Spiritualism as a social movement apparently began in the small New York town of Hydesville in March of 1848, where several months earlier, the Fox family had taken over an old farmhouse about which the previous tenants had complained of strange noises. The Foxes themselves soon noticed unusual rapping sounds that occurred in the night frightening the two younger daughters, Margaret and Kate, who then insisted on sleeping with their parents. On the fateful evening of March 31, the youngest daughter Kate playfully challenged the raps to repeat the snapping of her fingers. Her challenge was answered. Within hours many of the neighbors were brought over to the house to witness the uncanny demonstration.
One of the neighbors, Deusler, suggested naming the letters of the alphabet and having the spirit rap when they reached certain letters in order to spell out letters and sentences. In this way the spirit revealed himself to have been a travelling peddler who was murdered in the house by a previous owner and buried in the cellar. Digging commenced, however a high water level prevented any immediate discoveries.
Meanwhile, hundreds of neighbors continued visiting the Fox house, day and night, listening to the spirit’s rapping. They also formed an investigation committee to take testimony. The case was even studied by the Honorable Robert Dale Owen, a member of the U. S. Congress, and a founder of the Smithsonian Institute. In the summer of 1848, more digging unearthed human teeth, some fragments of bone and some human hair.
While the testimony is ambiguous, some neighbors reported that the raps continued in the Fox house even when family members were not present. However, it became apparent that this form of mediumship centered on the Fox sisters, though it soon spread to many other people as well.
Fifty-six years later in 1904, the gradual disintegration of one of the cellar walls of the Fox house exposed to view an entire human skeleton.
Other mediums, using the alphabet method, also claimed to be in contact with the spirits of the deceased. Their messages were generally not reliable however. It seems that for every apparently genuine medium there were many deluded or phony imitators.
During November 1849, the Spiritualists held their first public meeting in the largest hall available in Rochester, N.Y. Three different citizen’s committees in Rochester were invited to investigate the Fox sisters. All three made favorable reports indicating that the sounds heard were not produced by ventriloquism or machinery. The public was outraged at these reports. A riot resulted and the girls had to be smuggled away from an angry crowd.
The Fox sisters made a career of their mediumship. They toured the country under the auspices of the showman, P. T. Barnum. While receiving the sympathetic attention of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who later became a candidate for the U.S. presidency, the sisters remained a center of controversy. In 1871, Charles F. Livermore, a prominent New York banker, sent Kate Fox to England in gratitude for the consolation he had received through her powers. At that time she was examined by the physicist Sir William Crookes, who later received the Nobel prize for his discovery of thalium:
For several months I have enjoyed the almost unlimited opportunity of testing the various phenomena occurring in the presence of this lady, and I especially examined the phenomena of these sounds. With mediums, generally, it is necessary to sit for a formal seance before anything is heard; but in the case of Miss Fox it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree — on a sheet of glass — on a stretched iron wire — on a stretched membrane — a tambourine — on the roof of a cab — and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium’s hands and feet were held when she was standing on a chair when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling — when she was enclosed in a wire cage — and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass hermonicon — I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started, chiefly in America, to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means.
Crookes also recorded an experience of direct writing with Ms. Fox:
A luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room, and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose up over our heads, gradually fading into darkness.
The main argument used by skeptics to discredit the Fox sisters was that they created the rapping sounds themselves by cracking the bones in their toes and knuckles. This hypothesis, however, does not seem sufficient to explain the different kinds of sounds that appeared, their loudness, the fact that they often occurred in arpeggios and cadenzas, and the fact that they seemed to emanate from different places;
Nevertheless, in 1888, Margaret Fox made a public statement denouncing the spiritualists, claiming that she had made the noises by cracking her toes. At the behest of her sister Leah, Kate Fox’s children were taken from her by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and placed in foster care. This act led to a great deal of bitterness and anger against Leah by both Margaretta and Kate. Feeling exploited and betrayed by their sister Leah, who had collected and spent the great majority of the money paid to them.
On October 21, 1888, Margaret appeared before an audience of 2000 to demonstrate how she had fraudulently produced the spirit raps. In her stocking feet, on a small pine platform six inches above the floor, Margaret produced raps audible throughout the theater by cracking her toe-joints! Doctors from the audience came on stage to verify the source of the sound.
Margaret confessed that she and her sister used this and other methods to produce the raps. Sometimes they used an apple on a string, bouncing it on the floor out of sight behind the furniture. Her confession showed that the entire spiritualism movement was founded on fraudulent events. Kate, who was with her at the time remained silent, as if in agreement.
The following year, however, Margaret recanted, saying she had fallen under the influence of people who were inimical to spiritualism and who had offered her money. Both sisters were alcoholics at this time. At no time in their careers were they actually detected in a fraudulent act. Margaret’s revelations outraged Spiritualists. They simply refused to accept the validity of her confession. Henry J. Newton, president of The First Spiritual Society of New York said:
The idea of claiming that unseen “rappings” can be produced with joints of the feet! If she says this, even with regard to her own manifestations, she lies! I and many other men of truth and position have witnessed the manifestations of herself and her sisters many times under circumstances in which it was absolutely impossible for there to have been the least fraud.
In a signed story which appeared in The New York World, Oct. 21, 1888, Margaret wrote:
Spiritualism is a fraud and a deception. It is a branch of legerdemain, but it has to be closely studied to gain perfection.
Margaretta recanted her confession in writing shortly before she died in 1895. Kate never recanted, and died shortly afterwards. Both sisters were buried in pauper’s grave.