THE FOX SISTERS Rise & Fall of Spiritualism's Founders
Taken from Prairie Ghosts to share the story of where spiritualism began. Thank you so much to Prairie Ghosts for an outstanding article.
Shortly after the “coming of the spirits” to the Fox household, the story of the family took a more dramatic turn. The two daughters, Maggie and Kate, were both purported to have mediumistic powers and the news of the unearthly communications with the spirit quickly spread. By November 1849, they were both giving public performances of their skills and the Spiritualist movement was born. The mania to communicate with the dead swept the country and the Fox sisters became famous.
After their initial rise to stardom in public and Spiritualist circles, the sisters continued to appear in a variety of venues. They were now joined by their older sister Leah, who had been abandoned by her husband and was living in poverty before her sisters discovered their talent for communicating with the spirits. The publicity around them was intense. Some newspapers and public venues hailed them as frauds and others as sensations. Regardless, people flocked to see them in massive numbers, all of them gladly paying for the privilege.
With Leah as their manager, Margaret and Kate toured other cities, becoming hugely popular. Their séances became more elaborate, with objects moving about, spirits appearing and tables levitating.
Suddenly, others began to discover their own mystical powers and mediums and séances became all the rage. The sisters were embraced by such celebrities as P.T. Barnum, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who provided quarters for the girls at his mansion. Greeley was grieving over the death of his son at the time of his investigations of the sisters and so the possibility that the dead might be still accessible to the living was of great interest to him. Greeley even offered to pay for the girl’s education and while Leah accepted his offer for Kate, she refused to allow Maggie (the more talented of the two mediums) to leave what had become the family business.
The Fox sisters were routinely exposed by skeptics as fakes and it was claimed they produced their phenomena in a variety of ways ranging from toe, knee and ankle cracking to ventriloquism to assorted mechanical devices. Despite this, no trickery was ever discovered. A number of committees and forums were created to test the powers of the sisters. Most involved posing questions to the spirits and while the replies were often inconsistent, they were accurate enough to make an impression. One test involved the girls being bound tightly about the ankles so that they could not move their feet. Even trussed up, they still managed to produce eerie rapping sounds. A committee of women also checked the girl’s undergarments to insure that nothing was hidden there to produce the sounds. They found nothing and despite the hostility shown to the sisters by the committees, most were forced to admit that they were able to detect no fraud.
In spite of this, many of the accounts of their activities have been questionable at best. Leah was often accused of trying to glean personal information from the sitters at the Fox sisters’ séances that would help the “spirits” to give out correct answers. They also excelled at calling in the spirits of the famous dead. The results of this were not always impressive. When one sitter noted that Benjamin Franklin’s spirit seemed to be surprisingly lacking in good grammar, Maggie Fox stomped away from the séance table with only the reply of “You know I never understood grammar!” As dubious as the séances may have been though, they convinced many that the girls were genuine and business boomed.
Maggie eventually abandoned mediumship for love. In Philadelphia, she met and fell in love with famed Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, the dashing son of an aristocratic family, who did not deem Maggie worthy of marrying into their line. They did exchange vows and rings in the company of friends but were never legally wed. Unfortunately, the affair ended in tragedy when Kane died in 1857. Maggie was left broken-hearted and almost penniless. She had abandoned being a medium but now had to take it up again. She began drinking and her health and her mental state began to decline.
Kate had fared slightly better than her sister, but soon she too was paying the price for her fame. She also began drinking, which often wreaked havoc on her performances. Although she was still having trouble controlling her alcoholism, she traveled to England in 1871 and remained sober long enough to perform for a number of British Spiritualists. She remained in England and the following year, married Henry Jencken, a barrister, with whom she had two sons. The first, Ferdinand, was born in 1873 and was reportedly a medium by the time he was three years old. It was said that spirits took over his body and caused an “unearthly glow” to emanate from his eyes.
By 1885, Spiritualism was on the decline and investigations of fraud began to increase. This year brought tragedy to both of the Fox sisters. Maggie was called before a commission in New York to prove her skills, a test that she failed miserably, and Kate saw the death of her husband from a stroke. She returned to New York and here, in early 1888, she was arrested for drunkenness and idleness and welfare workers took custody of her sons. Maggie, who had remained close with Kate, was unable to get the boys herself but she did manage to get them into the custody of an uncle in England.
In 1888, Maggie made the infamous appearance when she denounced Spiritualism as a total sham. The years of alcohol abuse, loneliness and grief had taken their toll on her and she weighed the idea of committing suicide before finally choosing confession instead. She booked the stage at the New York Academy of Music and walked out on stage to announce she and Kate had created the strange rappings heard in their Hydesville home by simply cracking their toes. She also stated that Leah had forced them into performing as mediums for the public. “I have seen so much miserable deception,” she reportedly said. “That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description.” Sitting in a box overlooking the stage, Kate silently affirmed her sister’s confession.
While the critics laughed and cried “I told you so”, devoted Spiritualists denounced Margaret’s confession as the ravings of a sad and tired drunk. Kate, who did not speak at the public appearance, later stated that she did not agree with her sister and she continued to perform as a medium. In 1891, Margaret would recant her confession. Many have said that the confession was a sham itself. They maintain that Maggie and Kate only renounced the movement to spite their sister Leah, who they had grown to hate. Leah had since married a wealthy and respectable businessman and using the fortune that had been gained for her by her sisters, she had long ago turned her back on Maggie and Kate, who she considered an embarrassment.
Kate later drank herself to death in July 1892 at the age of only 56. Her body was discovered by one of her sons. Margaret died in March 1893, at age 59, in a friend’s home in Brooklyn. At the time of her death, she was penniless.