The Fox sister’s story has been told hundreds of times, in autobiography, newspaper stories, biographies, histories of Spiritualism, Victorian entertainment, women’s rights movements, and many other contexts. Today we’re going to share some insights into Maggie and Kate Fox’s life, how their stories have been told, and why the way we tell these kinds of histories matter.

Transcript for “The World’s Greatest Show: (No, not that one) Spectacle and Spiritualism in the Lives of Maggie and Kate Fox”

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Averill: On November 14, 1849, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox and Catherine “Kate” Fox took the stage of Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. They’d made the announcement about the demonstration with the following words:

Let the citizens of Rochester embrace this opportunity of investigating the whole matter, and see if those engaged in laying it before the public are deceived, or are deceiving others, and, if neither [let them] account for these truly wonderful manifestations…. Come and investigate.[1]

From the very beginning, mediums like the Fox sisters invited speculation, skepticism, and controversy — like the other Victorian entertainments of the day (scientific lectures, freak shows, theatrical productions, magic acts, and the like), the physical medium had to dazzle her seance sitters, whether she was performing on a huge lecture stage or in a private parlor room. Four hundred paying “sitters” witnessed the adolescent girls’ first major public appearance as physical mediums, where they demonstrated their ability to communicate with the dead.[2]

Marissa: The Fox sisters’ public appearance came after months of family turmoil, as wherever the girls went, restless spirits seemed to plague the house. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his History of Spiritualism, claims that “Every effort was made to conceal these manifestations from the public, but they soon became known.” Contemporaries declared that when the girls were present, spirits were able to push through the veil just a little, to make rapping sounds that the girls then translated into yes, no, and eventually an alphabet. After that successful first night, the Fox sisters’ stunning performance went on the road, and the girls booked performances all over the US and Europe. 

Averill: When word got out about the extraordinary phenomena, everyone wanted a piece of Maggie and Kate Fox. The grieving wanted access to their lost loved ones. The calculating wanted to mobilize the lucrative potential that public demonstrations of spirit communication could bring. The skeptics and Gotcha-Journalists wanted the girls to disrupt what they saw as, at best, a farce, and at worst, malicious fraud. For the first decade of their rising fame, Maggie and Kate were effectively children at the mercy of the adults around them. Whether their talent was genuine or a trick, they were launched into fame and notoriety–and not to their benefit, in the end. But, as journalist Barbara Weisberg demonstrates in her engaging biography, the girls were never without agency, and together, or under the wing of their sister, they participated in and navigated the vibrant Victorian era of spectacular shows and radical religiosity. Their fame launched Spiritualism into a popular religion, with huge numbers joining during and after both the Civil War and WW1.

Marissa: In 1870, Rev. Thomas Grimshaw received a spirit communication, in which one of his regular spirit connections instructed him to recognize the Fox sisters’ event in Hydesville as the start of Spiritualism. “Whereas Spiritualism has become a power in the land and may be deemed the great growing religious idea of the country; and, It is well to revert to the time of small beginnings and hold in remembrance the first pioneers in this Spiritual movement; therefore, ‘Resolved, that this convention recommend to all State conventions and local societies to make the time of the appearance of the Hydesville rappings an anniversary day, the services of that day to be conducted in each locality as may be deemed most practical.’” The Fox sisters were well-known at that point, their story being already recorded in works like Robert Davis Owen’s 1860 compendium of spirit communication across the US and Europe. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World includes a succinct summary of the 1848 events in Hydesville, and was referenced widely by subsequent 19th century scholars of Spiritualism. The Fox sisters’ success lent the growing Spiritualist movement the kind of world-renown it needed to gain followers. Though, according to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, the Hydesville rappings weren’t acknowledged formally as the origin story until Grinshaw’s spirit message in 1870, the girls had long held a unique place in Spiritualist circles.

Averill: The Fox sister’s story has been told hundreds of times, in autobiography, newspaper stories, biographies, histories of Spiritualism, Victorian entertainment, women’s rights movements, and many other contexts. Today we’re going to share some insights into Maggie and Kate Fox’s life, how their stories have been told, and why the way we tell these kinds of histories matter.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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The Fox Sisters, Black and White Lithograph
The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaretta, Kate and Leah. By N. Currier (Firm) – Library of Congress

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. I want to thank Lisa Morton, Anne Braude, David Chapin, Barabara Weisberg, and Simone Natalie in particular for their work. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode in our show notes on our website,  And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!

And really briefly, just as a reminder on some of the terminology we’re using when we talk about Spiritualism. A medium is someone who is able to channel or communicate with the dead. A physical medium specifically facilitates that connection through some kind of physical manifestation – that might be the sounds of raps or knocks, or it might be a spinning table, or a piano that plays itself, or ectoplasm that emerges from a medium and takes the shape of a spirit. 

Marissa: The story of the Fox sisters and their ability to communicate with the dead is the story that Spiritualists today mark as the origin of their church. Churches don’t typically spring up from adolescent girls, but they were in the right place at the right time. If the Fox sisters built the walls of the house of Spiritualism, the Second Great Awakening laid the foundation. The Second Great Awakening was a period of religious revival that started in the 1820s-ish, consisting mostly of Protestant movements in the northern United States, but not all. The Second Great Awakening period was marked by the idea that people could bring about the 2nd coming of Christ through perfecting society (either through religious reform and new ideas about sin/relationships to God, or by perfecting society, like through temperance). We’re talking tons of religious experimentation and seeking, and that middle third of the nineteenth century saw all kinds of new religious movements pop up. In the first half of the nineteenth century, western and central New York was a hotbed of heady religious revival and radical activism. Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventism got their start within a day’s ride from Hydesville, NY, and there were several utopian and intentional socialist communities founded nearby.

Averill: For example, in 1847, John Humphrey Noyes was forced out of Vermont because his Christian perfectionist ideas got him arrested for adultery, and he took his followers west to Oneida, where they founded an intentional community. The Oneida Community thrived until 1879, when Noyes got wind that he was going to be arrested for statutory rape–a result of the “complex marriage” ideology that he enforced in Oneida–and the community was dissolved in 1881. Fire lit, fire burn, fire extinguished.

Marissa: This was the “Burned Over District,” a title given to western and central NY by Presbyterian minister Charles G. Finney (whom Noyes credited with his inspiration for the Oneida community) because the area seemed to catch men on fire. In his 1876 Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, he wrote “I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.”

Averill: And of course it wasn’t just religion that caught fire in the region. 1848 was the year of the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY, not even 25 miles from the Fox home. Vegetarianism, abolition, and prohibition also found fervent believers and advocates in this area.

Marissa: We can’t really know if John D. Fox moved his family into western New York in the 1820s because of the appeal of religious revival and radical social and political movements. According to Barbara Weisberg, he was a deeply religious man, a Methodist who knelt in prayer “each morning and night”, but his motivations were probably financial more than spiritual.[3] Whatever the case, when he and his wife rented the little house in Hydesville while they waited for their own home to be built, they settled in an area that was just the right temperature for two adolescent girls who could convincingly demonstrate the ability to communicate with the dead.

Averill: [[Side bar: Interestingly, there are different reports on their ages in different sources. The account kept in the reading room of the Lily Dale Museum says that they were 9 (Kate) and 11 (Maggie) at the time of the disturbances. In his history of Spiritualism (which was published in 1860, so I’m sure there were lots of historians who were like “that’s not history”) Robert Davis Owen said that they were 9 and 12, respectively. A more recent author, Barbara Weisman states that they were 11 and 14 at the time of the rappings in 1848. An old memorial headstone in Brooklyn NY says that Margaret was born in October, 1833, and Kate in March 1837, which would have them 14 and just barely 11 in March 1848, during the rappings. Another memorial headstone has very different birth dates: Maggie in October 1837, and Kate in March 1839, which would have put them at 11 and 9, closer to the dates in the official “Fox Sisters” binder at Lily Dale. I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate that clearly identifies which of these is correct. So it’s safer to just say that they were adolescents. Back to the story.]]

