Sheet music cover page from 1853 depicting disembodied "spirit rappings."

The Fox Sisters: How a Prank Created the Modern Ghost Story

The year was 1848. It was nighttime in Hydesville, New York when a flustered Margaret Fox dragged a neighbor from their home to witness the frightening phenomenon that had scared her so badly. Upon entering the farmhouse, Margaret led the neighbor to the bedroom of her two young daughters, fifteen-year-old Margaretta “Maggie” Fox and eleven-year-old Catherine “Kate” Fox. The girls had been reporting strange happenings to their mother who, convinced by their demonstrations, had fetched a neighbor to confirm what she was experiencing.

Each night, so the girls said, their bedroom came alive with taps, knocks, and rumbles. The noises were unsettling, but far more so was the fact that the unidentified source of the noise seemed to be intelligent. When the girls asked questions, the disembodied noise-maker would knock a response back at them. When asked to tap out the ages of the girls, the “spirit” did so accurately. When asked to signify “yes” or “no” with a designated number of knocks, the spirit answered questions coherently. When asked if it was the tortured spirit of a murdered soul, the unidentified being responded “yes.” So began a series of events which would shape the spiritual development of the United States and beyond, and bring into being many of the ideas and practices now commonly associated with the realm of spirits. (1)

More Unusual United States History: The Straw Hat Riot of 1922: The End of a Fashion Taboo

Séance Sisters

The Fox sisters and their apparently haunted farmhouse were an overnight sensation. Intrigued by the mysterious rapping, many more neighbors came to investigate the bedroom of the sisters. The girls were inspected thoroughly and no evidence of dishonesty was found. In short order, the mysterious spirit was questioned and concluded to be a peddler named Charles B. Rosna who, several of the neighbors claimed, had been murdered in the house a few years prior. Initially, the girls believed that the poltergeist was the devil himself. They even referred to him by the nickname “Mr. Splitfoot” referring to Satan’s cloven hooves. Under interrogation, though, the spirit knocks seemed to indicate a wayward human soul. Curious investigators even claimed to have found personal effects and bone fragments beneath the home which might’ve belonged to the late Mr. Rosna. (2)

In all of the excitement and tumult of the discovery, Maggie and Kate were sent away to live with relatives. Unexpectedly, though, the mysterious knocking followed them.

Portrait of the Fox sisters
Portrait of the Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaret, Catherine, and Leah. Public domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

New York in 1848 was a cradle for radical new ideas. Suffrage, abolition, mesmerism and many such new social, reform, and spiritual movements were at play in the area. It did not take long before the phenomenon which surrounded the young Fox girls became a part of this fabric. Amy and Isaac Post were Quakers who participated in quite a lot of these radical new ideas. They were advocates of women’s rights as well as abolition and the couple were also close friends with the Fox family. So, when Leah Fox, the older sister of the two girls with whom Kate had gone to live, seemed to channel the spirit of the Post’s deceased daughter, the couple was open to the possibility that the girls’ had a unique and significant ability. The Posts became some of the first supporters of the sisters and began booking concert halls and theatres so that other people might come and witness the incredible sisters and their apparent communion with the dead. (3)

More Spooky History: The Cadaver Synod: A Trial For a Dead Pope

Beyond the Veil

As the notoriety of the Fox sisters grew, intimate household séances became anticipated social events drawing massive crowds. Before stunned audiences, Kate, Maggie, and now Leah would hold conversations with the recently deceased through sounds that seemed to manifest out of thin air. While skepticism is a natural reaction for modern audiences accustomed to all sorts of tricks and far-fetched claims, in 1848 the spiritual abilities of the Fox sisters was credible enough to snare such famous figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Horace Greeley, P.T. Barnum, and many other famous figures and socialites. It was believed by many of the followers of Kate, Maggie, and Leah that the girls had managed to reach through the veil separating humanity from its next stage. For many followers, the Fox sisters represented a religious conversion; an expansion of the mind so vast that it could change what it means to be human. Before very long, more and more people began to report that they too could commune with spirits. Spirit mediums became popular sources of entertainment as well as spiritual investigation amongst well-to-do social circles. In many such circles, religious orthodoxy could hardly stand up against the allure and mystery of what may lie beyond and the apparent ability of gifted individuals to lay its mysteries bare. This is spiritualism.

