Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine] (1836-1892) and Margaret(ta) (1833-1893)

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Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine] (1836-1892) and Margaret(ta) (1833-1893)

The pioneers of modern Spiritualism, along with a third sister, (Ann) Leah (1814-1890), variously known by marriage as Mrs. Fish, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Underhill. According to Leah Fox's book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885), psychic power ran in the family.

Their great-grandmother was a somnambulist (sleepwalker). She attended phantom funerals of people yet living and described every detail about the officiating minister and the persons present. Her descriptions corresponded with the facts as they were later observed. An aunt, Elisabeth Higgins, as told in Robert Dale Owen 's Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860), saw in a dream her own tombstone; she died on the day inscribed in her vision.

The events that made the Fox family name historic date from December 11, 1847, the day on which John D. Fox, the father, took the tenancy of a house in Hydesville, New York. The house had a mysterious reputation. Michael Weakman, the former tenant who had moved in two years before, left it because of strange noises, but the family of John D. Fox did not experience serious discomfort until March 1848. At that time raps, knocks, and noises as of moving furniture were heard at night. They increased in intensity. On March 31 there was a very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. Fox's wife suggested that the sashes might have rattled since the night was windy. John Fox got up and tried the sashes, shaking them to see if they were loose. One of the girls happened to remark that when her father shook the window sash the noises seemed to reply. The idea came to her to ask for an answer by imitating the sounds. John's wife, Margaret, in a testimony signed four days later, described the occurrences as follows:

"On the night of the first disturbance we all got up, lighted a candle and searched the entire house, the noises continuing during the time and being heard near the same place. Although not very loud, it produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs that could be felt when we were in bed. It was a tremulous motion, more than a sudden jar. We could feel the jar when standing on the floor. It continued on this night until we slept. I did not sleep until about twelve o'clock. On March 30 we were disturbed all night. The noises were heard in all parts of the house. My husband stationed himself outside the door while I stood inside, and the knocks came on the door between us. We heard footsteps in the pantry, and walking downstairs; we could not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I could not account for before.

"On Friday night, March 31, 1848, we concluded to go to bed early and not permit ourselves to be disturbed by the noises, but try and get a night's rest. My husband was here on all these occasions, heard the noises and helped in the search. It was very early when we went to bed on this nighthardly dark. I had been so broken of my rest I was almost sick. My husband had not gone to bed when we first heard the noise on this evening. I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all the other noises I had ever heard before. The children, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the rap-ping and tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers.

"My youngest child, Cathie, said: 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,' clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, 'No, do just as I do. Count one, two, three, four,' striking one hand against the other at the same time; and the raps came as before. She was afraid to repeat them. Then Cathie said in her childish simplicity, 'Oh, mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day and it is somebody trying to fool us.' "I then thought I could put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the noise to rap my different children's ages, successively. Instantly each one of my children's ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualize them until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child.

"I then asked: 'Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly?' There was no rap. I asked 'Is it a spirit? If it is make two raps.' Two sounds were given as soon as the request was made. I then said: 'If it was an injured spirit, make two raps,' which were instantly made, causing the house to tremble. I asked: 'Were you injured in this house?' The answer was given as before. 'Is the person living that injured you?' Answered by raps in the same manner. I ascertained by the same simple method that it was a man, aged 31 years, that he had been murdered in this house and his remains were buried in the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children, two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death, but that the wife had since died. I asked: 'Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbors that they may hear it too?' The raps were loud in the affirmative.

"My husband went and called in Mrs. Redfield, our nearest neighbor. She is a very candid woman. The girls were sitting up in bed clinging to each other and trembling with terror. I think I was as calm as I am now. Mrs. Redfield came immediately (this was about half past seven), thinking she would have a laugh at the children. But when she saw them pale with fright and nearly speechless, she was amazed and believed there was something more serious than she had supposed. I asked a few questions for her and she was answered as before. He told her age exactly. She then called her husband, and the same questions were asked and answered.