Marissa: As Uriah Smith, author of the 1896 Modern Spiritualism, notes, “Spiritualism, as the reader is doubtless aware, originated in the family of Mr. John D. Fox, in Hydesville…in the spring of 1848.”[4]  After a long and bitter winter in a rented house just outside of Rochester, the Fox family began to hear raps and knocks in the house. They brought in neighbors and friends to verify the sounds. The adolescent daughters, Kate and Maggie, worked out a system of ‘communication’ that the raps seemed to respond to, like a rough Morse code system. The family and their neighbors and some friends asserted that the raps were a spirit attempting to communicate with the inhabitants of the house. Because that was taken as evidence of an afterlife, and of the living’s ability to speak to the dead, Spiritualism was born.

Averill: Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Also, religions aren’t actually born. There are people that take ideas and revelations and what have you, and they put them together, tell other people about them, and then maybe, if the conditions are right, those people might build a community or following based on those ideas and revelations. So there was a lot that happened between the 1848 rappings in Hydesville and the founding of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches in 1893. But that more complex in between is for another day, and maybe even another project… like our Lily Dale book! Today I want to tease out this origin story a bit more, with a focus on Maggie and Kate Fox, and their role in the development of a major religious and theatrical Victorian movement. You know some of the story, but let’s go back to the beginning.

Marissa: The Fox family huddled together in their shared bedroom, terrified by the mysterious raps and knocks that seem to fill the room. John and Margaret, the parents, were already in their 50s, and probably kind of hoping that they could settle down to a quiet Godly life on their new farm, once construction was completed. But instead they were living in a rented, and apparently haunted, house. Night after night, the noises continued, keeping the family awake and disturbed by the phenomenon. But then, in a fit of pique, the two adolescent daughters began to communicate with the source of the noises, a restless spirit. According to their mother’s account of the events, recorded in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The History of Spiritualism, her “youngest child, Cathie, said : “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,” clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped, the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, “Now, do just as I do. Count one, two, three, four,” striking one hand against the other at the same time; and the raps came as before. She was afraid to repeat them.”

Averill: But Cathie and Maggie’s mother, Margaret Smith, thought the girls had the right of it, and tested the entity that seemed to be in their house.

“I then thought I could put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the noise to rap my different children’s ages, successively. Instantly, each one of my children’s ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualize them until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child. I then asked : ” Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly ? ” There was no rap. I asked: “Is it a spirit ? If it is, make two raps.” Two sounds were given as soon as the request was made. I then said : “If it was an injured spirit, make two raps,” which were instantly made, causing the house to tremble. I asked : “Were you injured in this house ?” The answer was given as before. “Is the person living that injured you ? ” Answered by raps in the same manner. I ascertained by the same method that it was a man, aged thirty-one years, that he had been murdered in this house, and his remains were buried in the cellar ; that his family consisted of a wife and five children, two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death, but that his wife had since died. I asked : “Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbours that they may hear it too ?” The raps were loud in the affirmative.[5]

Marissa: John invited a neighbor over to verify, and when the neighbor called out the alphabet, he was able to spell out messages because the spirit responded by rapping on desired letters. They asked the spirit more questions, and got responses in a series of one, three or five raps. They learned that its the spirit of a peddler, who was murdered in their house years before they lived there, his bones buried in the basement. Later, upon digging out the basement, they found bones.

Averill: Important people from the nearby city, Rochester, quickly heard about the goings-on in Hydesville. Isaac and Amy Post invited Maggie and Kate to their home, and Isaac, who later called himself the “Doubting Thomas” figure of the girls spiritual movement, was quickly convinced that their gifts were real. As major figures in the Rochester abolitionist and women’s rights movement, the Posts had extensive connections with elite New York society. They arranged small gatherings in their home with the girls, trying each week to contact the dead.[6] The Posts introduced the Foxes to Eliab Capron, a journalist and the 96th signer of the Declaration of Sentiments that came out of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, and, according to some, he became the girls de facto manager, publicist, and (later) apologist.

