- 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
Removing her right shoe, Maggie placed her foot upon a small stool. Sharp raps broke the hush that had descended on the audience. Then, as she had so often in the past, Maggie allowed herself to be examined by a committee chosen from the audience. Almost forty years after the first toe-ologists had proposed their theory, the newly appointed trio of doctors agreed: The raps were made by the first joint of Margaret Fox Kane’s big toe.
Some spiritualists reacted to Maggie’s betrayal by simply reaffirming their faith. The spirits would not abandon her, they assured one another, but rapped for her even at her saddest hour. A message in the Banner of Light , purportedly from a spirit, noted that life had not been “full of sunshine” for the Fox sisters. Precisely because of their sensitivity, they were subject to malign as well as kindly influences. Others were less charitable: Since Maggie had fallen on hard times as a medium, they scolded, she had decided to earn her living as a spoiler.
The timing of Maggie’s confession is probably best explained by her mounting hatred of Leah. Several months before, Leah had tried to have Kate’s children seized by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Maggie fought back, determined to show how her “damnable enemy” Leah Fox Fish Brown Underhill actually treated defenseless children. Maggie’s version of the Fox sisters’ forty-year saga appeared in the New York Herald : “When Spiritualism first began Kate and I were little children, and this old woman, my other sister, made us her tools… . What did we know? Ah, we grew to know too much! Our sister used us in her exhibitions and we made money for her. Now she turns upon us because she’s the wife of a rich man, and opposes us both wherever she can. Oh, I am after her! You can kill sometimes without using weapons, you know.”
A year after her confession Maggie again recanted. She denounced her denunciation of spiritualism. She had been pressured into her harsh words, she said, by powerful people who wished to crush the faithful, as well as by her own desperate need for money. Now her spirit guides had set her back on a true course, and the raps had returned so jubilantly that they often woke her neighbors.
Kate continued to navigate an unsteady course, occasionally holding séances, more often appearing onstage to denounce spiritualism, earning a living however she could. Although allegedly she had confessed years before that the raps originated in childish mischief, some observers thought that her words against spiritualism now lacked conviction. One reporter suspected that she genuinely believed in the presence of the spirits.
In 1890 Leah Underhill passed to the other side—the summerland, as it came to be called—lauded by spiritualists as a kind of queen mother; two years later, in 1892, Kate died, alcoholic and unheralded. Her death certificate listed her occupation as “housewife.” When Maggie died in 1893, penniless and alone, a letter published in the Banner of Light ended on a cautionary note: “We have yet to learn over again this lesson, sensitives are subject to conditions. When the nations of ancient times called on their mediums they made them feel their importance by consecration, and by preparing for them suitable abodes and temples… . But we of modern times take the blessings of mediumship and forget the mediators… . Therefore no word of censure or reproach can be cast on this mortal career …”
By the time Maggie died, spiritualism had already waned in the United States, but its influence had grown internationally. Britain in particular was a center; the movement reached a peak there after World War I, as it had in the United States after the Civil War. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent spiritualist, fiercely defended mediums against the attacks of Harry Houdini, the renowned magician who delighted in exposing their tricks.
Although spiritualism’s numbers dropped in the twentieth century, its adherents claim that their ideas permeate American society more widely than is recognized. They may be right; several recent New York Times bestsellers have been by an author who identifies himself as a medium and who, much like the nineteenth-century spiritualists, has compared spirit communication to the technology of his day—in this case, TVs, radios, and cell phones. As the millennium approaches, interest in conversing with God, angels, ghosts, and other incarnate guides has increased, moving books on the subject from New Age shelves onto the mainstream aisles.
Maggie and Kate would have been gratified by the attention they received at the 150th anniversary. Their confessions excused or overlooked, they were embraced by the movement they had long ago ignited. “The proof that there is no death and that communication is real,” said one woman, “didn’t finally occur until two little children—two little children—bravely put their fear away and dared to say ‘come in’ when spirit knocked.”
And knocked again.