Yesterday I reviewed Deborah Noyles' new book Captivity. Today Deborah is visiting to tell us more about the Fox Sisters. Welcome Deborah!
Talking Back to Things that Go Bump in the Night
It began on the evening of March 31, 1848. The Fox family was already on edge. The walls of their farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, had been echoing for days with inexplicable rapping and bumping noises. Mobilized by their daughters’ cries, John and Margaret Fox rushed upstairs to find Maggie and Kate in thrall. Kate, the youngest of the two, circled the room and snapped her fingers. “Follow me,” she commanded, and an unseen presence — Kate nicknamed him “Mr. Splitfoot” — obeyed, rapping back in kind.
Astonished, the Fox elders called in neighbors to witness the phenomenon.
Together the crowd cooked up a laborious method of rap-and-response — two raps for “yes,” silence for “no,” working up to an alphabetic code — and the spirit, through Maggie and Kate, identified itself as a murdered peddler long buried in the cellar.
In the days that followed, men trooped downstairs with picks and shovels to excavate. Strangers came on foot, by horse-and-buggy, in rented carriages. Families staked tents in outlying fields, lit bonfires, and loitered outside the farmhouse, peeking in Fox family windows. At night, chairs were lined up indoors, and Maggie, Kate, and Mrs. Fox supervised “visitations.”
By May, so many curious pilgrims had descended on the Fox household that Maggie and Kate were shipped off to stay with to relatives in and around Rochester. Not surprisingly, wherever they went, the raps went too, and communications grew more dramatic and complex.
That November Maggie Fox and her older sister Leah, who’d joined on as business manager, demonstrated their strange abilities at Corinthian Hall. People lined up at Rochester’s largest public auditorium at dawn to catch the show, and by 9:00 o’clock, there were some 700 people milling or scalping tickets the way they do for concerts and ballgames today.
The sisters agreed to three rounds of exacting tests, producing their noisy ghost each time, leaving no evidence of deceit. On the third night, a riot broke out, and the sisters were nearly tarred and feathered.
Defying their critics, Maggie and Kate rallied enthusiasts all over the state. “Tea and table-tilting” and parlor séances became the rage. The movement known as spiritualism spread briskly, attracting mainly women. In mid-nineteenth-century New York State, nearly half of deaths were of children under age five; bereft mothers took solace in the idea of “lifting the veil” to hear from lost ones on the Other Side.
Within years, tens of thousands here and abroad were conducting séances, from politicians to literary lions like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The movement claimed more than a million followers at its peak, though during WWI, detractors like Harry Houdini labored to discredit it, claiming false mediums exploited the grieving and vulnerable.
Forty years after those first weird rappings, Maggie Fox denounced spiritualism before a full house at New York’s Academy of Music. It was a hoax, she said. The Fox sisters had made the raps by manipulating their toe joints. Soon after, she re-baffled her followers by flipping her position again, pledging her faith in a spirit realm.
Were the Fox sisters con artists swept up in the thrill of a childhood prank? Or had they really bridged the chasm between this world and that? Were they true intermediaries, or clever players? We may never know — scientific tests of the day proved inconclusive — but their legacy survives in the guise of celebrity mediums like Sylvia Brown.
On November 23, 1904, The Boston Journal reported that a decaying portion of the old cellar wall of the famous Hydesville “spook house” had revealed “an almost entire human skeleton between the earth and crumbling walls, undoubtedly that of the wandering peddler, who is claimed to have been murdered in the east room of the house and body hidden in cellar.”
The Fox cottage was dismantled in April 1916 and transferred to Lily Dale, a spiritualist community, where it burned down in 1955. A model of the cottage and the Fox family Bible are still exhibited in the museum there, together with spirit trumpets and other spectral paraphernalia.
See Deb’s May 15th Backstory [http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/likefire/] blog stop for more on Lily Dale.
Deb’s website: www.deborahnoyes.com
Deb’s blog: hauntedplaylist.blogspot.com
[Photo caption) The Fox Sisters: Maggie, Kate, and Leah
Thanks so much for the insight into the Fox Sisters Deborah.
Now for the giveaway:
Thanks to Caitlin Hamilton Summie of Unbridled Books I am giving away 1 copy of Captivity by Deborah Noyles to my U.S. and Canadian readers.
Here are the rules:
1. For one entry, leave a comment on what you learned or what you thought was interesting about Deborah's post. Please be sure to include your email address (if it isn't available in your profile), so that I can contact you if you win. If I can't find your email either in the comments or your profile, you will be disqualified!
2. For another entry, leave a comment on my review of Captivity here and then come back here and tell me that you did it.
3. For two more entries, post about this giveaway on your blog and leave link to your blog post in the comments. You will also get an entry for each person who tells me that they learned about this
giveaway from you.
3. For another 5 more entries: Become a Follower of my blog or subscribe to my blog through Google Reader or other subscription service. If you are already a subscriber or follower you still get the five extra entries! Please do not comment that you are a follower five times! I will give you the extra entries myself. I will delete any extra entries that you make as it will just confuse me when I go to pick the winners.
Sorry, the giveaway is only open US and Canadian residents only.
The winner’s mailing address: NO P.O. Boxes.
Only one entry per household/IP address.
This giveaway will end on Friday, June 25th 11:59 P.M. E.S.T. The winners will be notified by email, so remember to include your email address in the comments, if it isn't available in your profile! Winners must respond within three days or will be disqualified.