excerpt from A Fox Family History by Kevin A. Fox:
The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spiritualism
There seems to be in the Fox family a strength and peculiar ability … an innate something which attracts and inspires.
—Mariam Buckner Pond, 1947
My children grew up in Fredonia, New York, just five miles north of Lily Dale Assembly, which bills itself as “The World’s Largest Center for the Science, Philosophy and Religion of Spiritualism.” During the summer months it is the largest community of “spiritualists” in the US. The Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York are still celebrated worldwide as key figures in establishing the Spiritualism movement in the US and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century (Putnam, 2003). They are still spoken of reverently in Lily Dale, where one can see various monuments to their work—the Lily Dale Museum is filled with documents and relics relating to their lives. While I remain a curious skeptic, my daughters and their friends have more directly investigated the possibility of communication with spirits by having occasional “readings” by resident “mediums.” When they tell me the results of their readings I am often at a loss to explain how the “counselors” come by the information they seem to possess. If you travel to Western New York, I urge you to schedule a personal reading with any of the celebrated “mediums” at Lily Dale and make your own determination.
My daughters’ interest forced me, at first reluctantly, to confront the possibility that we may share ancestry with the celebrated Fox sisters. Despite having read a number of books and articles on the Fox sisters, it wasn’t until I accessed sources at the Lily Dale Library and Museum that I determined that their ancestry is quite distinct from ours (Barnes, 1960; Hoeltzel, 1998). I had, however, decided that whatever their ancestry, the Fox Sisters’ story was worth telling.
(The following narrative about the Fox sisters is written somewhat tongue-in-cheek; I’ve elected to present their accomplishments using the perspectives of their mother, Margaret Smith Fox; their devoted grand-niece, Mariam Buckner Pond; the several prominent scientists and public figures who were their principal advocates; and, of course, from the perspective of the many contemporary spiritualists who continue to communicate with the spirits of the dead. If you study the Fox sisters from the more cynical viewpoint, you will discover that there are far more published sources repudiating their work than supporting it!)
The John David Fox Family
John David Fox, father of the Fox sisters, was born in 1787 in New York City. In 1812 he married Margaret Smith, who had been born in Canada, also in 1787. They first settled in the Catskills in Rockland County, New York. John David’s father, David Fox, had served in the War of the American Revolution, as had so many other Foxes from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
John David Fox built a home in the Catskills and practiced blacksmithing. Mariam Buckner Pond (1947), in her fascinating book, Time is Kind: The Story of the Unfortunate Fox Family, described him thus: “industrious, honest, and God-fearing—his faith Methodist.” She adds, “Drink was his weakness and … his home was broken for a number of years by his over indulgence.” Mariam Pond was, however, far more interested in the mother, Margaret Smith Fox, whom she felt held the “key to the development of this strangely divided family.” Margaret Smith Fox was adventuresome and courageous—“when the trail led into strange conditions, she followed. … maintaining always a calm dignity that was to protect the gifted children” (Pond, 1947).
John David and Margaret Smith Fox had seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. The oldest, Ann Leah (1814–1890), was married to a man named Fish at fourteen and moved to Rochester, New York, where her daughter Elizabeth was born. Fish deserted his young bride and daughter after only a few years and Leah had to support herself and Elizabeth by giving piano lessons.
Leah’s birth in 1814 was followed by those of Maria, Elizabeth, and David within the next six years. The family broke up about that time (1820), and it appears that Margaret and the children moved back to Canada to live with her parents. Some time later, John reformed his drinking habits and contritely rejoined them there. Records show that the last two children, Margaretta (1834–1893) and Catherine (1836–1892) were born in Consecon, Ontario, north of Rochester on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario (Pond, 1947; Anonymous, 2002).
Events in the “Spook House” in Hydesville
The reunited family returned briefy to Rockland County, but then, apparently out of concern for the older sister Leah’s welfare, moved west to the Rochester area. This is the Fox family who settled in the town of Hydesville, New York in the fall of 1847. The now-sober John took over the blacksmith shop in the village of Newark and set about building a new home a few miles away. With winter fast approaching and the new house not complete, the family took shelter in a small cottage across from the smithy shop in the village. It was in this house that the “supernatural” tappings and communications with the spirit world began in March 1848.
