Kate Fox

Margaret Fox

Kate and Margaret Fox
Kate: 1841-1892, Margaret: 1838-1893

          THE PIONEERS of modern spiritualism joined shortly after the Hydesville outbreak by a third sister, Leah, variously known by marriage as Mrs. Fish, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Underhill. According to her book, The Missing Link, New York, 1885, psychic power was inherited in the family. On the father's side (originally Voss, then Foss and finally Fox) their blood was a mixture of German and on the mother's of French, Dutch and English. Their great grandmother was a somnambule. She would attend phantom funerals of persons yet living and describe every particular of the officiating minister and of the persons present. The description corresponded with the facts as they were afterwards observed. An aunt, Mrs. Elisabeth Higgins, as told in Robert Dale Owen's Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, saw in a dream her own tombstone and she died on the day there inscribed. The events which made the family name historic date from December 11, 1847, the day on which John D. Fox took the tenancy of a house in Hydesville. The house had an uncanny reputation. Michael Weakman, the former tenant who moved in two years before, left it because of the mysterious noises but the family of John D. Fox did not experience serious discomfort until March, 1848. Raps, knocks and noises as of moving furniture were heard at night. They increased in intensity. On March 31 there was a very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. Mrs. Fox suggested that the sashes might have rattled as the night was windy. The head of the family got up, tried the sashes, shaking them to see if they were loose. Kate, the youngest girl happened to remark that as often as her father shook the window sash the noises seemed to reply. The idea came to her to ask for an answer to the snapping of her fingers. By this means their first communication with the unseen was established. The testimonies of Mrs. Fox and John D. Fox, signed four days later, describe the occurrences as follows:

"On the night of the first disturbance we all got up, lighted a candle and searched the entire house, the noises continuing during the time and being heard near the same place. Although not very loud, it produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs that could be felt when we were in bed. It was a tremulous motion, more than a sudden jar. We could feel the jar when standing on the floor. It continued on this night until we slept. I did not sleep until about twelve o'clock. On March 30 we were disturbed all night. The noises were heard in all parts of the house. My husband stationed himself outside the door while I stood inside, and the knocks came on the door between us. We heard footsteps in the pantry, and walking downstairs; we could not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I could not account for before.

"On Friday night, March 31, 1848, we concluded to go to bed early and not permit ourselves to be disturbed by the noises, but try and get a night's rest. My husband was here on all these occasions, heard the noises and helped in the search. It was very early when we went to bed on this night - hardly dark. I had been so broken of my rest I was almost sick. My husband had not gone to bed when we first heard the noise on this evening. I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all the other noises I had ever heard before. The children, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the rapping and tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers.

"My 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, 'No, 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. Then Cathie said in her childish simplicity, 'Oh, mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day and it is somebody trying to fool us.'

"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 individualise 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 simple method that it was a man, aged 31 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 the 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."

"My husband went and called in Mrs. Redfield, our nearest neighbour. She is a very candid woman. The girls were sitting up in bed clinging to each other and trembling with terror. I think I was as calm as I am now. Mrs. Redfield came immediately (this was about half past seven), thinking she would have a laugh at the children. But when she saw them pale with fright and nearly speechless, she was amazed and believed there was something more serious than she had supposed. I asked a few questions for her and she was answered as before. He told her age exactly. She then called her husband, and the same questions were asked and answered."

"Then Mr. Redfield called in Mr. Duesler and wife, and several others. Mr. Duesler then called in Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, also Mr. and Mrs. Jewell. Mr. Duesler asked many questions and received answers. I then named all the neighbours I could think of and asked if any of them had injured him and received no answer. Mr. Duesler then asked questions and received answers. He asked 'Were you murdered?' Raps affirmative. 'Can your murderer be brought to justice?' No sound. 'Can he be punished by law?' No answer. He then said: 'If your murderer cannot be punished by the law manifest it by raps,' and the raps were made clearly and distinctly. In the same way Mr. Duesler ascertained that he was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr     on a Tuesday night at twelve o'clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher's knife; that the body was taken through the buttery, down the stairway and that it was buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained that he was murdered for his money by raps affirmative.

