By Jake Cordero
Sitting in a darkened room with their eyes closed tight, sisters Kate and Margaret Fox called out to the spirits. The response was almost immediate.
Knock … Knock … Knock …
This eerie demonstration, conducted in 1848 in a small New York farmhouse, is remembered as the first American séance. From that night forward — through the early 1900s, into the Jazz Age and even to the current day — Americans have been gathering around candles and talking boards. Famous believers included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, and Mary Todd Lincoln, who was said to have been forewarned of her husband’s doom.
The Fox Sisters’ 1848 séance marked the very beginning of America’s modern spiritualist movement. Scholars also consider it as one of the earliest examples of spirit communication through rapping or knocking. Kate and Margaret Fox became celebrities as a consequence of that séance and later ones, and then, ultimately, seemed to have been cursed by them.
But it wasn’t Kate or Margaret — rather it was their mother — who first suspected a paranormal presence in their home. Mrs. Fox had moved into the the tiny Hydesville, New York cottage with the rest of her clan on Dec. 11, 1847. Not long afterward she began hearing strange crashes and bumping, but always at night and always after the family had retired to bed. Mrs. Fox attributed the eerie sounds to a ghost. “I am certain this house is haunted, and some unhappy presence is here. I feel it,” she said.
On March 31, 1848 — a watershed date in American séance history — Kate and Margaret, just 12 and 15 years old, challenged the entity to communicate with them directly. Sitting around a kitchen table with their parents and elder sister, the young girls began calling out simple yes-no questions. To the astonishment of everyone present, the rapping noises began almost immediately. The sounds were clear as death — Knock Knock Knock — coming from the walls, from the floor, from somewhere or nowhere.
By devising a code to represent letters, the girls formulated more complex questions. With this technique they identified the spirit variously as “Mr. Splitfoot,” a nickname for the devil, or “Charles B. Rosna,” a deceased peddler who claimed to have been murdered and buried in the cellar. This latter revelation drove frantic neighbors into a digging frenzy and eventually they uncovered bone fragments. More determined investigators (according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) later excavated an entire human skeleton.
Word of the sisters’ abilities quickly spread, first to neighbors, and then to strangers living in nearby towns, and eventually — through newspaper accounts — to the wider world. On Nov. 14, 1849, Kate and Margaret addressed a sizable audience at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester. This is now marked as the first demonstration of spiritualism before a paying public. They conducted additional public sittings throughout the 1850s, with notable attendees including William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Horace Greeley and Sojourner Truth. Kate and Margaret also attracted plenty of imitators.
As their celebrity grew, so did the demands from followers and attacks from naysayers. The Fox sisters began drinking heavily — especially Margaret — a vice that reportedly began for them while crisscrossing the country without parental supervision. The girls continued the demonstrations as they grew into adulthood: moving from city to city, attempting spirit contact on demand. Their life became chaotic and exhausting. Reports abound of growing friction between the women, even as their drinking continued and desperation set in.
And here, the story of the Fox sisters becomes very dark indeed.
Sensing their worsening plight and eager for quick sales, a mass market publication in the late 1800s offered Kate and Margaret $1,500 to confess to fraud. This was an astronomical sum, more than $36,000 in today’s economy, and so the increasingly desperate women took the money. Margaret regretted that decision for the rest of her life, and recanted immediately. But too late. The damage was done. Disgraced and penniless, the girls died only a few years later and were buried in a pauper’s grave in Brooklyn, New York.
Over the decades spirit mediums have been poked and prodded, measured by scientists and tested by magicians. Charlatans have been uncovered, but mysteries remain. Were Kate and Margaret frauds, or was there a real supernatural entity calling forth to them from beyond the grave? The debate continues. What’s undeniable, however, is that Kate and Margaret Fox occupy a monumental place in American séance history.
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