What’s Halloween without a scary story?
Unlike most tales of this spooky season, this one actually happened. It scared an entire generation and even spawned a religious movement. This is how three sisters’ supernatural experiences created spiritualism.
The Fox sisters were typical adolescents living in upstate New York. One day in 1848, 14-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate frantically ran up to a neighbor on a road. They told a terrifying account of strange occurrences inside their home. They’d heard rapping on the wall and furniture at night. It felt like beings from another world were trying to communicate with them. The neighbor wanted to witness the phenomenon and returned with the girls to the Fox home.
The visitor was told to count to five. The room echoed with five heavy thuds. She was told to count to 15. This time, there were 15 distinct thuds. They asked the spirit to identify the visitor’s age; the women counted 33 distinct raps, the correct answer. “If you are an injured spirit,” the supernatural visitor was instructed, “answer with three raps.” And three raps sounded.
Deeply frightened, their mother packed the girls off to live with their older married sister Leah in Rochester. Locals Isaac and Amy Post heard about the sisters’ strange experience and invited them to their home. They wanted to reach their young daughter who had recently died. The result: another round of rapping and tapping.
The Posts were so convinced the Fox sisters had found a way to contact the departed, they rented a hall. Some 400 people came to hear the sounds for themselves.
Word spread. Prominent “seer” Andrew Jackson Davis invited the sisters for a demonstration at his New York City home. He hopped on the bandwagon of the girl’s fame and used it to found Spiritualism. It preached that contacting departed loved ones provided glimpses into your own eternal destination, making real-time corrections possible. (Think Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”)
The sisters had stumbled upon a lucrative living. Kate and Maggie took the act on the road to Cleveland, St. Louis, and Washington, where Americans paid a staggering $1 each to hear about the newly-opened door to the "other side." Leah held forth in New York City, whose who’s who attended her private seances.
But not everyone was convinced. The journal Scientific American dismissed them as “The Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” (“Knockers” was slang for “hicks” back then.)
The Civil War provided spiritualism’s highwater mark. With the country awash in more than 500,000 deaths, grieving families were eager to hear from the fallen. First lady Mary Lincoln reportedly held seances in the White House, trying to get in touch with dead sons Eddie and Willie.
Although there were doubters, nobody ever exposed how the sisters made the mysterious sounds. In the end, personal rivalry proved their undoing.
Kate developed a drinking problem that grew so bad, Leah and top spiritualist leaders publicly scolded her. Maggie was furious over the way Kate was treated and got her revenge in a tell-all expose published October 1888 in the New York World (which paid her a whopping $1,500 fee).
She confessed that, as girls, she and Kate had tied apples to strings and dragged them along floorboards to make thudding sounds. She told how they progressed to secretly moving their knuckles and toes to create tapping noises.
It was all a hoax.
The revelation caused a major schism among spiritualists. Maggie recanted her confession a year later, which only increased the number of people fleeing the movement.
Maggie and Leah hadn’t reconciled when Leah died in 1890. Kate passed away during a drinking binge two years later; Maggie followed eight months after that. With America preparing to enter the 20th Century, spiritualism’s glory days were over.
It’s okay to be frightened this Halloween by things that go bump in the night. But be sure to check for apples with strings tied to them, just to be safe.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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