I shared a bedroom with one of my sisters when I was growing up. While this arrangement certainly had its share of negatives—never having your own space, fighting over the color of the walls, arguing over whose stuff is in whose area—it also had many more positives, most of those occurring at night, when we could use the dark as the best cover for complaining, wishing, plotting, and telling stories that went on for years.
In 1848, in upstate New York, two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox began to hear strange rapping noises in the night in the room they shared. The frightened girls’ parents heard them as well and looking for help, told neighbors. Soon word spread that the noises were the attempts of a restless spirit to communicate with the world of the living; the young Fox sisters had a “gift,” were sensitive in a way that allowed them to bridge the distance between life and the afterlife.
Or maybe they were just two mischievous girls whose prank succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
In Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, Barbara Weisberg tells about the lives of the Fox sisters and the times in which they lived. The latter half of that pair may be more important than the former, for without understanding the lives of Americans in the mid-19th century, it’s impossible to understand how the two girls could rise to fame on nothing more than a series of knocks.
When the Fox sisters began to hear their mysterious knocks, religion in America was in a state of flux. The idea of predestination, the bedrock of Calvinism, was on the wane, and new religions that preached self-determinism were coming to the fore. Upstate New York was a particular hotbed of religious change, with experimental communities and free thinkers gathered there; western New York, the birthplace of Mormonism, amongst other things, became known as the “Burned-Over District” because of the fire of religious revival that swept across the area. The Fox sisters story was heard by people who were thinking a great deal about the afterlife, who were open to the new and the strange, and who perhaps felt that the spirits weren’t that far away.
Part of the hope that the spirits remained nearby came from the prevalence of death. Living past forty was an achievement, and few families could say that all their children lived to adulthood. The knowledge of this didn’t make the losses any easier; throughout their careers, the Fox sisters were called upon to bring mothers and fathers into contact with lost children, even those as young as eighteen months old. With the rise of a more comfortable middle-class, the loss of a child no longer meant just the loss of another farm hand or household helper, but the loss of a valued family member.
The instability of the era also contributed to the acceptance of mediums. The telegraph had already shaken people’s understanding of time and space, as communication was now something that could take place in seconds, not days. Science was introducing new ideas about the earth and life. Mesmerism, a type of hypnotism based on new ideas about electricity and magnetism in the human body, was practiced as a method of healing. Politics in the United States was roiling with the division between the north and south over slavery. Industrialization was changing the landscape. When a spirit speaking through a medium offered advice from the world beyond, it must have seemed as good a twig to hang onto in the stormy new times.
When the Fox sisters stepped into this storm, it was indeed a perfect one to make them famous. In the past, those who claimed to talk to spirits would have been ignored, dismissed as fortune tellers, scorned by the religious. But the Fox sisters arrived at a time where now there were people playing at being scientists, who wanted to investigate phenomena in a scientific way. They were in a place, upstate New York, where there were more than enough people interested in just this type of sensation. There were plenty of cheap printing presses and newspapers and telegraphs to spread their story quickly; they had when, for the first time, someone could easily be made into a national celebrity.
The Fox sisters’ cause was helped by the fact that they were children, probably about twelve and fifteen when the incident happened, though they steadily lowered their ages until many years later, they were said to be as young as six and nine. Victorian children were idealized as innocents, not yet tainted by the evils of the world. Presumably children wouldn’t invent and carry out such tremendous lies as the Foxes were telling. Many wanted to believe them—anything that could be interpreted as proof was eagerly accepted. The first spirit who contacted the Foxes, was supposedly a peddler, whom they claimed had been murdered by the previous tenant of the Foxes house and was buried in the basement. When that story was first suggested by them, suddenly many people stepped in to agree that there had been a peddler in the area who had mysteriously disappeared. A serving girl who had been in the house at the time reported that the mistress of the house had suddenly seemed to obtain a great many peddlers’ wares. When people tried to dig up the body, they kept hitting groundwater, but finally bone shards, seeming proof, were found. Some suggested that the bones belonged to farm animals, but there were many others who believed.
The suggestion that the girls were playing tricks was always there, and they were
investigated, searched, and examined a number of times. But the examinations, whether by male doctors trying to ascertain whether the girls were cracking joints to produce the raps, or female matrons searching for hidden objects in their clothes, could easily be seen by believers as harassment and there always was a sense of pulling back in the investigations, at risk of offending proper sensibilities. In séance rooms, before electricity, with heavy curtains meant to keep out the cold, many things could happen unseen, and there was somewhat of a reluctance to discuss too much what could be going on in the dark.
