The Fox Sisters
It is Halloween Sunday. A storm is fixin’ to hit New York. The Falcons are playing the Philadelphia Eagles, with Mike Vick at quarterback. Number seven was the most exciting athlete in recent memory. He went to prison for dog fighting.
The story today is borrowed from Backstory. The same story is told, in greater detail, at The Memory Palace. Both of these fine podcasts enjoy receiving contributions from grateful listeners.
The pictures are from The Library of Congress. Some of these pictures are from Clarksdale MS. This is where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil. The pictures were taken in 1936, two years before the death of Mr. Johnson.
People said the house was haunted and that was even before the two girls started talking to the dead. Kate Fox was 11, her sister Margaret was 14 when they moved into a little house in a nothing village 40 miles east of Rochester, New York, the little house that all their neighbors knew as the one where the traveling salesman had been invited in years before and was never heard from again. Never heard from, that is, until one night in March of 1848, when their parents first heard the sounds. Some nights it would sound like knocking. Other nights like furniture moving and it always seemed to come from the girls’ bedroom but they’d open the door and their daughters would be fast asleep. They never suspected that their daughters could be tricking them. They were just young girls, but they were tricking them. What started with a little tap tapping on the wall and tip-toeing back into bed with giggles muffled by pillows got more sophisticated as the nights went on and on the night of March 31st, the Fox sisters revealed the latest in their growing repertoire of ghost-simulating techniques, the one that would place the two girls at the center of a cultural and religious revolution.
They called their mother into the room. Margaret snapped her fingers once—snap–and they heard a tap in response. She snapped twice—snap snap—and then tapped twice—knock knock. The next night all of their neighbor squeezed into the girls’ candlelit room. They explained that one tap meant yes, two taps meant no and then they started asking questions and in the morning, the audience left convinced that they had spent the night in the presence of a dead man and two girls with incredible powers.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox wanted to protect their daughters and they sent them to live with their responsible older sister, Leah, but they soon found that the ghosts followed the girls and Leah found an opportunity. Soon, she had booked her little sisters in a 400-seat theater in Rochester. By 1850, they were the toast of New York City. People would wait in lines for hours to ask the sisters for words of their dead loved ones on the other side.
William Cullen Bryant caught their act. James Fenimore Cooper. George Ripley, though we don’t know whether he believed it or not. The newspaperman, Horace Greeley, introduced them to New York nightlife and in the pages of his paper, introduced them to the world. Soon people were holding séances like we hold dinner parties but even as spiritualism was sweeping the nation, it was leaving the sisters who started it behind.
On October 21st, 1888, a 54-year-old Margaret Fox sat on the stage at the New York Academy of Music in front of two thousand paying customers and showed them all how she spoke to the dead. She told them about how 40 years before back in that little house in the nothing town after a few nights of knocking and tip-toeing back to bed, she and her little sister realized that they could both crack their toes and no one could see them doing it and that when they did, people actually believed they were hearing from dead people, because sounds are hard to place in space and because you’ll believe pretty much anything if you really want to believe it. She revealed all of that but not everything.
She didn’t tell them about how she and her little sister started to unravel not long after Horace Greeley introduced them to the world and to worldly things like power and wealth and wine. She didn’t tell them about how her sister began to believe that maybe there was something to it all, even as they both struggled under the growing weight of their shared secret and she certainly didn’t tell them about the night she tested her own believed after scurvy had taken the life of a Polar explorer who had taken her heart and how she broke down and tried to contact him, tried to do for real what she had spent the last nine years pretending to do. She didn’t say how she called out to him and how he didn’t call back and how she sat in the dark knowing that he never would.
Kate and Margaret Fox weren’t forgotten, but at the times of their deaths, they weren’t remembered fondly. Each died poor, neither living to see 60. The people who still clung to spiritualism were glad to see them go and people who never believed, they were, too.
Now, there is a postscript here that really can’t be resisted and you can do with what you will. They tore that little house down in 1904. Inside one of the walls near the girls’ room they found the skeleton of a man believed to be a traveling salesman who appeared to have been murdered a few years before the Fox family moved in. It’s true.