The Fox Sisters by EM Hilker

The spiritualism movement of the early-to-mid 1800s captured the hearts and minds of a great many people. Spiritualism – the belief that the spirits of the dead are not only able to communicate with us, but are eager to share their wisdom with the living world – flourished at a time when Mesmerism was a growing interest, and on the heels of The Second Great Awakening. This was a fifty year period of religious revivalism, and a curious populace were seeking answers amid the confusion of the day. 

The Spiritualism movement has given us modern-style seances and stage mediumship, and it has made commercial fortune telling common. The term “seance” itself (introduced into the language sometime between 1795 – 1805) merely means a “sitting”, though the spiritual concept is older. George, First Baron Lyttelton, famously featured discussion with the deceased in his fictitious 1760’s Dialogues of the Dead. Seances have been divided into four categories: religious, stage mediumship, leader-assisted, and informal social seances. All of these are considered a part of the spiritualism movement.

The Fox sisters are credited with launching the movement, but its origins stretch back further than that. Emmanuel Swedenborg, who lived more than a century earlier, experienced a divine revelation in which he learned that communication with the spirit world and with God is possible through a certain mental state. He felt that the body was simply a vessel for the soul, and that Hell and Heaven will attempt to influence mortals to do good or evil, though the mortal in question is free to choose their path as they wish. The path to Heaven or Hell is, according to Swedenborg’s beliefs, forged by your actions in life. These ideas would eventually lead to the formation of the New Church and the Swedenborgian Church in North America. 

The other oft-credited influence on the spiritualism movement is Franz Mesmer, the founder of “animal magnetism” or mesmerism (more commonly called hypnotism in modern day). The original concept went far beyond simply putting someone into a trance — he believed animal magnetism could hold the cure for powerful healing; the trancework was only a small part of his theories. This concept of going into a trance, however, would be a tremendous influence in coming years to the spiritualism movement.

The women known as “the Fox Sisters” are three of the seven Fox children: the youngest two were the core of the Fox Sisters: youngest daughter Catherine “Kate” Fox and her slightly older sister Margaretta (“Maggie”). Their eldest sister, Leah, was an adult in her own home when this all began, at which time Kate and Maggie were in their early teens. She would eventually ‘manage’ the girls, though not tour with them, and was really only a part of the action for a handful of years. 

The girls would later say that they began this whole thing as a prank played on their credulous mother. Certainly that is consistent with the evidence we have of the early days of the mysterious rappings and knockings. In early 1848, the family began to hear mysterious noises in their house in Hydesville, New York, as of footsteps or someone knocking. On March 31, 1848, Kate decided to try to “communicate” with it. They called the entity “Mr. Splitfoot,” and it frightened their mother terribly. Maggie took pity on her mother and tried to explain that it was meant as an April Fool’s joke, but her mother would not believe it. The girls continued the “communication” in the home over weeks and months.

Eventually, the family told their neighbours of these mysterious happenings, who told other people in turn, as neighbours do. Soon, there was a hubbub surrounding the Fox household, and in 1849 the girls were sent to Rochester, New York, to live with their siblings, both to try to escape the haunting and to escape the attention of the curious but the phenomenon followed them to their new homes. Leah supported their reputation as mediums, and introduced them to her friends, the Posts.

Amy and Isaac Post were luminaries in the local mesmerism movement. They wanted to explore the girls’ abilities and invited the girls to a small party in their own home, where they planned as part of the evening to conduct a seance with the girls. Both the party and the seance were successful, and it was here that the spirits announced that, conveniently, Leah also possessed the gift. The party was in fact such a success that the Posts rented a large room in Corinthian Hall and the Fox sisters showcased their abilities there. 

The girls began holding regular seances for pay in New York, which were incredibly popular. Among the people attracted by these seances: journalist and newspaper editor  William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.  The “Poughkeepsie Seer”, Andrew Jackson Davis, was impressed by the girls’ abilities and lent them his support, and therefore credibility, as they became more and more well-known. The girls embarked on a tour of these shows in the area, while Leah stayed behind and worked as a medium in her own right.

In 1851, Fox family member Mrs. Norman Culver confessed to being aware of the fraud, which was disclosed to her by Kate. This impacted their popularity very little, though critics began to guess at various ways that these girls could be perpetrating a hoax. Mrs. Culver alleged, and several critics correctly guessed, that the raps were produced by the girls “cracking” joints in their feet and knees. The spiritualism movement was entirely unaffected by the criticism of the Fox sisters, and both they and spiritualism continued to become more and more popular.