"'How much was it - one hundred?' No rap. 'Was it two hundred?' etc., and when he mentioned five hundred the raps replied in the affirmative.

"Many called in who were fishing in the creek, and all heard the same questions and answers. Many remained in the house all night. I and my children left the house. My husband remained in the house with Mr. Redfield all night. On the next Saturday the house was filled to overflowing. There was no sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the evening. It was said that there were over three hundred persons present at the time. On Sunday morning the noises were heard throughout the day by all who came to the house.

"On Saturday night, April, 1, they commenced digging in the cellar; they dug until they came to water and then gave it up. The noise was not heard on Sunday evening nor during the night. Stephen B. Smith and wife (my daughter Marie) and my son David S. Fox and wife, slept in the room this night.

"I have heard nothing since that time until yesterday. In the forenoon of yesterday there were several questions answered in way by rapping. I have heard the noise several times to-day.

"I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I am very sorry there has been so much excitement about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I know is that they have been heard repeatedly as I have stated. I have heard this rapping again this (Tuesday) morning, April 4. My children have also heard it.

"I certify that the foregoing statement has been read to me and that the same is true; and that I should be willing to take my oath that it is so if necessary."

April 11, 1848. (Signed) Margaret Fox.

John D. Fox signed the following statement:

"I have also heard the above statement of my wife, Margaret Fox, read, and hereby certify that the same is true in all its particulars. I heard the same rappings which she has spoken of, in answer to the questions, as stated by her. There have been a great many questions besides those asked, and answered in the same way. Some have been asked a great many times and they have always received the same answer. There has never been any contradiction whatever.

"I do not know of any way to account for those noises, as being caused by any natural means. We have searched every nook and corner in and about the house at different times to ascertain if possible whether anything or anybody was secreted there that could make the noise and have not been able to find anything which would or could explain the mystery. It has caused a great deal of trouble and anxiety.

"Hundreds have visited the house, so that it is impossible for us to attend to our daily occupations; and I hope that, whether caused by natural or supernatural means, it will be ascertained soon. The digging in the cellar will be resumed as soon as the water settles, and then it can be ascertained whether there are any indications of a body ever having been buried there; and if there are I shall have no doubt but that it is of supernatural origin."

April 11, 1848. (Signed) John D. Fox.

The digging could not be resumed until summer. Then, at a depth of five feet, they found a plank, deeper below charcoal and quicklime, and finally human hair and bones which were pronounced by medical men to belong to a human skeleton.

It has never been established who this pedlar was. The name, Charles B. Rosma might have been misspelled. A maid, called Lucretia Pulver, who served in the haunted house four years previously when it was tenanted by a Mr. and Mrs. Bell, came forward and told the story of a pedlar's visit. The pedlar stayed in the house for the night and she was sent off to her parents. In the morning she was told that the pedlar had left. The accused man did not keep silent. From Lyon, N.Y., to which he removed in 1846, he produced a certificate of good character, signed by forty-four persons to the effect that they had "never known anything against him" and "believed him to be a man of upright and honest life, and incapable of committing the crime of which he was suspected."

The missing skeleton was found 56 years later. According to a report of the Boston Journal of November 23, 1904, some parts of a rough wall built a yard from the true wall of the cellar fell down. Excavations were made by the owner of the "Spook House" and an almost entire human skeleton was found. There was a pedlar's tin box near the bones. This is now preserved at Lily Dale, the central country headquarters of American spiritualists to which also the old Hydesville house has been transported. It is likely that the murderer first buried the body in the middle of the cellar, then became alarmed, dug it up and buried it in the space between the two walls.

Mrs. Fox's hair turned white in consequence of the disturbances. The phenomena soon assumed the character of formal haunting. The sound of a death struggle, the gurgling of a throat, the heavy dragging of a body across the room was heard night after night. Finally they could not stand it any longer. But the raps continued in the house even after they left and one night more than three hundred people conversed with the invisible entity.

