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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fake Ghost Who Started a Real Religion

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Once upon a time in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, there lived two sisters who loved to scare family and friends with their vivid imaginations. One day in late March 1848, the girls told a neighbor about spooky happenings in their bedroom. Eager to disprove the girls’ claims that the ghost of a murdered traveling salesman inhabited their home—a tale with which they’d already terrified their mother—the neighbor accompanied fourteen-year-old Maggie Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate into their bedroom…where the neighbor, too, was dutifully terrified by the apparently sentient wall-rapping in response to the girls’ questions.

Thus began a religion known as Modern Spiritualism, which is still practiced today.

After having their worst fears seemingly confirmed, the Fox family abandoned the farmhouse, sending Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York. That may not have been the wisest decision. Rochester was a hotbed of religious activity. Mormonism and the movement that later became Seventh Day Adventism both saw their genesis in the Rochester area.

Upon hearing the tale of the murdered salesman and the unearthly sounds, a group of Rochester residents examined the Fox homestead and found strands of hair and bits of bone in the basement. At a subsequent community meeting, the girls were put to the test: Could they communicate with the dead in
Rochester, too?

Left to right: Leah (1814–90),
Kate (1838–92), and Maggie (1836–93)
The girls proved they could by summoning raps on the floor. In addition, Leah seemed to communicate with one community leader’s deceased daughter. All three Foxes were escorted into a private room after the demonstration, where they disrobed and were examined for any hints of duplicity. None were found.

Word of the sisters’ uncommon abilities reached Andrew Jackson Davis, later to become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism.” Davis claimed to have received a Divine message on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits on the family farm. In response to the dreary Calvinist teachings of the day, people could not wait to adopt a new spiritualism that taught each individual was the master of his own salvation. The spirits of those who had passed on were there to guide them to their ultimate fate, as they, in turn, would guide those who came after them.

The Fox Sisters embarked on a tour of New England and the Midwest, demonstrating their abilities to notables including newspaperman Horace Greeley, author James Fennimore Cooper, and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. Many accused the girls of perpetrating a hoax, but a growing number of people, convinced by the knocking and evident communication with dead relatives, embraced the Spiritualist movement.

In 1857, Maggie married explorer Elisha Kent Kane, a man thirteen years her senior who, though he reportedly loved her to distraction, insisted she was a fraud. He died an untimely death shortly after the wedding. Maggie began drinking heavily and abandoned Spiritualism to honor his memory. Kate married a devout Spiritualist leader and continued to develop her skills as a medium, including the use of blank cards upon which messages from the Beyond seemed to appear magically. Among the hazy apparitions she allegedly summoned was Benjamin Franklin’s.

The Fox sisters demonstrate their
ability to levitate a table (1850).
By the end of the Civil War, more than two million believers had converted to Spiritualism; by 1880, adherents grew to more than eight million.

In 1888, Maggie received $1,500 to tell her story in front of a large audience at the New York Academy of Music. By then doing her best to live a life of sobriety, Maggie confessed to the hoax that started the mass hysteria.

“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” the New York World reported. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.”

The sisters soon discovered they could manipulate their knuckles, toes, and other joints to make a variety of unusual sounds. Maggie demonstrated by removing her shoe, placing her foot on a small stool, and producing “rapping” noises

“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” Maggie said. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street, and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”

Spiritualists quickly split on the matter, one saying camp Maggie was a true medium who had been consumed by spirits intent on deceiving humanity, and the other claiming she had sold out her religion because, as a poor widow, she needed the money.

The Fox sisters conduct a seance in New York
(ca. 1855)
Leah, a popular medium in New York City, disowned her younger sister. Kate hit the bottle with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. The sisters never reconciled, even after Maggie recanted her confession a scant year after she embarrassed the family.

Leah, embittered by her sister’s betrayal, died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking binge. Maggie followed eight months later, in March 1893. Later that year, the diverse Spiritualist groups came together to found the National Spiritualist Association, the forerunner of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, which exists today.

Postscript: In 1904, a group of children discovered what appeared to be a skeleton among the ruins of the abandoned and crumbling Fox homestead. A doctor who examined the bones estimated they had been in the basement for about fifty years. Although the find lent some credence to the Fox sisters’ tale about the murdered salesman, the media and society at large continued to scoff at Spiritualists.

Five years later, another doctor examined the bones and pronounced them a clear attempt to defraud. The alleged skeleton was composed of bits and pieces from several bodies, including those belonging to chickens and other animals.

