Fox Family

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Margaretta Fox, who became one of the first Spiritualist mediums after her family’s dramatic communication with spirit in her childhood. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.
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Catherine (Kate) Fox, noted medium whose family’s famous 1848 spirit communication in Hydesville, New York, is credited with starting the Spiritualist movement in the united States. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Fox Family

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The modern Spiritualist movement began in New York in 1848 as a result of publicity surrounding happenings at the Fox homestead in Hydesville. The house was a small weatherboard one with two parlors, a pantry, and bedroom. There was a stairway leading to the second floor and there was a cellar.

Ever since moving into the house on December 11, 1847, the Fox family—who were Methodists—had been plagued with strange sounds echoing through the wooden cottage. There were knockings and rappings that neither John Fox nor his wife Margaret were able to trace. They tried all the obvious possibilities such as loose shutters and window sashes, frequently getting up in the middle of the night to go searching through the house with candle in hand. On the night of Friday, March 31, they and their two daughters had just retired to bed when the noises once again started up—in particular what sounded like someone or something rapping sharply on wood. Mrs. Margaret Fox later stated,

It was very early when we went to bed on this night—hardly dark. I had been so broken of rest I was almost sick … I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all the other noises I had ever heard before. The children, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the rapping, and tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers.

My youngest child, Cathie, said “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,” clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport: “No, do just as I do. Count one, two, three, four,” striking one hand against the other at the same time; and the raps came as before. She was afraid to repeat them..

I then thought I could put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the “noise” to rap my different children’s ages successively. Instantly, each one of my children’s ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualise them until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child.

I then asked: “Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly?” There was no rap. I asked: “Is it a spirit? If it is, make two raps.” Two sounds were given as soon as the request was made.

The Foxes went on with their questions and slowly learned that the spirit was a thirty-one year old man, a peddler who had been murdered in the house. Mrs. Fox called, “Will you continue to rap if I call in my neighbors, that they may hear it too?” The raps were affirmative. She called in her neighbor, Mrs. Redfield. The testimony continues,

Mrs. Redfield is a very candid woman. The girls were sitting up in bed clinging to each other and trembling in terror … Mrs. Redfield came immediately (this was about half past seven), thinking she would have a laugh at the children. But when she saw them pale with fright and nearly speechless, she was amazed and believed there was something more serious than she had supposed. I asked a few questions for her and she was answered as before. He told her age exactly. She then called her husband, and the same questions were asked and answered.

The Foxes went on to call in the Dueslers, the Hydes, the Jewells, and several others.

On first looking at the phenomenon it would seem to be typical of poltergeist activity. There were young children in the house: Margaretta was seven and Cathie (Kate) was ten years of age. With children of that age it’s not uncommon for there to be spontaneous physical activity brought about by raw energy, for want of a better word, thrown off by the children. But the Fox episode differs from “normal” poltergeist activity in that the noises responded intelligently to questions. Indeed, they acknowledged being a “spirit.” Poltergeist activity is completely unpredictable and uncontrollable, so here was a very real difference.

With the crowd of neighbors in the house that Friday night, the spirit was thoroughly tested with questions of all sorts. All were answered to the satisfaction of the questioners. The spirit also gave all the details of his murder, which was done with a butcher knife and in order to steal his money. Margaret Fox and the two girls left for the night, leaving the house overflowing with people, and still the rapping continued.

The next evening, Saturday, it was said that as many as 300 people gathered to witness the rapping. The spirit claimed that its body had been buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. Immediate excavations turned up hair and bones, pronounced by medical experts to be human. But it wasn’t until fifty-six years later that the whole skeleton was discovered. According to a report in the November 23, 1904 Boston Journal, parts of a basement wall collapsed and revealed an entire human skeleton together with a peddler’s tin box! The peddler’s name was Charles B. Rosna, and the tin box is now on view in the Lily Dale Museum in Lily Dale, New York.

It is a little known fact that the house had a prior history of strange noises. The tenants previous to the Foxes were a Michael and Hannah Weekman, who vacated the premises because of the noises. Before the Weekmans was a couple named Bell. A maid named Lucretia Pulver, who had worked for the Bells when they lived in the house, testified that she remembered a peddler once stopping there. Lucretia was sent off for the night and when she returned the next morning she was told the peddler had left. In her statement Lucretia said that both she and a friend, Aurelia Losey, had subsequently heard strange noises in the house during the night. The Bells were never charged with the murder.

The Fox family was greatly affected by the events at the house. Margaret Fox’s hair turned white within a week of the affair. The two children were sent away; Kate to stay with her brother David, in Auburn, and Margaretta to stay with her sister Leah (married name Fish), in Rochester. But the raps continued in the house even after they had left.

