2016-06-30
In 1848 Kate and Maggie Fox, ages 11 and 14, claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a man murdered in their Hydesville, N.Y. home. Within a few years the girls began organizing performances and charging admission, and quickly achieved celebrity status. Although they admitted later in life that their séances were a hoax (and then recanted this statement as well), the Fox sisters are considered the founders of Spiritualism, an international movement whose followers believe the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. We explore the story of Kate and Maggie with former documentary filmmaker and TV producer Barbara Weisberg, author of "Talking to the Dead."

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.

How did social, religious, economic, and political forces contribute to the growth of Spiritualism?

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.

At the same time, it was an extraordinary period of scientific and technological change. Railroads were new and the telegraph had just been invented. These created the idea that anything was possible-particularly the telegraph, which Spiritualists took as kind of a metaphor for otherworldly communication. The idea was, if there can be instantaneous communication between distant points, why couldn't there be spirit communication? So it was a sense that if technology was so miraculous, well everything could be miraculous.

Is there a difference between being a psychic and being a Spiritualist? Was it possible that the girls were psychic?

My understanding is that [psychic] really refers more to the extraordinary powers of the human mind-the ability telepathically to read somebody else's mind. Spiritualism refers very specifically to communication with spirits. A lot of people thought that if anything [supernatural] was operating there, it might have been some telepathic ability. So a lot of people thought that indeed, if they weren't frauds, the girls might have been psychics as opposed to mediums.

While it's very difficult from the standpoint of 150 years to judge what the specific abilities of these girls might have been, I think it is possible to regard them as absolutely extraordinary-whether, as some people say, they were innately talented, marvelous magicians or psychic, telepathic, remarkably intuitive, or indeed mediums in touch with otherworldly forces.

Some people accused the girls of doing "the devil's work," which strongly echoes the Salem Witch Trials-except this time, people weren't out to burn the girls at the stake. Why not?

I think to some degree they were protected in their time in the 19th century by the fact that they were young and attractive women. In Puritan New England, their being young women might have seemed more threatening than it seemed in what was called the Enlightened 19th Century. In mid-19th century America, people were looking at themselves as enlightened, scientific individuals. There was certain pride in not being people who would engage in a witch hunt.

Would you say that Kate and Maggie were feminists?

They certainly were befriended by some of the great feminists of the time, notably a Quaker named Amy Post who was really one of the great leaders of the women's rights movement and also very active in the abolitionist movement. I don't think they consciously defined themselves as fighters for women's rights, but certainly their behavior broke all sorts of barriers. If they saw themselves acting on behalf of a cause, it would have been the cause of the spirits.

Why do people think spirits come back?

More traditionally it would have been that they were demons, but spirits I think in the 19th century were conceived of under Spiritualism as coming back really to help their mortal friends, to be close to them, to be in contact with them. Many of the same reasons I think that mortals long to be in touch with spirits.

What about coming back to finish unsolved business? To help solve the spirit's murder, for example.

That implies that a spirit's return is an unusual thing to happen. Whereas in Spiritualism, the spirit's return is conceived of as part of the ordinary fabric of life and the universe. The spirits are always around us, they can return at any time, we can be in touch with them at any time and they are there to help us, love us, console us. Not necessarily for unusual business like predicting the future or that kind of thing.


Of all the research you've done on the girls, what have you found to be the most interesting or surprising about them?

I think that they continued for so much of their lives to hold séances, even in the face of a great deal of public scorn. To do so required a great deal of courage, even though it may have been quite lucrative. They were really bold and I like that very much about them.

If you could go back in time and ask the girls a question what would it be?

Well I guess the question that remains an essential mystery-"Were you faking, and if you were faking how did you succeed so splendidly for so many years?" Because they did. "And, if you weren't faking, tell me what it felt like when you first realized you were in touch with spirits?"

What do you think that the girls would say about Spiritualism today?

I think they would be pleased and thrilled to know that so many Americans, whether formally affiliated with Spiritualism or simply interested in spirit communication, are interested in this phenomenon or believe in it, and that, in fact, even if their names may not be known, that they had a very lasting influence on the culture. I think they'd be thrilled to death.

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