The Fox sisters were three women from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism, the religious movement. The three sisters were Kate Fox (1837–1892), Leah Fox (1814–1890) and Margaret Fox (also called Maggie) (1833–1893).
In 1848, the two younger sisters – Kate and Margaret – were living in a house in Hydesville, New York with their parents. Hydesville was a hamlet which no longer exists but was part of the township of Arcadia in Wayne County.
The house had some prior 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”:
“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, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.”
During the night of March 31, Kate challenged the invisible noise-maker, 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, and over the course of the next few days a type of 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 initially 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. Rosma, 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. Rosma was ever identified.
Margaret Fox, in her later years noted:
“They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer ‘yes,’ not three as we did afterwards. The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house. Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer.”
Emergence as mediums
Kate and Margaret were sent away to nearby Rochester during the excitement — Kate to the house of her sister Leah, and Margaret to the home of her brother David — and it was found that 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, or perhaps encouraged people who previously had hidden their gifts. At any rate, during the following few years, hundreds of persons would claim the ability to communicate with spirits. Both Kate and Margaret became well-known mediums, giving séances for hundreds of “investigators,” as persons interested in these phenomena liked to call themselves. 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 the girls, enabling their movement in higher social circles. But the lack of parental supervision was pernicious, as both of the young girls 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, but 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:
“These sounds are noticed with almost every medium… but for power and certainty I have met with no one who at all approached Miss Kate Fox. For several months I enjoyed almost unlimited opportunity of testing the various phenomena occurring in the presence of this lady, and I especially examined the phenomena of these sounds.
With mediums, generally it is necessary to sit for a formal séance before anything is heard; but in the case of Miss Fox it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree – on a sheet of glass – on a stretched iron wire – on a stretched membrane – a tambourine – on the roof of a cab – and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium’s hands and feet were held – when she was standing on a chair-when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling- when she was enclosed in a wire cage – and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass harmonicon – I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started, chiefly in America, to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means.”
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 also expanded on her career as a medium after leaving the homestead to begin her Spiritualist travels with her older sister, Mrs. Underhill:
“Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. 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. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.”
She also notes:
“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. 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.”
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:
“As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland told me that an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person.”
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.