SPIRITUALISM, THE BELIEF that the dead dwell in another realm where they can communicate with the living, began as a small movement in the mid-19th century and attracted vast numbers of believers by the end of that century. The idea of “speaking to the dead” still has its place today in popular media, but most people don’t realize that spirit mediums and séances were invented by a pair of adolescent sisters with a clever prank.
On the night before April Fool’s Day in 1848, residents of Hydesville, a small town in upstate New York, were roused from bed by the persistent knocking of their neighbor, John Fox. Mr. Fox frantically bid his neighbors to accompany him back to his house and witness what was happening there: his daughters were communicating with a ghost.
The events of that night were documented in a pamphlet later published by novice journalist, E. E. Lewis. A strange rapping sound emanated from the Fox house—a sound that could not be explained by earthly means, no matter how thoroughly Mr. Fox and his neighbors searched for the cause. When questions were asked, first by the Fox daughters and later by neighbors, the raps appeared to provide answers, knocking once or twice for yes and no. By this spiritual telegraph, as it was later called, the entity identified itself as the spirit of a murdered man buried in the cellar of the house.
Attempts to dig up the cellar resulted in ambiguous evidence, but it was enough to convince the residents of Hydesville. Within a few weeks, word had spread that the two Fox girls—Maggie, age 14, and Kate, age 11—had the ability to call spirits back from the afterlife. The girls were mediums through which the dead could pass messages to their loved ones on earth.
Was it a hoax? Forty years later, Maggie Fox confessed that it was and revealed that she and her sister had, at first, created the rapping noises by snapping the joints in their toes and ankles. Later, they employed other tricks—encouraged and coerced by their older sister, Leah Fish, who realized the potential of their little game and whisked the girls away from Hydesville to set them up as spirit mediums in Rochester, New York.
In Rochester, Leah Fish made a profitable business conducting spirit circles at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. What started as an evening’s entertainment became a thriving social movement which advocated the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. Soon, new spirit mediums began to crop up all over the country as the movement became more popular and evolved into a religion.
Meanwhile, Maggie and Kate Fox blossomed into America’s first teenage celebrities. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous brought the girls into the social circle of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and explorer. Young Dr. Kane immediately saw through their pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her avaricious older sister. However, not even Maggie’s defection in the cause of love could halt the momentum of her creation. Political and religious forces had shaped spiritualism into a tool for social reform, a means of feminine expression, and a solace to those who found little comfort in more traditional forms of worship.
What began as an innocent prank would shape the history of America and eventually overshadow the two high-spirited girls who began it.
Here is E. E. Lewis’s original pamphlet about the Hydesville Haunting.
And here is Maggie Fox’s signed confession.