Marissa: The girls demonstrated their communicative prowess for neighbors, family, and eventually strangers, and were able to take their talents on the road. Within a year they were talking to the dead in homes and auditoriums across New York state, and within five years they were traveling all across the country and even to Europe to give demonstrations of their gifts. Their demonstrations seemed, to many, evidence of life after death, providing much-needed comfort and reassurance in the age of horrific steam-powered deaths and industrialization, the Crimean War, and then the American Civil War. Other Spirit mediums–people who communicated with, or channeled, Spirit–followed in their footsteps, connecting the living with the dead all around the world.[7]

Averill: This is the version of the story that you’ll encounter in most places. It is heavily influenced by the Fox daughter’s versions of the story, which they published as autobiographies, and the earliest historians of the Spiritualist movement, who were themselves believers. So it should come as no surprise that there is a baseline of belief in the telling of this history. Arthur Conan Doyle, Uriah Smith, Robert Owen Davis, and the many other nineteenth century and early twentieth century historians of Spiritualism took their collected oral histories at face value, and never doubted the validity of the phenomena that surrounded the Fox sisters. Some more modern biographies, like Barbara Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead, are a bit more careful. While Weisberg, for example, tells the story of the March 31, 1848 rappings with much the same straight-forwardness as the Doyle section that we quoted just a minute ago, she also introduces context that might lead the reader to think critically about the tableau she unfolds. She describes the long, bitter winter, and how the girls must have been deeply bored. Most folks will read that and think to themselves, could those girls have been playing a prank on their parents? 

Marissa: But softening the edges of 19th century physical medium performances denies its richer history. At 25 cents a head in a theater that could seat 500+ and fill, it was undoubtedly obvious to people like Leah Fox, the Davenport brothers (from Buffalo!), and the hundreds of other mediums, that spirit mediumship could be a profitable business, like any of the live Victorian entertainments that made their rounds in rural and urban America and Europe. From P.T. Barnum to Harry Houdini, if you could put on a great show, you could make a pretty penny. For decades, the public face – and evangelical element – of Spiritualism was physical phenomena, like the raps and knocks produced by the Fox sisters, but also moving tables, voices that seemed to emanate from all corners of the room, ghostly instruments that played themselves, and even apparitions with faces that resembled famous folk or relatives. Physical mediums like the Davenport Brothers, Madame d’Esperance, Cora Scott, and Daniel Dunglas Home followed closely on the successes of the Fox sisters.

Averill: Not all histories, those written in the 19th century or those written in the 21st, ignore the sharper edges of mediumship. Simone Natale’s book – Supernatural Entertainments – really brilliantly argues that these kinds of mediums both contributed to and built upon the Victorian spectacular entertainment industry that developed in the nineteenth century. As she notes, “Many spiritualist mediums were virtually indistinguishable from professional performers: they had managers and agents, advertised their performances in the press, and developed spirit phenomena characterized by a high degree of spectacularism and theatricality.”[8] And Natale was not the first to contextualize physical medium performances in the Victorian entertainment culture. Robert Dale Owen’s 1860 Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, explicitly ties the “Hydesville rappings” to a longer history of scientific discovery, prefacing the origin story of Spiritualism with a discussion of Alexander Hume, Michael Faraday, and other prominent scientists–who all made a living, funded their research, and established their ideas through public lectures and demonstrations[9]

Marissa: Of course there were also, from the very beginning, belligerently non-believer accounts and diatribes against the Fox sisters and their claims. Maggie and Kate were tested in Buffalo by C. Chauncey Burr and a team of Buffalo medical professors in 1851 and by the Seybert Commission from Pittsburgh in 1884, among others. Burr’s team of professors found that the girls made no sounds when their feet and knees were placed on cushions. The Seybert Commission, a group of faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, investigated a number of respected Spiritualist mediums between 1884–1887. The Seybert Commission found that the Fox sister’s raps were erratic and, while they couldn’t detect Maggie’s foot moving, they did detect some kind of pulsation emanating from her body.[10] Like every case they investigated, the Seybert Commission suggested that there was fraud in every case that they examined, including the Fox sisters, even when they couldn’t explicitly provide proof of said fraud. 

