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They Spoke With The Dead

June 2024
15min read

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

“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.


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.

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.

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 .”


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.”

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 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.

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.

Spiritualism’s 150th anniversary celebration concluded with a pilgrimage to the property in Hydesville, now a barren and brackish piece of land. As I carefully picked my way through the little wilderness, I wondered what artifacts I might find. In 1848 a crew of diggers led by David Fox claimed to have discovered in the basement some hair, a few bones, and broken bits of a pottery bowl. Proof of the peddler’s story? Disgusted skeptics called the evidence a plant. Then, in the early part of this century, children found a skeleton hidden behind a decrepit cellar wall. It had been there, according to estimates, for about fifty years.

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