Subsequent to these mysterious events, it was revealed that a young itinerant peddler had been robbed, murdered and buried in the cellar of the house some five years earlier. According to Mariam Pond’s account, two diferent families had lived in the house prior to the Fox family’s arrival in 1847 and both had left shortly after hearing strange sounds at night and witnessing strange events. In one case, an actual materialized spirit appeared to a woman staying there. Dressed in a black cloak and hat, it was presumably the spirit of the murdered peddler, Charles B. Rosna. This was the spirit who would later initiate contacts with the youngest Fox children. Margaretta and Kate, aged thirteen and eleven years respectively, had playfully sought to communicate with the dead by asking questions.18 To their astonishment, their questions were answered by strange tapping sounds. They soon succeeded in establishing an actual “dialogue” with the spirit of Charles Rosna. These events are best described in the affidavit Mrs. Fox swore out and signed on April 11, 1848, in an unsuccessful attempt to protect her small children from persecution. Mrs. Fox was described by those who knew her as “a woman of unimpeachable character.” Her affidavit reads as follows (Fox, 1848):
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 tremendous motion, more than a sudden jar. We could feel the jar when standing on the foor. It continued on this night until we slept. I did not sleep until about twelve o’clock. On March 30th we were disturbed all night. The noises were heard in all parts of the house. My husband stationed himself outside of 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 31st, 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 occasions, heard the noises, and helped 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 noises on this evening. I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all 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, “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. Then Cathie said in her childish simplicity, “Oh, mother, I know what it is. Tomorrow is April-fool day, and it’s 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 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 neighbors that they may hear it too?” The raps were loud in the affirmative.
My husband went and called in Mrs. Redfield, our nearest neighbor. 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 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 neighbors 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 the 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 knife; that the body was taken down to the cellar; that it was not buried until the next night; that it 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 overfowing. There were 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 1st, 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 heard nothing since that time until yesterday. In the forenoon of yesterday there were several questions answered in the usual way by rapping. I have heard the noises several times today.
I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I am very sorry that 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 also heard it.
I certify that the foregoing statement has been read to me, my oath that it is so, if necessary.
(Signed) MARGARET FOX, April 11, 1848.
The name of the accused murderer, John Bell, was presumably omitted from the affidavit for fear of legal or other repercussions. If you read the statement carefully, you will note that the “spirit rapping” indicated that the “murderer cannot be punished by the law” and had presumably relocated or was above the law. A. Conan Doyle (1920), studying the case seventy years later, felt that the “evidence against Bell was exceedingly weak.”
Margaret Smith Fox’s Vindication
Attempts to dig up the grave in the cellar were thwarted by fooding until the summer of 1848, when a wooden plank covering charcoal and lime was found at a depth of five feet. Below that there were found hair and bones. But a complete excavation of the “Spook House” cellar was not undertaken until 1904. Then it was proved beyond all doubt that someone had actually been buried in the cellar of the Fox household. The Boston Journal, on November 23, 1904, reported as follows (Anonymous, 1904a):
Rochester, N.Y., Nov. 22nd, 1904:
The skeleton of the man supposed to have caused the rappings first heard by the Fox sisters in 1848 has been found in the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication.
The Fox sisters declared they learned to communicate with the spirit of a man, and that he told them he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. Repeated excavations failed to locate the body and thus give proof positive of their story.
The discovery was made by school-children playing in the cellar of the building in Hydesville known as the “Spook House,” where the Fox sisters heard the wonderful rappings. William H. Hyde, a reputable citizen of Clyde, who owns the house, made an investigation and found an almost entire human skeleton between the earth and crumbling cellar walls, undoubtedly that of the wandering peddler who, it was claimed, was murdered in the east room of the house, and whose body was hidden in the cellar.
The finding of the bones practically corroborates the sworn statement made by Margaret Fox, April 11, 1848.
A similar report appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on the same date and noted “the discovery of Sunday is corroborative evidence that cannot be controverted” (Anonymous, 1904b).
The original Fox Cottage was moved from Hydesville, New York to Lily Dale in 1916. Tragically, the cottage burned to the ground in the early morning hours of September 21, 1955. Fortunately, the peddler’s trunk containing the Fox family Bible with valuable information about the family was saved, and remains on display at the Lily Dale Museum (Anonymous, 1955).
Although the circumstances were suspicious, the fire inspectors from the nearby village of Fredonia were unable to determine the cause of the fire. Curiously, the Lily Dale fire occurred just one year after the “Hydesville Hotel,” a converted barn and Spiritualist church, was leveled by fire on September 23, 1954. And it is an even greater “coincidence” that the “Troup Street House” in Rochester, where Leah Fox had sheltered Katie and Maggie for several years, burned on November 15, 1957. That three edifices central to the Spiritualist movement were lost to fire in just four years seems to be more than coincidence!
