Why did you decide to write the book on the Fox sisters?
It was actually kind of love at first sight. I read about them in a book review in the New York Times ("Madam Blavatsky's Baboon" by Peter Washington). I just became quite fascinated with them. My husband is a novelist and he had been writing a book called "An Impossible Life," where the protagonist was in contact with the ghosts of his family. So when I read about the Fox sisters, it was like, here was the real thing-real young girls who were talking to spirits the way my husband's fictional character had been talking to his spirits. So I was very eager to find out more about the Fox sisters' story.
Have you always been interested in Spiritualism?
I don't think I have always been interested in Spiritualism per se, although I think, like many people, I've always wondered what happens to you after you die. When I was a child there was some illness in my own family and I can remember wondering what would happen to them if they became sick or passed away and what that loss would feel like to me. So there was that kind of emotional resonance.
Can you briefly explain what the process was by which the girls communicated with the spirits?
One of the ways that the spirits were said to be in touch through the girls was almost as if the girls were transmitters for the spirit messages. The messages would be in the form of a rap, strange noises. Originally, some of the raps were short and some were like vibrations. So people would ask questions and these raps would either answer by rapping a yes, or they would be silent. For example if I were to say, "Do I have six children?" there would be no rap if that was untrue and there would be a rap for yes. Or, if there was a specific question like "What is my age?" there might be 35 or 40 raps to indicate that.
So were people limited to yes or no questions?
Initially yes, but they developed an alphabetical code so that they might ask a more complicated question. Then they would ask the raps, as it were, to spell the answer and there would be a certain amount of raps for each letter in the alphabet. So it became actually a kind of coded message that got spelled out.
Also, there were other kinds of manifestations-less about messages. These would be things like table levitations or chairs flying across the room or sometimes even more mischievous manifestations like hair pulling or kicking-things that demonstrated the presence of the spirits. And music was very important pretty early on. There would be bells that were rung-invisible ones.
In the 1830s it seemed as if people feared death less than we do today. In the book you mention the word "cemetery" came from words meaning "sleeping place," which is a very calming thought. How would you explain their comfort level with death?
I think there was a greater comfort with death early in the 19th century and in part, that was because people were still to some degree rooted in communities where church and family members were important and helped sustain the individual in sad times facing death. Also, Christian faith was very sustaining and there wasn't as much conflict in belief as arose later in the century.
By the 1830s what you were beginning to see was more discomfort with death for a variety of reasons. The traditional concepts were beginning to be undermined, to some degree by science, so that pillars of faith, if not crumbling, were weakened. In addition, people were much more on the move. They didn't have quite as strong a support in the local community or in their local churches. And so they began to, I think, feel more concerned about death. To think about a sleeping place was, to some degree, the beginning of an attempt to deny death and to soften the idea of death which was becoming ever more frightening.
In the United States you had a number of reform movements arising that fiercely questioned some of the laws and attitudes of the time. You had abolition, you had the beginning of the women's rights movement. And as people began to really question state and federal laws and how people were living their lives and the attitudes toward women and slavery, they also became more open to questioning mainstream religious thinking, and to be more open to non-conventional approaches.