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5.20.10

The Little Foxes

Below please enjoy a guest post about the origins of Spiritualism by Dianne Salerni, author of the novel We Hear the Dead.

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox, lithograph by Currier & Ives. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Check out Dianne’s blog, follow her on twitter and buy her wonderful book!

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4.28.10

Behold the Rhinoceros

Portrait of Black Rhinoceros, Capt. W.C. Harris, “Portraits of Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa,” London: Published for the Proprietor, 1840.

WHEN JENNIE LOVELL looks skeptically at the illustration of a rhinoceros and wonders if there really could be such a beast, she truly would have had no frame of reference for such an animal. In fact, Jennie would be lucky to live in a home that would even carry such a book of original prints, as they were time-consuming to produce and costly to procure.

In the days before wildlife photography, when travel to continents such as Asia and Africa required a bit more planning that booking your e-tickets, artists with a taste for adventure were commissioned by wealthy patrons to embark on expeditions where they would render illustrations of animals never before seen on the European continent.

Expeditions were made up of eclectic teams of explorers and thrill seekers, as well as painters and naturalists whose collective efforts to capture (both literally and in art) the exotic animals as the leopard, ostrich, and hippopotamus could take years. The illustrations would be rendered, then copied as colored plates and finally bound into enormous, rare edition books—often for fewer than one hundred patrons.

rhino title page

Frontispiece, Capt. W.C. Harris, “Portraits of Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa,” London: Published for the Proprietor, 1840.

William Cornwallis Harris (1807-1848) led many expeditions into Africa, and was instrumental in completing a volume of such prints, Portraits of the Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa, which had been originally commissioned nearly thirty-six years before. Here is his rendering of the two-horned rhinoceros. You might notice that the landscape is not indigenous to Africa, but more evocative of Asia, which was considered a more poetic and romantic setting.

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3.15.10

Ghosts in the White House

Carte de visite of "Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln," by William Mumler, 1870-75. ©2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

“Spiritualism, the accompaniment of long and wasting wars, was rampant in the capital in the third winter of conflict. People sat hand in hand around tables in the dark, to hear bells rung and drums thumped and banjos twanged.”

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech

CAN YOU IMAGINE our First Lady of the United States hostessing a White House event that was held specifically for the purpose of communing with spirits? Pretty farfetched, right? But that is exactly what an inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln did after her twelve-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.

Mrs. Lincoln, who had been fascinated by and in contact with Spiritualists during Lincoln’s tenure in Chicago, now used her power as first Lady to enlist the help of several famous mediums, including a young woman named Nettie Colburn, for whom Mrs. Lincoln went so far as to secure a job in the Department of the Interior so that Colburn could relocate permanently to Washington, D.C.

According to Colburn’s autobiography, Was Abraham Lincoln A Spiritualist? Lincoln himself was present at a number of her own séances, and the medium recalled an early meeting with the President where:

“…laying his hand upon my head, [he] uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”

At home and abroad, however, Lincoln was criticized for his purported interest in Spiritualism, mediums, and séances, as it fostered rumors that he was using the occult to attempt to foretell the outcome of political and war-related events.

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