The fox sisters

On one of the last days of her life, in February of 1893, Margaretta Kane managed to prop herself into a sitting position and demanded a pencil and paper from Dr. Mellin, the doctor who had been commissioned to care for her. Kane began writing at an incredible pace, and before she had finished she had filled 20 sheets with clear handwriting. After handing the written sheets back to the doctor, she fell into a coma and died.

When Mellin had the opportunity to examine what Kane had written, she was astonished to discover that her patient had filled the sheets with an accurate and detailed biography of the doctor's own life. It included many events that Mellin had not divulged to anyone. Some time later, Mellin described the incident to the Medico-Legal Society of New York. She concluded her remarks about the manuscript by saying: "To my surprise, I found she had written down a detailed story of my life. The most startling thing did not appear until near the end where Mrs. Kane mentioned the missing will of my mother and the names of several people back home in Manchester, Indiana. I wrote at once to my brother. He sent a friend to Manchester and mother's missing will was recovered."

The story of the dying woman who somehow knew intimate details about her doctor that could not have been known through ordinary means takes on tragic significance when Kane's history is revealed. Kane was born Margaretta Fox, and it was she and her sister Catherine who were credited with the founding of modern Spiritualism. They were later discredited by certain investigators as being clever deceivers with no paranormal or mediumistic abilities whatsoever.

Mysterious knocking and window rattling began in the John Fox home in Hydesville, New York, shortly after they had moved into the house on December 11, 1847. After the first night, Fox spent the next day securing everything that looked as though it might make knocking or rattling sounds, but the following night the knockings and rappings were even louder. One of the family members ventured a guess that it was a prankster playing a trick on them or some neighbor trying to frighten them away, but as much as they tried to catch the supposed joker in the act, they never saw him.

Then Fox, the local blacksmith, began to hear talk about the complaints of some of the previous tenants in the house, who, as early as 1843, had also complained of mysterious rappings, footsteps, and dragging sounds. Michael Weekman, who had rented the house just prior to their occupancy, moved out when he could no longer stand the eerie night sounds.

By March 31, 1848, John and Margaret Fox gave up chasing after the rappings and resolved to live with the disturbances. After all, no real damage had ever occurred. The sounds were just annoying. They would go to bed early that evening and try to get a good night's sleep.

But that night when the disturbances began, the five children—John, David, Maria, Margaretta (Maggie), and Catherine (Katie)—seemed to be more frightened than ever before by the continual knocks and thuds echoing throughout the house. Observing that the strange noises were centering around 12-year-old Katie and 15-year-old Maggie, Fox closed the window in the girls' bedroom with a loud thump. His thump was immediately followed by two others, and Katie cried out that "they" were answering him.

For a few moments, no one moved. Then Fox cautiously knocked on the window sill. There came an answering knock from somewhere in the room. Katie was more excited than frightened. As if it were all some thrilling game, she commanded the sounds to follow the snaps of her fingers and called out: "Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do." The unseen prankster did so perfectly, even when she only held up a certain number of fingers to prompt an appropriate number of raps. "It can see as well as hear!" she laughed in childlike triumph.

Soon other members of the family had entered the game with the mysterious unseen visitor and were asking it to pound out number sequences or to sound one rap for yes, two raps for no. Mrs. Fox was no stranger to psychic phenomena, for although they were respected members of the Methodist Church, three prior generations of women in her family (Rutan) had the ability to predict deaths, births, and other local occurrences.

As his daughters' communication with the spirit progressed, Fox wanted to determine whether or not his entire family was deluded. He went next door and brought a neighbor, Mrs. Redfield, into the children's bedroom. Although the woman laughed at the thought of a knocking spirit, she went away greatly disturbed by the fact that she had not only heard the knocks, but whatever invisible source was making them knew a great deal about her past, also.

As word spread about the curious phenomena that was occurring in the Fox home, people from all over Hydesville came to hear the mysterious rappings. A committee composed of 20 friends and neighbors and directed by William Duesler set about a program of investigation. Shortly after the committee had reached its conclusions regarding the authenticity of the phenomena, E. E. Lewis published a 40-page pamphlet of their findings entitled, "A Report on the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox at Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County. Authenticated by the certificates and confirmed by the statements of the citizens of that place and vicinity."

After Katie and Maggie had experimented with the phenomena for several weeks, a code of rappings had been developed and intelligent communication with the entity had been established. The spirit revealed itself as Charles B. Rosna (Rosa in some accounts), a 31-year-old itinerant peddler who had been murdered in the house and buried in the basement. Charles became the spirit control for Katie and Maggie, and he revealed a great deal of personal information about his life on Earth through their mediumship.

On April 3, 1848, David Fox and some neighbors began digging in the cellar and discovered charcoal, quicklime, strands of human hair, and portions of a human skull. Based on the evidence provided by the spirit of the murdered man, a former tenant was accused of having perpetrated the deed, but the authorities refused to arrest or prosecute on such testimony.

