No. 452
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
December 13, 2019

The Advent of Spiritualism.

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

On this date in 1994 — the ten-year anniversary of the robbery-murder that earned him his death sentence — Raymond Carl Kinnamon died to lethal injection despite his loquacity. A career criminal with 17 felony convictions and three prison stints previously to his name, Kinnamon robbed a Houston bar at gunpoint on December 11, 1984. […]
More...
Executed Today - 12/11/2019

`
Lizzie’s Old School Chum, Augusta Poole (Mrs. Cyrus Tripp) Shelley M. Dziedzic, October 2019 (all rights reserved) During the hot …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 10/19/2019

Via Newspapers.com The unofficial motto of Austin, Texas is "Keep Austin Weird." In early 1964, someone or something certainly obliged. The "Austin American," January 29, 1964: Can the mystery blast that shook Austinites Monday at noon be linked to puzzling reports of flying objects later the same day in Fort Worth and Dallas? Perhaps not, but the eerie events have one thing in common:
More...
Strange Company - 12/11/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
William J. Elder, aged 61, was addicted to drink and when under its influence was violent and uncontrollable. His wife tolerated his abuse as long as she could then packed up and moved out of their farm in Hammonton, New Jersey, leaving behind her two sons, Robert and Mathew. In 1887, 19-year-old Robert Elder moved out of his father’s house as well. 12-Year old Mathew Elder was still
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 12/7/2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s. The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets. I’m not sure […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 12/9/2019
[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