by Alessandra Koch
For The Austin Séance
If you have seen an episode of The Walking Dead then you most likely have heard the lyrics to its theme song:
In the dark of night hear the raven’s call
Hear the blackened rats scratching through the wall
In the walls in the floor in the dark in the heat of the blackest hour
Feel the creep of the feet digging through the wall
See the shape of the darkened door
Mr. Splitfoot knocks three and four…
But did you know that this “Mr. Splitfoot” and his “knocks three and four” refer to actual historical events? During the winter of 1848, on March 31, two young sisters — Kate and Margaret Fox — supposedly made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler. The young girls named this spirit “Charles B. Rosna” but also sometimes referred to him as “Mr. Splitfoot.” This supposed communication between the Fox sisters and a ghost transpired in an upstate New York farmhouse, a site now revered as the cradle of the American Spiritualist movement.
Plenty has been written about the young Fox sisters and how they conducted America’s first séance in that New York farmhouse. What has been less widely reported, however, is that other witnesses also spoke of supernatural activity within its four walls. In this installment of The Austin Séance online magazine we present two earlier accounts of supernatural activity at the Fox farmhouse cottage, as well as a bit of history about the house itself.
Thirty five miles east of Rochester, New York, is a sleepy village built predominantly over a vast gravel pit. This is Hydesville, which was founded approximately in 1790 by pioneers traveling eastward from New England and Long Island, and which was named for the early pioneer Dr. Henry Hyde. Dr. Hyde built a small framed story-and-a-half homestead on a corner crossroad, which was separated from the roadway by a wood rail fence. This structure became the home for various tenant farmers throughout the first half of the 1800s, including the Fox family who occupied the home in 1847 and 1848.
The house went vacant after the Fox’s departure, but was eventually moved by a member of the Spiritualist church to the religious community’s center of operations in Lily Dale, New York. There, it remained until a fire destroyed the house in 1955. Another member of the church also built a replica of the Fox home at its original site, but that building also was destroyed in a controlled fire. As a consequence, all we have left of the original house is its base, which is located in Hydesville Memorial Park at 1510 Hydesville Road, in the Finger Lakes area of New York. The property is under the care of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
One other note about the farmhouse — and perhaps a significant one given the stories we present below. In 1904 a group of children discovered some bones hidden in the cellar, between the ground and a crumbling cedar wall. You can see a newspaper clipping about that finding, at right. At least some of the bones apparently were human, and a consulting physician estimated them to be about 50 years old.
THE BELL FAMILY
The first person to report supernatural activity at the farmhouse was a woman named Lucretia Pulver, who lived part-time on the property while working as a housekeeper. The house then was being rented by the family of John C. Bell, who farmed nearby land belonging to Dr. Hyde, the town founder. Ms. Pulver boarded with the Bell family at the farmhouse off and on for about three months.
According to Ms. Pulver’s later testimony, a traveling foot peddler came knocking one day, and both she and Mrs. Bell spoke to the man about his wares. She described the visitor as having a black frock coat with light colored pants. He also carried a trunk and had a basket with vials of essence. Ms. Pulver said she agreed to purchase a fine length of wool from the man, and that he in turn agreed to visit her father’s house the next day to receive his payment. The peddler, however, was never heard from again.
Some days later, around midnight, Lucretia began hearing frightening noises in the buttery of the farmhouse, down in the cellar. She said it sounded as if somebody was walking around — a sort of thudding noise — and that she found this sound unnerving because she felt certain nobody was there. A week later she received another fright. Mrs. Bell had asked her to go down to the cellar to shut an outside door. While there, she screamed as she stumbled to the ground, which mysteriously appeared to have become uneven, as if someone had disturbed the dirt.
Mrs. Bell laughed at her fright, saying it was only where the rats had been at work in the ground. Ms. Pulver, in a later affidavit, also noted that their dog would sit under the bedroom window all night long and howl — as if there was someone outside that wanted to come inside.
The Bells lived in the home during 1842 and 1843 — about five years before the arrival of the Fox family. During the Fox sister’s séances they allegedly made contact with a wandering spirit, whom they sometimes called “Charles B. Rosna” or “Mr. Splitfoot.” He was a murdered foot peddler, according to the Fox sisters. Others, as we will see below, also reported seeing a mysterious male apparition walking about the grounds wearing a dark frock coat and light colored pants.
THE WEEKMAN FAMILY
From 1843 to 1846 the Weekman family tenanted the house, along with a young housekeeper named Jane. For a full year after the Bell family had vacated the house, all remained quiet there — until the rapping noises began again! According to a very agitated Mrs. Hannah Weekman, it sounded as if they were coming from outside and then were let in one night.
Here’s a section of her testimony:
“We heard a good deal of noise during that night; we could hardly tell where it was; it sounded as if someone were walking around in the cellar…. A few nights afterwards, one of our little girls who slept in the bedroom where the noises are now heard, woke us all up by screaming very loud…. She said that something had been moving around over her head and face — that it was cold, and she did not know what it was. She said that she felt it all over her. There was nothing else that happened to me during the time that we lived there; but my husband told me that one night he heard someone call him by name (from) somewhere about the house…. I do not believe in spooks, or anything of that kind; but I hardly know what to say about it now. So many have heard the noise that it seems as if something must be the matter.”
To add to the mystery, Jane, their housekeeper, likewise reported a ghostly sighting. In an affidavit, she described the materialized form of a young sandy-haired man in grey trousers and a black jacket.
In Jane’s words:
“One day … I saw a man in the bedroom joining the kitchen. The bedroom door was open, and I saw the man distinctly. I was much frightened…. He did not speak, nor did I hear any noise at any time….I have always thought, and still do think, that that was a supernatural appearance. I had never been a believer in such things until I saw this.”
When the frightened girl told the Weekman family what she had seen, she was told it was only a dream and was forbidden to speak of it in the house. She left within the year.
After the Weekman’s left, the cottage remained vacant for a brief period. Then, in December 1847, Mr. John Fox and his wife Margaret arrived, along with their two youngest daughters Margaretta and Catherine. Luckily for the Foxes, their lodging was understood to be temporary while John began building a new home for his family adjoining his uncle’s property nearby. But the mysterious noises proved to be just as frightening to the Fox family as it had to the previous tenants. This time, however, the 12- and 15-year-old Kate and Maggie Fox were listening and willing to knock back…
Mrs. Koch, a writer originally hailing from Rochester, New York, has spent years examining the history of American Spiritualism and the paranormal. She first fell down the supernatural rabbit hole after seeing a play as a preteen about the Fox sisters, and she continues to be a lifelong lover of Spiritualism’s vibrant history with its connections to today’s interactions with the paranormal.