Not only did the raps continue at the house, but they also followed the girls to their new abodes. In Rochester, Leah, a staid music teacher, was suddenly exposed to violent disturbances. The phenomena reverted to poltergeist-like outbursts, with Margaretta and Leah the targets of pinpricks and of flying blocks of wood. Leah said, “Pins would be stuck into various parts of our persons. Mother’s cap would be removed from her head, her comb jerked out of her hair and every conceivable thing done to annoy us.” It took a while for them to remember that they had been able to converse with the spirit in the Hydesville house, through asking for raps in answer to questions. They started again to ask questions, and once again they got answers. Then they got the most important message of all:

Dear friends, you must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era. You must not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty, God will protect you and the good spirits will watch over you.

From that moment the messages started to pour forth.

On November 14, 1849, a group of people met at Corinthian Hall in Rochester and a panel was formed to investigate the girls. This panel determined that there was no fraud involved in what was produced. However, many present were not satisfied with this report and demanded that a second committee be formed. This was done and the second group reached a similar conclusion. They stated that when the girls were “standing on pillows, with a handkerchief tied round the bottom of their dresses tight to the ankles, we all heard rapping on the wall and floor distinctly.”

As interest in the phenomena spread, it was found that other people were able to act as channels or “mediums” for the spirits. Leah’s ability developed and she found herself so much in demand that she had to give up her music teaching and became the first professional medium. The sisters started a tour, going to Albany in May, 1850 and then to Troy. In June they were in New York. There Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, investigated them. He was joined by Fenimore Cooper, George Bancroft, the poets Willis and Bryant, and others. Greeley reported in his newspaper,

We devoted what time we could spare from our duties out of three days to this subject, and it would be the basest cowardice not to say that we are convinced beyond a doubt of their perfect integrity and good faith in the premises. Whatever may be the origin or cause of the “rappings,” the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire satisfaction.

The early rappings gave way to other phenomena; table tipping, automatic writing, materialization, and even levitation. In 1853, it was reported that Governor Talmadge was levitated while sitting on a table. The governor also claimed that he had received direct writing from the spirit of John C. Calhoun.

Mediums started springing up all over the place. Not surprisingly many of them were exposed as frauds. The phenomena were of the sort that could be produced fraudulently and therefore many charlatans tried to “jump on the bandwagon.” Exposures became almost commonplace and finally even reached out toward the Fox sisters themselves. They were accused of producing the raps by “cracking” their knee joints and toe joints. An alleged “confession” was presented by a relative, Mrs. Norman Culver, who claimed that Catherine had told her that this was how they worked. In trying to explain how the raps could continue at an investigation where the committee held the ankles of the sisters, Mrs. Culver said that they had their servant rap on the floorboards from down in the cellar. There were several problems with this accusation. The investigations in question had been held in the different homes of various members of the committee plus in a public hall, and at the time the Fox sisters didn’t have a servant. Not only that, but a Mr. Capron was able to show that at the time of the so-called “confession,” Kate Fox was actually residing at his home, seventy miles distant.

Unfortunately the accusations did damage the reputation of the Fox sisters and for a time they found themselves with few defenders other than Horace Greeley. There was tremendous pressure put upon the sisters at this time to “perform.” Precautions for mediumship were then unknown. In her Autobiography, Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten wrote of a conversation with Kate Fox at a Spiritualist gathering, saying, “Poor patient Kate, in the midst of a captious, grumbling crowd of investigators, repeating hour after hour the letters of the alphabet, while the no less poor, patient spirits rapped out names, ages, and dates to suit all comers.”

Interestingly, although the method of producing the sounds was frequently questioned, and many and marvelous explanations were forth coming, seldom did anyone question the incredible amount of information that was produced. This information was unobtainable elsewhere and was absolutely correct. For example, from 1861 to 1866, Kate worked exclusively for the New York banker Charles F. Livermore, bringing him endless messages and information from his late wife, Estelle. During all that time Estelle actually materialized and also wrote notes in her own handwriting. This was all information that would have been unknown to Kate but which Livermore was able to accept.

In 1852, Margaretta married the famous Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kane. In November 1858, Leah married her third husband David Underhill, a wealthy insurance man. In 1871, Kate visited England where the first Spiritualist church had been established in Keighley, Yorkshire, in 1853. Her trip was financed by Livermore, in gratitude for the years of consolation that she had brought him. He wrote,

Miss Fox, taken all in all, is no doubt the most wonderful living medium. Her character is irreproachable and pure. I have received so much through her powers of mediumship during the past ten years which is solacing, instructive and astounding, that I feel greatly indebted to her.

In England Kate sat for the well known psychic investigator and physicist Professor William Crookes, among others. At one of the séances a London Times correspondent was present. In light of earlier accusations made against the Fox sisters, claiming that they made the rapping noises with their joints, it is interesting to read the Times’ correspondent’s report. He said that he was taken to the door of the séance room and invited to stand by the medium and hold her hands. This he did “when loud thumps seemed to come from the panels, as if done with the fist. These were repeated at our request any number of times.” He went on to give every test he could think of, while Kate gave every opportunity for examination and had both her feet and hands held securely.

Of one séance Crookes wrote, I was holding the medium’s two hands in one of mine, while her feet rested on my feet. Paper was on the table before us, and my disengaged hand was holding a pencil. A luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room, and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose above our heads, gradually fading into darkness.

In December 1872, Kate married H. D. Jancken, a London barrister and one of England’s early Spiritualists. They had two sons, both of whom were extremely psychic, before Jancken died in 1881. In 1876, Margaretta traveled across the Atlantic to visit her sister.

A quarrel developed between the three sisters, with Kate and Margaretta eventually siding together against the older Leah. Hearing of a growing problem of alcoholism in her sisters—especially Margaretta—Leah tried to have Kate separated from her two children. It has been suggested by such people as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that this may have prompted an attack by Margaretta, who had been through some severe financial problems. Additionally, she had come under strong Roman Catholic influence, pressuring her to acknowledge that her gift came from the devil. Margaretta swore to avenge herself and her sister against Leah.

Thinking to hurt Leah by harming the entire Spiritualist movement, Margaretta wrote a letter to the New York Herald in which she denounced the movement and promised a full exposure of it. This she tried to do before a panel in August, 1888. The following month Kate came over from England to join her. Although Kate didn’t promise any exposé, she did seem to back her sister in the fight against Leah. In the Hall of Music on October 21, 1888, Margaretta made her repudiation, claiming that all had been faked. She even managed to produce some minor raps to back up what she was saying. Kate kept silent, though by doing so she seemed to endorse here sister’s statements.

Suddenly, on November 17, less than a month later, Kate wrote to a Mrs. Cottell,

“I would have written to you before this but my surprise was so great on my arrival to hear of Maggie’s exposure of Spiritualism that I had no heart to write to anyone. The manager of the affair engaged the Academy of Music, the very largest place of entertainment in New York City; it was filled to overflowing. They made fifteen hundred dollars clear. I think now I could make money in proving that the knockings are not made with the toes. So many people come to me to ask me about this exposure of Maggie’s that I have to deny myself to them. They are hard at work to expose the whole thing if they can; but they certainly cannot.”

On November 20, 1889, about a year after the “exposé,” Margaretta gave an interview to the New York press, saying,

“Would to God that I could undo the injustice I did the cause of Spiritualism when, under the strong psychological influence of persons inimical to it, I gave expression to utterances that had no foundation in fact. This retraction and denial has not come about so much from my own sense of what is right as from the silent impulse of the spirits using my organism at the expense of the hostility of the treacherous horde who held out promises of wealth and happiness in return for an attack on Spiritualism, and whose hopeful assurances were deceitful.”

She was asked, “Was there any truth in the charges you made against Spiritualism?” to which she replied, “Those charges were false in every particular. I have no hesitation in saying that … When I made those dreadful statements I was not responsible for my words. Its genuineness is an incontrovertible fact.” Asked what her sister Catherine thought of her present course, she said, “She is in complete sympathy with me. She did not approve my course in the past.”

The three Fox sisters died within a year or two of each other; Leah in 1890, Catherine in 1892, and Margaretta in 1893. The final word on them comes from a doctor—not a Spiritualist—who attended on Margaretta at her death. At a meeting of the Medico Legal Society of New York, in 1905, Dr. Mellen stated that Margaretta was lying in a bed in a tenement house on Ninth Street. According to the doctor she was unable, at that time, to move hand or foot. Yet knockings came from the wall, the floor, and from the ceiling, in answer to Margaretta’s faint questions. “She was as incapable of cracking her toe-joints at this time, as I was,” the doctor said.

Sources:

Britten, Emma Hardinge: Modern American Spiritualism. New York: (1870) University Books, 1970
Buckland, Raymond: Buckland’s Book of Spirit Communications. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2004
Cadwallader, M. E.: Hydesville in History. Stansted: Psychic Press, 1995
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: The History of Spiritualism. New York: Doran, 1926