The following year after Ms. Culver’s confession, 17 year old Maggie met skeptic/Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, who fell deeply in love with her despite his beliefs that she was a fraud. Under his influence, she began to drift away from the spiritualist movement. Tragically Kane died in 1857, shortly after a small informal wedding ceremony, allegedly lacking an actual marriage certificate, after which they considered themselves married. The actual legal status of Elisha and Maggie’s marriage was unclear, the confusion around which resulted in Maggie being ousted from the will by Kane’s family members. That same year, perhaps related to Maggie’s exclusion from the will, the youngest two Fox sisters made an attempt at a prize offered by the Boston Courier to anyone who could prove the legitimacy of mediumship, which equaled $500  (roughly $14,150 in modern day American funds). On the whole, aside from this attempt, Maggie continued to reject spiritualism as she fell further and further into poverty.

Kate continued on alone with her mediumship during this period, and moved to England to pursue spiritualist opportunities there in 1871. The following year, she married fellow spiritualist HD Jencken. They had two sons, and seemingly a happy life until Jencken died in 1881. 

Each grieving deeply, both Maggie and Kate had both begun to self-medicate with alcohol, and both women had become alcoholics by 1888. Leah, continuing to operate as a medium herself, grew concerned with Kate’s alcoholism and her ability to care for her two sons. Word of this spread, and Kate’s two sons were briefly taken from her, though restored to her care after intercession by Maggie.

Maggie was already out of the spiritualism movement and had been for some time, Kate was livid that her abilities as a mother were being questioned. Thus, on October 21, 1888, perhaps partially in revenge against Leah, perhaps partially out of financial desperation, Kate and Maggie were paid $1500 (roughly 41,000 USD today) by a reporter to confess their crime at the New York Academy of Music in front of 2,000 people. They also made a number of anti-spiritualism statements during this period, with Kate calling it “one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.”

In November of the following year, having drunk away her confession fee, and due to pressure from other spiritualists and her own financial needs, Maggie recanted her confession. She attempted to practice spiritualism once again for whatever meagre work she could get, but  her reputation both as a spiritualist and as a skeptic was ruined in one fell swoop. She would spend her few remaining years in poverty, as would Kate.

Leah predeceased her sisters, having died in 1890, not on speaking terms with either sister. The youngest two of the Fox sisters died within a year of one another (Maggie on 8 March 1893; Kate on 3 July, 1892) in Brooklyn, New York. 

The Fox Sisters left us very little writing: Maggie did not publish her own work, but she did publish the love letters written by her husband, entitled The Love Life of Dr. Kane, giving us a small window into their lives. Leah published a book called The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, in which she outlined her career as a medium.

Spiritualism continued on after the passing of the Fox sisters, and continues to this day. People still hold seances very similar to the Fox sisters’, and people continue to occasionally hear rappings they attribute (correctly or otherwise) to the spirit world. One only needs to look at virtually any television listing to find an assortment of ghost-hunting shows; one can find a psychic willing to give you a reading in virtually any modern-day town. Bookshelves in your local bookstore are filled with books on finding your own psychic gifts, and many famous names have been associated with spiritualism: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Bangs sisters, Mina Crandon, Leonora Piper, and Harry Houdini (the latter admittedly as an enemy of spiritualism).

As an odd sort of afternote, in 1904 it was said that a “body” had been discovered in the house that the girls had lived in, where they had claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler, much to the excitement of those who still believed in the legitimacy of the Fox Sisters’ claims. No record has ever been found of the peddler they’d described and the bones, of which there were only a few, turned out upon examination to be animal bones.

Further Reading:

Abbot, Karen. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.”

Retrieved 14 November 2020. 

Buzzfeed Unsolved. “The Spiritual World of the Fox Sisters.” Youtube. 2 October 2020.

Lyttelton, George. Dialogues of the Dead. Retrieved 14 November 2020. 

Nickell, Joe. “A Skeleton’s Tale” Skeptical Inquirer vol 32, no 4. Retrieved 15 November 2020.

O’Connell, Rebecca. “The Rise and Fall of Five Claimed Mediums.” MentalFloss. Retrieved 14 November 2020. 

Stuart, Nancy Rubin. “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders.” Historynet. Retrieved 14 November 2020. 

Wehrstein, KM and McLuhan, R. “Fox Sisters.” Psi Encyclopedia.

Retrieved 14 November 2020.