"Then Mr. Redfield called in Mr. Duesler and wife, and several others. Mr. Duesler then called in Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, also Mr. and Mrs. Jewell. Mr. Duesler asked many questions and received answers. I then named all the neighbors I could think of and asked if any of them had injured him and received no answer. Mr. Duesler then asked questions and received answers. He asked 'Were you murdered?' Raps affirmative. 'Can your murderer be brought to justice?' No sound. 'Can he be punished by law?' No answer. He then said: 'If your murderer cannot be punished by the law manifest it by raps,' and the raps were made clearly and distinctly. In the same way Mr. Duesler ascertained that he was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr. on a Tuesday night at twelve o'clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher's knife; that the body was taken through the buttery, down the stairway and that it was buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained that he was murdered for his money by raps affirmative.

"'How much was itone hundred?' No rap. 'Was it two hundred?' etc., and when he mentioned five hundred the raps replied in the affirmative.

"Many called in who were fishing in the creek, and all heard the same questions and answers. Many remained in the house all night. I and my children left the house. My husband remained in the house with Mr. Redfield all night. On the next Saturday the house was filled to overflowing. There were no sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the evening. It was said that there were over three hundred persons present at the time. On Sunday morning the noises were heard throughout the day by all who came to the house.

"On Saturday night, April 1, they commenced digging in the cellar; they dug until they came to water and then gave it up. The noise was not heard on Sunday evening nor during the night. Stephen B. Smith and wife (my daughter Marie) and my son David S. Fox and wife, slept in the room this night.

"I have heard nothing since that time until yesterday. In the forenoon of yesterday there were several questions answered in way by rapping. I have heard the noise several times to-day.

"I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I am very sorry there has been so much excitement about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our mis-fortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I know is that they have been heard repeatedly as I have stated. I have heard this rapping again this (Tuesday) morning, April 4. My children have also heard it."

John D. Fox then signed the following statement:

"I have also heard the above statement of my wife, Margaret Fox, read, and hereby certify that the same is true in all its particulars. I heard the same rappings which she has spoken of, in answer to the questions, as stated by her. There have been a great many questions besides those asked, and answered in the same way. Some have been asked a great many times and they have always received the same answer. There has never been any contradiction whatever.

"I do not know of any way to account for those noises, as being caused by any natural means. We have searched every nook and corner in and about the house at different times to ascertain if possible whether anything or anybody was secreted there that could make the noise and have not been able to find anything which would or could explain the mystery. It has caused a great deal of trouble and anxiety.

"Hundreds have visited the house, so that it is impossible for us to attend to our daily occupations; and I hope that, whether caused by natural or supernatural means, it will be ascertained soon. The digging in the cellar will be resumed as soon as the water settles, and then it can be ascertained whether there are any indications of a body ever having been buried there; and if there are I shall have no doubt but that it is of supernatural origin."

The digging could not be resumed until summer. Then, at a depth of five feet, they found a plank, along with charcoal and quicklime, and finally hair and some bones, which were pronounced by medical men to belong to a human skeleton. The rest of the skeleton was believed to be found 56 years later. According to a report of the Boston Journal, November 23, 1904, some parts of a rough wall built one yard from the true wall of the cellar fell down. Excavations were made by the owner of "the spook house" and an almost complete human skeleton was found. It was thought that the murderer first buried the body in the middle of the cellar, then became alarmed, dug it up, and buried it in the space between the two walls.

As the murder victim's spirit continued to communicate with the Foxes in 1848, Mrs. Fox's hair turned white as a result of the disturbances in the house. The phenomena soon assumed the character of formal haunting. The sound of a death struggle, the gurgling of a throat, and the heavy dragging of a body across the room was heard night after night. Finally the family could not stand it any longer and moved out. But the raps continued in the house even after they left, and one night more than 300 people conversed with the invisible entity.

From Raps to the Message of Spiritualism

Kate took refuge at her brother's house in Auburn, and her sister Margaret went to her sister Leah's house in Rochester. The raps broke out again in both places. In Rochester they were especially violent. Calvin Brown, who afterward became Leah's second husband and who lived in the same house, was opposed to the manifestations and became the object of poltergeist attacks. Things were thrown at him, but without causing him injury. Blocks of wood were found scattered in the rooms, sometimes with sentences written on them. The manifestation was intelligent and spiteful.

"We had become satisfied," writes Leah in The Missing Link (1885), "that no earthly power could relieve us. While on our knees pins would be stuck into different parts of our persons. Mother's cap would be removed from her head, her comb jerked out of her hair and every conceivable thing done to annoy us." The spirits "carried on the manifestations on the very peak of the roof. It sounded like the frequent discharge of heavy artillery. It was stated to us the next day that the sounds were heard a mile away. We feared that the roof would fall in upon us."

