TIMELINE FOR THE FOX SISTERS
1813 (April 8): Ann Leah Fox was born in Rockland County, New York.
1833 (October 7): Margaret (Maggie) Fox was born in Consecon, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada.
1837 (March 27): Catherine (Kate) Fox was born in Consecon, Prince Edward County, Ontario Canada.
1848: The Fox family moved from Belleville, Ontario to Hydesville, New York.
1848 (March 31): Kate (twelve) and Maggie (fifteen) heard mysterious “rappings,” which they attributed to a ghost.
1849 (November 14): The “Fox Sisters,” (Leah, Maggie, and Kate) provided a demonstration of their unusual “abilities” at Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall.
1850s: Spiritualist “demonstrations” became increasingly popular as mediums followed in the Fox Sisters’ footsteps and went on the lecture circuit to provide demonstrations of their abilities.
1851: The Fox Sisters were examined by the “Buffalo Doctors,” who declared that they were frauds.
1852: Maggie began a relationship with the explorer Elisha Kent Kane.
1853: Patent examiner Charles Grafton Page investigated the sisters and determined that they were frauds.
1853: The Fox Sisters moved to New York City and parted ways, each ostensibly working on her own for private clients.
1857: Elisha Kent Kane died while on an expedition, leaving Maggie distraught.
1858: Leah married wealthy influential Brooklynite, Daniel Underhill.
1862: Claiming that they had married in secret, Maggie took Kane’s name and became Margaret Fox Kane.
1871: Kate traveled to England.
1872: Kate married the British barrister H. D. Jencken and gave birth to two boys.
1881: Kate’s husband, H. D. Jencken, died, and Kate returned to New York with her sons.
1884: The University of Pennsylvania’s Seybert Commission included Maggie Fox Kane in their investigation into Spiritualist phenomena and expressed disappointment in her performance.
1885: Leah published her autobiography, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism.
1888 (October 21): Kate and Maggie appeared at the New York Academy of Music to declare publicly that their alleged spirit rappings had been a hoax.
1889: Kate and Maggie recanted their declaration that the rappings had been a hoax.
1890 (November 1): Leah Fox Underhill died in New York City.
1892 (July 3): Kate Fox Jencken died in New York City.
1893 (March 8): Maggie Fox Kane died in New York City.
Ann Leah Fox Fish Underhill, Margaretta or Margaret (“Maggie”) Fox Kane, and Catherine or Katherine (“Kate”) Fox Jencken (often referred to as the “Fox Sisters”) are widely credited with beginning the movement that came to be known as Modern American Spiritualism. Leah, the eldest of the trio was born in Rockland County, New York, while the two younger sisters were born in Consecon, Prince Edward County, Ontario. Prior to moving from Belleville, Ontario to New York state in 1848, the Fox family had divided its time between the United States and Canada (Massicotte 2017:22–23). In 1848 (then teenagers living with their parents in Hydesville, New York), Kate and Maggie allegedly heard mysterious raps and knocks resonating throughout their modest home.[Image at right] Believing that the knocks were being produced by a ghostly presence, Kate and Maggie began to knock in response and soon began a correspondence with what they believed was a ghost. This caused quite a stir within the small community, and neighbors were invited over to witness the phenomenon. In a signed affidavit that appears at the beginning of Leah’s autobiography, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, the girls’ mother, Mrs. Fox writes:
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: “O mother, I know what it is; to-morrow 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” (Underhill 1885:7).
