A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
The Fox Sisters and the "Great American Hoax" | A New York Minute in History

For our season finale, Devin and Lauren tell the story of the Fox sisters, who rose to fame as early practitioners of modern spiritualism in the 19th Century. Margaretta and Catherine Fox were able to convince many people that they could commune with the dead, though they later admitted to making their stories up. Despite this, their form of “rapping” spiritualism exploded across the nation and beyond.  

Marker of Focus: The Fox Sisters, Newark, Wayne County

Guests: Tracy Murphy, executive director of the Historic Palmyra Museums; and David Stiles, former president of the Newark-Arcadia Historical Society

A New York Minute In History is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the New York State Museum, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse King. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.

Further Reading:

Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America

Amy Lehman, Victorian Women and the Theater of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance

Simone Natale, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture

Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

Teaching Resources:

Adam Matthew Digital, Nature and Scope – Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic

Follow Along

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin lander, the New York state historian.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. Today we’re going to be focusing on a marker located at 1510 Hydesville Road in the village of Newark, which is in Wayne County out in western New York. The marker’s placed on what is now the site of the Hydesville Memorial Park, and the text reads: “The Fox sisters. On this site, events of March 31, 1848 began sisters Maggie and Kate Fox’s central role in the origin of modern spiritualism. William G. Pomeroy Foundation, 2016.”

Some of you may know the story of the Fox sisters, but before we talk about Maggie and Kate and exactly what the “events” are, that are mentioned on the sign, let’s take a minute to remind everyone what spiritualism is. Spiritualism is the belief that the living can communicate with the dead, or the spirit of the dead. And of course, this isn’t a new concept. This has, in different iterations, been believed around the world for centuries. But the religious movement we’re talking about today, which we refer to as modern spiritualism, that’s what really begins or takes off here in America with the advent of the Fox sisters and their abilities to commune with the dead. And like most religious movements that take off during that time period, they begin in New York. What was it that made the location and the time ripe for these ideas to really take hold?

Devin: I think it was a lot of things. Actually, if we think about the date that the fox sisters begin allegedly communing with the dead, it’s 1848. Right. And we know, in the same general area of Central Western New York, was a big event happening in 1848. And that was the suffrage convention at Seneca Falls, there was a lot of other things happening. We know that the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, and kind of opened up central and western New York to more settlements, places like Rochester started to boom. By the 1840s and mid 1840s. The railroads were really coming in strong in upstate New York and opening even more access to transportation of goods, but also of people and also of ideas. So there was a ferment happening in upstate New York, as it became known was the burned over district because of all of the various religious movements and different social movements like temperance like suffrage, like abolition, were all taking place. Because of that it kind of created the fertile soil, so to speak for something like modern spiritualism to take root.

Lauren: So now that we’ve set the stage, let’s go back to the hamlet of Hydesville, which is within the village of Newark, and how the Fox sisters fit into this time period.

Tracy: Hi, my name is Tracy Murphy. I am the director of Historic Palmyra, which has five museums. And I’m also the historian for the Fox sisters’ property in Newark, New York, or Hydesville as I like to call it. And I am also a member of the Newark Arcadia Historical Society.

They actually came to this little house in 1847, and they were there with their mother and father John and Margaret Fox. Their father was a blacksmith by trade. Obviously, their mother was a homemaker. The girls’ names were Margaretta and Catherine, and they were fondly called “Maggie” and “Kate” by their family. And their family moved there because they were building a home that was about two-and-a-half miles up the road, on Parker Road, from where the property is today. And they wanted to be closer to their son, David, whose home is still standing.

Lauren (to Tracy): So they were renting this house while they were building their new house?

Tracy: That’s correct. They were not the first family to actually live in the house. They were about the third family that moved in. It was December, so it was pretty cold. They were really only there for a few months. However, moving into the cottage, one of the first things Mrs. Fox said was “This house is haunted.”

It very much started out as just, you know, quiet little tappings. Like someone would be tapping on your window or your door. And they would go and look and see where the noises were coming from, and could never really find an explanation. And it went on for weeks and weeks, until finally, March 31, the family decided that they were all going to bed early. They were not going to be entertained by this noise that kept happening every night, and their mother instructed the girls that they were to go to bed and nothing was going to be said about this. And so that’s pretty much what happened. They got all settled into bed, and all of a sudden the noises started again.