From Raps to the Message of Spiritualism

Kate took refuge at her brother's house in Auburn, Margaret at her sister's, Leah, in Rochester. The raps broke out in both places. In Rochester they were especially violent. Calvin Brown, who afterwards became the second husband of Leah and lived in the same house, was opposed to the manifestations and became the centre of poltergeist persecution. Things were thrown at him, without, however, causing him injury. Blocks of wood were found scattered in the rooms, sometimes with sentences written on. The manifestation was intelligent and spiteful. "We had become satisfied" writes Leah in The Missing Link "that no earthly power could relieve us. While on our knees pins would be stuck into different parts of our persons. Mother's cap would be removed from her head, her comb jerked out of her hair and every conceivable thing done to annoy us." The spirits "carried on the manifestations on the very peak of the roof. It sounded like the frequent discharge of heavy artillery. It was stated to us the next day that the sounds were heard a mile away. We feared that the roof would fall in upon us."

These violent disturbances went on until Isaac Post, a visiting friend, suddenly remembered that Leah's brother, "David, conversed with the Hydesville spirits by using the alphabet." Tremendous raps came in answer to the first question and the message was spelt out:

"Dear Friends, you must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you."

From that time on communications began to pour through and the manifestations became orderly. The table rocked, objects moved, guitars were played and psychic touches were experienced. On November 14, 1849, the first meeting of a small band of spiritualists took place in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester. The excitement grew. Public investigation was demanded. The report of a committee of five which would not explain the phenomena as fraud was turned down and another committee was delegated. This was also forced to report that when the girls "were standing on pillows with a handkerchief tied round the bottom of their dresses, tight to the ankles, we all heard rapping on the wall and floor distinctly." Passion rose to fury heat, once the girls were nearly lynched, but in spite of the hostile atmosphere and denunciation in the Press the movement kept on growing. Mediums sprang up. Mrs. Tamlin and Mrs. Benedict, of Auburn, the first two well-known mediums who were developed in the circle of Kate Fox, were followed by a host of others and on November 28, 1849, owing to the increasing demand for sittings and the obvious handicaps to one following a normal occupation, professional mediumship was begun by Leah. The first public sittings were soon followed by a propaganda tour to Albany in May, 1850, then to Troy, where their life was threatened, and on June 4, 1850, they brought the message of spiritualism to New York. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, was their first caller. Fearing for their safety he advised them to charge five dollars admission fee. Later, under the aegis of the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge, free public sittings were initiated for which Mr. H. H. Day paid 1,200 dollars a year to Kate. Interest ran high from the very first. In a single sitting the following celebrities gathered around the sťance table . Rev. Dr. Griswold, Fenimore Cooper, George Bancroft, the historian, The Rev. Dr. Hawks, Dr. J. W. Francis, Dr. Marck, Willis and Bryant, the poets, General Lyman and Bigelow of the Evening Post. Horace Greeley reported in The Tribune:

"We devoted what time we could spare from our duties out of three days to this subject, and it would be the basest cowardice not to say that we are convinced beyond a doubt of their perfect integrity and good faith in the premises. Whatever may be the origin or cause of the 'rappings,' the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire satisfaction."

The phenomena in these first sťances were not powerful. Raps occurred, the table and chairs moved and the sitters were touched by invisible hands. Perhaps their most powerful early manifestation was recorded in 1853 by Governor Talmadge. It was the complete levitation of the table with himself on top. He also claimed to have received a communication in direct writing from the spirit of John C. Calhoun. According to Robert Dale Owen, Leah Fox was the best medium for raps. With her he obtained them on the seashore in a rock, in a sailing boat, sounding from underneath, on tree-trunks in the woods and on the ground beneath their feet in open air. Spirit lights and materialisations were a comparatively late development. They were obtained both with Kate and Leah Fox.

