How Two Girls Who Talked to the Dead Sparked the Biggest Religious Movement of the 1800s

Americans have a fascination with the paranormal — the longstanding success of Long Island Medium, a TLC reality show that follows a woman who can supposedly talk to the dead, is a perfect demonstration of that. But what you may not know is that talking to the dead had its biggest heyday more than 170 years ago, when two young sisters who claimed to have this "gift" kicked off a religious movement called Spiritualism with about 11 million followers at its peak.

Rapping, Rapping at my Chamber Door

It all began March 31, 1848 — April Fools' eve — in Hydesville, New York. Shortly after John D. Fox, his wife Margaret, and their six children moved into their new home, the family began hearing strange knocking sounds, especially close to bedtime. Soon, 14-year-old Margaretta "Maggie" Fox and 11-year-old Kate began to clap their hands and snap their fingers to get these sounds to respond to them. The sisters eventually worked out a system of communication with the spirit that apparently lived in their home so they could ask it questions and receive answers in return.

The girls invited a skeptical neighbor over to prove their case and things took off from there. The sisters had seemingly stumbled upon proof of life after death and became national celebrities overnight, communicating with spirits in séances for huge crowds across the country. That set off a firestorm. By 1865, an estimated 11 million people subscribed to the religion known as Spiritualism and 35,000 were practicing mediums.

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do

Conditions were prime for Spiritualism's explosive growth. The area where the Fox family lived, near Rochester, was such a hotbed for religious activity that it was dubbed the "Burned-over District" for the way that the area's religious spirit caught fire. Both Mormonism and Millerism (the precursor to Seventh-Day Adventism) were born there, along with quite a few less-enduring religions.

At the same time, Americans' ideas about heaven were already beginning to change based on the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher who claimed he could freely visit heaven and hell to speak with angels and demons. Swedenborg also described an intermediary space where souls went for final judgment upon death. Love for others propelled a soul toward heaven while selfishness would send it to hell. The idea that an individual could have some influence over where their soul ended up appealed to many people.

Spiritualism also combined religion and science, in a way. Many were drawn to Spiritualism for its parallels with the rapid technological advances at the time: This was just a few decades before the advent of the light bulb, the phonograph, and the internal combustion engine. The raps and knocks the Fox sisters' were able to conjure were reminiscent of the Morse alphabet, which was invented a few years earlier. Spiritualism's promoters subsequently claimed mediums could establish a "spiritual telegraph" between the living and dead. Likewise, no sooner had the telephone been invented than Thomas Edison began making plans for a "spirit phone." Photography also got its start around the same time, and in the 1860s, a man named William Mumler birthed the genre of "spirit photography," claiming he could capture a departed loved one's ghostly image with a camera.

On top of it all, the United States in the mid-19th century saw an unprecedented number of deaths due to the Civil War, when roughly 2 percent of the population died in the line of duty. As a result, scores of surviving Americans turned to Spiritualist mediums, seeking a final message from their dearly departed loved ones or proof that their immortal souls were at peace.

Spiritualism was also progressive for its time. The religion was the only to view women as equals and was one of only a few that allowed women to be leaders in the church. Many used the platform the Spiritualist church provided as a means of advocating for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery, claiming these ideas came to them from the spirit realm.

Fake Faith?

Spiritualism gained credibility with the endorsement of famous followers like scientist Oliver Lodge, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known to frequent séances after the deaths of her husband and son. "Spirit photographer" William Mumler even took the last known photo of Mrs. Lincoln, which showed a ghostly Abe placing his hands on her shoulders.

The movement was not without skeptics, however, and was plagued by hucksters looking to make money off of people's grief. The Fox sisters themselves were cursed by the movement they created. The pressure of producing greater and greater "miracles" at each séance was said to have driven Kate to alcoholism. In a paid interview with the New York World on October 21, 1888, Maggie, angry at her many critics, publicly denounced Spiritualism.

"My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began," she said.

Maggie explained that she and Kate had initially tied an apple to a string that they'd move around to get the apple to bump on the floor. The sisters later graduated to manipulating their knuckles, toes, and other joints to make rapping sounds. She claimed their elder sister Leah knew the sounds were fake all along and exploited her sisters for profit.

Though the media called Maggie's retraction a "death blow" to the movement, Spiritualism lived on — even after Maggie's retraction a year later and the sisters' deaths in the 1890s. Today, the Spiritualist church is still around in many parts of the world, including the United States, France, Brazil, and especially the UK, where it stands as the nation's eighth-largest religion. We can just hear the Fox sisters rapping their approval.

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Learn more about Spiritualism's history in "Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism" by Barbara Weisberg. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker October 29, 2019

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