Following an investigation by the neighbors, it was eventually concluded that the girls had been communicating with the spirit of a peddler, whom the previous tenant of their home had murdered and buried in the basement. However, although Leah’s autobiography claims that human remains had been found in the basement of the Hydesville house, Harry Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits claims that Maggie later stated that no such remains were ever found, and that, inspired by the rappings, the neighbors had jumped to conclusions about a possible murder (1924:7). As news of the girls’ spirit communications spread, numerous visitors came to witness the phenomena for themselves. Eventually the “spirit rappings” grew so disruptive that Kate and Maggie’s mother sent them to stay with Amy and Isaac Post in nearby Rochester, New York. The Posts were prominent abolitionists and Quakers, and were apparently impressed by the rappings. After a brief sojourn with the Posts, Kate and Maggie went on to live with their older sister (then Leah Fox Fish), who also lived in Rochester. [Image at right] Leah, a single mother, was more than a decade older than her sisters, and once it dawned on her that she too was able to communicate with spirits, she decided that the sisters should provide public demonstrations of their mysterious powers. In 1849, the Fox sisters delivered their first public demonstration at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall at an event organized by the journalist Eliab Capron. The sisters quickly gained fame as “rapping” spirit mediums, that is, mediums who communicated with spirits by way of knocks and raps that corresponded to letters of the alphabet. The three young women began to give demonstrations throughout New York state, eventually traveling to New England and southern Ontario.
At that time, women were expected stay in the home and were discouraged from public speaking or performing. In her autobiography, Leah Fox Underhill attempted to circumvent criticism for her public appearances by claiming that she and her sisters had not actually wanted to travel or to give public demonstrations, but that their otherworldly “friends” had insisted upon it, pestering and even bullying them until they relented and agreed to do the spirits’ bidding (Underhill 1885:120). Given the prohibitions on women’s public appearances, it is also worth noting that in their first public demonstration (and indeed in all large demonstrations they provided) the Fox Sisters did not speak while onstage. They merely did their work as demonstrators while Eliab Capron, who acted as their manager, introduced them, vouched for their authenticity, and led the audience through the program. Still, the sisters were roundly criticized, this time for charging a fee for admittance to their demonstrations. Capron wrote:
The fact of their taking pay for their time has often been used as an argument to prove that the whole was a mere money-making trick and as prima facie evidence of fraud. Why the preaching of tangible spiritualism should be subject to such an imputation any more than any other preaching is not entirely plain, unless it be that the paying of one kind of preachers is an old custom and those who conform to it do not feel willing to admit a new class of competitors into the field (Capron 1855:82).
As the sisters grew more famous, and as other young women (and some men) followed their example, their evident abilities attracted investigators, who wanted to know the “true” source of the mysterious rapping and knocking sounds. In 1851, Austin Flint, Charles E. Lee, and C. B. Coventry, three doctors from Buffalo, New York, examined the sisters and published an article in the local newspapers stating that the sisters made their mysterious noises by cracking their joints. In her autobiography, Leah Fox Underhill described this examination as being a harrowing experience. The doctors had first demanded that the Fox Sisters strip before a “committee of ladies” to ensure that they were not hiding anything in their clothing that could make tapping sounds (Underhill 1885:365). Next, the “Buffalo Doctors” held the sisters’ feet down while they performed, again in an attempt to prevent them from cheating. In 1853, the sisters were again tested by a patent examiner named Charles Grafton Page, who came to a similar conclusion as “the Buffalo Doctors.” Both the Buffalo Doctors and Charles Grafton Page decided that the Fox Sisters were frauds who somehow managed to surreptitiously produce the raps and knocks themselves.
Around 1853, all three sisters settled in New York City. There, in 1858, Leah Fox Fish married a wealthy Spiritualist named Daniel Underhill, and moved to Brooklyn where she held private séances at her home. Leah’s clientele was prestigious, and included famous activists, such as Horace Greeley, and writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper. Unfortunately, Kate and Maggie did not fare so well. Like their father, both young women were fond of alcohol, and drank to excess. Maggie embarked upon a relationship with a high society Arctic explorer named Elisha Kent Kane who deplored Maggie’s work as a medium, and repeatedly postponed marrying her because his parents disapproved of her. When Kane died while on an expedition, Maggie was devastated, and turned ever more frequently to the bottle. After Kane’s death, Maggie took Kane’s name, claiming that the two had been married in secret in 1856 (Abbott 2012: n.p.).
