Although they eventually admitted to being frauds, New York’s Fox sisters were the first people to be described as “mediums” as well as the catalysts for the nineteenth century’s Spiritualist Movement.Two rather dubious distinctions for two rather dubious women, if you ask me.
Their success, despite being apparently undeserved, encouraged hundreds of other con artists across the U. S. and Europe to set up shop as so-called spirit communicators.
The entire affair began around 1848, when sisters Margaret and Kate, then aged 15 and 12, and their family started hearing strange noises in the farmhouse they had recently moved into. Although the house had reputedly been a source of such phenomena before, the Fox sisters brought something new to the picture. They found that if they knocked on the table or walls, the sound would be answered by a second knock produced by an unseen force, because, as we all know, unseen forces have nothing better to do with their afterlife than to play “Knock, knock” with pubescent pinheads.
Soon, the girls found that they could communicate with the unseen presence by reciting the alphabet. When they got to a letter that the presence wanted written down, the presence would cause a knocking sound and this allowed it to make its thoughts known to the outside world. The story goes that through these means the girls revealed that the spirit was that of a traveling salesman who had been murdered in the house and buried in the cellar by someone who had finally had enough of traveling salesmen. This, incidentally, explains why the ghost did so much knocking — in death one tends to repeat actions that were common in one’s life. Soon the whole town was abuzz with news of both the girls’ abilities and the supposed murder and some of the locals dug around in the cellar and found human bones and a suitcase filled with Fuller brushes.
With such a success under their girdles, the sisters were soon staging spirit-contacting sessions in front of audiences consisting of hundreds of mentally defective people who had paid for the privilege of being lied to. In the course of these sessions participants would be treated to all the paraphernalia that have since come to be associated with such things, like furniture moving around by itself, mysterious lights and so on. On top of the public shows, they also held private sessions for which they charged a pretty penny. Since not many people would be willing to pay a great deal of money to contact the spirit of a strange salesman, the girls had by this stage started to claim that they could contact the spirits of anyone who had passed over to the great beyond, especially those who had, in life, been related to the especially rich and gullible.
From the start, many were skeptical of the sisters’ abilities and many tried to debunk them (at one point there was even a petition signed by thousands of people asking for the Congress to investigate) but no one ever succeeded in proving the girls to be frauds. At one point, it was suspected that the knocking noises were being created by the girls snapping their knees together, but this theory had to be dismissed after volunteers held the girls’ legs so they couldn’t make the noises yet the noises were still heard. After Margaret’s marriage to a skeptic who refused to let her continue as a medium, Kate continued to work alone for private individuals such as a man whose dead wife she supposedly contacted several hundred times, mostly by email — a remarkable achievement, given that neither the computer nor email had yet been invented. At other times, the woman’s spirit would actually become visible and would write messages down on paper, though your guess is as good as mine as to why this spectral woman didn’t speak her messages rather than write them down! Perhaps the afterlife renders one mute…
Kate eventually moved to the UK where she continued to give private séances for members of the upper class. Meanwhile back in the US, Margaret had converted to Catholicism, a religion then opposed to spiritualism, and admitted in 1888 that the pair had faked the entire thing by popping their finger and toe joints to create the mysterious sounds. Though this claim might be seen as an attempt to get attention, or perhaps as some sort of revenge against her much more successful sister, it was later confirmed by Kate herself and both women made strong statements condemning the entire field of spiritualism as an absolute fraud. Not that doing so made much difference to the fans of spiritualism. Adding to the controversy is the fact that a while later both women retracted their confessions with Margaret claiming that anti-spiritualists had somehow coerced her into making a fake admission of guilt, possibly by threatening to tell the world about that improper relationship she had once had with a goat. And who knows, perhaps the confessions really were bogus, or perhaps the two women realized they had slaughtered a huge cash cow and tried to revive it. But by then nobody was buying their act anymore and a few years later both women died in abject poverty, shunned by their former friends and followers, all of which goes to show that ghosts may or may not be real, but Karma is definitely a bitch.