Posted on: September 23, 2011

To those who’ve never heard of them, The Fox Sisters must sound like a 1950s singing troupe.  They were in fact the women who (inadvertently) kickstarted the whole Spiritualism movement in the 19th century.  It’s impossible to think of the Victorian era – in paranormal terms – without thinking of theatrical seances, gallons of ectoplasm pouring out everywhere, and spooky spirit photographs.   It all began in America in the 1840s.

In December 1847 a Methodist farmer, James Fox, moved into a simple wooden house in Hydesville, New York, with his wife and two daughters, Margaretta (or Maggie), aged 14, and 12-year-old Kate.  The previous owner had complained of mysterious knocking noises, but this did not deter Farmer Fox.

On 31 March 1848 the house was shaken by loud banging noises, but as it was fairly windy at th etime this didn’t concern anyone overly-much.  The entire family slept in one room, and as the bangings continued after they had all gone to bed, Kate exclaimed “Mr Splitfoot, do as I do”, [Mr Splitfoot being a nickname for the Devil] and began snapping her fingers.  The sound of snapping fingers answered.  Mrs Fox instructed the entity to clap, and it obligingly did so.  Mrs Fox continued to communicate with the entity, using knocks, and ascertained that the ghost was a 31-year-old pedlar, who had been murdered in the house.

A skeptical neighbour, William Duesler, was called in, and he heard loud knocks that vibrated the house whilst he was sitting on Mrs Fox’s bed.  He too communicated with the spirit, and discovered it was called Charles B Rosma, who had been killed for his savings by the then owner of the house, a Mr Bell, 5 years beforehand.  He said he was buried in the cellar, which was duly excavated in July, and human hair and a few bones were discovered.

(Mr Bell was still alive.  He heard what was being said about him, and strongly denied it.  However, the spirit wearily announced that his murderer would never be brought to justice.  In 1904 a wall in the cellar of the Fox house collapsed, and revealed a man’s skeleton and a pedlar’s tin box!  No Charles B Rosma was ever traced though).

Back to 1848.  A team of psychic investigators carried out stringent experiments at the house.  The daughers were stripped and searched, and made to stand on the beds with their ankles tied together, yet the rappings continued.  When the girls were sent away to stay with relatives, the noises followed them.  Friends of the family, Amy and Isaac Post, devout Quakers, were convinced of the genuiness of the haunting, and spread the word amongst the Quaker community.  Very soon, the girls’ eldest married sister, Leah, took them to her home in Rochester, for the sole purpose of commercially exploiting them!

Leah rented a public hall to demonstrate her sisters’ abilities, and the Fox girls were mobbed by an excessively curious audience.  They toured cities all over America, for Leah clearly had a talent for showmanship, and she made the seances increasingly dramatic, to hold peoples interest.  One of her most startling ideas was to produce the ghost of Benjamin Franklin.  Legendary showman P T Barnum exhibited them in New York City, and for a while the girls enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle living at the home of the editor of ‘The Tribune’.  Away from home and parental supervision though, the girls fell into bad habits, and they developed a taste for wine.  A weakness for alcohol was subsequently to plague the girls for the rest of their lives.

The Fox Sisters had started a trend.  A wave of Spiritualism swept the world, it was something akin to a mania.  The Victorians went mad for seances, and demonstrations of mediumistic skills.  Their unlikely fame hadn’t done the girls any favours though, and their personal lives were to be rather sad and messy.  Margaret married an Arctic explorer, Elisha Kane, in 1852.  Kane suspected the integrity of the whole Spiritualist movement, and he wanted her to break away from people he suspected weren’t good for her.  Kane died though in 1857, and Maggie returned to mediumship.

Kate married an English barrister called H D Jencken, who (unlike Kane) was a believer in Spiritualism.  He died though in 1881, leaving Kate with two young sons to care for.  Kate was considered to be a powerful medium, even on occasion being capable of materialising spectral hands.  But her drinking was becoming a cause for concern, particularly as regards the care of her children, who were eventually taken into care.

By 1888 both the Fox Sisters were middle-aged widows, both had a drink problem, and both were disillusioned with the whole Spiritualist movement.  Maggie was said to have had suicidal tendencies.  A reporter met the women in New York, and offered them $1,500 if they would publicly denounce the whole thing as a fraud.  The temptation must have been too great.

They both needed money, and what better way to have revenge on Leah, than to to announce that the whole thing had been a massive fraud?  Maggie announced that Spiritualism was evil, characterised by sexual licentiousness, and claimed that she had caused the knockings in the family home by clicking her big toe!!  She even demonstrated this accomplishment, and although it was nothing like the noises that had previously been heard (which had been loud as to cause the house to vibrate),  it was sufficient to throw doubt on the entire Spiritualist movement.  [At the height of their fame a skeptic had claimed that the long, heavy skirts they wore could conceal all the fraud they needed to fool a gullible audience].  Confirmed believers felt betrayed, and booed her off the stage.

In an interview to the ‘New York Herald’ in October 1888 Kate said: “I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses the world has ever known”.

The women spent the $1,500  entirely on drink.  They died in poverty a few years later, within a short time of each other, and both were buried in paupers’ graves. Maggie recanted her confession towards the end of her life, but it was too late, the damage had been done.  Both women were shunned by old friends, and Spiritualism had been dealt a blow from which it has never really recovered.

In 1955 the Hydesville home of the Fox Sisters was gutted by fire, but in 1968 it was rebuilt and opened as a tourist attraction.

Spiritualism has been bedevilled by fraud since it very first began, but clearly Kate and Maggie’s confession was motivated by a need for money, and a bitter desire to get back at Leah.  The women were troubled characters, most likely ruined by fame, and the demand to keep satisfying their eager audience (a problem that curses many professional mediums).  To this day mediums are “outed” on a regular basis.  Derek Acorah had his infamous Kreed Kafer moment, when it was found that he was being deliberately fed the name of an imaginary character (Kreed Kafer being an anagram of DEREK FAKER).  More recently, Sally Morgan (known to her legions of fans as Psychic Sally) has reputedly been exposed as having information fed to her via an earpiece.

Mediumship is probably as popular now as it was at the height of the Fox Sisters’ fame, and is as equally controversial now as it was then.



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