The Fox family was growing weary of all the attention that they were receiving both from the spirit world and from the populace of Hydesville and the surrounding area. John and Margaret thought they might be able to get rid of the ghostly noises if they sent Maggie and Katie away from the house for a while. The girls were sent to their older sister Leah, 34, who was living in poverty in Rochester after her husband had deserted her. Loud, resounding raps broke out in Leah's home when the girls arrived, indicating that the spirits had followed them to Rochester, and they received the following message from the spirits: "You must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era. You must not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty, God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you."

With this message from the spirit world, modern Spiritualism was born. Spiritualists believe that death is only a change of worlds, and communication with those who have passed to the other side is possible. For the Fox sisters, their declaration of this message from the spirits placed them in the center of a tumultuous storm that raged throughout their lifetimes. Leah, who according to some sources is also said to have demonstrated some mediumistic abilities, became the manager for Maggie and Katie and arranged during numerous stage presentations for them to demonstrate their interaction with spirits, first in Rochester, then in many other cities throughout New England. The sisters were tested and exposed, tested and authenticated, tested and humiliated, over and over again—damned or praised, depending upon the biases of the investigators. They succumbed to such continual stresses by resorting to heavy drinking. They fought among themselves.

In 1857, Leah married a wealthy insurance man named Underhill and retired from her position as her sisters' manager. Maggie had been wooed by the famous Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kane (1820–1857), who died tragically before they could be married. Undeterred by such a sorrowful change of plans, Maggie considered herself a widow and called herself Margaretta Kane. In 1861, Katie went to England to be tested by such active psychic researchers as Sir William Crookes (1832–1919) and became the wife of H. D. Jencken, an attorney. She bore Jencken two sons before he died in 1885, leaving her despondent and once again dependent upon alcohol. In 1888, Katie's lifestyle had become so destructive that Leah managed to have the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children assume custody of her two children.

Outraged by what she considered a traitorous act, Maggie allied herself with her younger sister and vowed to ruin Leah. This she sought to accomplish by writing a letter to the New York Herald denouncing Spiritualism and promising revelations of the frauds that the sisters had employed to deceive their audiences. Maggie made good her threat to Leah and her promise to the New York Herald by giving a lecture at the New York Academy of Music, where she confessed to being a fraud and offered explanations as to how she and Katie had produced various aspects of the phenomena. An angry Katie joined her sister and endorsed her exposure of spirit communication. They had been able to crack their toes and certain joints to make the sound of the spirit raps, the two sisters said. It had begun as a joke on their parents, but Leah had seen a way to make money from their unique talents. Plus, Maggie and Katie said, Leah had wanted to establish a new religion.

A year later, after passions had cooled among the sisters, Maggie completely retracted her confession of trickery and fraud. She explained that she had been under great mental stress and suffering severe financial difficulties. For five dollars, she declared, she would have sworn to anything. The demonstration at the New York Academy of Music only revealed how such phenomena could be faked, she swore, not how she and her sisters had actually engaged in fraudulent activity. Maggie swore now that they had served as mediums for genuine spirit manifestations.

The phenomena produced by the Fox sisters were important to psychical research. Professor Charles Richet (1850–1935), world-famous physiologist at the Sorbonne, stated that spirit rappings were of "primary importance" as demonstrations that "there are in the universe human or nonhuman intelligences that can act directly on matter." Sir William Crookes (1832–1919), the renowned British chemist and physicist, concluded after a full investigation of Katie Fox that she only had to place her hand on any substance to produce "raps loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner, I have heard them in a living tree, on a sheet of glass, on a stretched iron wire, on a stretched membrane, a tambourine, on the roof of a cab, and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary. I have heard these sounds proceeding from the floors, walls, etc., when the medium's hands were held, when she was standing on a chair, when she was suspended from the ceiling, when she was enclosed in a wire cage.…"

Psychical researcher Robert Dale Owen observed Leah Fox Underhill in a seance during which she manifested a "light about as large as a small fist, that rose and fell as a hammer would, striking the floor. At each stroke, a loud rap was heard." In over 400 seances sponsored by investigators in New York, Katie Fox, whose hands were held by the researchers, materialized phantom human forms that produced flowers, glowing lights, and written messages in the handwriting of deceased individuals.

Katie worked as a medium and conducted seances until, at the age of 56, she drank herself to death on July 2, 1892. Leah had passed away the year before, November 1, 1891. Maggie died ill and destitute on March 8, 1893, at the age of 59.

Whether the majority of Americans accepted the exposure of the Fox sisters as deceivers and frauds or believed the more positive appraisals by certain psychical researchers that Maggie and Katie were capable of producing genuine spirit phenomena, the Spiritualist movement had been born, and with the help of sensationalistic articles in the press, word of the controversial mediums spread around the world. Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and Emma Vera Brittain began to deliver trance lectures in the major cities of the eastern seaboard of the United States. In 1859, Dr. Phelps, a Presbyterian minister in Stratford, Connecticut, produced spirit manifestations and developed a following. Soon, trance mediums from the United States were visiting Scotland, England, and being embraced in the Scandinavian countries, where the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) had prepared them to expect such messages from the spirit world. Within months, the movement had taken root in Germany, France, Russia, and many other countries on the continent—all the result of the rappings and knockings of Maggie and Katie Fox, two little girls who, in the eyes of their supporters, had broken down the dividing wall between the worlds of life and death.

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