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The Fox Sisters and the 19th Century Spiritualism Craze

Updated on February 24, 2013
A Spiritualism service in progress at the Forest Temple in Lilydale, NY. This was taken the summer of 2006.
A Spiritualism service in progress at the Forest Temple in Lilydale, NY. This was taken the summer of 2006. | Source

Ghosts and messages from the dead have been a part of life for many people throughout the ages. Some are terrified by it, while others see it as a comfort. However, the religion of Spiritualism revolves around it

What Was the 19th Century Like?

The 1800s were years full of turmoil tempered with optimism. Those were the years that the battle for women’s rights began in earnest with the rise of the Suffragettes, and anti-slavery legislation was finally starting to pick up steam. The Civil War also took place during these years, and the painful journey to equal rights was finally underway.

However, death wasn’t far from mind for everyone. Massachusetts, one of the very few states who kept track of such things, recorded that a man’s average lifespan was only 38.3 years, while women’s were 40.5. Cities suffered from overpopulation, which only got worse with the constant influx of immigrants.

Nearly a third of babies born were dead within their first year and huge numbers of mothers were subjected to health problems related to the repeated births they endured. Women regularly had at least five children in those days.

Diseases like influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria and cholera were depressingly common, thanks to appalling sanitary conditions.

People desperate for ways to improve their health turned to special diets and mineral baths, while seeking ways to get in touch with those they had lost.

In response to the conditions of the day, many different religions were formed in the 1830s, years often termed “America’s Second Great Awakening”. Many of those religions are still around today, like Mormonism and the 7th Day Adventists.

Upstate New York was a hotbed for new religions, and was dubbed the “Burned-Over District”.

One religion in particular took off in popularity, and although it’s following is smaller than it was back then, it still has many loyal to it. That religion is Spiritualism.

What is Spiritualism?

One of the core ideas that Spiritualism is based off of is that the spirits of the dead can, want to and do communicate with those who are still living. However, the only people who can communicate directly with them are mediums, who use various methods to do so. In addition to conveying messages, there are also Spiritual Healers, who offer services for free.

I have had the opportunity to benefit from their work before, and it felt a great deal like Reiki to me.

Like most religions, it has quite a few off-shoots, but the one most of us are familiar with is American Spiritualism.

Despite the overtones cast upon it by the media, Spiritualism is far more than mediumship. The beliefs also prize personal responsibility, open mindedness to other beliefs and stress the importance of treating others with kindness.

The story of Spiritualism can’t be told, however, without mentioning the Fox sisters.

Margret (Maggie), Kate and Leah Fox. This trio helped kick the Spiritualism movement off.
Margret (Maggie), Kate and Leah Fox. This trio helped kick the Spiritualism movement off. | Source

The Fox Sisters

In the early 1840s, a couple moved into a small house in Hydesville, NY with their daughters, fifteen-year-old Margaret and twelve-year-old Kate. The family had no idea what was waiting for them.

They hadn’t been told of the eerie tapping and rapping that happened for previous owners of the house. When it first started shortly after they moved in, they simply put it off as the effects of the building settling with the cooling air.

However, the tapping grew in frequency, and their girls became frightened because of it. Even moving their beds into the parents’ room did nothing to help the situation.

As time progressed, eventually one of the girls thought to try communicating with the spirits through setting up a code of tapping.

Eventually, the message came across that the spirit was that of a peddler who had been murdered years ago and buried under the house. When the family had dug in the basement, they only found bone fragments and a carrying case.

It was only years later, after the Fox sisters had passed, that a body was found under the house in 1904. It had been reduced to only skeletal remains, so a positive ID couldn’t be made, but he was believed to be the remains of the murdered peddler.

It was then that Mr. Fox decided that it was time to get the girls away from the home for a while. Although they had been sent to stay with older siblings in Rochester, the knocking sounds followed them.

It didn’t the media long to learn of the strange occurrences, and the stories took off.

Although the Methodist church the family had belonged to forced them out, the girls still enjoyed fame and success as mediums.

Famous Believers In Spiritualism

Many noted people were either Spiritualists or consulted with mediums who were associated with the religion.

  • Harry Houdini
  • Princess Diana
  • Colonel Simon F. Kase
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Justice John Worth Edmonds of the Supreme Court

This was in part because of their natural beauty, the desperation for some sort of reassurance of life after death and the emergence of female power in society’s evolution. However, their older sister, Leah, was the driving source of their success.

Leah was already a single mother by the time the rapping first started. She had struggled to support herself and her daughter, but saw opportunity for a better life in her younger sisters’ talents.

Leah helped organize séances, public appearances for the girls and private readings. She took care of the business side of things, while the girls did their work in the spotlight.

The pressure of fame didn’t agree with Maggie or Kate, and they both turned to alcoholism at various points in their lives.

In their later years, Maggie and Kate confessed to their readings as being hoaxes. Leah had been in on the secret for a long time, but she continued to perpetrate the deception for a number of reasons, including profit and reluctance to bring shame on the family.

In 1858, Maggie gave up Spiritualism and the life of a medium in favor of Catholicism. However, Kate continued to practice mediumship for the majority of her remaining years after their fame waned.

In fact, the girls had exposed their rapping techniques to the public at one point, though they later withdrew their confessions.

However, although there may have been deception involved, many say from the start, others fully believe that at least some of the readings the girls did were honest communication with the dead.

The small farmhouse where Fox family had lived was moved to the small town of Lilydale, NY in 1916, and is still occupied by a Spiritualist family.

These are some of the houses in Lilydale. The brown and white sign is for the medium Kitty Osborne. One of the neighborhood's many felines is seen trotting down the sidewalk, and later went exploring in Kitty's yard. Photo taken in 2009.
These are some of the houses in Lilydale. The brown and white sign is for the medium Kitty Osborne. One of the neighborhood's many felines is seen trotting down the sidewalk, and later went exploring in Kitty's yard. Photo taken in 2009. | Source

Lilydale, NY

Although I don’t subscribe to the religion itself, I do respect it, and I’ve had the privilege to visit the current hub of Spiritualism a few times, Lilydale, NY.

The Assembly of Lilydale is located outside of Buffalo, and very close to Jamestown. This historic part of the state hosts beautiful forests and carries its historical significance with grace.

Lilydale is a gated community, and in order to own one of the beautiful old homes in its borders, you must be a registered Spiritualist. However, you don’t need to be a medium.

There is a small fee to enter, but the population is very welcoming and the environment is warm. Lilydale is also home to the oldest Old Growth forest in the state of New York.

They hold services at various times throughout the day, during which mediums get up to do readings on visitors. A public service usually starts with everyone rising for a prayer, and the mediums taking turns in picking people who stick out for them.

Both times I visited, I left feeling better than I had when I arrived, and came away with some great stories to share.

Although Spiritualism doesn’t have the same level of popularity that it did in the 19th century, its following is still loyal, and the members of the church are generally good people. If you are interested in the topic of mediumship, this religion is worth taking a look at.

The Reluctant Spiritualist : The Life of Maggie Fox
The Reluctant Spiritualist : The Life of Maggie Fox

This is a great book. It offers wonderful historical context and offers an in depth look at Maggie's life, and how Spiritualism effected it.



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