THE FOX SISTERS
The Fox Sisters are credited with founding the entire Spiritualist movement, which became wildly popular in the second half of the nineteenth century and still continues to some extent today. It is doubtful that the two younger sisters, Maggie and Kate, ever intended to create a religious movement when they began their spirit rapping activities. They were only fourteen and eleven at the time and probably could not foresee the far-flung consequences of their actions. The same cannot be said for their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, who moved the girls from pastoral Hydesville to the city of Rochester and set them up in a profitable business. Leah Fish used her acquaintance with several well-respected residents of Rochester to link Spiritualism with other reform movements of the time, including abolition and women's rights. Leaders in the anti-slavery and suffragette movements quickly realized the potential of Spiritualism as a vehicle for political expression and several prominent women (Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, for example) happily testified to the validity of the Fox Sisters' rapping.
The word "seance" is not used in We Hear the Dead. The Fox Sisters always called their rapping sessions "spirit circles." The term seance did not come into use until several decades later. Nevertheless, Leah Fish transformed the earlier, crude rapping sessions begun by Maggie and Kate into the experience that is generally known as a seance today. Clients and spirit medium would sit around a table in a darkened room, hands resting upon the table in full sight. The medium might descend into a trance state, and soon messages from beyond the grave would arrive in the form of knocking sounds or in spirit messages written by the medium's hand. Ghostly phenomena such as ringing bells, puffs of air, and luminous lights might occur. The table would rock, move, and tip. Leah Fish also developed an early version of the Ouija board, on which she painted letters and numbers to enable the spirits to better deliver their messages.
Today, Spiritualism is still active, but not as popular as it was from the 1850's through the 1920's. Most historians confidently assert that the Fox Sisters were frauds. Maggie Fox even confessed to fraud in 1880 and demonstrated to a public audience how she created the raps by snapping her toe joints. Kate and Leah never admitted any such thing, however, and even Maggie recanted her confession eventually. True believers point out the fact that Maggie was destitute at the time of her confession, suffering from alcoholism and ill-health, and was handsomely paid to say she was a fraud. In addition, spiritualists point out one strange fact that has never been completely explained as evidence of the Fox girls' supernatural power. In 1904, a skeleton really was found in the basement of the house in Hydesville, buried just where Maggie and Kate had said the murdered peddler had been entombed.
In the links below, you will find internet articles which differ in their interpretation of the honesty of the Fox Sisters. Were they truly gifted—or were they frauds? You will have to decide.
From Prairie Ghosts and the Haunted Museum
From the First Spiritual Temple
A Spirited Historical Hoax
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