The girls’ sessions became more and more elaborate, and paradoxically, that made the possibility that they were mediums easier to accept. Knocks and objects flew around the room. The girls took down messages through “automatic writing.” People levitated and musical instruments played. One observer wearily stated that it was possible that this was all the result of trickery, but figuring out the machinery behind it all was so difficult that it was just easier to accept the idea that the girls really had brought spirits into the room who then were responsible for such mischief. This type of attitude was also due to the fact that they were female. It was accepted that magicians performed tricks, and these tricks were the result of great physical skill, dexterity, and practice. Most men—particularly magicians, who found mediums infuriating imposters who were sullying their profession—didn’t believe that women had the physical capability to produce such effects. Mediumship, however, involved a certain passivity that was a virtue in a Victorian woman. A woman, with her open, simple soul, could basically act as a conduit for spirits, without any skill or knowledge.
Weisberg’s book tells about the Fox girls’ rise and fall. As word of their talents spread, their older sister Leah took control of their careers. Tough and smart, claiming medium powers for herself as well in order to spread the Fox name across more venues (Maggie working with Leah in one location, Kate performing in another), Leah helped them earn enough money to be comfortable. However, as is the case with all child prodigies, what is extraordinary in the young becomes less so in an adult. By the time Kate and Maggie grew up, there were many, many others claiming to be mediums and competition was fierce. Being a medium wasn’t a plus when it came to making a respectable marriage, either—Maggie had a romance with, Elisha Kent kane, a rich Philadelphia doctor and Arctic explorer, but he never could quite reconcile her background with his family’s place in genteel society. When he died young of a heart ailment, she was still, despite a lengthy courtship, a fiancée that he had never had the courage to introduce to his family. Maggie had apparently hoped that marrying Kane would get her off the medium treadmill and allow her to have a middle-class life, but the family wanted little to do with her. She had promised Kane that she would convert to Catholicism for him and give up being a medium, but once he was gone, she lost hope of otherwise supporting herself. She became an alcoholic and struggled to survive. Leah actually did marry a wealthy man who had an interest in spiritualism and apparently became preoccupied with her new family and less so with the lives of her sisters. Kate, who seemed to have developed little of a self beyond her medium powers, also became an alcoholic. Concerned friends sent her to England where she managed to stop drinking and marry. Her husband died after about ten years of marriage and left her with two kids. It wasn’t long before she was back in the US, drinking again.
Eventually Maggie, in a fit of something like repentance, desperation, and financial need, made a dramatic renunciation of their spiritualism careers, demonstrating the tricks she and Kate had used—cracking of different joints to make the rapping sounds, with the occasional aid in the early days of a helpful Dutch serving girl.
This made news, but Maggie quickly recanted and reclaimed her spiritual powers. Yet spiritualism had declined in a world more and more modern by the day. Religious fervor had given way to middle-class comfortable protestant churchgoing. Changes in health care and medicine meant people were living longer. Children died less frequently and death seemed farther away. Electricity and the telephone were on the way, and seemed not mysterious, but rather just another part of the technological age. Both in their early 50s, they died within a short time of each other and their deaths were not big news. Even the spiritualists that were left didn’t mourn them much. Their alcoholism and Maggie’s confessions and recantation had been embarrassing to their cause.
Weisberg describes the era well enough. She gives a cursory explanation of the history of spiritualism—however, this is solidly a biography, and not a true history of the movement. If you want that, you better look elsewhere (and I probably will…is it obvious I’m researching something?). She’s obviously done a lot of research about the Foxes, though, and it’s worth it. The best parts of the books are the primary source accounts of witnesses to the girls’ sessions; at one point she includes wildly different versions of events, with one person telling about levitation, flying objects, and spirit voices, while another waves the occasion off as a dark room with some muffled knocks. The point seems to be that the belief in the spirits was in the eye of the beholder. Those who wanted to, or needed to, did and those who didn’t, weren’t touched at all.
Weisberg herself seems uneasy about the truth behind the sisters’ careers. She doesn’t come right out and say they were true mediums, but is reluctant to say they are not. I get the impression she wants to believe but is trying to be fair. That’s fine. I don’t believe, but I try to be fair, too. A good reader shouldn’t let either point of view stand in the way of getting at least something out of this brief book, mostly a portrait of a time of upheaval in the still fledgling nation, one of many discoveries, in which it was easier to call something possible than prove it impossible.
The book’s biggest failing is that in the end, both Maggie and Kate seem distant, despite quotes from their letters and the many descriptions of them at work. I’m sure Weisberg collected as much material on them as she could but they never really come to life. The real girls behind the spirits seem lost to history, and that affects our understanding of them. Without truly knowing them, it’s hard to make the final call on whether it was possible that they were truly possessed by a power that allowed them to talk to spirits, or whether they were just deceivers who were forced to live their own deception. The latter possibility presents them as somewhat like the heroine of The Red Shoes—they put on the shoes for a lark and have fun with it for a while, but when they get tired of them, they can’t take them off and must dance in them until they die. The trick, then, tricked them.