These violent disturbances went on until Isaac Post, a visiting friend, suddenly remembered that Leah's brother David "conversed with the Hydesville spirits by using the alphabet." Tremendous raps came in answer to the first question and this message was spelled out: "Dear Friends, 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." From that time on, communications began to pour through and the manifestations became orderly. The table rocked, objects moved, guitars were played, and psychic touches were experienced.

On November 14, 1849, the first meeting of a small band of Spiritualists took place in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester. The excitement grew. Public investigation was demanded. The report of a committee of five that could not explain the phenomena as fraud was rejected and another committee was delegated. They were also forced to report that when the girls "were standing on pillows with a handkerchief tied round the bottom of their dresses, tight to the ankles, we all heard rapping on the wall and floor distinctly."

Passions rose to fury; once the girls were nearly lynched, but in spite of a hostile atmosphere and denunciation in the press, the movement kept growing. Other mediums sprang up. Mrs. Tamlin and Mrs. Benedict of Auburn, the first two well-known mediums who were developed in the circle of Kate Fox (see Apostolic Circle ), were followed by a host of others, and on November 28, 1849, because of the increasing demand for sittings, Leah became a professional medium.

The first public sittings were soon followed by a propaganda tour to Albany in May 1850, then to Troy, where their lives were threatened and they were fired on. On June 4, 1850, they took the message of Spiritualism to New York City. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, was their first caller. Fearing for their safety, he advised them to charge a $5 admission fee. Later, under the aegis of the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge, free public sittings were initiated, for which Mr. H. H. Day paid $1,200 per annum to Kate. Interest ran high from the very first.

Greeley's report in the Tribune was enthusiastic:

"We devoted what time we could spare from our duties out of three days to this subject, and it would be the basest cowardice not to say that we are convinced beyond a doubt of their perfect integrity and good faith in the premises. Whatever may be the origin or cause of the 'rappings,' the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire satisfaction."

The phenomena in these first seances were not spectacular in light of later occurrences associated with the Fox sisters. Raps were heard, the table and chairs moved, and the sitters were touched by invisible hands. Perhaps their most powerful early manifestation was recorded in 1853 by Governor Talmadge. It was the complete levitation of the table with the governor himself on top. He also claimed to have received a communication in direct writing from the spirit of John C. Calhoun. According to Robert Dale Owen, Leah was the best medium for raps. With her he obtained them on the seashore on a rock, in a sailing boat (sounding from underneath), on tree trunks in the woods, and on the ground beneath their feet in open air. Spirit lights and materializations were a comparatively late development, and they were produced by both Kate and Leah Fox.

"Exposures," Tests, and Confessions

Claimed exposures from time to time were common. In February 1851 the "snapping of the knee joints" explanation of the raps was advanced for the first time. Dr. Austin Flint, Dr. Charles A. Lee, and Dr. C. B. Coventry of the University of Buffalo published in the Commercial Advertiser of February 18, 1851, the disclosure that the raps were produced within the sisters' anatomies. A second investigation upheld this theory, and an alleged confession of Margaret Fox, published in April 1851 by a relation named Mrs. Norman Culver, threatened to bury both the Fox sisters and the fledgling Spiritualistic movement.

There was, however, a flagrant contradiction in the allegation, which claimed that when the committee held the ankles of the Fox sisters in Rochester a Dutch servant girl rapped with her knuckles under the floor of the cellar. She was instructed to rap whenever she heard their voices calling on the spirits. Yet the investigation to which the revelation referred was held in the houses of the members of the committee or in a public hall, the girls did not keep a servant, and Kate Fox was not present at these meetings at all. Nevertheless, the effect of the revelation was that "the Rochester impostors" were at the mercy of the press, having but one significant defender Horace Greeley. His interest was so deep, however, that he furnished funds for Kate Fox to polish up her imperfect education.

Investigations into the reality of the phenomena were numerous. Test after test was applied. The skeptics faced two problems: explaining what they believed were the "fraudulent" production of the rappings and determining the nature of the intelligence that answered the questions, which were in many cases asked mentally. The second problem was seldom tackled; the first was addressed often and with very great ardor. One popular explanation was that the raps were produced by flexing the knee joints. In 1857, as a result of the challenge to mediums in the Boston Courier, several mediums appeared before a committee of Harvard professors in Boston. Kate and Leah Fox were among them. The committee was difficult to satisfy and their promised report was never published.

There is much in the personal history of the Fox sisters in these early years that remains obscure. Years of public mediumship in a hostile atmosphere, the drain of too-frequent sittings on their energy, the commercial exploitation of their talents, and the absence of understanding regarding the religious implications of Spiritualism combined to produce a deteriorating influence.

Margaret Fox married Dr. Elisha Kane, the famous Arctic explorer. With marriage, she retired from public mediumship. Before his marriage to Margaret, Kane was skeptical. He never arrived at any satisfactory solution to the phenomena, and apparently was convinced that Margaret was exploited in a mercenary spirit by her elder sister, Leah. When he was away in the Arctic he had Margaret stay with his aunt for the purpose of polishing up her education and married her on his return. Some time after Kane's death in 1857, under the title The Love Letters of Dr. Elisha Kane (1865), was published a book that exacerbated suspicion of the Fox sisters. Kane, in his letters, continually reproached Margaret for living in deceit and hypocrisy. He also strongly objected to the sisters' indulgence in alcohol.

In 1861 Kate Fox was engaged as a medium exclusively for Charles F. Livermore, a rich banker from New York whose wife, Estelle, had died a year before. Over a period of five years Kate gave him nearly 400 sittings of which detailed records were kept. The doors and windows were carefully locked and the seances, witnessed by prominent men, were often held in Livermore's own house.

The medium retained consciousness while "Estelle" gradually materialized. She was not recognized until the 43rd sitting when she was illuminated by a psychic light. Later the materialization became more complete, but the figure could not speak except for a few words. The communication took place through raps and writing. Estelle and another phantom, calling himself "Benjamin Franklin," wrote on cards brought by Livermore. Kate Fox's hands were held while she wrote. The script was said to be a perfect reproduction of the characters "Estelle" used when on earth. At the 388th seance, "Estelle" declared that she was appearing for the last time. Livermore never saw her again. In gratitude for the consolation he derived from these sittings, he enabled Kate Fox to visit England in 1871. In a letter to Benjamin Coleman he praised Kate's irreproachable character and detailed her idiosyncrasies.

The career of Kate Fox in England was undisturbed. She sat for many important people, gave excellent opportunities to Sir William Crookes for investigation, and often held joint sittings with D. D. Home and Agnes Guppy-Volckman. On December 14, 1872, Kate married H. D. Jencken, a barrister-at-law. They had two sons, both strongly psychic at an early age. Jencken died in 1881. In 1883 the widowed medium visited Russia on the invitation of Alexander Aksakof and was consulted about the auspices of the coronation of the czar.

Financial circumstances forced Margaret Fox back into professional mediumship. According to Isaac Funk, she lived in poverty. Leah died in 1890, Kate in 1892, and Margaret in 1893. Kate (known as Mrs. Sparr from her last marriage) and Margaret were buried in the Brooklyn Cypress Hill Cemetery.

In 1916 the old Hydesville house where the Fox family had lived in 1848 was moved to Lily Dale, a campground in Western New York that has served at times as an informal headquarters for American Spiritualists. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1955. The house was reconstructed in 1968 as a tour-ist attraction on the Hydesville site, which bears a marker erected in 1927 reading: "Birthplace of Modern Spiritualism 1848." The reconstructed building includes a niche in the cellar wall where the skeleton was found.


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Fornell, Earl Wesley. The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1964.

Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Lewis, E. E. A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox. Canandaigua, N.Y.: The Author, 1848.

Pond, Mariam Buckner. Time Is Kind: The Story of the Unfortu-nate Fox Family. New York: Centennial Press, 1947. Reprinted as The Unwilling Martyrs. London: Psychic Book Club, 1947.

Taylor, W. G. Langworthy. Katie Fox, Epochmaking Medium and the Making of the Fox-Taylor Record. Boston: Bruce, 1933.

Underhill, A. Leah. The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism. New York: T. R. Knox, 1885. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1976.

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Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine] (1836-1892) and Margaret(ta) (1833-1893)

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