Rapping with the Fox Sisters
Myth and mystery surrounds the sisters said to have founded the modern spiritualism industry.
Any history of spiritualism or mediumship in the United States always mentions the Fox sisters, said to be the originators of the craft of spiritualism. However, most of these histories fall into one of two camps: those that find the sisters were completely and knowingly fraudulent, and those who claim their ability to communicate with the dead was genuine. Today we're going to look at the Fox sisters and at the most significant evidence that came out about their career, see what we actually know about what they did, how we know it, and hopefully come to some well supported conclusion.
Spiritualists and mediums have existed throughout recorded history, of course — even being mentioned in the Bible — but it was the Fox sisters who were the first celebrity spiritualists who really put the profession on the map. The two sisters were born in the 1830s in New York state, and lived normal lives until 1848. Catherine and Margaretta (who went by Katie and Maggie), were 12 and 15 years old when their apparent ability first surfaced. It began with various noises around the house: thuds, knocks, and raps. The girls were able to ask questions that would be answered by a certain number or sequence of knocks. Their mother, unable to find any evidence of trickery, invited friends and neighbors to witness the phenomenon.
Soon the consensus was that the rapping was the work of spirits, and a belief among the family circle quickly grew that someone undoubtedly must have been murdered in the house. The girls found that the rapping spelled out the name of Charles B. Rosna (or some variant close to that), a traveling peddler. The locals set forth to find the killer. A prior owner of the house, whose name was Bell, was located. The unfortunate Mr. Bell was never arrested, but the tale goes that he suffered for some time under a black cloud of suspicion for the murder of Mr. Rosna.
As Katie and Maggie's ability to converse with the spirits was growing more and more well known, they soon received a visit from their older sister — much older — Leah, who was in her late thirties. It didn't take long for Leah to learn about what was going on, and older and wiser as she was, she saw a business opportunity. Leah appointed herself tour manager for her famous spiritualist siblings, and before you could blink, her show went to New York City and was making plenty of money. Katie and Maggie would give seances and participants could ask questions of the deceased, questions which would then be answered by rapping, so long as the sisters were present.
In New York City, management of Katie and Maggie was taken over by Horace Greeley, who had just stepped out of Congress to run his New York Tribune newspaper. Leah was pushed out. For a decade Greeley managed the sisters on nationwide tours, driven by free unlimited publicity via Greeley's publishing influence.
Copycat acts appeared immediately, and from almost the moment they began, the Fox sisters were merely the best known of many spiritualist acts touring the country, giving similar performances of communicating with the dead. Competition was not the only thing that made their road rocky. Articles skeptical of their abilities were published throughout their career, including scholarly findings that they were faking the rapping sounds themselves. Nevertheless, their career was long, and constituted their main livelihood throughout their lives.
By 1888, when Katie and Maggie were in their fifties, they hit rock bottom. Both sisters were alcoholic, widowed, and nearly out of money. Leah and Katie were feuding openly; Leah had had Katie arrested on charges of child cruelty and was trying to get the children removed from her on the basis of alcoholism and abuse. Maggie, while in Europe, had been given a stern lecture by the Church of Rome that her powers were evil, and wrote to the New York Herald newspaper that she felt it was time to come clean and confess their abilities were all a hoax. The newspaper offered the sisters $1,500 (about $40,000 in today's money) to give a public confession at New York's Academy of Music, the largest public hall in the city.
Because of the threat of losing her children over her behavior, Katie attended but did not participate. Maggie gave a lengthy confession to a packed house of 2,000 people sitting in stunned silence, including demonstrating how they made the rappings. Her story was widely reported, by newspapers and in the optimistically-titled book The Death-Blow to Spiritualism by Reuben Davenport. The bulk of her words are also recorded in Harry Houdini's 1924 book A Magician among the Spirits:
Maggie also made sure to throw Leah under the bus:
Unsurprisingly, the confession impacted the sisters' ability to earn a living practicing their only craft. So about a year later in 1889, Maggie published a retraction in the New York Press in which she reaffirmed the reality of her powers, and claimed the confession was due to pressures including the need for money:
But the effort was too little too late, for within just a few years, all three sisters passed away: Leah of old age, and her two younger siblings in the deepest pits of alcoholism.
Today, many still consider the Fox sisters to have been genuine spiritualists, with the confession having been (quite reasonably) prompted by the need for money. Katie and Maggie had indeed been treated quite shabbily by their later managers, and had never been paid as much as they could have been, considering their popularity. Furthermore, in 1904 it was reported that a skeleton had been discovered buried inside the walls of the house where their ability first developed. This apparent evidence of the old murder added credibility to the cause of the sisters' supporters.
However, we have at least two good reasons to continue to doubt that the sisters were genuine. The first reason is that Maggie's confession was hardly the first time anyone had found they were producing all the raps themselves with their feet and toes; in fact, virtually everyone who examined them throughout their career made this finding, and quite a few were published. A Mrs. Norman Culver, who was an in-law of the sisters' brother, had been taken into their confidence from the very beginning. As early as 1851, she stated in a legal deposition:
Mrs. Culver even assisted at some of their early demonstrations, and had been instructed by the sisters in cold reading:
In 1853, the polymath professor Charles Grafton Page — who was familiar with cold reading techniques — wrote an entire book, Psychomancy, revealing not only his discovery of how the sisters accomplished the rapping, but also found that he could easily defeat their cold reading simply by employing basic controls. He also found their performance not very good to begin with, and attributed their success to the native gullibility of believers:
We could go on and on about the other publications that found the sisters were mere frauds — even Wikipedia lists a half dozen more — but let's take a moment to look at our second reason to doubt their abilities truly did come from the spirit of a murder victim at their childhood home.
A 1904 article in the Boston Journal reported:
Although these reports did seem to lend at least some credence to the murder legend, they don't tell the whole story. It's noteworthy that the police did not seem to take any interest, as there is no record of any investigation or followup. Why not? A physician was at hand to examine the bones, and the contents of his report explain this — though it's also telling that it was not widely published until five years later in 1909:
No skeleton, no murder. But really, the murder story was never anything more than an explanation in search of a mystery — which was never there to begin with. If Katie and Maggie did have the ability to commune with the dead, they never demonstrated it in a way that could be distinguished from simple trickery. They fooled only the most credulous of victims. And though they did bring spiritualism to a new level in the history of snake oil and trickery, the Fox sisters failed to crack that still-impregnable barrier that would force us to acknowledge the reality of the supernatural.
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