Have you ever participated in a séance or tried to contact the "spirits" using a Ouija board? You probably don't realize it, but the modern conception of communicating with the dead only dates back to the late 1840s. Here's the story of the hoax that started spirit-mania.
BUMP IN THE NIGHT
In 1848 a devout Methodist farmer named John Fox and his family began to hear strange noises in their Hydesville, New York, farmhouse. The noises continued for weeks on end, until finally on one particularly noisy evening, Mrs. Fox ordered the two children, 13-year-old Margaret and 12-year-old Kate, to stay perfectly quiet in bed while Mr. Fox searched the house from top to bottom. His search shed no light on the mystery, but afterward, Margaret sat up in bed and snapped her fingers, exclaiming, "Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do!"
"The reply was immediate," Earl Fornell writes in The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox. "The invisible rapper responded by imitating the number of the girl's staccato responses."
Mrs. Fox began to make sense of what she was hearing. "Count ten," she told the spirit. It responded with ten raps. So she asked several questions; each time the spirit answered correctly. Next, Mrs. Fox asked the spirit if it would rap if a neighbor was present; the spirit said yes. So Mr. Fox ran and got a neighbor, the first of more than 500 neighbors and townspeople who visited over the next few weeks to watch Margaret and Kate interact with the spirit. As long as either Margaret or Kate was present, the spirit was willing to communicate.
Using an alphabetic code that Margaret and Kate devised, "Mr. Split-foot" explained that in his Earthly life he'd been a peddler, murdered by the person who lived in the farmhouse. The spirit identified the killer as "C. R." Some citizens tracked down a man named Charles Rosana, who'd lived in the house years earlier, but with no body and no evidence other than the testimony of a ghost, he was never charged.
At that point, Mrs. Fox decided to send Margaret and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fish, in Rochester. As soon as the girls left Hydesville, the strange noises and spirit visitations stopped.
When they arrived in Rochester, Margaret and Kate let their older sister, Leah, in on the secret: the whole thing -the rappings, the spirits, "Mr. Split-foot," the "murder," and everything else- was a hoax. "We wanted to terrify our dear mother," Margaret told the New York Herald in 1888.
The girls started out by tying a string to an apple and bouncing it repeatedly on the floor, but soon discovered they could make loud popping noises by cracking the joints in their big toes. They also figured out how to project the sounds around the room, in much the same way that ventriloquists throw their voices, which helped make the rapping sounds convincing.
THE SOUND OF MONEY
By now the prank had gone on too long; Mrs. Fox was so upset by the idea of her two young girls talking to dead people that Margaret started feeling guilty and decided to put an end to it. She and Kate staged one last "farewell" rap session, then had the "spirits" announce that their Earthly work was done and that they would no longer try to make contact with the living.
The only problem was that their sister Leah made her living running a music studio, and when Margaret and Kate had come to live with her, their notoriety scared away all her pupils. So Leah convinced them to help her by forming a spiritualist society and staging a series of public demonstrations of spirit rapping in Corinthian Hall, the town's largest auditorium. Price of admission: $1 per person.
The audiences of these shows were fooled by the mysterious rappings, and within weeks a number of "spirit circles" formed in Rochester and began hiring the Fox sisters to perform séances in private homes. When people began to tire of listening to Mr. Split-foot, the sisters discovered they could communicate with the spirits of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and William Shakespeare.
It was from this modest beginning -two young girls figuring out how to make mysterious noises by popping their big toes, and an intimidating third sister figuring out how to exploit it- that "Split-foot" spiritualism went on to become what may have been the fastest-growing spiritual movement in the history of the United States.
IN THE RIGHT PLACE, AT THE RIGHT TIME
The Fox sisters didn't know it, but they were perfectly poised to fill the spiritual void created by advances in 19th-century science and the Industrial Revolution. According to Earl Fornell:
The appearance of these emissaries from another world was particularly welcome, for the rise of science in the early decades of the 19th century had, to some extent, brought into question the validity of older religious dogmas. Such reform movements as Utopian socialism, temperance, abolitionism, and feminism arose from a demand for a better life on earth, since science seemed to promise no afterlife... Still another endeavor was a frenzied search for positive and immediate proof of the immortality that science seemed then to set aside.