Lauren: Later in 1848, the Fox sisters’ mother, Margaret, actually publishes a testimony of what happened in the house. And this is a piece of it: “On Friday night, the 31st of March, it was heard as usual…It was very early when we went to bed on this night, hardly dark. We went to bed so early because we had been broken so much of our rest that I was almost sick. My husband had not gone to bed when we first heard the noise on this evening. I had just laid down and it commenced as usual. I knew it from all other noises I had ever heard in the house. The girls, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the noise and tried to make a similar noise by snapping their fingers. The youngest girl is about 12 years old. She is the one who made her hand go, and as fast as she made the noise with her hands or fingers, the sound was followed up in the room. It did not sound any different at that time, only it made the same number of noises that the girl did. When she stopped, the sound itself stopped for a short time. The other girl, who was in her 15th year, then spoke in sport and said, ‘Now do this just as I do. Count one, two, three, four.’ etc., striking one hand and the other at the same time.”

Tracy: But she made no sound, and they heard an immediate four raps. To which she responded, “Oh Mother, look! They can see as well as hear.” They say that Mrs. Fox’s hair turned gray within 24 hours, and I don’t doubt it.

Lauren (still reading): “And then I spoke and said to the noise, ‘Count ten.’ And it made 10 strokes or noises. Then I asked the ages of my different children, successively, and it gave a number of raps corresponding to the ages of my children.”

Tracy: What ended up happening is that their son, David, caught wind of what was going on. And so he came down – this was all still on March 31. He came down, and he suggested writing the letters of the alphabet on pieces of paper and then asking this unknown rapping noise what his name was. You know, first they had to ask, “Is this a human that makes this noise?” to which the response was, “No.” Then they asked, “Is this a spirit?” “Yes.” Once they confirmed that they were dealing with a spirit, then they tried to get more information, which they did. They found out his name was Charles Rosna. He was a traveling peddler who had stopped at the house two families before the Foxes – [and he also said] that he had been murdered and buried in the basement. And so the family went into the basement the next day and started looking for him. Unfortunately, they would start to dig, and they would get a few feet into the ground, and then the basement would start to flood. So, they did eventually have to give it up. They tried a few times, they tried again in July, but it just kept flooding. So, they eventually gave up.

Lauren: I would have been out of that house. I [wouldn’t be] hanging around. But the mother decides – and they’re all devout Methodists – the mother decides that she’s going to bring in the neighbors to see what they think. Outside opinion, what’s going on here. They bring in the neighbors, and they’re convinced too. Eventually, the parents decide it’s best to get the daughters out of this situation. Maybe it’s just the environment, the house that is affecting them. So, they move the two sisters to Rochester to live with their older sister. And now once the girls get into Rochester and are living with the older sister, rather than the rapping decreasing, it seems to increase. And their spiritual communications seem to get stronger.

Devin: One of the reasons it may be that the rappings continue and actually grow in frequency while they’re in Rochester is that their sister, Leah, makes a determination that people will pay to come see them. She comes up with the idea of charging people $1 to have a seance with the Fox sisters.

Tracy: She became their manager, and she basically made sure that they went on a world tour and traveled as far as England.

Maggie being the older of the two, honestly, I don’t think her heart was in it. Kate, out of the two, was probably the strongest medium, had a little more skill, and I think it was because she was younger. It definitely wasn’t easy. You did have a few religions, and Wayne County was known as the Burned Over District because of all of the different religions that were coming all of the time. It seemed like every weekend there was, you know, a Methodist revival or a Presbyterian revival. You had the Mormons, the Shakers, the Quakers. Some say there were the “moneymakers.” It really was a rough time for a lot of people, I think to really understand where the loyalty lied. Every time there was a demonstration, there would be someone right behind them saying, “You just faked it. I saw you move your toe, I saw you do this.”

