- Historic Sites
The Medium Had The Message:
Mrs. Piper and the Professors
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
The phantom obligingly co-ordinated its rappings with the child’s movements, and counted her silent motions by knocks. She summoned her mother, crying, “Look! It can see as well as hear!” Mrs. Fox, with great presence of mind, asked the invisible rapper if it knew the ages of her children, and a reply came promptly: fifteen raps for Margaretta, twelve for Katie.
The Fox family slept little that night. The neighbors were invited in to take part in a fascinating investigation, and very quickly a communication system was established: rapping for yes, silence for no. This method soon evolved into an alphabet system, and it was ascertained that the mysterious presence was the ghost of a peddler named Charles Rosna, who, for the sake of his meager possessions, had been murdered on the premises by a previous tenant.
Later on, when the Foxes dug up the cellar, they disinterred such grirn relics as hair, teeth, and bones. No proper examination of these objects was made, and there was no real evidence that a murder had taken place. This did not matter. Spiritualism was exactly what the world craved at the moment, and the raps heard in Hydesville were soon reproduced in a do/cn countries.
The local impact was tremendous. Mrs. Fox and her daughters became instant celebrities. Soon afterward young Margaretta went to visit her married sister. Mrs. Ann Leah Fish, in Roehcster. and apparently the ghost followed her, lor rappings immediately began in the home of Mrs. Fish, attracting so much attention that the crossroads village of Hydesville was robbed of its rightful place in history. The birth of modern spiritualism is attributed to the “Rochester Rappings,’ not to the Hydesville ghost.
Meanwhile, Katie Fox visited Auburn, New York, and there, too. the spirits were promptly aroused. Counting oil” the alphabet in response to spectral signals became a craze in the town.
Mrs. Fox, Katie, and Margaretta turned professional on the spot. So did Mrs. Fish, who claimed mediumship by heredity and demonstration. In fact, Mrs. F’ish, who was the last ol the Fox sisters to enter upon this career, was also the last to leave it. She maintained a profitable circle after the rest of the family had retired, and her successive marriages to a Mr. Brown and then a Mr. Underbill did not conflict with her career.
Although the F’ox women had broken the ground, they were not left alone in the field. Two ladies who heard the Auburn tappings went into the seance business, and many mediums, both male and female, announced themselves in Rochester. Spiritualism reached epidemic proportions. Within three years after the Hydesville sensation there were more than a hundred mediums in New York City and more than fifty séance groups assembling regularly in Philadelphia.
The Fox sisters were venerated, and, despite still competition, they reaped the most in honor and profit, even though their first exposure as fakes came as early as 1851 at the hands of three doctors who observed public séances in Buffalo. The doctors denounced the rappings as fraud executed by cracking the kneejoints. and not long afterward the girls themselves admitted this was so. Furthermore, they explained something the investigators had overlooked. Margaretta and Katie had also developed the art of “toe cracking.” The girls were self-confessed tricksters, and, worse, they were instructors of fakery who gladly taught their young friends the skills of charlatanism.
One might forgive the girls’ duplicity and wish them nothing worse than a sound spanking, had they stuck to such romantic and harmless adventures as communicating with the ghost of a murdered peddler. But they were not merely self-dramatizing juveniles. The Fox sisters were greedy little creatures, utterly heartless and amoral, who sought profit by giving false consolation to the bereaved. They capitalized on the grief of widows and mothers who had lost their children. They were the first American mediums-of-prey; unfortunately they were not the last.
The complete exposure of the Fox sisters had little effect on the growing spiritualist movement. Unlike some other religions, spiritualism was not dependent on a single miracle or prophet. The Hydesville ghost was merely the match that lit the wildfire. In the disruption of established social patterns caused by the Industrial Revolution, unformed beliefs and impulses toward spiritualism had been smoldering for a long time.
Spiritualism offered the appealing promise of direct communication with departed loved ones—its most powerful attraction—but this alone did not account for its instant popularity and spread across the world. In its early days it was also decked with the trappings of mesmerism and electricity, two fascinating “scientific” phenomena about which little was known. Electricity appeared to have infinite potentialities; mesmerism suggested unknown corridors of the mind; combined in an “Electrical Mesmeric Trance,” they were irresistible.