Spiritualism, the belief that the living can talk with the dead, became an American phenomenon in the mid-19th century. At the forefront of this phenomenon were the Fox sisters.
There were three Fox sisters, Kate, Leah, and Margaret, and they were raised in Hydesville, New York (20 miles from Rochester, but the town is no longer in existence) in a house that the sisters claimed was haunted by a spirit. They communicated with this spirit by asking it questions which it would answer with rappings, or knockings. Through these “rappings,” they discovered that this spirit was a peddler named Charles Rossum who had been murdered five years before and was now buried in the cellar. Neighbors and family members were astonished! Could these girls really talk to spirits? They went into the cellar to see if these young girls were telling the truth and, lo and behold, they found bones in the walls.
Despite this “evidence,” it has since come to light that these bones were not found until 1904 and persistent rumors exist that these bones had been, in fact, planted.
With their newfound fame, the Fox sisters moved to the big city – Rochester, New York – to begin their new careers as mediums. They routinely put on seances attended by some of the biggest names of the day, like poet William Cullen Bryant, showman PT Barnum, and newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
Pictured above is the table the Fox sisters used for their seances, now located at the Rochester Historical Society. Much as they did when they were girls, the Fox sisters relied on mysterious “rappings” as proof that spirits were present.
This table, as you can see in the pictures, was specifically made to produce these rappings. Within the enclosed top of the table lies a spring connected to a long metal rod. When pushed, the rod hits the inside of the table creating the rapping sound. The sisters were also known to create unusual sounds by cracking their feet and knuckles, which they used as further evidence that the dead were present. The Fox Sisters’ ability to communicate with the dead was a hoax.
The Fox Sisters continued to perform seances and other matters of spirit communication until the late 1800s when skeptics and nonbelievers forced them to admit it was all a fraud. Chief among these skeptics was the magician Harry Houdini, who took it personally that these sisters were defrauding vulnerable people.
With their livelihood ruined, the Fox sisters faded into alcoholism and obscurity. By the turn of the century, all of the sisters had died in poverty and shame.
Know Before You Go
Downtown Rochester off of Route 490