Averill: There are also historians today who privilege that kind of confrontational, rational framework when writing this history. In The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox, Nancy Rubun Stuart frames the raps as a “mischievous plan” “hatched by bored teenage girls.”[11]  In an article from 2000, historian David Chapin wrote:

In late March, 1848, a few months after moving into a new home in the small community of Hydesville in western New York, John and Margaret Fox became the victims of a prank perpetrated by their two youngest daughters. Perhaps the girls were restless and bored after a long northern winter in a new home, or perhaps they were just naturally mischievous, but on several nights in late March, when they were supposed to be sleeping, they engaged in a little mischief making that would have consequences far beyond their own childish intentions. Taking apples from the cellar, they tied strings to the stems and bounced them on the floor next to their bed. This produced sharp rapping sounds. Naturally the girls’ mother and father, who slept in the same room that night, rose to investigate the sounds, but the girls, fifteen-year-old Maggie and twelve year-old Kate, most likely enjoying their ability to make fools of their elders, denied any knowledge about the source of the raps. The baffled mother recalled: “The night we heard the rapping, we all got up and lit a candle; and searched all over the house.” But the noises continued, and she found nothing.[12]

Though many scholars elected to at least leave space for belief in the phenomena, Chapin pulls no punches.

Marissa: Notably, both Stuart and Chapin’s retellings of this story are also based on the words and testimony of the Fox sisters. After a steady souring of her relationship with the Spiritualists, Maggie Fox gave several interviews (which most scholars assert she was paid for) that claimed it had all been a hoax, that her older sister Leah had manipulated Maggie and Kate into the fraud, and that Spiritualists were fools.[13]

Averill: Fame did not, unfortunately, evolve into fortune for Maggie and Kate. Their older sister, Leah, was able to leverage their popularity into a marriage with a well-to-do man (Mr. Underhill was her third marriage), after which she was able to settle down to a quiet life. Kate and Maggie were not so lucky. Both developed unhealthy drinking and partying habits in their years as child stars on the Spiritualist circuit, and that dangerous behavior followed them through their lives.

Marissa: Maggie’s fiance, Elisha Kane, died on an arctic expedition in February, 1857. Their relationship was mostly, it would seem, conducted over written correspondence. Though he was a sickly young man, he was constantly preparing for yet another adventure, and she was, of course, touring, mostly in England by that point. According to David Chapin, who wrote a biography of Elisha Kane and Maggie Fox, Kane was particularly dismissive of Spiritualism, and spent much of his time attempting to convince her to give up the racket.[14] He assumed throughout their relationship (much as Chapin evidently assumed in his writing on the subject) that Fox was tricking people. After his untimely death, his family agreed to pay her an annuity, but stopped after only a few years, leaving Maggie with nothing. She published their exchanged love letters, a significant source base for Chapin’s book Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, but she never gained any kind of financial stability from it. Kane’s antagonism toward Spiritualism, and his death, undoubtedly had an impact Maggie’s relationship with the growing Spiritualist movement. She became increasingly hostile toward other mediums and her sister Leah after Kane’s death.

Marissa: In England, Kate married Henry Jencken, a friend of scientist Williams Crookes, in 1873. Crookes was known as a lab scientist who was amenable to mediums, and often used his experiments to verify the gifts of certain mediums. One, who may have been his lover, was Daniel Dunglas Home. Home, Crookes, and Kate Fox collaborated in several seances in 1872, though Fox was not always reliable. She drank heavily, and on several occasions, Crookes made notes that she showed up to seances unfit to work because she was “drugged,” which may indicate that she was using opium or another narcotic.[15]

Averill: Kate had two children with Henry, but before the eldest turned 10, Henry suffered from a stroke and died suddenly, in 1881. Kate was devastated. In the decade of their marriage, she’d kept a tight reign on her drinking. In her grief, she turned to alcohol. Worse still, Henry’s estate was entirely insufficient to sustain his widow and children.[16] She continued to work – she was still, in the 1880s, one of the world’s most famous medium – but her drinking got in the way frequently.