The possibility of talking to the departed took the public imagination by storm. Here are a few examples of how deeply "spiritualism" pervaded the culture:
* A judge in upstate New York developed a reputation for consulting the spirits before handing down rulings.
* Some enthusiasts became so convinced that life was better "on the other side" that they committed suicide rather than waste a lifetime waiting for paradise.
* In 1853 some New Yorkers formed a group called the Free Spirit Love Society, which forbade extramarital affairs in all instances ...except those in which the adulterer "entered into a new relation under the guidance of spiritual affinities or attractions." At its peak the society boasted of more than 600 members.
* In 1856 a Bordentown, New Jersey, man died just days before he was supposed to marry his fiancé. Rather than cancel the wedding, the man's family and his bride-to-be turned it into a wedding-funeral, hiring a medium to marry the bride to her fiancé's corpse before it was laid to rest.
SHE KEEPS GOING... AND GOING... AND GOING...
The public's desire to believe was so great that the Fox sisters were able to keep their hoax going for more than 40 years. The spiritualism craze faded somewhat in the late 1850s but came roaring back following the outbreak of the Civil War, as thousands of bereaved families tried desperately to get in contact with loved ones killed in battle.
Even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln brought spiritualists to the White House so that she could speak to her dead sons Tad and Willie. In 1872, seven years after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Mrs. Lincoln visited Fox several times and each time came away convinced that, through Margaret, she'd made contact with "the real presence of the spirit of her husband."
One of the curses of founding this fraudulent movement was that Margaret and Kate had to spend most of their time in the presence of true believers. Both women grew to hate their lives; both became alcoholics. And though Leah Fish had grown rich off years of public performances, Margaret and Kate had not.
By the late 1870s, Margaret was still giving public performances, but she was suffering from depression and worked only a few hours each week -just long enough to make the money she needed to "drown my remorse in wine," as she put it. Somehow, she managed to keep going for another ten years.
Then in September 1888, a reporter for the New York Herald asked Fox to comment on the case of another spiritualist, who'd recently been exposed as a fraud. Margaret told the reporter that spiritualism was bogus and promised one day to give "an interesting exposure of the fraud."
Rather than wait, the Herald sent a reporter the next day. As promised, Fox delivered -and over the next few hours laid out her bizarre life story in lurid detail. There was no truth to spiritualism, she told the reporter, and she said she more than anyone else should know it.
"I have explored the unknown as far as a human can," she told the reporter. "I have gone to the dead so that I might get from them some little token... I have tried to obtain some sign. Not a thing! No, the dead shall never return."
And in case anyone didn't believe her -in fact, many spiritualists blamed booze for the "false confession"- Fox gave a public confession and demonstration of her methods at New York's Academy of Music. The New York Herald described the scene:
Everybody in the hall knew they were looking at the woman principally responsible for spiritualism. She stood upon a pine table, with nothing on her feet but stockings. As she remained motionless, loud distinct rappings were heard, now behind the scenes, now in the gallery. She had a devil's gift in a rapping ventriloquism, from which spiritualism had sprung to life, and here was the same toe rapping it out of existence.
DIDN'T SEE THIS COMING
The cash Margaret Fox made selling her story didn't last long. Neither did the money she made on tours exposing the fraud of spiritualism. When the public's interest in her exposé dried up, she became so desperate for money that she recanted her confession and went back out on the séance circuit. She toured the country for the next five years, until finally in 1893, like her sister Kate, she died drunk, broke, and alone.
The funeral arrangements were handled by a friend of Margaret's, Titus Merritt, "the mortician," Fornell writes, "at whose establishment she often spent long nights, sitting amongst the corpses watching for some signs of spirit life."
The signs never came.
_________________________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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