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Palmetto Past & Present: South Carolina’s Link To A Spooky Scam

Spiritualism’s ties to the Palmetto State …

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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.

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(Public domain)

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.



Mark Powell (Provided)

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



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The Other Side October 31, 2023 at 2:25 pm

How unfortunate that people like the Fox sisters perpetuate hoaxes around such a serious matter and take advantage of the longing of people wishing to communicate with departed friends and family. We do survive physical death and for many, communication from the other side is a regular thing. Often, it is very subtle stuff that leaves you briefly doubting your own sanity, but not seriously, or for very long. A set of keys or other items you know you left in plain sight, on a bed, on a table, or elsewhere, yet when you briefly turn away or leave the room they are gone. Sometimes, there are others in the house with you, leaving you the logical conclusion that they were responsible somehow for the missing item. Even if they were nowhere near the now missing item when it went AWOL, your mind tells you it had to be their doing. But what about when you are totally alone at the time, especially if you live alone? You search the house for the missing item. You look in places where you know you did not have and did not leave the item. You check the same places multiple times but they are not there. Minutes, hours, rarely but maybe days later, you walk into the room where you thought you left it, and there it is, on the bed, on the table, right where you remembered leaving it. Logically, no one could have put it there, but there it is. Yeah, somebody on the other side is having some good-natured fun, messing with you. I have experienced it with keys, jewelry items, bags of stuff bought at the store, even drinks in a cup.

I once ran into an old friend who I had not seen in years. She was very distraught. Her late husband had a service pin from an organization he had been very involved with. She said he was proud of that pin and wore it everywhere. After his passing, she began to wear it everywhere as a means of holding him and his memory close to her. On the night we ran into each other, she said she had laid the pin on the bed in preparation of putting it on the shirt she would wear to work that night. She left the room briefly and returned and the pin was gone. She said she tore the house up, looked under the bed, even though there was no way it could have gotten under there, looked in the kitchen sink, everywhere, to no avail. I told her that I had experiences similar to this and for her not to worry, that there was a good chance the pin would be on the bed when she got home, or maybe another place she had already checked numerous times. She was doubtful but hopeful.

The Other Side October 31, 2023 at 3:15 pm

A few weeks later, I ran into this friend, again. She was at work and I approached her and said, “Well?” She was momentarily puzzled and said, “Well, what?” I asked if she found her husband’s pin. Her face lit up and she said, “It was just like you said! The next morning when I got home, the pin was laying on top of the bed in plain sight, right where I remembered putting it.” I told her that was him letting her know that he was still around. She said she knew, that she felt him around her, often.

I have been blessed to know many psychics and mediums, real ones, as personal friends. Lexington County once had a vibrant metaphysical community, with one lady and her husband hosting fun Halloween parties each year in the Gaston area before their health eventually left them and sadly, they left us. There was something cool to be said about being on the guest list at a Halloween party where you were surrounded by real-life Witches, psychics, and their families. Sadly, most of the ones I knew have crossed to the other side or I have otherwise lost contact with them.

As with anything, there are false psychics who prey on peoples’ emotions and need for connection to departed loved ones with false information. Those often engage in information phishing, throwing out a “detail” that most will have a resonance with, then building on that. If I were a fake psychic, I might tell you there is a short lady with grey hair standing beside you. Most will think of a beloved grandmother, mother, aunt, teacher, etc, that fits that vague description. Then I might tell you that her name has an “e” sound in it. Most will have someone fitting that description in their past (Bessie, Nancy, Betty, Marie, etc). If the fake psychic plays their mark correctly, they will volunteer info that the fraud can build on with other vague ambiguities and when the session is over, the poor mark believes the fraud was really in touch with someone that they knew and who has since departed from this side of the veil. When I meet a new psychic, I let them tell me stuff. I offer little or nothing in feedback upon which they can build and craft a semi-accurate contact. When they give me details, like telling me what a person I knew said, like something they frequently said, with words said in a way unique to the person they claim to be in contact with, or words arranged in an unusual way unique to that person, then I feel it is safe to assume I have a winner.

Beware many of the roadside psychics, oftentimes with a title like “Madam Montezuma’s House of Prayer” or similar. In my experience, they seem to have all read from the same “How To Be A Fake Psychic” book and their lines are so similar as to be laughable. On the rare occasion I decide to check one of them out, I have found a reliable bs indicator to be in this line they invariably throw out. “Make three wishes. Tell me one and keep the other two to yourself.” Once I hear that, it is time to go. Got another fake, here. They often say, “But don’t you want to know anything?” I reply that I just found out all I need to know as I give them a few dollars “for their time” and leave.

Frauds and fakes are not unique to the world of psychics. You have fraudulent and fake doctors, preachers, lawyers, and others; all far too willing to take advantage of a fellow human being’s desperation for their own personal gain.


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