The Walking Dead, The Tres Riches Heures
  of John, Duke of Berry

THE Spiritualist movement was largely initiated by the Fox sisters, who practiced as mediums from 1849 until the early 1890s.

The following text is based in part on HISTORY & MYSTERY OF SPIRITUALISM, The Spiritualist Movement -- From the Beginning to Today, The Haunted Museum

THE modern form of the Spiritualist movement was born in the United States: more specifically, in March 1848 at the home of the Fox family in Hydesville, New York. Spiritualism, in the form of seances and "spirit photography" was taken seriously by many, enjoying a tremendous revival after World War I.





ACCORDING to local legend, the Fox family home was haunted by the unquiet spirit of a a peddler, rumored to have been murdered by a former inhabitant of the home around 1844.  The Fox family moved into the cottage in 1848 and within days mysterious noises - bangings and rattlings were heard at night.  Initially the father, John Fox presumed these to be "the sounds of an unfamiliar dwelling, amplified by active imaginations." One night his daughter Kate awoke screaming, claiming that a cold hand had touched her on the face. Her sister Margaret maintyained that "rough, invisible fists had pulled the blankets from her bed."

On March 31Kate realized that

whenever her investigating father knocked on a wall or door frame, the same number of inexplicable knocks would come in reply. It was as if someone, or something, was trying to communicate with them. Thus Kate spoke up, addressing the unseen presence by the nickname that she and her sister had given it. “Here, Mr. Splitfoot,” she called out, “do as I do!” She clapped her hands together two times and seconds later, two knocks came in reply, seemingly from inside of the wall. She followed this display by rapping on the table and the precise number of knocks came again from the presence.

Her mother then asked aloud various questions, such as the ages of her daughters and the age of a Fox child who had earlier passed away. The replies, supplied by rapping sounds, were unnervingly accurate.  Neighbors were invited in to witness the phenomenon, and a code analogous to "one rap for yes, two for no" was established.

The tale of the mysterious peddler was retold, and evidence of his murder (cloth and what were thought to be bone fragments) were discovered.  The two daughters came to be widely regarded as mediums and by November 1849, they were both offering public performances. The mania to communicate with the dead swept the country and the Fox sisters became famous. Their older sister Leah soon joined them: her husband had abandoned her and she was living in poverty.  She became their manager and the three of them toured cities, offering increasingly elaborate séances including levitating tables, moving objects and materilizing spirits.

Other mediums began to awaken to their own powers.  The sisters were encouraged by well-known figures, such as P.T. Barnum, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who accomodated the sisters at his mansion. Grieving over the death of his son, Greely offered to pay for the girls’ education - an offer Leah accepted for Kate, but declined for Maggie, who seemed to be the "more talented" of the mediums.

Various attempts were made at at unmasking their "fraud", the presumption being that they produced sounds by cracking joints or ventriloquism, but the results were ambiguous.  Their frequent summonings of the famous dead, including the Founding Fathers, were less than convincing.  Maggie was embroiled in a doomed love-affair in 1857, and having tried to abandon mediumship, was forced by poverty to undertake it again. 


She began drinking and her health and her mental state began to decline.

Kate had fared slightly better than her sister, but soon she too was paying the price for her fame. She also began drinking, which often wreaked havoc on her performances.  Although she was still having trouble controlling her alcoholism, she traveled to England in 1871 and remained sober long enough to perform for a number of British Spiritualists. She remained in England and the following year, married Henry Jencken, a barrister, with whom she had two sons. The first, Ferdinand, was born in 1873 and was reportedly a medium by the time he was three years old. It was said that spirits took over his body and caused an “unearthly glow” to emanate from his eyes.

By 1885, Spiritualism was on the decline and investigations of fraud began to increase. This year brought tragedy to both of the Fox sisters. Maggie was called before a commission in New York to prove her skills, a test that she failed miserably, and Kate saw the death of her husband from a stroke. She returned to New York and here, in early 1888, she was arrested for drunkenness and idleness and welfare workers took custody of her sons. Maggie, who had remained close with Kate, was unable to get the boys herself but she did manage to get them into the custody of an uncle in England.

In 1888, Maggie made the infamous appearance when she denounced Spiritualism as a total sham. The years of alcohol abuse, loneliness and grief had taken their toll on her and she weighed the idea of committing suicide before finally choosing confession instead. She booked the stage at the New York Academy of Music and walked out on stage to announce  she and Kate had created the strange rappings heard in their Hydesville home by simply cracking their toes. She also stated that Leah had forced them into performing as mediums for the public. “I have seen so much miserable deception,” she reportedly said. “That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description.” Sitting in a box overlooking the stage, Kate silently affirmed her sister’s confession.

While the critics laughed and cried “I told you so”, devoted Spiritualists denounced Margaret’s confession as the ravings of a sad and tired drunk. Kate, who did not speak at the public appearance, later stated that she did not agree with her sister and she continued to perform as a medium. In 1891, Margaret would recant her confession. Many have said that the confession was a sham itself. They maintain that Maggie and Kate only renounced the movement to spite their sister Leah, who they had grown to hate. Leah had since married a wealthy and respectable businessman and using the fortune that had been gained for her by her sisters, she had long ago turned her back on Maggie and Kate, who she considered an embarrassment.

Kate later drank herself to death in July 1892 at the age of only 56. Her body was discovered by one of her sons. Margaret died in March 1893, at age 59, in a friend’s home in Brooklyn. At the time of her death, she was penniless.



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