First of all, women didn’t really have much of a choice when it had to do with anything. We were property. We didn’t have a voice, we couldn’t vote. When the girls were doing demonstrations, you had a panel of scientists and physicians who basically said, “We know you’re faking it, and we’re going to prove it.” And they would make them strip down to nothing and stand on tables while they were calling spirits, to show that they can do these demonstrations. And the men would hold their knees or any of the joints, to make sure that they weren’t doing what they thought they were. They came to the conclusion, especially when they did a demonstration in Corinthian Hall, which was in Rochester, that there was no logical explanation for what they were doing.

Devin: So the fame of the Fox sisters spreads almost instantly. Again I think it’s because of the time. We start seeing rapping spiritualists, as they’re known, kind of popping up around New York, New England, eventually even beyond. It’s a phenomenon where, suddenly, other people can do this. It was something that really began with the Fox sisters, and they continued to be the most famous – and in some cases, their fame led to some distasteful events taking place, including Maggie almost being kidnapped in Troy, New York, after one of their seances, by a group of men who were offended by her ability to speak with the spirits. So, it wasn’t all celebrity wining and dining for these kids at the time. And in 1849, they actually made an attempt to stop doing their routine with spiritualism by saying that the spirits were no longer going to be talking to them. It didn’t last very long, and within a couple of weeks, they were again communing with the spirits. So, it was something that took off and eventually had an entire community of people around the nation believing in it, including some of the more prominent suffragists during the time, like Matilda Joslyn Gage. Others really wanted to believe, I think, because they had recently undergone a tragedy: maybe they lost a child, or they lost somebody close to them, and they wanted to be able to talk with the person from the beyond – which was something that many of the spiritualists offered, the ability to talk to your loved ones. As well as celebrities, if you wanted, like the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Ben Franklin.

Lauren: And as their popularity grows, they start to develop different tactics. It’s not just the rapping that occurs, but they go into trances. One of the sisters is able to write a message at the same time she’s speaking a different message. They develop these skills and different ways to get their message across to all of these believers who are waiting to hear from their deceased loved ones. And as part of this, you know, they’re young girls at the time – they meet potential husbands.

Tracy: Maggie fell in love with a man when she was 16 years old, who was in his late 20s, early 30s. When they were in New York City, he came to see her every single day, and they developed this relationship. Eventually, he was going on a three-year world exploration to Antarctica, and basically told her that he wanted to marry her. Her mother said, “OK.” They were married, in a small ceremony, which basically back then was as easy as the man saying, “I take you as my wife,” and her saying, “I take you as my husband” in front of witnesses, and OK, we’re married. He promised her mother that when he came back, he would announce to the public by putting it in the newspaper that they were married. And you know, everything was wonderful. Being separated from him for three years was hard. But the fact that he died on his trip, at the end of the three years, was even harder. He contracted malaria and died in Havana. She found out through the front page of the newspaper. She basically just became so heartbroken that she never recovered from it, ever. People would find her in New York City laying on random stoops, and she had no idea how she got there, because she was drinking. And that was the only way she knew to cope.

Lauren: They were celebrities of the time, but this only lasted for so long. And as they grew older, of course, Maggie has this bad experience with losing her husband, and does not have a good financial situation – she turns to alcohol. Kate also turns to alcohol. And at the time, there is talk about their older sister, Leah, making threats about Kate not being a fit mother. So, they feel attacked by their sister. And in 1888, something happens that changes the whole perspective on the credibility of the Fox sisters.

Devin: Right, it’s Maggie who does a complete public demonstration of how the Fox sisters were able to make the [raps]. And she did so with her sister in the audience, who basically nodded in ascent that they were making these sounds, at least initially, by cracking their toes on wooden floors. Over time, they were able to change and adapt to doing this in front of a larger audience, and do these other actions in a way that was believable and really exceptionally well done. But it turns out that, at least initially, Maggie says it was all a fraud.

Tracy: In 1888, the big confession mostly came about because these are grown women now – they’re in their late 50s. And you’ve got not a lot of money coming in, because you know, it’s just not as good as it used to be. There is a reporter who approaches Maggie, and he basically said, “Listen, why don’t you just take this money? I’m going to offer you $1,500, and I just need you to go to the Grand Hall and tell people that you faked this.” And so Maggie went on stage and said that her sister and herself faked the whole thing. They did it because they wanted to scare their mother, and it worked. And then their sister got involved, and their sister basically got greedy, saw that she could make money on these guys, and it spiraled out of control from there.