Illustration of levitating objects during a Spiritualist séance conducted by the Davenport brothers
Illustration of levitating objects during a Spiritualist séance conducted by the Davenport brothers. The Davenports were some of the earliest copycats of the Fox sisters and employed complex illusions which were debunked repeatedly during their lives. Public domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

More Fascinating History: The Intriguing Mystery of the Disappearance of the Explorer Percy Fawcett and the Lost City of Z

Smoke and Mirrors

As the girls grew into adulthood, their celebrity status was their livelihood and they performed séance after séance for captivated audiences. During this time, Leah acted as the de facto manager of her younger sisters. Life as a trio of mediums was exciting and prosperous, but Margaretta began to pull away. In 1852, Margaretta fell in love with a young Arctic explorer by the name of Elisha Kane. She was smitten with the dashing Kane and left mediumship in order to be a more suitable wife for him. Margaretta returned to the profession of her sisters just five years later when Kane died unexpectedly. Kate, for her part, struggled to regulate herself without adequate supervision and became prone to drinking in excess. In 1871, Kate moved to England and married a man named H.D. Jencken. Their union produced two sons, but within ten years Kate was widowed as well and her alcoholism increased in severity. In 1888, Kate was arrested for drunkenness and had her two sons removed from her care. By this time, Maggie had also taken to drinking and was living a life of anguish and destitution. It was during this same year that Maggie Fox made her stunning confession. (4)

More Mysterious History: What is the Pedro Mountain Mummy?

A Ghostly Hoax

Margaretta Fox walked out onto the stage at the New York Academy of Music and publicly denounced the entirety of the phenomenon on which she and her sisters had built their careers. That dark and ominous night way back in 1848 when she had been just fifteen years old had shaped her life in ways she never could have imagined at the time. Nobody had seemed to take notice, in all of these years, that the night during which her mother had summoned the neighbors to witness the tapping and knocking of the ghost had been the night of March 31st. It was the eve of April Fool’s Day. Before a shocked crowd, Margaret confessed that she and Kate had tied an apple to a string and tugged it so that it bumped against their bed, undetected by anyone but themselves. Pride and mischief gave way to fear when the adults began treating the success of their prank as a matter of grave importance. Rumors began circulating of bones found beneath the Fox home, and a missing man named Charles B. Rosna. To Margaretta Fox’s knowledge, Rosna had never even existed much less been murdered and stashed beneath her childhood bedroom.

Enjoying the attention that they were receiving and afraid of the consequences which would result from failing to keep up their ruse, the two sisters worked in secret to perfect their tricks. The apple on a string bit would not work for long, but the girls quickly capitalized on and perfected an unusual ability which they shared. With little effort, both sisters could produce popping and cracking sounds from the joints of their toes and ankles. They practiced this ability until they could produce clear sounds at a loud volume with little enough movement that nobody could detect it. Thus, the method for the Fox sisters’ séances was born. Reports of ghostly touches and possessed participants were nothing more than powerful suggestions bolstered by the seemingly supernatural sounds which originated from the girls’ joints. (5)

Individual portraits of the Fox sisters
Individual portraits of the Fox sisters. Public domain image supplied via Wikimedia Commons

Within five years of this confession, all three of the Fox sisters would die in poverty. Margaretta would claim, before her death, that her confession had been a lie and that the spirits had guided her to conceal their existence, but the damage had been done. The Fox family was discredited as was the Spiritualist movement.

More United States History: How Upton Sinclair Accidentally Reformed the Meatpacking Industry

The Mystery Persists

Of course, this event was not the end of Spiritualism. To this day, mediums claim to commune with the dead. Appearing on television, selling their services out of little roadside shops, the profession of the spirit medium is alive though skeptics abound. By the time Margaretta Fox made her confession, she had created something that was much bigger than herself or her family; too big for even a devastating blow to destroy.

Of course there are still those who consider the haunting of the Fox farmhouse to be legitimate and there is one fascinating detail which lends credence to that viewpoint. In 1904, a group of kids playing in the old Fox house found a human skeleton buried within the walls of the house. The bones were examined by a doctor and estimated to date back at least fifty years prior to their discovery, placing them within the period that the Fox phenomenon had occurred. Later investigations suggested that perhaps the bones were planted as a joke or continuation of the Fox hoax, but no evidence suggesting this was ever found. It was never determined who the bones might have belonged to and how they might have come to rest beneath the very home where Spiritualism was born. Like all great ghost stories, the tale of the Fox sisters has left us with one final “what-if” to ponder as we face the ultimate unknown. (6)

More Haunting History: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *