Fox, Kate and Margaret

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Fox, Kate and Margaret

Canadian-born spiritualists and mediums.

Fox, Kate (c. 1839–1892). Name variations: Catherine or Katie Fox; Kate Fox-Jencken. Probably born in 1839, in Bath, New Brunswick, Canada; died on July 2, 1892, in New York City; youngest of six or more children of John Fox (a farmer) and Margaret (Rutan) Fox; sister of Margaret Fox (c. 1833–1893); married Henry D. Jencken (an international lawyer and legal scholar), on December 14, 1872 (died 1881); children: Ferdinand (b. 1873) and Henry (b. 1875).

Fox, Margaret (c. 1833–1893). Name variations: Margaretta Fox; Maggie Fox. Possibly born on October 7, 1833, in Bath, New Brunswick, Canada; died on March 8, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York; one of six or more children of John Fox (a farmer) and Margaret (Rutan) Fox; sister of Kate Fox (c. 1839–1892).

Modern spiritualism and mediumism dates from the mid-19th century, the time of the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, who quite innocently set into motion a social and religious movement that encompassed millions in America and thousands in Europe and England. Two of six children of John and Margaret Fox, the girls were born in the province of New Brunswick, Canada, near Nova Scotia, but moved with their parents to an isolated farm in Hydesville, New York, in 1847. In the spring of 1848, strange rappings and knockings began to emanate from the girls' bedroom. Many, including Kate and Margaret, attributed the sounds to spirits, and as news of the manifestations at Hydesville spread, the house was besieged by visitors—believers and skeptics alike—who came to observe the phenomenon. In one of many efforts to get the emanations to stop, the Foxes decided to separate the girls. An elder sister, Leah Fox , married and living in Rochester, took Margaret to live with her, while Kate was taken in by her married brother David in Auburn. (David eventually devised a complicated code by which believers could spell out messages by means of the rappings.) The spirit sounds, however, appeared to follow the girls, and droves of people now flocked to Leah's and David's houses, hoping to communicate with the departed.

In 1849, Eliab W. Capron, an ardent believer, joined Leah in managing the sisters and arranging public demonstrations. To early observers, the girls, who were small, delicate, and shy, often appeared confused and uncertain about their powers and the reactions of those around them. In 1850, Leah took her sisters to New York City where they held regular seances that were often attended by prominent intellectual and literary figures. As a result, spirit circles began to appear; one such group included James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, while another was attended by editor Horace Greeley, who not only endorsed the girls' gifts in the New York Tribune, but also provided for Kate's education.

In 1852, while giving a public demonstration in Philadelphia, Margaret met the famous Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane. Outraged by what he felt was exploitation, Kane encouraged both girls to give up spiritualism. He subsequently arranged for Margaret's support and education at a school near Philadelphia, although much about the rest of their relationship is shrouded in mystery. After Kane's death in 1857, Margaret claimed that they had exchanged marriage vows, and that as his common-law wife, she was due an annuity he had left her. When she later filed suit for the money, his family offered to honor the annuity if she surrendered letters Kane had written to her. Years later, claiming that the family had not carried out their end of the bargain, Margaret published anonymously an edited version of the letters titled The Love-Life of Dr. Kane (1865), a questionable publication at best. She continued to use the name Margaret Fox Kane for the rest of her life, and in 1858, maintaining that it was Kane's wish, she converted to Catholicism and, for the most part, gave up spirit-rapping.

Kate remained the most active medium. In 1855, inventor and reformer Horace H. Day established the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge and hired her at a salary of $1,200 a year to give free public sittings. By now, the

Fox sisters, as well as countless imitators, were offering seances that included not just simple rappings, but music, materializations, spirit writing, and other manifestations. Kate also gave extended seances for wealthy patrons, the first of which was banker Charles F. Livermore, whose dead wife, accompanied by Benjamin Franklin, often spoke to him through Kate.

Public life took a heavy toll on Kate and Margaret and both suffered from alcoholism until their deaths. In 1865, Kate underwent the Swedish Movement Cure, invented by Dr. George Henry Taylor, who also made use of Kate's skills as a medium to call forth two of his dead children. In 1871, she traveled to England, where she held seances attended by highly respected people of letters and science. There, she met and married Henry D. Jencken, an international lawyer and legal scholar, who also wrote articles for the English Spiritualist press. Kate had two sons, the first of which was said to have displayed mediumistic powers at the age of three months. Jencken died in 1881, and Kate returned to America in the spring of 1885. Within a short time, she again succumbed to the drinking disease. In 1888, she was arrested, and her children were taken away from her by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

It was Margaret who came to her sister's defense, telling reporters that Spiritualism was the cause of Kate's downfall. She admitted that she and Kate had devised the rappings to fool their mother, and at an appearance at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, she demonstrated how the sounds were made by throwing her fingers and toes out of joint. She further charged that her sister Leah had forced her and Kate to perpetuate the fraud. (Leah refused to publicly address the accusation.) Ranks of confirmed Spiritualists denounced Margaret as a drunken liar, who would do anything to get money, while opponents praised her for debunking a practice that they felt to be a dishonest hoax. Soon thereafter, however, Margaret retracted her confession and once again turned to Spiritualism, although her subsequent lecture tours were failures. Both she and Kate spent their final years in poverty. Kate died in New York City on July 2, 1892; Margaret died in Brooklyn, New York, on March 8, 1893. They were both buried at Cypress Hill Cemetery, in Brooklyn.


Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

James Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

related media:

Telegrams from the Dead (documentary film), 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Fox, Kate and Margaret

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