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Victorian Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters, Part One

In previous blog posts, we’ve talked about mourning rituals during the Victorian period. Although societies have had mourning rituals for thousands of years (consider Egypt and its mummies), including Europe and America, during this time there seems to have a particular interest in them, as there was with all etiquette. Rules grew stricter, which came along with the rise in popularity in photographs of the dead and hair jewlery. No doubt, the American Civil War, with its 600,000 casualties also had a direct effect on the increased interest in mourning rituals.

It ought to come, then, as no surprise that Spiritualism became a very important part of the Victorian American culture.

Like mourning rituals, interest in spirits and the afterlife interested people and societies for thousands of years, and was certainly part of the American culture since before the revolution. In fact, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the word séance originates around 1803. Still, the sudden onset of interest in actually communicating with spirits directly and holding séances and spirit circles is often attributed to the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate.

It started in 1848, Hydesville New York. At the time Kate and Maggie were about 11 and 14 respectively. They were the youngest of the children of John and Margaret and the only two still living with their parents when they rented the house in Hydesville New York, where the “rapping” started. From reading accounts of it, I get the impression that it was both sound and vibration. Regardless, all four of the family were sleeping in the same room, and the knocking came every night for a couple weeks, keeping them awake at night. Like many people in the weeks and months to come, John searched the house high and low, every nook and cranny, to discover a logical source. It seemed otherworldly, but as a religious man and ardent Methodist, he, like others of his time, believed that spirit communication was either demonic manifestation or delusion. And he sure didn’t want to believe that any in his family was demonic.

But John found no explanation. Finally after a couple weeks his wife went to a neighbors to ask them to listen and see if they could explain it. Again, a search resulted in no explanation. Finally, in desperation, Margaret talked to the “knocking”, asking if it was a spirit. One knock indicated a yes. . .and thus began the Foxs’ communication with the spirit world. They—and other neighbors, followed by people from farther away—asked many questions, the most pertinent of coursing being who was the spirit? The answer:  A peddler who had been murdered in that house, and whose bones were buried in the house’s cellar.

Part Two, Wednesday . May 4th

Source: Talking to the Dead, Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg

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5 Comments

  1. Great post! I think, even before the Civil War, people were preoccupied with death, because death was all around, them–young mother’s dying in childbirth, babies and young children dying of diseases eradicated in our time. They couldn’t avoid it, so they kind of embraced it. The Civil War likely brought it even closer to the front of everyone’s mind.

  2. I so believe in spiritualism because I have had it happen to me and it continues. I think people are either believers or non-believers with nothing inbetween.

    Loved your post.

  3. Denise Eagan says:

    I do think that Susan, that with so many dead the country as a whole needed some “proof” of an after life. I pretty much figure that everyone in the country knew someone who died in that war. I could be wrong, but that’s how the era feels to me.

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    I guess I’m in that tiny little minority between believer and non-believer, Paisley. I want to believe, but I’m yet to be 100% convinced.

    I don’t know about the Fox sisters though. That one I’m on much shakier ground with. On the other hand, the fact that they had a great deal to do with the rise of Spirtualism in the U.S. is hard to dispute, regardless of whether or not they were genuine or frauds.

  5. richard says:

    the civil war saw 620,000 killed the equivelent of the population of the state of maine at the time. it was not just war that brought relization of death infant mortality was approx 25% at time. As to the fox sisters I belive they were genuine as you will see later they paid great price for belief. By the way great blog

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