The Fox homestead burned to the ground in September 1955. A marker now stands on the spot where Modern Spiritualism was born:

Upon this site stood the Hydesville Cottage
The home of the Fox Sisters
Through whose mediumship communication
with the Spirit World was established
March 31, 1848

Ghosts, witches, mages, sorcerers, and all manner of other mystical creatures inhabit the tales in Prairie Rose Publications’ Halloween anthologies Cowboys, Creatures, and Calico, Vols. 1 and 2. An excerpt from my story, “Family Tradition,” follows.

Family Tradition

A failed bank robber and a phony psychic find their soulmates after she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts.

If trade didn’t pick up in this no-horse burg, Pansy Gilchrist would pack her tent and take the first train back east…as soon as Maurice’s Museum of Mysterious Oddities got anywhere near a hamlet large enough to warrant its own railway depot. Folks in New York and Boston threw money at spiritualists. If Mr. Barnum was correct about suckers, Madame Minerva could be in business for a long, long time.

Why had she allowed that nincompoop Maurice to talk her into this traveling nonsense? She and Emile had swindled larger crowds with Dr. Goodbody’s Kickapoo Medicine Show…and found themselves run out of town less often. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa! Snake Oil Liniment! Miraculous Elixirs to Cure What Ails You!

Demonstrating the surefire remedies had cured Emile right into his grave. Pickled.

Muttering foul words under her breath, she set a bucket under another leak in the canvas.

When a gust of wind whipped open the tent’s flap, she jerked upright, pulled her shawl around her shoulders, and faced the opening with the cryptic smile she’d worked hard to perfect.

A tall, drenched form ducked inside, and the smile flattened. Well that was a waste of effort.

Seldom had she seen a more bedraggled man. Water poured from his hat brim in a river, bypassing the mud spattered from his boots to the middle of his chest. Even the saddle riding his shoulder was slathered in muck.

Still, the casual slouch in his posture, the appreciative, half-lidded leer betrayed a calculated gamble on seduction. Perhaps he wasn’t the only mark in the spider’s parlor.

Pansy forced her voice to the bottom of her throat, infusing her words with a gypsy lilt. “You seek Madame Minerva’s counsel?”

A grin just shy of lascivious slid onto his lips. “For now.”

Slime on the hoof. With a dramatic sweep of her hand, she waved him to a chair. The saddle thunked to the ground. His soggy hat landed on the horn. Then, with a half bow, he echoed her dramatic sweep and seated her on the far side of the table before leaning close to her ear.

“My mother was Romany, little lady.” The low, smooth drawl caught her breath in a vise. “That’s about the worst impersonation I’ve ever heard.”


  1. Maybe the sisters should have just written their scary stories instead of pretending to talk to the dead. It shows how desperate people are to speak to their loved ones from beyond and how gullible we humans are. This was a very interesting article. What a shame the sisters never reconciled. I don't think I could live a life of deception like this. I'd have to drink liquor to keep my courage up worrying about being exposed for a fraud. At the very end I thought maybe there was truly going to be a body in the house, but glad to know there wasn't. A great blog, Kathleen.

  2. Thanks, Sarah. You know, I imagine the life of deception is what led the two younger Fox sisters to dive into bottles. I felt really bad for Maggie. She was in something of a no-win situation: either she broke her word to her late husband, or she alienated her sisters. In the end, by recanting her story about how the whole thing got started, she did both.

  3. I faintly remember this story from college, but that was more than a few years ago. Thank you for helping me remember. Great post. Doris

    1. Doris, I remember having heard something about this a long time ago, too. When I started researching gypsy fortunetellers, carnivals, and psychics from the 1800s in order to figure out Pansy in "Family Tradition," I ran across this historical tidbit again. That's one of the things I so enjoy about writing historical fiction. I'm always uncovering quirky little bits. I know YOU are! :-)

  4. Kathleen,
    Sorry I'm late to the party. This is a fascinating post, and a story I'd never heard. Thanks for sharing. :-)

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Kristy! The human imagination is a strange and wonderful thing. :-)

  5. Very interesting post, Tex. Did you find, was the older sister Leah always prone to spiritualism, or was it only after she took in the younger two that she was pulled into their scam (or not scam depending on what you believe)?

    1. I had the same question (which is alarming), but I couldn't find an answer in the material I checked. The tone of what I read suggested Leah may have been an opportunist, but I can't say that for sure.

      You're contributing to my research addiction, you fink. ;-)