The Subsequent Years and the Birth of Spiritualism
Immediately following the events of 1848, Mrs. Margaret Fox’s hair reportedly turned white. She was vilified by the local preacher for “allowing her children to carry out this wicked deception.” Her friends and family described her as terribly frightened and confused. The younger daughter, Kate, was sent to stay at her brother’s house in Auburn, New York, while Margaretta took refuge at her sister Leah’s house in Rochester (Pond, 1947). As the girls grew older they acquired both devoted followers and unrelenting critics. As a result of their spiritualistic activities, the Fox sisters were publicly condemned, and lived in constant danger. But under the protection and guidance of their big sister Leah, they both learned to give performances and readings for which they earned a considerable income (which Leah managed for them). They toured throughout the eastern US and attained celebrity status while young women. Their séances became elaborate, with objects moving about, spirits appearing, and tables levitating.
Under the intense pressure of simultaneous adoration and hatred, both Margaretta and Kate developed serious alcohol addictions early in life. They apparently suffered from the same weakness for alcohol which had plagued their father during his early life.
They continued to be denounced by the leaders of the major churches of the time. A singular exception were the Quakers, who on several occasions sheltered and protected the girls from unruly crowds. Several times, angry mobs of religious fanatics besieged them at speaking engagements. According to A. Conan Doyle, one “gallant Quaker protector, a Mr. Willetts, sheltered the girls from a mob of ruffians” and warned that they would “touch the girls over his dead body” (Doyle, 1920).
Public committees were assembled to test the Fox sisters’ powers. In one such test, the girls were bound tightly about the knees and ankles so that they could not move their lower limbs. During repeated trials, no evidence of trickery was ever discovered and critics admitted that they could detect no fraud (Pond, 1947; Medhurst et al., 1972).
On the other hand, Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Dale Owen, and Sir William Crookes were among their more prominent and vocal supporters. All the while, increasing numbers of converts attended their demonstrations and sought their “spiritual counseling” (Braude, 1989).
Horace Greeley, renowned educator and editor of the New York Tribune, wrote glowing reports of the Fox sisters’ work. At the time, Greeley was grieving the death of his son and sought to communicate with him through spirits. He and his wife aided the family greatly; he assisted Kate financially in acquiring a “finished education” and helped Margaret find a suitable home in her old age (Pond, 1947).
After Kate Fox moved to England, Sir William Crookes, a distinguished English scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, subjected her to repeated tests and became convinced of her legitimacy. Crookes’ investigations of Kate’s séances never found any evidence of deception and he eventually became one of her staunchest advocates. He earnestly sought scientific explanations for the many remarkable things he witnessed in her presence, including levitation of both people and objects; appearance of phantom forms, hands, and faces; and, of course, “spirit rappings.” In his research notes, Crookes prepared a list of possible explanations, much as a contemporary behavioral scientist would prepare a list of competing hypotheses, and compiled the evidence for and against each (Medhurst et al., 1972).
Concomitant to the Fox sisters’ widespread acceptance, the American Spiritualism movement took root and grew to international proportions. By 1855, American Spiritualism claimed more than one million followers (Braude, 1989).
In 1888, after years of controversy and problems with alcohol, Margaretta Fox confessed that she and her sister were frauds. Margaretta and Kate appeared together publicly at the New York Academy of Music, where Margaretta confessed that she had made all the rapping noises by means of a double-jointed big toe! Kate remained silent and would neither confirm nor deny her sister’s confession. Neither Kate nor Margaretta offered explanations for the many other curious phenomena associated with their séances. Leah, apparently outraged at the loss of income, arranged that Kate Fox’s children be taken from her and placed in foster care. Naturally, Kate and Margaretta expressed great bitterness toward Leah for first exploiting and then betraying them.
Tuttle (1900) insisted that Margaretta’s “so-called confession” was coerced by a Catholic priest who had gained “hypnotic control over her.” The more likely explanation, accepted by most biographers, was that a reporter had paid the sisters $1,500 for their “confession” and the exclusive rights to the story. Desperate for money and booze, the sisters apparently agreed, and then proceeded to drink their “confession money” away. Most historians conveniently omit the fact that Margaretta fully recanted her confession in writing shortly before she died in 1893. Kate, who had never actually confessed to anything, had nothing to recant; she died in 1892. Both sisters were buried in pauper’s graves (Pond, 1947).
In recent years a number of feminist historians have taken an interest in the Fox sisters, praising their eforts at spiritual leadership. Since spiritualist mediums were one of the few professional groups in which women clearly outnumbered men, they were seen by some as a threat to the established order of male dominance in spiritual leadership. The relentless and ruthless attacks by the male clergy at the time suggest they did, indeed, pose such a threat (Braude, 1989).
