She rapped several times on the floor and the spirit seemed to respond with the same number of raps. Over time, the two girls and their mother worked out a system of communication with the spirits, using one rap for no, two raps for yes, etc. Soon an interesting story emerged. It appeared that the spirit in the house was a peddlar named Charles Rosma who claimed that he had been murdered by one of the previous occupants of the house Joseph Bell, and buried in the cellar. Later investigations turned up what appeared to be human bones and hair.
Nothing is secret in a small town, and soon word had spread of the mysterious rappings at the Fox house. People came from miles around to communicate with the Spirit who seemed to know so many intimate details of their lives. It got so crowded that there was almost no room in the house for the people that lived there. No one seemed to be able to figure out where the rappings were coming from, despite efforts made by skeptics to prove that the girls were faking. Soon the eldest daughter of the Fox family, Leah Fish appeared on the scene and whisked her two younger sisters and their mother back with her to Rochester, NY. It wasn't long before the two girls were giving private sessions for people. There is speculation that Leah, a shrewd woman who had married at 15 and been abandoned, saw a good business opportunity to make some money that would be more lucrative than giving piano lessons. Others see Leah's actions as her way of protecting her sisters from others who might exploit them. Later in life both Maggie and Kate would view their older sisters actions with less affection and more bitterness. Whatever Leah's motives, she was soon in control of what became known as seances.
The Fox sisters were helped by gaining the support of stalwart members of the community like Isaac and Amy Post, Quakers who were also part of the burgeoning abolitionist movement in Rochester. Also, western New York had long been known as 'The Burned-Over District' for the number of religious movements that had taken root there including the visit to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni in 1828 in Palmyra, NY which gave rise to the new Mormon religion. Andrew Jackson Davis in Poughkeepsie, NY helped prepare the way along with the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish philosopher whose ideas were taking root in the US, along with the rise of mesmerism and phrenology. The invention of the telegraph strangely enough contributed to the growth of Spiritualism, if messages could be conveyed by electricity, why couldn't they be conveyed by a spiritual telegraph i.e. a medium?
A year after the mysterious rappings were first heard, the Fox sisters faced their first real test. Leah announced that the spirits wanted the sisters to go public. Leah, along with her sisters, had now begun receiving spirit messages. While Kate was away visiting friends in Auburn, Leah and Maggie rented Corinthian Hall, the largest auditorium in the city. They charged a quarter for admission, and were sold out for the entire 4 nights. Before they appeared on stage, Eliab Capron, a supporter, would lecture on what the audience was about to see. Maggie and Leah also submitted to 'examinations' by different committees who were determined to prove that the women were frauds. The two sisters were manhandled, their skirts tied around their ankles so they couldn't move, made to stand on glass plates, even had their lungs listened to with stethoscopes to make sure they weren't making the rapping sounds by ventriloquism. At one point, the women were strip-searched by a committee of women to make sure they weren't hiding anything in their corsets or petticoats that would contribute to the sounds. Throughout these investigations, rapping sounds were still heard on floors, doors and walls. On the 4th night, an angry mob stormed the auditorium and Leah and Maggie had to be escorted out under police protection. Still, their ordeal proved to be worth it, all the various committees acquitted the sisters of fraud.
Soon the Fox sisters were living in New York City and conducting seances for the likes of Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper. Horace Greeley's wife Mary took a particular liking to Kate who ended up living with her for a year, conversing with the spirit of the Greeley's dead son Pickie. All three sisters were charismatic but Kate in particular seemed to be more fragile than the other two, more eager to please, and more apt to be distraught if it looked like she had failed. By the 1850's the Fox sisters were not the only mediums around. The Claflin sisters, Victoria and her sister Tennessee were touring the mid-west along with their mother Roxie. In Auburn, NY alone, there were more than 100 mediums. Spiritualism was big business. Soon the Fox sisters added levitating tables, phosporescent clouds, automatic writing and drawing to their repertoire. The sister began channeling messages from luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and recently deceased South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. When Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind came to New York, the one person she most wanted to meet was Kate Fox.
While the sisters had their supporters, they also had their detractors. Not just the usual skeptics, but also those on the religious right who believed that the sisters were actually channeling the devil. Many debunkers believed that the sisters were creating the rapping sounds by cracking their toes or other joints. Someone even wrote a book that was basically Spirtualism for Dummies. Despite the naysayers, the sisters fame continued to grow. But like all good things, it soon became apparent that things couldn't continue the way they were. In 1852, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a renowned Artic explorer from a well-do Philadelphia family met Maggie at a seance she was a conducting at a Philadelphia Hotel. The attraction between the two was immediate, both Kane and Maggie had broken away from the strictures of Victorian America, Kane in his exploring and Maggie with spiritualism. However, Kane yearned to play Pygmalion to Maggie, to turn her into a more proper prospect, one that his family might approve of. While Kane was initially attracted to what made Maggie different from proper girls, being a medium was hardly a suitable mate. The erotic atmosphere of the seance, with its darkened rooms and chances for forbidden touching, was not what Kane wanted. He convinced Maggie to give up the spirit world and to go to finishing school.