Marissa: Both Maggie and Kate were in dire straits. On May 4, 1888, Kate’s excessive drinking led to her arrest and fining for neglecting her two children. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children arranged for her children to be taken to the Juvenile Asylum in New York. As soon as she got them back, she took them to England. Angry on her sister’s behalf, Maggie wrote a letter to the New York Herald. She raged against New York’s charlatans and humbug artists, and gave more interviews with the kind of tell-all sensationalism that undoubtedly thrilled New York’s rag readers. She blamed Leah for manipulating her and Kate, she blamed her mother for being a fool who let Leah take them away, and she blamed Spiritualism and Spiritualists for feeding the monster that destroyed their childhood.

Averill: A journalist paid Maggie $1500 to demonstrate how she and her sister had produced the raps with her toes. In 1888, Maggie got up on a stage at the New York Academy of Music, and attempted to demonstrate how she and her sister had cracked the joints in their toes to make the rapping sounds that had first dazzled the audience of the Corinthian back in 1849. Though the newspaper called it a “Death Blow to Spiritualism,” her confession – and later recanting of her confession – were simply ignored by the followers of Spiritualism. By 1893, she and all her sisters were dead, and the National Spiritualist Association was formed in the United States.[17]

Averill: When Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his history in 1926, and Barbara Weisberg was writing her history in the early 2000s, they consulted similar sets of sources. Doyle had interviews with the Fox family that he’d collected himself or that friends had collected, and he had the autobiographies that Kate, Maggie, and Leah all published. Weisberg also had those sources at her disposal. They both also had access to the record of Maggie’s 1888 speech in which she claimed that it had all always been a trick.

Marissa: Both Doyle and Weisberg addressed this confession. Doyle, as a sort of rabid defender of Spiritualism, claimed that she was coerced by the journalist who paid her, and that sitting on stage and controlling the raps, “[the journalist] clearly did not know how the sounds came, and it is the author’s [Doyle’s] opinion that Margaret did not know either.”[18] Chapin and Stuart, conversely, accepted this confession as the only possible truth, and so structured their analysis around it.

Averill: A year after her published interview and toe snapping demo, Maggie recanted her confession. She said that she’d been unduly influenced by Catholics, and that spirits had instructed her to tell the truth – that of course her gifts were real, and the spirit world still longed to be in touch with the living.

Marissa: Though Kate had given birth to her second son at Leah’s home in Rochester, Maggie was truly estranged from her eldest sister. Leah died in 1890 before they could repair that rift. Maggie and Kate died within a year of each other, in 1892 and 1893, destitute, and rejected by most of their previous fans and followers. Well, sort of rejected. Spiritualism continued to lay its origin in the Fox Hydesville home. But after Maggie endeavored to confess to fraud, ostensibly for a handsome sum of $1500, she lost the respect of her fans. And of course, even though it seemed to some that the spark of Spiritualism–the Fox sisters–should have been doused by the revelation of their trickery, it made absolutely no difference in the growth of the movement. The Spiritualist church did persist, and hundreds of mediums continued to perform apparent miracles on stages and in parlors across the US and Europe.

Averill: As historian Simone Natale suggests, the skeptics and their revelations did little to put a damper on the success of the mediums. In fact, in many cases, mediums encouraged the back and forth that skeptics fomented.[19] When there was controversy, that drummed up ticket sales. There was an equally lucrative business in debunking Spiritualist mediums. Various organizations and individuals, like Harry Price (I talked about him in my Helen Duncan episode) and Harry Houdini tested mediums in laboratories, examined their bodies and props before performances, and wrote newspaper articles, pamphlets, and books explaining how tricks were done and who was a fraud. And a skeptic, a nonbeliever, they read those mythbusters and take it at face value, disregarding the evidence to the contrary. If the believers were willing to swallow anything in the name of spiritualism, the nonbelievers are unwilling to accept anything in the name of spiritualism.

