No. 650
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
April 18, 2024

The Advent of Spiritualism.

A simple schoolgirl prank spawned a new belief with millions of followers.
September 4, 2012
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Tag: Disguise

Disguised as the Devil.

A Man in a Black Mask, Disguised as the Devil.

10/19/2021

The Craze of the Day.

The amateur camera fiend carries his deadly machine in all sorts of disguises, nowadays.

3/6/2017

Dropping Their Disguise.

How a loving bridal couple were suddenly transformed into a brace of absconding counterfeiters.

6/18/2013
Via Newspapers.comAs I believe I’ve mentioned before, I have a particular fondness for obscure, unimportant, but intriguing little mysteries.  One such example appeared in the “London Morning Chronicle,” April 21, 1809:Nevis, Feb. 7, 1809.“Dear Sir,"I beg leave to mention the following circumstances, and leave to your better judgment the propriety of making the same public.-- "About a
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Strange Company - 4/17/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
How many ways are there to style a subway entrance sign? In New York City, dozens of designs and typefaces are used across the subway system—often with no rhyme or reason. Take this gold and white sign on William Street. It’s for a side entrance/exit for the Fulton Street station, affixed to a 20th century […]
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Ephemeral New York - 4/15/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
 Samuel Smith and his wife Emma appeared to the world as a happy and affectionate young couple. She was pretty and vivacious with a dazzling wardrobe, and he was energetic with a winning personality. But beneath the surface was a hidden turmoil that did not come to light until Emma was found dead in their apartment, her head blown apart by a shotgun blast, and Samuel nowhere to be found.Read
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Murder By Gaslight - 4/13/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Street Arabs and Gutter-Snipes. | The Last Dip of the Season.

The Advent of Spiritualism.

fox-sisters2
Kate Fox Maggie Fox Leah Fox

In March of 1848 two young sisters in Hydesville, New York—Maggie Fox, age 15 and  Katie Fox, age 11 ½ — devised a plan to fool their superstitious mother. They would discretely crack their toes and claim that the resulting “knocks” or “raps”  were communications from the spirit world. Little did they dream that this simple deception would spawn a new religion with millions of followers worldwide.

Extra Fox Home in Hydesville

The Fox family moved into a small farmhouse in Hydesville in December 1847. Out of boredom that winter, the two sisters devised several plans to convince their mother that the house was haunted. The most effective was to crack their toes on the floor in such a way that the sound would resonate through the house. They convinced their mother that the sounds were being made by a ghost who haunting their house.

On March 31, 1848, the girls set up a performance for their family during which they purported to communicate with the spirit haunting the house. Katy would peer into the darkness and say boldly, “Mr. Split-foot, do as I do,” then snap her fingers several times in succession. The responding knocks, coming as if from the darkness, would imitate the snaps. Her mother asked the spirit questions that could be answered with a series of knocks. It was determined that the spirit was a thirty-one-year-old man with five children, who had died two years previous. Neighbors were summoned to witness the performance. They arrived skeptics and left believers.

This occurred during a period known as the “Second Great Awakening” of religious fervor in America, and in a section of New York State that had been dubbed the “burned-over district” for the number of times the inhabitants had been fired up by religious movements. The area had seen the birth of the Latter Day Saints, the Millerites, the Shakers, and the Oneida Community. The spirit communication of the Fox Sisters found a receptive audience and their fame spread quickly through western New York.

Extra

A third sister, Leah Fox Fish, who was nineteen years older than Maggie, learned of the deception through her daughter Lizzie. Leah took over management of her sisters’ performances and soon they making money throughout the state. The girls were examined by medical experts in Rochester and Buffalo and were pronounced to be legitimate.

The Fox Sisters began holding private séances and public meetings in Albany, New York City and throughout the east coast. Prominent men such as editor Horace Greely and author James Fennimore Cooper became adherents.  As the Spiritualist movement grew, it attracted more mediums, with even more dramatic performances. Soon the movement had millions of adherents worldwide.

But there were skeptics as well. In his 1866 book The Humbugs of the World, P. T. Barnum—himself an unabashed dealer in humbuggery—included a section on Spiritualism and a chapter devoted to the Fox Sisters. His description of how the Fox Sisters produced their raps was fairly accurate. But the accounts of skeptics had no effects on the true believers.

Then in July 1888, while on tour in England, Maggie Fox herself began to reveal, on stage, how the noises were produced. When she returned to New York, she was joined by her sister Katie in revealing the secret.  On October 21 the two sisters appeared on the stage of the New York Academy of Music and together revealed how they had deceived the world for forty years.  Newspapers proclaimed the death of Spiritualism, but the Spiritualist claimed that this performance was the fraud. The two sisters now both alcoholics with little income had renounced their gift in order to make money.

A national tour following the Academy of Music performance failed to generate the revenue they hoped for and in 1889 Maggie reversed herself again. She recanted her previous expose, claiming it was made at the direction of an unscrupulous manager.  But by now, little attention was paid to anything she said and the Fox Sisters faded into obscurity. Both women died of alcoholism, Katie in 1892 and Maggie in 1893.


Sources:

  • Barnum, P. T. The humbugs of the world An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages.. New York: Carleton, 1866.
  • Stuart, Nancy. The reluctant spiritualist: the life of Maggie Fox. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005.
  • Todd, Thomas Olman. Hydesville: the story of the Rochester knockings, which proclaimed the advent of modern spiritualism. Sunderland [Eng.: Keystone Press, 1905.

 The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism's Unlikely Founders