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Home » Uncategorized » Victorian Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters, Part II

Victorian Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters, Part II

When last we left the Fox’s we were communicating with a ghost whose body was buried in the house’s cellar.  Of course, this came as a huge, and not particularly welcome surprise to the Foxs and spectators.  More information revealed that:

            The spirit was murdered 5 years earlier

            The murder was committed by a Mr. Bell, who had lived there at the time (it’s important to note that he had many supporters who refused to believe he could murder anyone.  Certainly nothing was ever proven).

            He was murdered for his money, his throat slit with a butcher knife.

            The murder was committed on a Tuesday at 12 midnight

            The spirit’s body was buried 10 feet deep.

            Naturally people went down to the cellar and tried to dig up the remains.  Unfortunately, the house was located in a very wet area, near a river, and it was a very wet year. After a foot or two of digging, water started to seep into the hole.  More digging turned the seepage into flow of water until around when they were down around four feet they had to stop.  If there was a body, they wouldn’t be able to find it.  Of course, that does lead a person to wonder, if there was a body buried in the cellar deeper than four feet, how did the person digging the grave manage to dig down to ten feet?

            In any event, the knockings and rappings continued, and as interest grew and newspapers articles were written, the growing fame of the Foxs—and lack of sleep, since the rappings came mostly at night—forced them to vacate the house.  They moved in with the Foxs’ oldest son, David, who lived fairly close by. 

            The spirit—and the knockings—came with them, though.  Margaret, their mother, said the girls were terrified, but skeptics believed the fear was due to how far their prank had gone.  While many said they couldn’t see the girls doing anything that could have caused the knocks, a visiting doctor believed that somehow they were manipulating their joints to create the noises.  How, he couldn’t say, and such manipulation didn’t explain the vibrations upon the bedstead (or later tables and other furniture).

            Eventually, Margaret decided to separate the girls to see if that would get rid of the spirits.  She and her older daughter, Leah, took Kate to Rochester and left Maggie behind.  It made no difference.  The knockings continued, even when they moved to yet another house in Rochester  The rapping spirits—and there were many now—came with them.  At this point, according to one visitor, the spirits began to manifest in other ways, moving a parlor table, tugging on clothes. In time, the women held “spirit circles” and séances to speak for friends and interested people who wished to communicate with their dead loved ones.

            Meanwhile, the rappings continued in Hydesville with Maggie and in July the women moved back.  Sometime during this period, while the Hydesville “spook house” was empty, David went back one more time to dig for the peddlar’s remains.  Although the water continued to hamper his work, this time he came up with something—pottery, hair and bones.  Believers immediately announced it as proof.  Skeptics said the remains were pig or horse bones. 

            Regardless, this was finally enough to make the girls “authentic”.  They continued on as mediums, people visited and finally on Tuesday November 13th, 1849 they gave their first public demonstration of their ability, charging 25 cents admission.  Money-making careers as Spiritualists started for the girls, which continued in some form until they died, Kate in 1892, and Maggie in 1893.

            Much can be said about the intervening years, and most especially of the older sister, Leah’s spiritualism  (which she “found” shortly after her sisters) and  management of the girls careers.  To this day, some believe the girls to be real; skeptics would call it laughable.  In fact, in 1888 Maggie, herself, stood up in front of an audience at the New York Academy of Music and confessed that all of it was a fraud.  Not much later Reuben Briggs Davenport published The Death-blow to Spiritualism (available for free for Kindle users at Amazon), which told the truth about it all, and was signed by both Kate and Maggie Fox.  And that would be the end of it, except Leah refused to yield in her belief of her sisters (and herself),  and that one year later Maggie recanted her confession.  Believers in Spiritualism said that Maggie’s confession was because she thought she could make more money denying Spiritualism than she was then making as a Spiritualist.  Skeptics believed that she recanted her confession because she realized she’d been mistaken about the amount of money she could make fighting Spiritualism, and thus went back to fraud.  The woman couldn’t win either way and died penniless.

                One thing to consider though: in 1908, after the sisters were dead, a body was actually found in the Hydesville spook house.  It was found by children of the renters of the house when  they were playing in the cellar and a wall crumbled.  A doctor who examined the remains proclaimed them to be about 50 years old, which would put death around the time that the original spirit talked about.  The remains disappeared years later, so there is no way for modern science to settle the question.

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

Other sources to read: The Reluctant Spiritualist,  The Life of Maggie Fox, Nancy Rubin Stuart

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4 Comments

  1. Awesome accounting. I am a believer so don’t doubt at all that a spirit of some kind was very active in that house.

  2. What a cool story! And after all that debate, they actually did find a body.

  3. Denise Eagan says:

    I wasn’t sure, Paisley, because I couldn’t understand why a spirit would knock. Still not sure about that part, but the fact that they found a body makes me lean more towards the idea that something was going on in that house.

    What I found sad, Susan, was that they found the body after the women were dead! Too bad, because aside from the fame, they appeared to have pretty unhappy lives.

  4. Caroline Clemmons says:

    Really interesting. I hadn’t heard of these women until your posts. Thanks!

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