In 1871, Kate traveled to England, where she met and married H. D. Jencken, a barrister. In England, Kate gave birth to two boys. Tragically, while her sons were still very young, their father died. Kate returned to New York with the two boys where she offered her services as a medium in private consultations. However, suffering from depression and under increasing pressure to provide for her children, Kate followed Maggie’s path into alcoholism. In New York, both Kate and Maggie went through periods where they were estranged from their sister Leah, although (according to Leah) they often required financial support, which she and her husband provided. In 1884, Maggie, referenced as “Mrs. Kane,” was one of several mediums tested by the Seybert Commission, a committee of University of Pennsylvania professors tasked with investigating mediumistic phenomena. According to the commission, the results came up negative. Mrs. Kane had been unable to produce any phenomena (Seybert Commission 1887:35).
In 1888, Kate and Maggie betrayed their older sister by declaring publicly that their demonstrations of mediumistic powers had been entirely fraudulent, and that they had created the mysterious rapping sounds by cracking their joints. In a book entitled The Death Blow to Spiritualism, [Image at right] investigative journalist Reuben Briggs Davenport claimed that Kate and Maggie’s confession had marked the end of the Spiritualist movement as it had unequivocally exposed all mediums as frauds (Davenport 1885:76). On the other hand, Leah continued to insist that the phenomena were genuine. But, although Kate and Maggie recanted their confession the following year, the sisters’ credibility and that of the Spiritualist movement had been irrevocably damaged. Leah died in 1890, while Kate and Maggie died as paupers only a few years later.
The Fox Sisters did not espouse specific teachings and Spiritualist doctrines until after they (and their abilities) were claimed by a burgeoning Spiritualist movement that was inspired and initiated by the works of Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910). Once the young women’s raps and knocks were linked to communication with the dead, Spiritualists argued that the sisters’ abilities were incontrovertible evidence of life beyond the grave. Therefore, the Fox Sisters, through their activities, became de facto Spiritualists. However, Leah, in particular, eventually professed a strong adherence to Spiritualist principles, declaring the phenomena produced during séances to “demonstrate the reality of the survival of man’s spirit, or inner self, after that ‘death’ which is but birth into another stage of progressed and progressive life, in unchanged personality and identity; or in other words, that immortality of the soul . . . which is the foundation corner-stone of all religions and of all Religion” (Underhill 1885:34).
For twenty-first-century readers, the enthusiastic public response to the Fox Sisters’ claim to be communicating with spirits may seem surprising, but the time and place in which they lived provides crucial context for why their pronouncements received such attention. The Fox family lived in a part of upstate New York that, in the nineteenth century, was a known hot spot for new religious movements. This region was known as the “Burned Over District” because it was so often swept with the fires of religious fervor. Thus, the environment in which the Fox Sisters found fame, was one in which a number of new religions (including Mormonism) had come to flourish.
The primary ritual (See also, Women in Nineteenth-century American Spiritualism) associated with Spiritualism was the séance, [Image at right] although the Fox Sisters initially framed their public correspondence with alleged spirit entities as “demonstrations;” that is, the sisters’ public sharing of their unusual abilities began as “performances” given before large crowds. The women did not do work that was explicitly recognized as mediumship within the more intimate context of the séance until later in their careers. That is, when the sisters had stopped touring and had settled in New York, the work they did with individual clients or with small groups of people could more readily be defined as séances than demonstrations. While on tour, the sisters provided demonstrations before hundreds of people and were chaperoned by their mother or a male manager. In contrast, at the small gatherings they held in private homes, the sisters were understood to be spiritual authorities and confidantes rather than simply performers or “demonstrators.”