Exposures, Tests and Confessions

Exposures, from time to time, were common. In February, 1851, the "snapping of the knee-joints" theory was launched for the first time. Dr. Austin Flint, Dr. Charles A. Lee and Dr. C. B. Coventry, of the University of Buffalo, published in the Commercial Advertiser of February 18, 1851, the disclosure that the raps were produced within the sisters' anatomy. A second investigation held up this theory and an alleged confession of Margaret Fox, published in April, 1851, by a relation, named Mrs. Norman Culver, threatened to bury both the Fox Sisters and the spiritualistic movement without hope. There was, however, a patent contradiction in the revelation. According to it, when the committee held the ankles of the Fox sisters in Rochester the Dutch servant girl rapped with her knuckles under the floor from the cellar. She was instructed to rap whenever she heard their voices calling on the spirits. The investigation to which the revelation referred was held in the houses of the members of the committee, or in a public hall, the girls did not keep a servant and Kate Fox was not present at these meetings at all. Nevertheless, the effect of the revelation was that the "Rochester impostors" were at the mercy of the Press, having but one defender: Horace Greeley. His interest was so deep that he furnished funds for Kate Fox to polish up her imperfect education.

Investigations into the reality of the phenomena were always numerous. Test after test was applied. The sceptics faced two problems: to explain the fraudulent production of the rappings and the intelligence which answered the questions in many cases mentally asked. The second problem was seldom tackled, the first often and with very great ardour. In 1857, as a result of the challenge to mediums in the Boston Courier, several mediums appeared before a committee of Harvard professors in Boston. Kate and Leah Fox were among them. The committee was difficult to satisfy. Their promised report was never published.

There is much in the personal history of the Fox Sisters in these early years that remains obscure. Years of public mediumship in a hostile atmosphere, the drain of too frequent sittings on their nervous energy, the danger of which was, at that time, yet unsuspected, the commercial exploitation of a gift which was beyond their control and the complete absence of understanding as regards the religious implications of spiritualism produced a deteriorating influence on their characters. Two strokes of good fortune stand out clearly. One was the marriage of Margaret Fox to Dr. Elisha Kane, the famous Arctic explorer, the other the third marriage of Leah to David Underhill, a wealthy insurance man in November, 1858. With marriage both of them retired from public mediumship. Dr. Kane was a physician. He was sceptical, never arrived at any satisfactory solution of the phenomena and appears to have been convinced that Margaret was exploited in a mercenary spirit by her elder sister, Leah. When he was away in the Arctic he placed Margaret with his aunt for the purpose of polishing up her education and married her on his return. Kane died in 1857. Some time after, under the title The Love Letters of Dr. Elisha Kane, a book was published which became a fertile ground for suspicion against the Fox Sisters. Dr. Kane, in his letters, continually reproaches Margaret for living in deceit and hypocrisy. He also strongly objected to the sisters' indulgence in alcohol.

In 1861 Kate Fox was engaged exclusively for Charles F. Livermore, a rich banker of New York, whose wife, Estelle, died a year before. For a period of five years she gave him nearly four hundred sittings of which detailed records were kept. The doors and windows were carefully locked and the sťances, witnessed by prominent men, were often kept in Livermore's own house. While the medium retained consciousness Estelle gradually materialised. She was not recognised until the 43rd sitting when she was illuminated by a psychic light. Later the materialisation became more complete but the figure could not speak, except a few words. The communication took place through raps and writing. Estelle and another phantom, calling himself Benjamin Franklin, wrote on cards brought by Livermore. Whilst she wrote the hands of Kate Fox were held. The script was a perfect reproduction of the characters she used when on earth. At the 388th sťance Estelle declared that she appeared for the last time. Livermore never saw her any more. In gratitude for the consolation he derived from these sittings he enabled Katie Fox to visit Britain in 1871. In a letter to Benjamin Coleman he praised her irreproachable character and detailed her idiosyncrasies.

