- Historic Sites
They Spoke With The Dead
A century and a half ago two young girls started hearing noises they said came from beyond the grave—and embarked on a lifetime career that began a national obsession with spiritualism that has lasted to this day
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
“I looked down at my foot,” Joseph Merrill said, “and saw a white substance the size of a golf ball. As I watched, that golf ball expanded and took features: arms and a head. It was a woman. She passed through me and through my friend Harry. She turned and put her arm around Harry’s shoulder and kissed him on the forehead. Then she passed through the wall.”
Merrill, a dignified nonagenarian, was describing one of the seminal experiences that had confirmed his choice of religious faith. A president emeritus of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, he had served its cause for more than fifty years. He was a revered elder statesman at the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern spiritualism, an event that was held in March 1998 in the western New York village of Newark.
Despite spiritualism’s colorful reputation, the one hundred or more people who attended the anniversary might comfortably have fitted in at any mainstream church social. Gray-suited executives, jeans-clad professors, soft-spoken therapists, and computer programmers all listened as Merrill spoke, and most found in his report tangible proof of immortality. Spiritualists believe that death is only a transition, a shedding of the body, and that spirits not only survive beyond the grave but communicate from the other side. Mediums, men and women who receive and transmit spirit messages, can help the rest of us, less finely attuned mortals, establish contact at séances.
Spiritualists claim an ancient lineage, but the sounds that heralded the advent of the modern movement began in the modest household of John Fox and his wife, Margaret. In 1847 they and their two youngest daughters moved to the hamlet of Hydesville, New York, a farming community only a few miles from Newark.
Described by their Hydesville neighbors as “sober, respectable Methodists,” John and Margaret Fox had a few metaphoric ghosts lurking in their family closet. John had a history of alcoholism; he and Margaret had separated, leaving their first four children—Ann Leah, Maria, Elizabeth, and David—to grow up virtually fatherless for many years. When John finally returned, a reformed drinker and a responsible blacksmith, Margaret gave birth to their second, much younger brood: Margaretta—called Maggie- in 1833 and Catharine—called Cathie as a child and, later, Kate or Katie—in 1837. One of Margaret and John’s children died in infancy, another ghost.
While their own house was under construction—near that of David, their now adult son—John and Margaret rented a small frame cottage on Hydesville Road for themselves and the two girls. There was a drawback: The cottage reputedly was haunted. More ghosts. Since Margaret was superstitious, such stories undoubtedly distressed her.
In the last two weeks of March 1848, the Fox family started to hear eerie knocks at night: thumps on the ceiling, bumps on doors or walls, sometimes raps sharp enough to jar bedsteads and tables. John scoured the house but found nothing unusual. Maggie, a vivacious girl of about fourteen, and Cathie, a more soulful child around eleven, seemed mildly amused by the noises. Not Margaret.
NEIGHBORS CROWDED INTO THE COTTAGE PREPARED TO DISCOVER HOAX. INSTEAD, THEY FOUND THEMSELVES UTTERLY BAFFLED.
On Friday, March 31, Margaret insisted the family go to bed early—before dark. With unwitting narcissism, she complained, ”… we had been broken so much of our rest that I was almost sick.” She ordered the children to “lie still” and to ignore any sounds. Perhaps not surprisingly, an unholy racket of raps greeted Margaret’s admonition.
The children at first reacted with pleasure and excitement. Cathie snapped her fingers. “Do as I do,” she challenged the invisible noisemaker. It obliged by imitating her.
Then Maggie chimed in, clapping her hands: “Count one, two, three, four.” Four raps followed.
“Oh, Mother, I know what it is,” Cathie exclaimed, according to some accounts. “Tomorrow is April Fool Day and someone is trying to fool us.” A little girl’s attempt at a confession? If so, it bypassed the superstitious Margaret Fox entirely. She decided to put the eerie knocks to a test.
”… I spoke and said to the noise, ‘Count ten,’ and it made ten strokes or noises,” Margaret later said in a published statement. “Then I asked the ages of my different children successively, and it gave a number of raps, corresponding to the ages of my children.”
Convinced that she was in the presence of an intelligent power, Margaret continued: “I then asked if it was a human being that was making the noise?”
“I then asked if it was a spirit? and if it was, to manifest it by two sounds.” Knock, knock.
“I then asked if it was an injured spirit? … if it was injured in this house? … If the person was living that injured it? … I then ascertained, by the same method, that its remains were buried under the dwelling …” Modern spiritualism had been born.