2016-06-30
Excerpted from "Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism" with permission from HarperSan Francisco.

In late March 1848 two young sisters excitedly waylaid a neighbor, eager to tell her about the strange sounds they had been hearing at home nearly every night around bedtime. The noises, the girls confided to Mary Redfield, seemed to have no explanation. Their father had failed to discover the source of the raps and knocks. Their mother was exhausted from worry and lack of sleep.

Ghosts, Mary Redfield thought wryly. As she later told a newspaper reporter, what she really suspected was a childish prank.

She didn't know the girls well. Along with their parents, they had just moved to Hydesville, a quiet community of farms and fields in western New York State, the previous December. Margaretta, nicknamed Maggie but sometimes called Margaret, like her mother, was a pretty, saucy fourteen-year- old. Eleven-year-old Catherine, called Cathie or Kate, was black haired and pale, more delicate in appearance than her sister. The two children were outgoing, polite, and friendly, and they were almost always together.

A few nights later, on March 31 at about 8 P.M., Mary and her husband, Charles, heard a sharp knock-a human one-on their own front door. John Fox, the girls' father, was standing in the snow with a bizarre story to tell. Raps had broken out in his house more loudly than ever, and his wife, Margaret, had determined that they were caused by the spirit of a murdered man whose remains lay buried in the cellar.

Would the Redfields come immediately? Margaret urgently wanted their opinion.

Charles Redfield declined, but Mary agreed to go, teasing John that she would "have a spree with it, if it was a ghost." Humor, however, wasn't one of dour John's strengths. He grimly led Mary to the house, a nondescript frame structure on a neatly fenced plot, and headed straight to the bedroom that he and Margaret shared with the girls. Margaret Fox, a comfortably plump, generally cheery woman, though now highly agitated, met Mary at the door.

Glancing inside the room, which was lit by a single candle, Mary recognized in an instant the seriousness of the situation. Kate and Maggie were huddled on their bed, clinging to each other in terror.

Margaret drew Mary down beside her on the other bed in the room, then began to speak into what must have seemed like thin air.

"Now count five . . . " Margaret Fox commanded. Five knocks followed, seeming to indicate an intelligent presence.

"Count fifteen," Margaret ordered. The invisible noisemaker did so. She asked it to tell Mary Redfield's age, and Mary later remembered with wonder that it "rapped thirty-three times so we all heard it."

"If you are an injured spirit;" Margaret Fox continued, "manifest it by three raps."

Knock, it answered.

Knock.

Knock.

There was no sign that anyone in the room was making the noise.

"By this time," Mary Redfield candidly confessed, "I became much interested..."

She decided that she wanted her husband, Charles, to size up the situation for himself, but before leaving the Fox household she paused for a moment to comfort Kate and Maggie. She tried to reassure them that if indeed a spirit was present, it had no intention of hurting them.

One of the girls-like most people, Mary had a habit of referring to the sisters as if they were interchangeable-answered with emotion: "We are innocent-how good it is to have a clear conscience."

Forty years later, on an autumn night in 1888, a bespectacled Maggie Fox, wearing a red flowered hat and black dress, stepped onto the stage of New York City's Academy of music to a cacophony of hisses, cheers, and boos. Standing in front of the packed house, she glanced nervously down at her prepared speech and started to speak in an excited voice. She was about to make a stunning-and to some members of her raucous audience devastating- pronouncement.


In the four decades since the first raps at Hydesville, she and Kate had become world famous. When the eerie sounds continued, word had spread that spirits made them and that the girls were talking to the dead. Soon Kate and Maggie were delivering otherworldly messages to friends, then strangers, then large public audiences. Debates about the authenticity of spirit communications had riveted the nation.

Before long, other mortals discovered that they too could serve as intermediaries between this world and the next. By the mid-1850s tens of thousands of Americans-the curious, the skeptical, and the converted alike- were flocking to seances to contact the departed. A journalist had called the movement Modern Spiritualism, and it swiftly had acquired an international following.

It was Modern Spiritualism, the fervor of which she had helped to create, that Maggie now, trembling visibly in the footlights glow, set out to destroy: she had come to announce to the overflow crowd at the Academy of Music that the spirits of the dead never return to communicate with the living. The raps that had sent Mary Redfield hastening to find her husband on that long-ago night in 1848 had been a fake, as had so many other alleged spirit manifestations through the years.

Front-page headlines shouted news of Maggie's confession: she had dealt a death blow, reporters wrote, to Spiritualism.

But the headlines, as it turns out, were premature. The Fox sister story wasn't over, nor had the Spiritualist movement been destroyed. A year later Maggie recanted her confession of fraud. Asserting that she had been under the sway of the movement's enemies and overwhelmed by financial pressures when she falsely confessed, she adamantly reaffirmed her faith in the spirits. And Modern Spiritualism, a religion and social force that has dramatically influenced our ideas about immortality, remains very much alive today.

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