The career of Kate Fox in Britain was undisturbed. She sat for many important people, gave excellent opportunities to William Crookes for investigation and often held joint sittings with D. D. Home and Mrs. Guppy. On December 14, 1872, she married H. D. Jencken, a barrister-at-law. Of the marriage two sons were born, both strongly psychic at an early age. Jencken died in 1881. In 1883 the widowed medium visited Russia, on Alexander Aksakof's invitation, and was consulted about the auspices of the coronation of the Czar. A few years later the three sisters found themselves in violent disagreement. Margaret Fox was the chief cause of the trouble. She came to Britain in 1876, then returned to America. Financial circumstances had long forced her back into professional mediumship. According to Dr. Funk she lived in poverty. In 1884 she appeared before the Seybert Commission in Philadelphia. The raps which she produced when standing on four glass tumblers were not accepted as supernormal. Still, she acquitted herself well. Her relationship with Leah, the eldest sister, had become stormy. Leah objected to the life she was leading and also strongly blamed Kate. The truth was that Margaret was addicted to alcoholism. When she returned to London she fell under strong Catholic influence. Leah, it was said, attempted to deprive Kate of the custody of her two children. Margaret allied herself with Kate and swore vengeance to ruin her sister. In a letter to the New York Herald, published in May 27, 1888, she denounced spiritualism and promised a complete exposure. To keep her promise she returned to New York, gave interviews and a public lecture in the New York Academy of Music in August during which she produced raps on the stage, explained how the thing was done and declared spiritualism to be a complete fraud. To make matters worse, Kate Fox came to New York and, eager to blacken Leah, made a similar confession on October 10, and endorsed her sister's revelations by participating in exposure meetings. The story of these exposures was quickly seized upon by anti-spiritualists and Reuben Biggs Davenport's book The Death Blow to Spiritualism, appeared to be a fairly good estimate of the position. Not long after, however, another surprise was sprung upon the Press. Apparently, the pecuniary expectations of Margaret were not realised or the revenge proved to be less sweet than expected. At any rate, a year later in an interview given on November 20, 1889, she completely retracted her confession, spoke of her great financial difficulties at the time, of an excitement which almost upset her mental equilibrium and blamed the strong psychological influence of persons inimical to spiritualism for her action. She also wrote and signed a letter to the public to the same effect.

Neither of the Fox Sisters survived this scandal for long. Leah died first in 1890, Kate on July 2, 1892, Margaret on March 8, 1893. Kate, known as Mrs. Sparr by her last marriage, and Margaret, are buried in the Brooklyn Cypress Hill Cemetery. Their confession and retractation made them fit for psychiatrical study but did not affect the position of spiritualism. Isaac Funk was probably right in writing of Margaret that at that stage "for five dollars she would have denied her mother, and would have sworn to anything." Professor Charles Richet said:

"In 1847 Margaret was 15 and Kate 12. (This is contradicted by a letter of Mrs. Fox to the President of the anniversary meeting held in New York in 1868 in which she stated the ages of her children were incorrectly rendered in the first printed report, Kate was 7 and Margaret 10 at the time). Can we suppose that these two children organised a fraud that was tested thousands of times during 75 years? The reality of rappings does not depend on the Fox Sisters. In 1888 it was too late for denial and their recantation proves nothing."

In conclusion it is of interest to mention that at a meeting of the Medico Legal Society of New York in 1905 the subject of spiritualism was discussed. Mrs. Mellen, a woman doctor who is not a spiritualist, stood up and told the story of the last hours of Mrs. Margaret Fox Kane. In a tenement house in Ninth Street she passed some hours every day at her bedside. Mrs. Fox Kane was unable to move hand or foot. There was not a closet in the place nor any other hiding place of any kind. And yet the knockings were heard now through the wall, now through the ceiling, and again through the floor.

"They were heard," continued Mrs. Mellen, "in response to questions the woman put to her guide, as she expressed it, and she was as incapable of cracking her toe-joints at this time as I was."

The Fox-Taylor Record by Prof. Dr. W. G. Langworthy Taylor in 1933 covers the period from 1869-1892 of Katie Fox's mediumship. It is a record of the sittings held in Dr. and Mrs. Taylor's house in New York.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).



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