Exhibits in the Haunted
Museum are based on the work of Troy Taylor from his
book, Ghosts by Gaslight!
Click on the Cover for More About the Book!
Shortly after the "coming of the spirits" to the Fox household, the story of
the family took a more
dramatic turn. The two daughters, Maggie and Kate, were both purported to have mediumistic
powers and the news of the unearthly communications with the spirit quickly
spread. By November 1849, they were both giving public performances of their
skills and the Spiritualist movement was born. The mania to communicate with
the dead swept the country and the Fox sisters became famous.
their initial rise to stardom in public and Spiritualist circles, the
sisters continued to appear in a variety of venues. They were now joined
by their older sister Leah, who had been abandoned by her husband and was
living in poverty before her sisters discovered their talent for
communicating with the spirits. The publicity around them was intense.
Some newspapers and public venues hailed them as frauds and others as
sensations. Regardless, people flocked to see them in massive numbers, all
of them gladly paying for the privilege.
Leah as their manager, Margaret and Kate toured other cities, becoming
hugely popular. Their séances became more elaborate, with objects moving
about, spirits appearing and tables levitating.
The farm house in Hydesville where it all began in 1848. The house was
later moved to Lily Dale, the Spiritualist community in New York, where
the bones of the "murdered peddler" were displayed for years.
others began to discover their own mystical powers and mediums and séances
became all the rage. The sisters were embraced by such celebrities as P.T.
Barnum, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and newspaper editor
Horace Greeley, who provided quarters for the girls at his mansion. Greeley
was grieving over the death of his son at the time of his investigations of
the sisters and so the possibility that the dead might be still accessible to
the living was of great interest to him. Greeley even offered to pay for the
girl's education and while Leah accepted his offer for Kate, she refused to
allow Maggie (the more talented of the two mediums) to leave what had become
the family business.
Fox sisters were routinely exposed by skeptics as fakes and it was
claimed they produced their phenomena in a variety of ways ranging from
toe, knee and ankle cracking to ventriloquism to assorted mechanical
devices. Despite this, no trickery was ever discovered. A number of
committees and forums were created to test the powers of the sisters.
Most involved posing questions to the spirits and while the replies were
often inconsistent, they were accurate enough to make an impression. One
test involved the girls being bound tightly about the ankles so that
they could not move their feet. Even trussed up, they still managed to
produce eerie rapping sounds. A committee of women also checked the
girl's undergarments to insure that nothing was hidden there to produce
the sounds. They found nothing and despite the hostility shown to the
sisters by the committees, most were forced to admit that they were able
to detect no fraud.
spite of this, many of the accounts of their activities have been
questionable at best. Leah was often accused of trying to glean personal
information from the sitters at the Fox sisters' séances that would help
the "spirits" to give out correct answers. They also excelled at calling
in the spirits of the famous dead. The results of this were not always
impressive. When one sitter noted that Benjamin Franklin's spirit seemed
to be surprisingly lacking in good grammar, Maggie Fox stomped away from
the séance table with only the reply of "You know I never understood
grammar!" As dubious as the séances may have been though, they
convinced many that the girls were genuine and business boomed.
Maggie eventually abandoned mediumship for love. In
Philadelphia, she met and fell in love with famed Arctic explorer Elisha Kent
Kane, the dashing son of an aristocratic family, who did not deem Maggie
worthy of marrying into their line. They did exchange vows and rings in the
company of friends but were never legally wed. Unfortunately, the affair ended
in tragedy when Kane died in 1857. Maggie was left broken-hearted and almost
penniless. She had abandoned being a medium but now had to take it up again.
She began drinking and her health and her mental state began to decline.
Kate had fared slightly better than her sister, but
soon she too was paying the price for her fame. She also began drinking,
which often wreaked havoc on her performances. Although she was
still having trouble controlling her alcoholism, she traveled to England
in 1871 and remained sober long enough to perform for a number of British
Spiritualists. She remained in England and the following year, married
Henry Jencken, a barrister, with whom she had two sons. The first,
Ferdinand, was born in 1873 and was reportedly a medium by the time he was
three years old. It was said that spirits took over his body and caused an
“unearthly glow” to emanate from his eyes.
By 1885, Spiritualism was on the decline and
investigations of fraud began to increase. This year brought tragedy to
both of the Fox sisters. Maggie was called before a commission in New York
to prove her skills, a test that she failed miserably, and Kate saw the
death of her husband from a stroke. She returned to New York and here, in
early 1888, she was arrested for drunkenness and idleness and welfare
workers took custody of her sons. Maggie, who had remained close with
Kate, was unable to get the boys herself but she did manage to get them
into the custody of an uncle in England.
illustration of an examination of the Fox Sisters by Dr. Austin Flint in
In 1888, Maggie made the infamous appearance when she
denounced Spiritualism as a total sham. The years of alcohol abuse, loneliness
and grief had taken their toll on her and she weighed the idea of committing
suicide before finally choosing confession instead. She booked the stage at
the New York Academy of Music and walked out on stage to announce she
and Kate had created the strange rappings heard in their Hydesville home by
simply cracking their toes. She also stated that Leah had forced them into
performing as mediums for the public. "I have seen so much miserable
deception," she reportedly said. "That is why I am willing to state that
Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description." Sitting in a box
overlooking the stage, Kate silently affirmed her sister's confession.
While the critics laughed and cried “I told you so”,
devoted Spiritualists denounced Margaret’s confession as the ravings of a sad
and tired drunk. Kate, who did not speak at the public appearance, later
stated that she did not agree with her sister and she continued to perform as
a medium. In 1891, Margaret would recant her confession. Many have said that
the confession was a sham itself. They maintain that Maggie and Kate only
renounced the movement to spite their sister Leah, who they had grown to hate.
Leah had since married a wealthy and respectable businessman and using the
fortune that had been gained for her by her sisters, she had long ago turned
her back on Maggie and Kate, who she considered an embarrassment.
Kate later drank herself to death in July 1892 at the age of only 56. Her
body was discovered by one of her sons. Margaret died in March 1893, at age
59, in a friend’s home in Brooklyn. At the time of her death, she was
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