Lauren: They call this confession, the deathblow to spiritualism.

Lauren [to Devin]: So, what do you think?

Devin: Well, I think it’s pretty interesting to think about a time in history when all of the stars were aligned, so to speak, for something like spiritualism to take off – which still exists in some forms. Today, there’s still people who commune with spirits and who believe that they can talk with ancestors and with people who are have passed on. There’s an entire religious movement that has developed called theosophy, which really developed shortly around the time of the Fox sisters, and was first established in New York City, and this group still exists. They believe in the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who was a Russian immigrant, who believed that she could commune with what she called “the masters,” who had one truth that was behind all religions, and that they communicated that truth to her, and that she was able to write it down in book form, and then also give talks and teach others how to be able to access the masters. That became a large movement by the end of the 19th Century, and a worldwide movement, again, still exists to this day. So, the Fox sisters were trailblazers, there’s no doubt. There is no doubt that they were able to gain a level of fame and notoriety that wasn’t common for young women of their day, for sure. We have to think about this as before vaudeville or before any real opportunity for women to be on stages and be the focus of attention in the way that they were. So, they were trailblazers in that regard. And they were also, I think, very much of their time. Their stories were tragic. They both died, essentially, alcoholics, kind of penniless. They weren’t well known by the time they passed away.

Lauren: It kind of reminds me of, sometimes, we hear stories about child actors. Where they have this fame early on, right? They start from relative obscurity – which is true of the Fox sisters, they’re in this very small rural town, with not a lot of entertainment going on, not a lot of things to branch out, and not a lot of opportunity for them. When you’re around 12/15 years old, and they see their mother, you know, that’s kind of the normal trajectory for women in that location at that time to take. If it did start out as a way to scare their mother, or if they really believed that they were hearing something, either way, this was a way to change their lives and to have experiences that they never would have had, if it hadn’t been for this unusual talent that they seemed to have.

Tracy: When people hear the story, they always focus on the confession. That, “Yup, it was a hoax. She told everybody, and she did it in public.” And I always come back with the fact that in 1904, the house was still standing in Hydesville. There were school children playing in the basement, and one of those children fell into the wall, and the wall broke apart. And behind the wall was the skeletal remains of a man, and a tin pack that was very similar to what a peddler traveling in 1846, ’47, ‘48 would have had as well.

Lauren: So let’s go back and talk about what happened to the house. The house was there for several more years. In fact, it stayed there until 1916, when the house was moved to a place called Lilydale, which is a community south of Buffalo known for mediumship and spiritual healing. And it remained in Lilydale until 1955, when unfortunately, it burned down. So, the house no longer exists. However, back in Hydesville, the foundation remained, and an interesting gentleman named John Drummond came and moved onto the property and built a replica house there. So, if you go to Hydesville today, you can visit the Hydesville Memorial Park, which is what the property is now called. And you can look through the windows and see the foundation. You can see down into the foundation, where the story of the murdered peddler takes place. You can see the false wall in the foundation. Many people go there today. And in 2016, the local historical society decided that it would be a good idea to apply to the William G. Pomeroy Foundation to mark the site as the start of the modern spiritualism movement.

In order to learn more about the process, we spoke with David Styles, past president of the Newark Arcadia Historical Society, who formed the committee in order to get this marker erected.

David: That was a back-and-forth type of thing. Many times, Tracy, I’m sure you remember that a little bit. I bet you I came back to you at least three, four, maybe five times at least before we got the wording just like they wanted it – both size and number of letter constraints, and what was written.

Tracy: And we had to prove it. We had to prove everything that we were saying [on the marker].

The big confession, you know, it became known as the death blow to spiritualism. But honestly, when you’ve got a wildfire that burns strong for so many years, it’s hard to put it out. We had the numbers over here, it had already been big in the UK. So, by 1888, we had hundreds of thousands of spiritualists living in America, that I don’t think it made much of a difference. The importance of their story is that you can do anything that you put your mind to, even if other people think you’re crazy. They never gave up. They stayed true to themselves. And look at them: 175 years later, we’re still talking about them. You know, it’s not every day you get to start a movement.