The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the early twentieth century allied itself closely with Spiritualism and the many women who represented it. Suffragette speakers commonly came to Lily Dale; Susan B. Anthony herself lectured at Lily Dale five times between 1891 and 1905 (Putnam, 2003; Braude, 1989).
The Extraordinary Foxes (or “May the Force Be With You”)
One of the most fascinating accounts of the Fox sisters and their family is found in Mariam Buckner Pond’s charming book, Time is Kind: The Story of the Unfortunate Fox Family. Mrs. Pond was married to the grandnephew of the Fox sisters, “the grandson of their only brother, David Fox.” She knew the family intimately and had firsthand accounts of the events in Hydesville and elsewhere. As the title suggests, she was sympathetic to the plight of the Fox family, firmly believing that the supernatural accomplishments of the Fox girls were entirely authentic and that they possessed exceptional gifts.
Mariam Pond (1947) attributes the Fox sisters’ gift to an inexplicable Fox family quality:
There seems to be in the Fox family a strength and peculiar ability which is undoubtedly the key to the mediumship of the three sisters; I do not like to classify these characteristics as supernatural; one might better think of them as supernormal, manifesting an unusual working of natural law. There is throughout the family an indication of exceptional physical and superphysical strength,—an innate something which attracts and inspires. I have seen one member of the family hold down a table, or by the simple touch of one hand hold a door closed, so that three strong young men could not lift the table or move the door. One was a diagnostician whose accuracy and insight were so true that he, himself, felt wonder at it. One of David’s sons was a public accountant. He could add simultaneously, at a glance, long rows of figures, columns deep. What is this peculiar aptitude? I do not know, but I could enumerate many more instances of it in the family, —some in my own children,—difficult to explain unless to say that it comes from without, through them, in some way we do not yet fully understand.
Whether they were charlatans or true seers is an issue we cannot resolve in this short history. We can, however, say with absolute certainty that these young Fox women played central roles in a unique episode of American history. And with equal certainty we can assert that they were clearly gifted—either with supernatural powers, or with incredibly sophisticated natural powers that permitted them to deceive millions!
And though it is now clear to me that they do not share our ancestry, I suggest that we embrace them as honorary members of our family and as fellow human beings possessing some remarkable gifts and some exceptional frailties just like all the rest of us!
Anonymous. 1955. “Fire levels Cottage at Lily Dale.” Buffalo Courier-Express. September 21, 1955.
Anonymous. 2002. “Fox Sisters.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York.
Anonymous. 1904a. “Skeleton Found in Fox Home. Skeleton of Man Supposed to Have Caused the Rappings Heard by the Fox Sisters in 1848 Has Been Found.” Boston Journal. November 22, 1904.
Anonymous. 1904b. “Human Bones Discovered—Found Under Famous Fox House—Spirits Right—Find Corroborates Old Story.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. November 23, 1904.
Barnes, Victoria. 1960. “The Fox Family.” Unpublished manuscript. Lily Dale Assembly Museum Collection. Lily Dale, NY.
Braude, Ann. 1989. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th Century America. Beacon Press. Boston.
Doyle, A. Conan. 1920. “The Uncharted Coast.” The Strand Magazine. September 1920.
Fox, Margaret Smith. 1848. Sworn and Signed Affadavit of Margaret Smith Fox of April 4, 1848. The Ayer Institute, Brookline, MA.
Hoeltzel, Bob. 1998. “Who Were the Foxes?” Courier Gazette, Newark, NY.
King, Marie Gentert, Ed. 1968. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Spire Books. Old Tappan, NJ.
Larsen, Paul, Ann Hallstein and Ann Mahoney. 1973. The Fox Family. The American Genealogical Research Institute. Arlington, VA.
Lauderback, Del. 2008. The Start of Modern Spiritualism.
Medhurst, R. G. , K. M. Goldney and M. R. Barrington. 1972. Crookes and the Spirit World. Taplinger Publishing Co. New York.
Pond, Mariam Buckner. 1947. Time is Kind: The Story of the Unfortunate Fox Family. Centennial Press. Clinton, CT.
Putnam, Betty L. 2003. “Our History: The Lily Dale Assembly.”
If you’re interested in the Fox sisters and spiritualism, check out The Hydesville Ghost Pack. The Hydesville Pack includes a newly published reprint of the book A Report on the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox, which collects the accounts of neighbors of the Fox Family following the ghostly events of March 31, 1848. (Book also available at Lulu.) Pack also includes full-color postcard of the Fox cottage, parchment bookmark, and other fun assorted items. Kit comes pre-wrapped in paper and string, ready for gift-giving.