Marissa: Each spectacular performance made more believers. Physical mediums cultivated a powerful nexus of mystery, scientific inquiry, and sensational demonstration. Alongside the public face of what contemporaries called Spiritualism, embodied by mediums like Kate and Maggie Fox, but also many others, there were quieter religious organizations coalescing. Sometimes those groups created communities like Lily Dale, NY, which was established in 1879, first as the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, later renamed the Lily Dale Assembly. Initially these were “camps,” places where believers and the curious – and skeptical – could gather during a particular season to commune with the dead. In the summer they’d go to some place moderately comfortable, like western New York, or Burlington VT. In the winter there were camps in Cassadaga, FL and other warmer climes. These camps were modeled after the Second Great Awakening Camps from earlier in the century, there were different cmap meetings for various religious revivalists that they would attend there and worship, and they would call these camps. And they were often done in nature, because communing with nature was part of it. So the camp season is really reminiscent of that!

Averill: By the early 20th century, most of the various church board of directors of these camps no longer sanctioned the physical mediums, but also couldn’t afford to ban them from their little towns. The physical mediums, those who put on the spectacular shows, rented the cottages in towns like Lily Dale, and brought in the visitors who paid the daily gate fee and rented rooms at the hotels and town-owned cottages, and bought food in the cafeterias and restaurants. When a skeptic came to town to test or debunk a resident medium, the kerfuffle was more likely to draw a bigger crowd than slow down business.

Marissa: The uncomplicated version of this story is the version you’ll find today on the NSAC website (though it’s probably not the only version of the story that Spiritualists discuss amongst themselves. When we were in Lily Dale, for example, the “ghost walk” leader discussed Maggie Fox’s confession, and the various controversies surrounding early physical mediumship. He left it up to us – the visitors – to decide, which seems very on brand for Spiritualism, if you’ve been following along!). The official stance of the National Association of SPiritualist Churches, the one you’ll read in the history section of their website, leaves little room for doubt. There is no doubt that the girls were innocent, but gifted, mediums who discovered their gifts in that house in Hydesville, New York in 1848. That’s why the Lily Dale Assembly picked up the Hydesville house and moved it to their little town in Western New York, on the Cassadaga Lake, in 1916. Thousands made the trek down to Lily Dale to visit the Fox house, to touch its hallowed walls, to imagine those girls and their parents experiencing the phenomena that meant there was life after death. Even after the house burned down in the 1950s, a photo of the rustic cottage continued to be printed in the Lily Dale “camp season” program, along with the story of the Fox sisters and the Hydesville rapping.

Averill: That official story is kind of boring, without all the controversy. And the absence of doubt is interesting, when you think about the actual story – because drumming up interest through controversy was essential to early evangelicalism in Spiritualism. Maggie, Kate, and their elder sister Leah may have taken the title as the first mediums, but they were definitely not the last. They were followed by hundreds of other mediums of varying degrees of talent who seemed to demonstrate that the dead were waiting to speak to the living. Believers took the early accounts of the Fox sisters at face value – like Paul Gaunt’s A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox – and bought into version one. They ignored reports to the contrary. They held fast to the evidence that supported the theology of Spiritualism, and rejected the reports debunking mediums and their phenomena. As one skeptic pointed out in 1909, “Being assured in their own minds that such phenomena do occur, they are prepared to swallow anything that may be offered in the name of spiritualism, without strict investigation or inquiry, and consequently go where they can see the most for their admission fee,—the most extraordinary phenomena.”[20]

Marissa: But the nonbelievers can succumb to the same problems as the believers. Instead of taking earlier accounts or interviews with the Fox sisters at face value, they take the confession at face value – and ignore Maggie Fox’s later recanting of her confession. When there is conflicting evidence, they choose the evidence that supports what they already believe.

