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Rapping with the Fox Sisters

Donate Myth and mystery surrounds the sisters said to have founded the modern spiritualism industry.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid Podcast #661
February 5, 2019
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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:

My sister Katie and I were very young children when this horrible deception began. I was only eight, just a year and a half older than she. We were very mischievous children and sought merely to terrify our dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily frightened. When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor... At last she could stand it no longer and she called the neighbors in and told them about it. It was this that set us to discover a means of making the raps more effectually.

My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes... With control of the muscles of the foot, the toes may be brought down to the floor without any movement that is perceptible to the eye. The whole foot, in fact, can be made to give rappings by the use only of the muscles below the knee. This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.

Maggie also made sure to throw Leah under the bus:

In Rochester Mrs. Underhill (Leah) gave exhibitions. We had crowds coming to see us and she made as much as a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars a night (about $4,000 in today's money). She pocketed this.

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:

Would to God that I could undo the injustice I did the cause of Spiritualism when... I gave expression to utterances that had no foundation in fact... At that time I was in great need of money... The excitement, too, helped to upset my mental equilibrium... My belief in Spiritualism has undergone no change. When I made those dreadful statements I was not responsible for my words.

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:

[Catherine] told me that all I should have to do to make raps heard on the table, would be to put my foot on the bottom of the table when I rapped; and that when I wished to make the raps sound distant on the wall I must make them louder, and direct my own eyes earnestly to the spot where I wished them to be heard. She said if I could put my foot to the bottom of the door, the raps would be heard on the top of the door.

Mrs. Culver even assisted at some of their early demonstrations, and had been instructed by the sisters in cold reading:

Catherine told me how to manage to answer the questions... She said the reason why she asked people to write down several names on paper, and then point to them till the spirits rapped at the right one, was to give [her] a chance to watch the countenance and motions of the person, and that in that way [she] could nearly always guess right.

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:

So far as our experience went, the Fox girls made few, very few good hits, and perpetrated a vast amount of most intolerable non­sense and contradiction... When a man suspects supernatural agency, ...he is ready to believe any thing communicated at the time...

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:

The skeleton of the man supposed to have caused the rappings first heard by the Fox sisters in 1848 has been found in the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication.

William H. Hyde, a reputable citizen of Clyde, who owns the house, made an investigation and found an almost entire human skeleton between the earth and crumbling cellar walls, undoubtedly that of the wandering peddler who, it was claimed, was murdered in the east room of the house, and whose body was hidden in the cellar.

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:

He reports to us that he found a number of bones there, but that there were only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones. There was nothing about the premises to indicate that they had been buried there, but might have been put there by boys in sport. He also reports that within a few days past he has learned that a certain person near the place had put the bones there as a practical joke and is now too much ashamed of it to confess it.

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.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Rapping with the Fox Sisters." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 5 Feb 2019. Web. 23 Oct 2019. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4661>

 

References & Further Reading

Carpenter, W. Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Etc.: Historically & Scientifically Considered. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1877. 150-152.

Davenport, R. The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the true story of the Fox sisters, as revealed by authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1888.

Editors. "Bones in Old Spook House." New York Times. 23 Nov. 1904, Newspaper.

Houdini, H. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924. 1-16.

Natale, S. Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Nickell, J. "A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 2008, Volume 32, Number 4.

 

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