Gabbing with Ghosts: The Fox Sisters and the Rise of Spiritualism

Allyn Lyons

There’s something about a ghost story that’s hard to resist. Even if they keep us up at night, have us glancing nervously over our shoulder, or make us too frightened to turn lights off before bed, it’s exciting to sit around a campfire and listen to a spine-tingling tale. The Victorians were enthralled not only by ghost stories, but by the prospect of speaking to them.

A Seance scene in the classic German silent film Dr Mabuse (1922), directed by Fritz Lang. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis   Source

A Seance scene in the classic German silent film Dr Mabuse (1922), directed by Fritz Lang. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

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Two sisters living in Hydesville, New York claimed they could do just that. In March of 1848, Maggie and Kate Fox spoke to a spirit haunting their home. First, they commanded the spirit to count to ten, and it responded with ten knocks. Then, their mother asked how many children she had. The spirit correctly knocked six times. Mrs. Fox invited her neighbours over, and they were shocked when the spirit answered the girls’ questions with a series of knocks. By tapping twice for yes and once for no, the spirit told them that he was a once peddler who had been murdered and buried below the house. Newspapers reported the ghostly encounter and folks across town came to see the girls who could speak to the dead. While many people were thrilled with the idea of speaking to ghosts, others were fearful and accused the girls of witch craft. The town’s Episcopal minister asked the Fox family to leave the congregation when he heard they had been talking to ghosts.

Maggie and Kate’s older sister Leah moved the girls to Rochester, New York. She was suspicious her sisters’ new talent wasn’t what it seemed, but saw an opportunity to pull herself out of poverty. In the 1840s, cities were growing at an unprecedented rate. Overcrowding and poor-sanitation lead to epidemics of contagious illnesses, leaving families desperate to speak to their loved ones who had passed away. People would gladly open their wallets to hear from their friends and family on the other side.

Leah and Maggie Fox in 1851   Source

Leah and Maggie Fox in 1851

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Leah had her two sisters hold séances and charged admission, first in their home and later in Rochester’s biggest auditorium, Corinthian Hall. During their shows at Corinthian Hall, audience members hoped that the girls would be exposed as frauds, but no one figured out the girls’ trick. The Fox sisters’ strange gift lead to the Spiritualist movement, a religion that believes in a spirit world and some people can speak to those who have passed away. More people across America and Europe claimed they were mediums and had the ability to speak to spirits, and séances became a popular pastime.

Even Queen Victoria herself was fascinated by mediums, and used one to contact her husband Prince Albert after he died. During the séance, the thirteen-year-old medium Robert James Lees supposedly proved he could truly speak to the dead when he called Victoria by a pet name only Albert would know. According to famous medium Lesley Flint, Victoria sent messages beyond the grave to her daughter Beatrice. 

As the Fox sisters were launched into stardom, their new fame took a toll on Maggie and Kate. The two began drinking heavily. Leah worried their drinking would threaten her livelihood and high status in the Spiritualist community. To curb her sisters’ indulgence, Leah planned to have Kate’s children taken away. Frustrated with their sister, who had been controlling their lives since they were children, Maggie and Kate exposed their secret. On October 21st, 1888, Maggie got on stage at the New York Academy of Music, removed her shoe, and cracked the knuckles of her toes, making the noise that made the sisters famous. She explained that she and Kate had started the deception when they were too young to know right from wrong, and Leah had exploited them into performing séances.


Levitation is the act of elevating objects through paranormal means   Source

Levitation is the act of elevating objects through paranormal means

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Although Spiritualism’s two founding mediums exposed themselves as frauds, it didn’t have an effect on the movement as a whole. Mediums with more impressive abilities were coming forward. Some could levitate tables, produce ectoplasm, Florence Cook could supposedly materialize a spirit named Katie King. Believers from across the world were transfixed by the paranormal phenomena’s being performed in front of them, whether it was a hoax or not. Even today, we are fascinated with contacting spirits using Ouija boards, watching scary movies, and telling one another ghost stories whether we believe in ghosts or not.