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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
In 1853 Kane left on a two-year voyage to the Arctic regions in search of the missing British explorer John Franklin. Before he sailed, Maggie agreed to give up spirit rapping and live in the Pennsylvania countryside under the supervision of his relatives, who would also provide her with an education. Separated from both Kane and her family, she was desolate until he returned, having failed to find Franklin.
The reunion was not a warm one; Kane asked Maggie to sign a document disclaiming their romance. Heartbroken but dignified, she did so; Kane, ever ambivalent, relented and tore the paper up. They resumed their old relationship.
Still weak from his ordeals in the far north, Kane set sail again in the autumn of 1856, this time to England to meet with Franklin’s widow. On his return voyage, too ill to continue, he disembarked in Havana. “I am not happy when you are away,” Maggie wrote. Knowing that he worried about her letters falling into his family’s hands, she added: “Could I only see you I would say much that I cannot write.” She never had the chance. In February 1857 Kane died in Cuba. His death devastated Maggie.
To the end of her life, she swore that Kane, before leaving, had married her in a private ceremony and that he had left her a modest inheritance. Although they pressed to regain possession of Kane’s letters, in public his family denied it all: that Kane had ever felt anything for her beyond fraternal affection, that a marriage had ever taken place, that he owed her anything. In a sad and candid letter, now among Kane’s papers in the American Philosophical Society, Maggie admitted her feelings to his brother: “The private marriage you can think of as you please … to me a private marriage is as disgraceful as to stand in another light—but our honorable engagement you can never deny, at least to me.” For a time the family paid her a small annuity; then, amid mutual recriminations, even that stopped.
The year 1858 marked the tenth anniversary of the birth of modern spiritualism. That same year, two of the Fox sisters declared their intention to retire from public life. As Kane had wished, Maggie converted to Roman Catholicism and withdrew from spirit rapping. Leah, whose second husband, Calvin, had died some years earlier, married the wealthy businessman and spiritualist Daniel Underhill and no longer held séances for pay. Only Katie, black-haired and beautiful, pensive and tenderhearted, continued to be highly visible, upholding the mantle of spiritualism for the Fox sisters.
IN OCTOBER 1888, BEFORE A CHEERING AND BOOING AUDIENCE, SPIRITUALISM’S PIONEER MEDIUM CONFESSED TO “WICKED BLASPHEMY.”
In 1865 John and Margaret Fox died. During the decade after their parents’ deaths, Kate and Maggie increasingly fought, and lost, their battles with alcohol. Maggie found herself desperate for money and returned to spirit rapping. Worried about Kate’s drinking and missed sessions, friends urged the younger medium to seek the help of Dr. George Taylor and his Swedish Movement Cure. Soon after Kate met Taylor and his wife, she began holding séances for them, mirror-writing messages from, among others, the spirits of their two dead children.
The spirits that spoke through Kate, guiding her hand, had compelling voices. Almost as often as they counseled the Taylors, they addressed the medium herself, urging her to resist alcohol, to find a better way. ”… we will register Katie’s promise [to stop drinking] in heaven, in the home of her mother: we will register it in flowers and her eyes shall someday behold it,” said one message, scrawled on the long brown sheets that Kate used. “Now go and rejoice, Katie, and live. There are two paths, one happiness and peace, one misery and death! Choose the former, and great will be the golden reward.”
In 1871, in the hope of breaking her addiction, Kate traveled to England, where for a while she enjoyed good luck and happiness. In London she met and married Henry D. Jencken, a well-to-do barrister and devoted spiritualist with whom she had two children.
But when her husband died in the early 1880s, Kate’s last defenses against alcoholism crumbled. In 1885 she returned with her children to the United States, her condition even more serious than when she had left the country.
In March 1888 spiritualists celebrated their fortieth anniversary with considerable fanfare, but the Banner of Light , spiritualism’s longest-running newspaper, made little mention of Kate or Maggie. The “Rochester Rappers,” however, were not about to move quietly into the wings.
In October 1888, seven months after the anniversary, Margaret Fox Kane once again commanded spiritualism’s center stage. Trembling with emotion before a cheering and booing audience at New York’s Academy of Music, spiritualism’s pioneer medium confessed: “I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism, to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” Kate’s grave presence in the theater lent moral support to her sister.