While Maggie was living with friends of Kane, and trying to turn herself into a proper Victorian matron, Kane went off on a two year voyage. She was miserable, and would take any opportunity to escape to the bright lights of New York or Philadelphia. When he returned, Kane tried to get Maggie to deny in writing that they had ever had a relationship. Crushed, Maggie did what he asked only to have him turn around and rip up the paper. They resumed their relationship, unofficially engaged. Unfortunately for Maggie, there was no happy ending. Kane died in 1857. Maggie insisted that she and Kane had been married in a private ceremony, and that he had left her a modest inheritance. His family denied the relationshp, claiming that he never felt anything for her but fraternal affection. She converted to Catholicism, claiming it was what Kane had wanted, and withdrew from public life as a medium. After threatening to publish their letters, his family agreed to pay her a small annuity. When that ended due to financial reversals, Maggie published their letters but the publication only served to damage her reputation. Disheartened, she began to drink heavily.
By the end of the 1850's only Kate was still actively working as a medium. Leah had married for the third time to a rich Quaker named Daniel Underhill, and no longer held seances for pay, instead settling into the life of an upper-class matron. She proved to be incredibly unsympathetic to both her younger sisters problems with alcoholism. Only Katie was still highly visible, she spend most of the war years holding seances. By the end of the Civil War, both parents had died leaving Kate and Maggie distraught and unable to cope. When Katie began to suffer the effects of alcoholism, her friends sent her to the 19th century equivalent of rehab. Soon she was feeling better and holding seances for the head of the sanitarium Dr. George Taylor and his wife. In 1871, hoping to beat her addiction, Kate traveled to England. At the age of 35, she met and married Henry D. Jencken, a widower with two children. They had two sons Ferdinand and Henry Jr.
By the 1880's, Kate was a widow. Although Henry had made a good-living as a barrister, he left only 200 pounds when he died of a stroke. Kate had no choice but to back to being a medium. When she returned to the States in 1885, she fell off the wagon. It got so bad, that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children stepped in and tried to take away her sons. When Leah published a memoir to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the rappings in Hydesville, Maggie had enough. Years of disappointment and bitterness flowed forth. She gave an interview where she confessed that everything had been a fraud. Seven months later, she went on stage at the Academy of Music and repeated her confession. To prove her point, she took of her shoe and demonstrated how the raps had been made by cracking her big toe. She accused Leah of exploiting and abusing the two sisters for profit. While skeptics rejoiced, those in the Spiritualist movement moved to distance themselves from the sisters.
A year later, Maggie had a change of heart and took back her recantation. She said that she had been pressured by the Catholic Church and by powerful people who had used her need for money. In 1890, Leah died and is buried in the Underhill mausoleum in Green-Wood cemetary. Kate died in 1892, alcoholic and forgotten. Maggie followed her sister the next year in 1893. Both sisters are buried together in Cypress Hills cemetary in New York. By the time of their death, interest in spiritualism in the United States had waned, although interest remained strong in Britain. It would be revived in the 20th during World War I, helped by the support of Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent spiritualist.
In 1916, the house the Foxes lived in was moved from Hydesville to Lily Dale, a town near Buffalo that is devoted to spiritualism. The house was inhabited by a medium until it burned down in the 1950's. A decade later, a replica was built in Hydesville but it too burned down. However, there is a memorial garden in Lily Dale dedicated to the two sisters. Of Kate's two sons, Henry died in his teens, and Ferdie died in his thirties after suffering from the same alcoholism that plagued his mother and aunt.
Now over 150 years after the initial rappings in Hydesville, interest in talking to the dead has premeated American society, from mediums like John Edwards to TV shows like The Ghost Whisperer and Medium, and the plethora of paranormal fiction that flies off the bookshelves. Belief in Angels, spirits is at an all time high. Still the questions remain, were the sisters just good fakers, or at some point did they come to believe in what they were doing? Some psychologists believe that the onset of adolescence may have brought on a manifestation of pyschic powers. Whether or not they were real or not, the sisters managed to live adventurous lives that were far beyond the norm that was allowed to women in America in the 19th century. They made their own money, living seperately from family members and traveled widely. They were known not only across the country but also in Europe. Spiritualism gave them the means and the ability to live independent lives, to become famous, hobnobbing with celebrities. It took a heavy toll on both Maggie and Kate who were forced onto a treadmill of appearances and seances in order to survive. Neither made a great deal of money from being a medium, but it was one of the few professions that was open to women besides teaching and prostitution.
Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism - Barbara Weisberg, Harper San Francisco, 2004
The Haunting of America: From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini - William J. Birnes and Joel Martin, Forge Books, 2009