The Fox Sisters cannot be considered leaders of the Spiritualist movement, yet they are almost universally credited with its birth. While Kate and Maggie at various times repudiated the idea of mediumship or acting as spirit mediums,
their elder sister Leah seemed to embrace the role. In her autobiography, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, [Image at right] Leah Fox Fish Underhill describes herself as having been in the vanguard of that movement, declaring, “nobody else possesses—both in vivid personal recollections and in stores of documentary material—the means and the data necessary for the task of giving a correct account of the initiation of the movement known as Modern Spiritualism” (Underhill 1885:29).
Although many Spiritualists incorporated references to Christianity into their practice, Spiritualism was still widely disapproved of in many Christian communities. For instance, Leah described how her mother, Mrs. Fox, was approached by a preacher who chastised her for the work her daughters were doing. Confronting Mrs. Fox after a church service, the preacher explained:
“Well, Mrs. Fox, there is a complaint against you for countenancing your children in carrying on a wicked deception. It is calculated to do much harm, and it is contrary to the religion of the Bible.” He urged her to make her confession before the church and to cause her children to discontinue their unholy pursuit, and she could remain in good standing in the church. This little man was a circuit preacher, and we suppose had taken upon himself to do the Lord’s work, in his own way, as we never heard from him again; and I seriously doubt if anyone ever sent him (Underhill 1885:231).
This was not an isolated incident. The sisters themselves experienced a great deal of hostility and harassment on their travels, which Leah detailed at length in her autobiography. Such occasions involved unwanted and intrusive male visitors, lewd comments from men at their demonstrations, an attempted poisoning, and finally a shoot-out (targeting the house in which the sisters were staying). Leah described going to rescue Maggie at the house:
I found Maggie sick and nearly paralyzed with fright. There were strong-armed forces for protection on our side. We had not been in the house ten minutes when several shots were fired and stones thrown, breaking everything in their way. We crouched beneath the furniture and lay on the floor to escape the bullets, expecting at every moment some stray shot or stone would strike us. (Our hiding-room was in the interior of the house.) The mob threatened and did all in their power to destroy us; but knowing the gentlemen inside were so well prepared for them, they retired for the night. . . . Poor Maggie’s nerves were terribly unstrung (Underhill 1885:296 ).
Hence, negative reactions to the sisters ran the gamut from merely crude and dismissive, to communities of people who literally expressed a desire to kill them for their alleged blasphemy. Nonetheless, Leah declared that in the end, it was a worthwhile sacrifice (Underhill 1885:168). But while Leah’s autobiography seems to indicate that she was sincere about her belief in Spiritualism and the rewards that it brought her, her two younger sisters seemed more ambivalent, first professing to be frauds, and then claiming that they had felt pressured into this admission. While Leah was apparently convinced that her communications with the spirit world were genuine, Kate and Maggie’s 1888 “confession” indicates that they had harbored doubts about the ethics of the work they had done as Spiritualists.
Image #1: The Fox Sisters’ childhood home.
Image #2: The Three Fox Sisters. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image #3: The front cover of Reuben Briggs Davenport’s The Death Blow of Spiritualism.
Image #4: An illustration of a nineteenth century seance.
Image #5: The front cover of Leah Fox Fish Underhill’s The Missing Link in Spiritualism.
Abbott, Karen. 2012. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Smithsonian.com, October 30. Accessed from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-fox-sisters-and-the-rap-on-spiritualism-99663697/ on 17 May 2018.
Capron, Eliab. 1885. Modern Spiritualism: Its Facts and Fanaticisms, Its Consistencies and Contradictions. Boston: Bela Marsh Press.
Davenport, Reuben Briggs. 1888. The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox Sisters, As Revealed by Authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. New York: G. W. Dillingham.
Houdini, Harry. 1924. A Magician Among the Spirits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Massicotte, Claudie. 2017. Trance Speakers: Femininity and Authorship in Spiritual Seances, 1850-1930. Montreal and Kingston.: McGill-Queens University Press.
Page, Charles Grafton. 1853. Psychomancy: Spirit Rappings and Table-Tippings Exposed. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
Underhill, A. Leah. 1885. The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism. New York: Thomas R. Knox & Co.
11 June 2018