Modern spiritualism all began in March of 1848 with two little girls who lived in Hydesville, New York. While no one can ever confirm the authenticity of their story, the movement still exists today, and it’s all because of the Fox sisters.
One night, as the young Fox sisters, Margaret (a.k.a. Maggie) and Katharine (a.k.a. Katie) were trying to sleep when they heard odd rapping noises. The loud tapping kept them awake and frightened for weeks without anyone being able to find a source to the noise.
The New York forest that surrounded their residence was rumored to host magic, sprites, and the devil, which was referred to in the area as Mr. Splitfoot. The mother was skeptical but told her son David she suspected a ghost, which he brushed off as crazy talk. This was confirmed, however, when Maggie and Katie announced their discovery.
The sisters had finally addressed the sound. Attempting to communicate with the root of the noises, Katie said, “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do.” The little girl proceeded to clap her hands a certain number of times. The ghost obeyed and retorted with that very same number of raps.
These exchanges happened over and over again. The siblings tested Mr. Splitfoot by seeking out “Yes or No” answers and the spirit revealed itself as an all-knowing “invisible intelligence.” However, when someone else attempted to communicate, the noises fell silent, designating Katie and Maggie as the sole mediums.
The identity of this ghost was presumed to be a murdered tin peddler named Charles B. Rosna, whose remains were still buried in the Fox cottage. There were attempts to find the body, but they had to be terminated due to water rising in the cellar from all the digging.
It wasn’t long before news spread and all the neighbors joined the Fox family to bear witness to these séances. This popularity only grew, turning this experience into a profitable show. The mother believed her daughters’ success would only rise further outside of their town, so she sent them to live in Rochester County, NY, with their older sister and manager, Leah.
Rochester County was not only a hub for political activism and religious freedom, but in it resided a pool of wealthy inhabitants eager to spend their money. They invited prominent citizens such as Isaac and Amy Post, and heavily advertised their notorious performances in renowned venues such as their first big public séance at the Corinthian Hall.
Both believers and skeptics attended, but every person in the audience left as a believer. According to the Rochester Daily Democrat, “those who were present… could not but admit the evidence of their séances that THE GHOST was there.”
The great magician Harry Houdini was infuriated by the idea, accusing the Fox sisters of being con-artists. On the other hand, they inspired luminaries and literary geniuses such as William Lloyd Garrison and .
They also provided comfort to those struggling to mourn a loss, for example Mary Todd Lincoln, who was President ‘s widow. Many were willing to pay a hefty price for the opportunity to once again communicate with the deceased.
The Fox sisters became famous worldwide, including Leah who would occasionally substitute. They travelled all over the globe to showcase their unique abilities. By the 1880s, they had accumulated a following of over eight million believers. These events unleashed a religious phenomenon: spiritualism.
Skeptics, namely scientists and other rational-minded investigators investigated the matter further. They concluded that the raps were “produced by the action of the will, through voluntary action on the joints.” Eventually, they noticed some of the information given by the spirits was incorrect and that the rapping sounds ceased abruptly by controlling Maggie’s feet.
The fame became too much for the younger siblings to handle, leading them to resent Leah and to resort to alcoholism. One day, nearly 40 years after the initial discovery of their abilities, the girls appeared at NYC’s Academy of Music, and Maggie delivered an unforgettable confession exposing spiritualism as a hoax.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began. I was eight and just a year and a half older than she. We were very mischievous children and we wanted to terrify our dear mother, who was a very good woman and very easily frightened.”
While Katie nodded in agreement, Margaret explained and demonstrated the many ways in which they created this rapping noise. They had several tricks involving apples tied to strings, knuckle-cracking, and swooshing movements of the feet. Once she became penniless, however, Maggie retracted her story, blaming it on her alcoholism and desperation. She even returned to the life of a medium.
No one knew what to believe and the religious movement had already blossomed. Many theories came up, but none that could be confirmed. The Fox sisters all died without a cent to their name, and both Katie and Maggie died from alcoholism.
The most mysterious part of this story, is that in 1904, a group of children found a body in a crumbling wall of the Fox house’s cellar. The remains suggested the details of Rosna’s death and there was even a peddler’s tin trunk alongside the skeleton. Some believe these were planted there to support the scam.
This is one of history’s unsolved mysteries… Unfortunately, the only way to find out the truth is to communicate with the dead.
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