It’s that time again. Candles flicker in jack-o-lanterns. The midnight moon casts eerie shadows as black cats scurry through fallen leaves. And ghost stories are in especially high demand.
Exactly 175 years ago, Americans were caught in the grip of a spooky frenzy. It scared the dickens out of an entire generation and even led to the founding of a religious movement — thanks partly to a prominent South Carolinian’s helping hand. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, it all started with a trio of teenagers and some mysterious sounds.
The Fox sisters were typical country teens for the time. They lived quietly on their family’s little farm in Upstate New York. Until the last day of March 1848.
Fourteen-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate frantically ran up to a neighbor on a road. Panting for breath, they told a terrifying tale of strange happenings in their home. There was rapping on the walls. Furniture moved around on its own. It felt like beings from another world were trying to reach them.
When the neighbor asked to see for herself, the girls led her to the farmhouse. She was told to count to five. Five heavy thuds followed. Then she was told to count to fifteen – and fifteen thuds came next. The spirit was then asked to identify the neighbor’s age – at which point there were 33 knocks, the correct answer.
“If you are an injured spirit,” the supernatural visitor was instructed, “answer with three raps.”
Three raps sounded.
The girls’ mom was totally creeped out. She hustled them and their sister Leah off to live with relatives in Rochester. But you can’t expect something supernatural to stay a secret for long.
News of the weird happenings in the Fox house had traveled ahead of them. Locals Isaac and Amy Post invited them to their home. Their young daughter had recently died, and they desperately wanted to contact her. The result: another round of rapping and tapping.
The Posts were convinced the Fox sisters had found a way to contact the departed. They rented a public hall, and 400 people came to hear the strange sounds for themselves. Many left as believers.
The Fox girls quickly became national celebrities. A famous “seer” named Andrew Jackson Davis invited them to give a demonstration at his New York City home. What he saw and heard led to the creation of Spiritualism. It believed that by contacting the dearly departed, people could glimpse their own eternal destination and make life corrections if needed, before it was too late. (Think Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”)
The sisters had stumbled onto a good thing. Kate and Maggie took the act on the road to Cleveland, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Folks shelled out a then-staggering $1 apiece to learn about the newly opened door to the other side. Leah held forth in New York City, where the Who’s Who of America’s largest metropolis paid big bucks to sit in on her private seances.
Famous names lined up behind the sisters in a show of credibility. They included former Wisconsin Territory Governor Nathaniel Tallmadge and noted University of Pennsylvania chemist Professor Emeritus Robert Hare (who stunned his colleagues by embracing Spiritualism).
South Carolina’s own Waddy Thompson was one of the most enthusiastic converts of all.
Settling in the Upstate after getting married, the young lawyer served in the State House, was elected solicitor, then spent six years in the U.S. Congress, followed by a stint as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. A state militia appointment led to him being called “General Thompson” for the rest of his life – and the general was a passionate acolyte of the new pseudo-religion.
Thompson even hosted seances at his home in Greenville where he sought to convert others to the faith.
(Click to view)
But there were plenty of skeptics, too. The journal Scientific American dismissed the Fox sisters as “The Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” (“Knockers” was slang for “hicks” at the time).
Spiritualism’s heyday came during the War Between the States. With nearly 700,000 dead, almost every home was touched by loss. Grieving family longed to hear from their fallen loved ones. Consider the letter the author has in his personal collection penned by war widow Louise Howe in Vermont in December 1862:
“Addie, are you a believer in Spiritualism? It may all be humbug, but I don’t see it in that light. I hope when I ‘depart and go hence’ I may be permitted to watch over and communicate with my friends. I am not a true believer—neither am I a skeptic. I think it is something that will be more fully developed at some future time.”
Unfortunately for Howe, it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, the opposite happened. And it was due to personal rivalry among the same sisters who had started it all.
Kate developed a drinking problem that grew so bad Leah and top spiritualist leaders publicly scolded her. Maggie was so furious at how Kate was treated she wrote a tell-all exposé published in The New York World (for a then-hefty $1,500 fee) in October 1888.
Maggie admitted that as girls years earlier, she and Kate had tied apples to strings and dragged them along floorboards and down stairs to make the thudding sounds. They advanced to secretly cracking their knuckles and toes to create tapping noises.
In short, it was all a hoax.
Maggie didn’t just describe the methodology of the scam … on October 21, 1888 she showed an audience of 2,000 at the famed New York Academy of Music exactly how she could produce the sounds previously believed to have emanated from loved ones’ dearly departed.
The bombshell caused a huge schism amongst Spiritualists. Maggie recanted her confession a year later, making more people flee the movement. Maggie and Leah hadn’t reconciled when Leah died in 1890. Meanwhile, Kate died during a drinking binge two years later. Maggie followed eight months after that. Spiritualism itself passed away not long afterward, banished to the ranks of cultural curiosities from an earlier era.
So, if you hear rapping and knocking this Halloween night, don’t be alarmed. But don’t forget to look under the table for apples, just to be safe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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