With Halloween upon us, it is fitting to focus on spiritualism and the occult for this blog post. This week, I’ll be focusing on the Fox Sisters, who are the epitome of the saying, “Trick or Treat.” These three girls, Leah, Margaret, and Catherine Fox, helped to found spiritualism, which is the belief that spirits can communicate with the living. The Fox Sisters gained a massive following with their ability to communicate with the dead. However, these “founders” would later admit their supernatural abilities was a hoax, a trick!
It started in 1848 in a house situated within Hydesville, New York. Margaret, then 15, and Catherine, then 12, lived in this house with their parents, which was reportedly haunted. At first, the family was not fearful of living within the house, but distant knocking and sounds similar to moving furniture began to frighten the Foxes. The family was soon convinced that spirits lived amongst them within the Hydesville home.
On a night in March, Catherine chose to communicate with the creator of the strange sounds. She communicated with the spirit with the snapping of her fingers. The spirit replied with raps. When asked to tell the ages of each of the Fox Sisters, the spirit rapped out the numbers. During the next few days, a language was created between the spirit and the girls that involved the girls snapping their fingers and the spirit rapping back answers.
Snapping and rapping.
The Fox Sisters gave the spirit a nickname, calling him “Mr. Splitfoot.” This is, frighteningly, a nickname for the devil. Over time, the spirit began to reveal his past to the girls. Mr. Splitfoot claimed he was a peddler in his past life, and his name was Charles B. Rosna. He continued to reveal that he was murdered only five years, previously, and he was buried in a cellar. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote about the Fox Sisters, claimed neighbors dug up the cellar and found bits of bone. However, it wasn’t until 1904 that a skeleton was found buried in the cellar wall. No one named Charles B. Rosna was ever identified.
Neighbors of the Fox Sisters began to regard the girls as having supernatural abilities. The girls were sent to live with relative in nearby Rochester, and the raps continued. Amy and Isaac Post, longtime friends of the Fox family and radical Quakers, invited the girls to stay at their Rochester home. The Posts became convinced of the genuineness of the girls’ ability to commune with the dead and began to share the mysterious abilities of the girls with their Quaker friends. These radical Quakers would form the core of Spiritualists, which explains why Spiritualism connected with radical politics, such as abolition and women’s’ suffrage.
The Fox Sisters gave their first public demonstration of spiritualism at Corinthian Hall in Rochester on November 14, 1849. Those who came to view the demonstration paid to view the phenomena. This was the first of many such demonstrations, in which the Fox Sisters put their supernatural abilities on display. These performances accumulated into fame, and their séances in New York, in 1850, gained the notice of people like James Fenimore Cooper and Sojourner Truth. And, over time, many others would claim the ability to communicate with the dead (mediums).
However, there were skeptics who doubted the authenticity of the snaps and raps. Scientists and skeptics began to formulate theories on the sources of the noises. Physician E.P. Longworthy noted that the knockings and rappings happened under their feet or when their dresses touched the table. John W. Hurn published claims in the New York Tribune that the girls were frauds. Many other leading scientists of the day concluded the noises came from cracking joints, and many went so far as simulating their theories.
One particular investigation threw quite a bit of doubt on the Fox Sisters. Three investigators from the University of Buffalo had the sisters perform a séance while seated on a couch with cushions under their feet. The rappings did not occur under these conditions, and the investigators concluded the sounds came from cracking joints in the toes, knees, hips, and ankles.
Another instance occurred in 1857. The Boston Courier swore to give a $500 prize to any medium who could demonstrate genuine paranormal abilities in front of a committee of Harvard professors. The Fox sisters attempted to procure the prize, but failed when the committee concluded the rappings came from cracking joints.
However, one skeptic came to believe the genuineness of the Fox Sisters. William Crookes, a leading physicist, tested Catherine Fox in the 1870s, and concluded she was believable. However, Crookes’ contemporaries called him gullible and claimed he’d been caught up in the medium’s trickery.
And, remember when, in 1904, the skeleton of Charles B. Rosna was dug up from the cellar of the Fox Sisters’ childhood home? Neighbors claimed this to be the body of the peddler the Fox Sisters communicated with in 1848. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle embraced these claims in his writings. However, skeptic Joe Nickell researched into the matter and found evidence that even this was a further hoax. The bones were, in part, those of an animal and no peddler by that name existed.
Even though the Fox Sisters helped to found Spiritualism, many skeptics concluded their séances were just trickery. This would later be confirmed when the Fox Sisters confessed.
In 1888, Catherine and Margaret became wrapped up in a quarrel with Leah, their sister, and other prominent Spiritualists. The quarrel came about when concerns for Catherine’s and Margaret’s alcoholism were raised, along with Catherine’s inability to take care of her children. Margaret also longed to return to the Catholic Church, and she began to convince her “powers” were that of the Devil.
Catherine and Margaret looked for a way to gain an edge in this embittering battle. The two found an opportunity in a reporter. They travelled to New York City to talk with a reporter, who was offering $1,500, if they revealed their tactics for communicating with spirits. The reporter gained an exclusive on their confession. To further their confession, Catherine and Margaret appeared before an audience of 2,000 in the New York Academy of Music. Both revealed how they could create the raps at will with the cracking of toe joints, while doctors, pulled from the audience, on the stage to verified this fact.
However, Margaret and Catherine cut their noses off to spite their faces. Only a year later, in 1889, both recanted their confessions at the pressure of the Spiritualist movement and their financial instabilities. Leah, on the other hand, married to a Wall Street banker, remained in a comfortable life. It was Margaret and Catherine who struggled to make income, once more, as mediums, but failed to bring the large crowds they once drew. Skeptical clients and sparse demand for their talents led to the two dying in poverty and being buried in pauper’s graves. All three sisters are buried in Brooklyn, New York.
Abbott, Karen. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 30 Oct. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-fox-sisters-and-the-rap-on-spiritualism-99663697/.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders.” HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 4 Aug. 2016, www.historynet.com/the-fox-sisters-spiritualisms-unlikely-founders.htm
Taylor, Troy. “The Fox Sisters – The RIse and Fall of Spiritualism’s Founders.” THE FOX SISTERS – FOUNDERS OF THE SPIRITUALIST MOVEMENT, The Haunted Museum, www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html.
Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. Harper Collins, 2008.