- 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
On the fourth and last evening, a mob of angry disbelievers thronged the auditorium. Maggie and Leah had to be escorted out under police protection. But the ordeal proved to be worth it, for Corinthian Hall was a milestone. The various committees unanimously acquitted Maggie and Leah of any fraud. The sisters—or the spirits—had triumphed.
The Fox sisters moved on to New York City, where they conducted séances for some of the most prominent residents and visitors. One famous gathering included Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, George Ripley, George Bancroft, and James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper is said to have found the Fox sisters so impressive that he blessed them on his deathbed for having prepared him “for this hour.”
By the early 1850s, according to Capron’s estimates, the number of practicing mediums in the city of Auburn, New York, had climbed close to one hundred, and the number of believers in New York City alone had reached the tens of thousands. Manifestations had burgeoned into full-scale spectacles: Phosphorescent clouds glimmered; mahogany tables tilted and levitated; invisibles played heavenly music on bells or guitars; raps beat out the rhythms of popular tunes (“Hail Columbia” was a favorite).
Automatic and mirror writing, otherworldly messages that a medium transcribed while in a trance, resulted in lengthy works, said to have been dictated by spirits. Such famous figures as Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, and John C. Calhoun offered words of wisdom or consolation, sometimes in writing and sometimes by raps. Occasionally a spirit’s views diverged from the ones documented during his or her lifetime. Calhoun’s spirit improbably favored abolition, a ghostly switch in keeping with the political views of many spiritualists.
As spiritualism grew more popular, its opponents grew more vociferous. One jeremiad warned: “Phenomena of the Spiritual Rappings, &C: A Revival of the Ancient Practice of Necromancy, Demonology, Witchcraft, &c: Many critics accused the girls of conjuring and ventriloquism, a not unreasonable suspicion since books on parlor magic with names such as The Whole Art of Conjuring Made Easy for Young Persons were becoming more widespread. Several debunkers determined that the sisters had to be making the raps by cracking their toes, a theory given the unlovely name of Toe-ology. The most damaging testimony, however, came from Buffalo, where a trio of doctors announced: ”… an instance has fallen under our observation, which demonstrates the fact, that noises precisely identified with the spiritual rappings may be produced in the knee joint .”
IN A PATTERN FAMILIAR TO POETS AND THERAPISTS, KANE DELIGHTED IN THE CHASE, WITHDRAWING WHENEVER MAGGIE YIELDED AND APPROACHED.
The Fox sisters—by now Leah had declared herself a medium—agreed to be tested by these doctors in 1851. The Buffalo team called the verdict conclusive: No raps occurred when the sisters’ knees were held or otherwise restricted. The mediums retorted that the atmosphere had been too hostile for the spirits to venture forth. The public either doubted the doctors or didn’t care much for their conclusions. The Fox sisters’ celebrity continued to grow.
In the autumn of 1852 a famous man strolled into the Philadelphia hotel where Maggie was holding a séance. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a renowned Arctic explorer and the pride of his upper-class Philadelphia family, declared himself instantly smitten by Maggie’s charm. The story of their courtship is told in a small volume of letters published by Maggie in 1865. While some letters have been omitted or edited, much of the collection appears to be genuine.
The portrait of Maggie—as painted by Kane’s admittedly subjective brush—presents a dazzlingly alive young woman who at first showed little interest in her new suitor. Sometimes he teased her for her apparent indifference, and later chided her for her lack of feeling: “I saw that you loved me, but not enough. Dear child, it was not in your nature.” His letters overflowed with sexual desire: “Is it any wonder that I long to look—only to look—at that dear little deceitful mouth of yours, to feel your hair tumbling over my cheeks?”
Simultaneously he yearned to be Pygmalion and to transform her into a more proper prospect. The world of the medium, with its erotic atmosphere of darkened rooms and mysterious caresses, may have made Maggie seem even more alluring, but it was hardly suitable for a potential mate. Worse, Kane believed the raps to be a fraud. “Oh, how much I wish that you could quit this life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.”
In a pattern familiar to poets and therapists, he seemed to delight in the chase, withdrawing whenever Maggie yielded and approached. ”… I have done wrong by you,” he admitted at one point, ”… not because I did not honestly open your eyes to the difference of our positions; but wrong because I still stayed near you, teaching you to love me… . But now that the deed is done and that you have given me … your heart, I owe you an atonement… . I will be a brother to you.”