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Fox sisters launch Spiritualism by fooling around

Tijana Radeska
The three sisters

Back in 1848, there were three sisters from New York who claimed to have supernatural powers. There were stories about their so called “haunted house” and the sisters claimed that they have the ability to communicate with ghosts. For many years they were respected as mediums in the States as well as in Europe.

The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaret, Kate and Leah

The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaret, Kate, and Leah

It all started when the two younger sisters, Margaret and Catherine, convinced their much older sister Leah that they can communicate with ghosts by using “raps.” One of them would have raised her hand and ask the spirit how many fingers she’s showing and then the ghost would rap the number. So,  Leah stepped into the role of a manager of her two younger sisters.

Raps could be heard quite often in the house, and the mother of the sisters was quite upset about it. One evening, Kate challenged the spirit to knock the number of her pointing fingers and it did. They also asked it to knock in the number of their ages and it did, again.

When the neighbors were invited to witness their supernatural powers, the girls had already developed a more profound communication with the spirit. It could indicate a letter of the alphabet or signify “yes” or “no”.

They called their home spirit – Mr. Splitfoot, which is a nickname for the Devil, but through their code and more frequent communication they learnt that Mr. Splitfoot is Charles B. Rosna, a street vendor, who had been murdered and buried in the cellar, five years earlier .

The three sisters

The three sisters

Arthur Conan Doyle who, of course, believed that the sisters’ supernatural powers were genuine, claimed in his writings that the neighbors dug up the cellar and indeed found some bone remains. Moreover, back in 1904, an actual skeleton was discovered in the cellar of the wall, but there has never been an identification of a missing person named Charles B. Rosna.

As the rumors about the sisters were spreading around, many people began to visit their house and eagerly wished to become convinced in their powers. Meanwhile, the sisters were sent to the nearby town. Kate was sent to her sister Leah’s house (who got married in the meantime) and Maggie went to her brother’s home. The rappings followed them wherever they went.

Amy Post, around 1885

Amy Post, around 1885

Later, friends of the Fox family called Amy and Isaac Post, a radical Quaker couple, invited the girls as guests in their home. Soon, they were soon convinced in the girls’ ability to communicate with spirits and introduced them to the broader circle of Quakers who became the early core of Spiritualists.

They were also the core of the association between Spiritualism and radical political causes,  such as abolition, temperance, and equal rights for women.

Isaac Post

Isaac Post

In 1849, the Fox sisters performed their spiritual communication in front of an audience in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester. This was also the first demonstration of spiritualism by spiritualist mediums which began a tradition followed by many others, first in the States and later in Europe.

Kate and Margaret were recognized by the public as mediums and gave seances to many people. Many asked them to communicate with the deceased. The girls were also followed by numerous imitators who claimed to have the same abilities, but none of them succeeded in gaining as much attention as the Fox sisters.

The sisters got Horace Greeley as their protector. Greeley was the founder and editor of the “New York Tribune,” who enabled them to climb up the social ladder.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Even though with the outbreak of Spiritualism many people were willing to believe in the Supernatural, some skeptics and scientists wanted to find a logical explanation of the events. So, many of them started investigating the sisters since the 1850s.

In 1850, the physician E. P. Langworthy noted that the raps would appear from under the girls’ feet or when their dresses were touching the table. He argued that the Fox sisters were producing the knocks themselves. A few other people had the same theory about the case.

In the following years, many papers which were written about the Fox sisters claimed that their ability for supernatural communication is a hoax.

In 1857, there was a prize of $500 set by the “Boston Courier” for any person who can perform a paranormal activity to their committee. When the Fox sisters checked in to demonstrate their abilities, they were investigated by three Harvard professors who concluded that the raps were produced by the sisters themselves by making certain movements with their feet and bones.

The Fox sisters in 1852

The Fox sisters in 1852

In 1904, a wall in the Fox home fell down and bones were discovered in the cellar in a box which is now exhibited in the Lily Dale Musem.

Media covered the event but an independent researcher who investigated the box concluded that the bones’ owner wasn’t the vendor with whom the sisters communicated neither that the bones were human, but rather of an animal.

The Fox sisters were popular and significant for the Spiritualist movement, indeed, but they began drinking too much alcohol and started having drinking problems.

Soon the truth was not only a speculation by skeptics and scientists but also by people who were close to them and helped them during their performances. By 1888, the sisters themselves confessed that the raps were just a hoax they created.

They explained that they convinced their family by tying an apple to a string and moving the strip up and down, thus causing the apple to hit the floor or the wall and make a rapping sound.

They said that their mother believed in their innocence because they seemed too young to create such a fraud. They confessed how easily they tricked everyone.

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The sisters died in poverty shortly after their confessions. Their reputation was ruined and they were excluded from all social circles where they use to hang out. However, the Spiritualism continued as if the sisters’ confessions had never happened.