- 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
That night about a dozen neighbors crowded into the cottage. Most came prepared to discover a hoax but instead found themselves utterly baffled. No one could identify the source of the raps, and the invisible presence accurately answered everything from the number of children in different families to the ages of each child in the neighborhood. Who but an incarnate spirit could know so much?
By asking yes-or-no and numerical questions, the inquisitors coached the alleged spirit into revealing its grim story: It had been a peddler, brutally murdered in the Fox cottage about five years before.
Over the next few weeks hundreds of curiosity seekers swamped the cottage, many to witness the miracle, others to excoriate the family for fraud or blasphemy. Once humble knocks, the noises grew louder, more insistent, and even evidenced a talent for onomatopoeia, mimicking “the death struggle, the gurgling of the throat” of a man whose throat was cut.
Slowly attention began to focus on Maggie and Cathie. Had anyone noticed, people wondered, that the noises almost always occurred in their presence? Could the mischievous girls deliberately be making the sounds? Or were the children the unlikely means through which the spirits communicated, the mediums for a higher power?
In May another formidable new power appeared in Hydesville, this one pulsating with visible rather than spiritual energy: the children’s oldest sister, Ann Leah Fox Fish. A shrewd woman who had married at fifteen and later been abandoned, Leah lived in Rochester, thirty miles from Hydesville, where she supported herself and her daughter, Lizzie, by teaching piano. Leah wasted no time in sweeping Cathie, Maggie, and Margaret back home with her to Rochester.
Had Leah sized up a lucrative situation, one that would lead her to exploit her younger sisters? Or had she made a decision that the sensitive girls needed her guidance and protection? Maggie wavered in her view, presenting Leah sometimes as a kindhearted matron, at other times as a greedy manipulator. Whatever her motives, Leah soon became the impresario of séances.
In Rochester the invisibles grew rowdy and more physical, particularly around such skeptics as Calvin R. Brown, Leah s soon-to-be second husband. Like rambunctious adolescents, they hurled carpet-rags at him and played tug of war, snatching his sheets at night.
Word of the spirits quickly spread, attracting the attention of a strikingly well-educated and respectable constituency. Over the next few years the group would swell to include such prominent figures as congressmen and judges, editors and ministers. Many turned to spiritualism with hopeful hearts after mourning the death of a child or spouse. In a century when mortality figures ran high, grief spurred the search for spirit communication.
Other factors fueled the movement’s swift rise. The ideas of the eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and his nineteenth-century disciple Andrew Jackson Davis helped prepare the way, as did popular interest in mesmerism. In addition, spiritualism was ignited in the so-called Burned Over district of western New York, a region that had been swept time and again by fiery religious and political enthusiasms. The first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, only a few miles from Hydesville, in 1848. Spiritualists, who tended to be restless seekers and religious rebels, not only supported reforms such as abolition and woman suffrage but also found congenial converts among reformers.
Ironically, the scientific wonders and optimism of the age bolstered rather than weakened spiritualism. The recently invented telegraph became the movement’s central metaphor: If earthly messages could be instantaneously conveyed by electricity, why couldn’t spirit messages be delivered via a “spiritual telegraph"? Spiritualists came to see themselves as engaged in a scientific endeavor, using empirical methods to prove the “truth of immortality.”
In November 1849, less than two years after the first raps at Hydesville, the Fox sisters faced their first great test. At the urging of the spirits, Leah announced, the sisters had decided to go public.
While Cathie was away visiting friends, Leah and Maggie rented Corinthian Hall, the largest auditorium in Rochester. For the first time, they charged admission—a quarter—to those who wished to witness the raps. With the support of friends like Eliab Capron, an early historian of the movement, they appeared onstage four evenings in a row before hundreds of people. Each night Capron lectured on the manifestations, his speech punctuated by raps that, though muffled, could be heard throughout the auditorium.
For three days Maggie and Leah submitted to “investigations” by different committees chosen from the previous night’s audience, and it seems the sisters were literally manhandled. The investigators held their feet, placed the young women in different positions, made them stand on glass plates with their skirts tied tightly around their ankles, even listened to their lungs with a stethoscope. The female contingent of the audience played its own vital role. As Capron wrote, “a committee of ladies … took the young women into a room, disrobed them, and examined their persons and clothing… .” Maggie and Leah apparently cried with shame, but they emerged undisgraced. Throughout the proceedings, according to committee members, raps resounded on floors, doors, and walls.