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The Fox sisters were three sisters from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism: Leah (1814–1890), Margaret (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Kate Fox (1837–1892). The two younger sisters used "rappings" to convince their much older sister and others that they were communicating with spirits. Their older sister then took charge of them and managed their careers for some time. They all enjoyed success as mediums for many years.
In 1888 Margaret confessed that their rappings had been a hoax and publicly demonstrated their method. She attempted to recant her confession the next year, but their reputation was ruined and in less than five years they were all dead, with Margaret and Kate dying in abject poverty. Spiritualism continued as if the confessions of the Fox sisters had never happened. "This pattern of confession followed by retraction, which is not uncommon, has supplied both spiritualists and skeptics with material to support their case, so controversy never ends."
In 1848, the two younger sisters – Kate (age 12) and Margaret (age 15) – were living in a house in Hydesville, New York with their parents. Hydesville no longer exists but was a hamlet that was part of the township of Arcadia in Wayne County. The house had some reputation for being haunted, but it wasn't until late March that the family began to be frightened by unexplained sounds that at times sounded like knocking and at other times like the moving of furniture.
In 1888, Margaret told her story of the origins of the mysterious "rappings":
During the night of March 31, Kate challenged the invisible noisemaker, presumed to be a "spirit", to repeat the snaps of her fingers. "It" did. "It" was asked to rap out the ages of the girls. "It" did. The neighbours were called in. Over the course of the next few days a code was developed where raps could signify yes or no in response to a question or be used to indicate a letter of the alphabet.
The girls addressed the spirit as "Mr. Splitfoot" which is a nickname for the Devil. Later, the alleged "entity" creating the sounds claimed to be the spirit of a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered five years earlier and buried in the cellar. Doyle claims the neighbors dug up the cellar and found a few pieces of bone, but it wasn't until 1904 that a skeleton was found, buried in the cellar wall. No missing person named Charles B. Rosna was ever identified.
Margaret Fox, in her later years noted:
Kate and Margaret were sent to nearby Rochester during the excitement – Kate to the house of her sister Leah, and Margaret to the home of her brother David – and the rappings followed them. Amy and Isaac Post, a radical Quaker couple and long-standing friends of the Fox family, invited the girls into their Rochester home. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena, they helped to spread the word among their radical Quaker friends, who became the early core of Spiritualists. In this way appeared the association between Spiritualism and radical political causes, such as abolition, temperance, and equal rights for women.
The Fox girls became famous and their public séances in New York in 1850 attracted notable people including William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. They also attracted imitators; during the following few years, hundreds of people claimed the ability to communicate with spirits.
The girls attracted critics as well as adherents. One of these was Dr. Charles Grafton Page, of Washington, D.C. As a patent examiner and patent advocate, Page had developed a keen eye for detecting fraudulent claims about science. He applied these skills in exposing some of the deceptions employed by the Fox sisters during two sessions which he attended. In his book Psychomancy (1853), Page observed that the rapping sounds came from underneath the girls' long dresses. When he asked if the spirits could produce a sound at a distance from their own bodies, one girl climbed into a wardrobe closet where her dress touched the wood, whence the sound transmitted into the wood plank — however, she was unable to control this sound sufficiently to produce spirit communications. Page devised contraptions that emulated the rapping sounds produced by the girls, which could be concealed under long clothing. He declaimed the girls' means of hiding from bodily examination that would expose their fraud:
Kate and Margaret became well-known mediums, giving séances for hundreds of people. Many of these early séances were entirely frivolous, where sitters sought insight into "the state of railway stocks or the issue of love affairs," but the religious significance of communication with the deceased soon became apparent. Horace Greeley, the prominent publisher and politician, became a kind of protector for them, enabling their movement in higher social circles. But the lack of parental supervision was pernicious, as both of the young women began to drink wine.
Leah, on the death of her first husband, married a successful Wall Street banker. Margaret met Elisha Kane, the Arctic explorer, in 1852. Kane was convinced that Margaret and Kate were engaged in fraud, under the direction of their sister Leah, and he sought to break Margaret from the milieu. The two married, and Margaret converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Kane died in 1857, and Margaret eventually returned to her activities as a medium. In 1876 she joined her sister Kate, who was living in England.
Kate traveled to England in 1871, the trip paid for by a wealthy New York banker, so that she would not be compelled to accept payment for her services as a medium. The trip was apparently considered missionary work, since Kate sat only for prominent persons, who would let their names be printed as witnesses to a séance. In 1872, Kate married H.D. Jencken, a London barrister, legal scholar, and enthusiastic Spiritualist. Jencken died in 1881, leaving Kate with two sons.
Kate Fox was considered to be a powerful medium, capable of producing not only raps, but "spirit lights, direct writing, and the appearance of materialized hands," as well as the movement of objects at a distance. She was one of three mediums examined by William Crookes, the prominent scientist, between 1871 and 1874, who said of her ability to produce raps:
Over the years, sisters Kate and Margaret had developed serious drinking problems. Around 1888 they became embroiled in a quarrel with their sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who were concerned that Kate was drinking too much to care properly for her children. At the same time, Margaret, contemplating a return to the Roman Catholic faith, became convinced that her powers were diabolical.
Eager to harm Leah as much as possible, the two sisters traveled to New York City, where a reporter offered $1,500 if they would "expose" their methods and give him an exclusive on the story. Margaret appeared publicly at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, with Kate present. Before an audience of 2,000, Margaret demonstrated how she could produce – at will – raps audible throughout the theater. Doctors from the audience came on stage to verify that the cracking of her toe joints was the source of the sound.
Margaret told her story of the origins of the mysterious "rappings" in a signed confession given to the press and published in New York World, October 21, 1888. In it, she explained the Hydesville events.
She expanded on her career as a medium after leaving the homestead to begin her Spiritualist travels with her older sister, Mrs. Underhill:
She also notes:
The cracking of joints was the theory skeptics most favored to explain the rappings, a theory dating back to 1851. Spiritualists familiar with the wide range of raps produced by the sisters, as well as the fact that raps could emanate from any part of a room, were not much impressed by the fact that raps could emanate from Margaret's toe. Much more damaging was the realization that Margaret could produce raps 'at will', when the raps were supposedly produced by spirits. But Spiritualists such as Arthur Conan Doyle were soon able to accept that, up to a point, the medium's own will could influence the preternatural phenomena of the séance.
Harry Houdini, a man who devoted a large part of his life to debunking Spiritualist claims, provides this insight:
Margaret and Katie made very strong statements against Spiritualism:
Margaret recanted her confession in writing in November, 1889, about a year after her toe-cracking exhibition. Kate's first letters back to London after Margaret's exhibition express shock and dismay at her sister's attack on Spiritualism, but she did not publicly take issue with Margaret. Within five years, both sisters died in poverty, shunned by former friends, and were buried in pauper's graves.
In 1904, the body associated with the peddler spirit was supposedly found in the cellar when a false wall fell down. The Boston Journal published a story about the discovery on November 22, 1904. The tin box of the peddler was found in the cellar and is now in the Lily Dale Museum. Skeptic researcher Joe Nickell concluded after researching the box and the primary sources of the bones that they constituted further hoaxing. The bones were, at least in part, those of animals. There has been no confirmation that the peddler existed. Also, the alleged false wall appears to be due to an expansion of the foundation, not concealment of a secret grave.