Averill: As historians, we care less about which version of the story is more true. What’s more interesting is that these versions of the story coexisted. There were people who flowed from nonbeliever to believer, and vice versa, but also people who just settled down in one of those versions of the story and stayed there, immovable. What’s interesting is that the Fox sisters emerged in a moment when people needed them and were open to the phenomena they produced, but it was also a moment when there were people prepared to make a living testing them, debunking them and mediums like them, in the name of science and progress and reason. Spiritualism became a testing ground for scientific investigations into the afterlife, a foundation for radical ideas – like women should have the right to vote and own property! – and a predominately white and middle/upper class space that appropriated Native American and south Asian culture. Mediumship was a way for women to make independent incomes, and have a voice in public spaces. And it was very much wrapped up in the spectacular Victorian entertainment culture of the day. We frequently say “it’s complicated” on this show, and when it comes to the Fox sisters and the emergence of Spiritualism, that is most certainly the case.


Primary Sources

“The Dale News,” volume 6 number 8.

Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox Sisters (CW Dillingham Co, 1897)

Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism

Paul Gaunt, A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County, Authenticated by the Certificates, and Confirmed by the Statements of the Citizens of That Place and Vicinity

Robert Dale Owen, Footfalls on the Boundary of another world,

Secondary Sources

Karen Abbott, “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism,Smithsonian Magazine (October 30, 2012)

Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America (1989)

Mark Metzler Sawin, Review of Exploring Other Worlds, The Reluctant Spiritualist, and Talking to the Dead,in Journal of the Early Republic (Winter 2005) 668-674.

Emily Midorikawa, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice (New York: Catapult; 2021)

Lisa Morton, Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances, (Reaktion Books, 2021)

Simone Natalie, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture (Penn State University, 2016)

Caitlin Powalski, “Radical Transmissions: Isaac and Amy Post, Spiritualism, and Progressive Reform in Nineteenth-Century Rochester,” Rochester and Monroe Library 71: 2 (2004)

David Walker, “The Humbug in American Religion: Ritual Theories of Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 23:1, (2013) 30-74

Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism


[1] Qtd. in David Walker, “The Humbug in American Religion: Ritual Theories of Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 23:1, (2013) 30-74; 30.

[2] Simone Natale, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, (Penn State, 2016) 1.

[3] Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, 11-15.

[4] Uriah Smith, Modern Spiritualism, (Review and Herald Publishing, 1896) 19.

[5] Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, “Chapter IV: The Hydesville Episode”

[6] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, () 11.

[7] Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, Chapter 1; Paul Gaunt, A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County, Authenticated by the Certificates, and Confirmed by the Statements of the Citizens of That Place and Vicinity

[8] Natale, Supernatural Entertainments, 2.

[9] Robert Dale Owen, Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, (JB Lippincott & Co, 1860) discussion of the Fox sisters begins on page 258.

[10] KM Wehrstein and Robert McLuhan, “Fox Sisters,” Psi Encyclopedia

[11] Qtd. in Mark Metzler Sawin, Review of Exploring Other Worlds, The Reluctant Spiritualist, and Talking to the Dead, in Journal of the Early Republic (Winter 2005) 668-674

[12] David Chapin, “The Fox Sisters and the Performance of Mystery,” New York History 81:2 (April 2000) 157-188.

[13] Weisberg, Talking to the Dead, 237.

[14] Mark Metzler Sawin, Review of Exploring Other Worlds, The Reluctant Spiritualist, and Talking to the Dead, in Journal of the Early Republic (Winter 2005) 668-674; and Chapin, “The Fox Sisters and the Performance of Mystery”

[15] Weisberg, Talking to the Dead, 220-223.

[16] Weisberg, Talking to the Dead, 229-230.

[17] David Chapin, “The Fox Sisters and the Performance of Mystery,” Fenimore Art Museum (April 2000) 157-188; Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox Sisters (CW Dillingham Co, 1897); Karen Abbott, “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism,” Smithsonian Magazine (October 30, 2012)

[18] Doyle, The History of Spiritualism

[19] Simone Natale, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, (Penn State, 2016) Introduction.

[20] Hereward Carrington, “Report of a Two-Weeks’ Investigation into Alleged Spiritualistic Phenomena, Witnessed at Lily Dale, New York,” Proceedings of American Society for Psychical Research,  96-97.


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