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People from the Other Side
The Enigmatic Fox Sisters and the History of Victorian Spiritualism
By Maurice Leonard
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Maurice Leonard
All rights reserved.
'Her life a beautiful memory'
'His absence a silent grief'
'Remember! and wait for me.'
Can the dead read their epitaphs? Do they watch us weeping over their graves? Can they guide us?
Ghosts have always been with us; their appearances random and fleeting – sometimes comforting, often alarming. Perhaps they glimpse us in the same way?
The first time in modern history that a ghost seems to have succeeded in making an organised breakthrough was in the March of 1848. This was no spirit scientist, no manifestation of Isaac Newton or Galileo come to enlighten humanity, but an uneducated pedlar called Charles Rosna, who claimed he had had his throat slit for his money, his gushing blood collected in a kitchen basin which was then, with his body, chucked into a cellar.
His motive was revenge and his instruments of communication two adolescent farm girls – Kate and Maggie Fox.
March can be a vicious month upstate New York, and it was particularly so in 1848, when much of the land was undeveloped and a frozen wind whipped across the desolate plains. Yet the worst of the winter was over with, sometimes, even a taste of spring in the air, but as soon as this appeared it was quickly soured by the constant and pelting icy rain. Where the ground wasn't still frozen solid it had deteriorated into a sucking marshland. What houses there were clustered together for warmth.
In the hamlet of Hydesville, where Kate and Maggie lived, the only heat and light came from open fires, candles and oil lamps. At night the wind gathered strength and tore through the loose-fitting doors and window frames, making them rattle like dancing skeletons, and the candles flicker eerily.
Outside the darkness was unbroken apart from the sporadic moonlight, which silverly lit the barren landscape when the clouds were blown away for a few seconds. Then the darkness returned, and the pelting rain, reaching into the sodden infinity.
It was easy to believe that the dead walked those lonely moors and many believed they did.
Gathered round the fire in the evenings, Kate and Maggie would listen to their mother's ghost stories, clutching each other in ecstatic fear. It all seemed very real – too real, sometimes.
Margaret Fox, devoted and good mother that she was, believed in ghosts and had no quibbles about letting her daughters know this. She needed someone sympathetic to talk to and got nowhere on this subject with her wiry, dour husband, John. He didn't want to know. An alcoholic, off the booze at the time, John didn't want to know about much.
A blacksmith, they'd married when they were both sixteen, but after four children he left her for a decade or so while he plied his trade, and whatever else he could, on the Erie Canal.
This was not as callous as it sounds. Although four children did not make for a particularly big family then, they still had to be provided for. The canal offered enormous financial opportunities.
Opened in 1825, its construction was the greatest engineering feat of its day. With a length of 363 miles, it stretched from Albany to Buffalo, and contained 83 locks and 18 aqueducts. It was built mostly by man and horse or mule power, the animals towing the laden barges along its length. It brought thousands of settlers. The land was rich and the mobility offered by the canal – roads were built just to get to it – transformed New York into the most important commercial city in America. It also offered great opportunities for a blacksmith.
America was developing fast. Railways were being built and swamps cleared. Tree felling was taking place and forests larger than Ireland, from where many of the immigrant workers came, were cleared. Ireland itself was in the midst of one of its several tragedies, a potato blight was causing famine and widespread emigration to America.
The Fox marriage was not a match made in heaven. John had finished with his life of wine, women and gambling but this was not through any strong paternal urge to be with his family. Having been on the road as a blacksmith for a decade or so, he was getting too old for his peripatetic existence and felt the need for home comforts: a warm bed and regular cooked meals.
Giving up booze had strengthened his religion, which had clearly lapsed during his canal work. Both he and Margaret were Methodists and Methodists are staunchly against the abuse of alcohol. It was with born-again religious fervour that he resumed his position as nominal family head, sired Maggie and Kate, and looked forward to the cosiness of an abstemious home life. He didn't find it: instead of enjoining his new young family to an existence of blameless Godliness, they were to plunge him into a maelstrom of blasphemous controversy.
Kate and Maggie were both born in Consecon, Canada, Margaret's homeland just across the border from New York. Margaret was from Franco-Dutch stock and John had German roots – the family name had originally been Voss. Kate, or Catherine, their youngest, was born on 27 March 1837 and Maggie, or Margaretta, 7 October 1833. After the birth of the children they moved to Rochester, New York, then on to Hydesville.
Their cottage at Hydesville was only ever meant as a standby. Margaret's family were comfortably off, which was as well for they had helped support her during John's prolonged absence, when payments from him had been irregular. John was now building a new house for the family near the village smithy, where he would work, but in the December of 1847 – when bad weather forced him to stop – he'd taken the cottage as a stopgap. Kate was nearly 11 by now and Maggie getting on for 15, virtually a young lady.
The elder four Fox children, adults now, had long since set up their own homes. Ann Leah, who preferred to be known as Leah, was in her 30s, born 8 April 1813. A natural musician with a good singing voice, she earned her living by teaching children piano and singing and lived with her only child, her teenage daughter Lizzie, in the up-and-coming town of Rochester about twenty-five miles away.
Leah claimed to have been married to a Mr Bowman Fish at the age of 14 and, indeed, was known as Mrs Fish to the local community. Whether they were legally married or just lived together is uncertain, and no one in their orbit would have been overly perturbed either way providing they adhered to the outward proprieties. Mr Fish abandoned Leah soon after Lizzie was born, which made life financially hard but did not trouble her too much emotionally. Apart from the money she felt better off without him. Leah was an excellent manager and quite capable of bringing up her child alone, and 14 had been an early age to commit to a life-long union.
Perhaps Lizzie's birth was the reason for her husband's departure. Or perhaps the fact that Lizzie was their only child indicated other problems, for they were together a few years, certainly long enough to have had other children. Leah was fond of children, maternal by nature, and the sort to have as many as possible. She welcomed visits from her nieces and nephews and clearly enjoyed their company. The only child she seemed to have had reservations about was her own daughter, Lizzie. Perhaps she blamed Lizzie for the breakdown in her relationship? She brought back too many unwelcome memories.
Margaret, John, Kate and Maggie had stayed with Leah and Lizzie for a while when first moving to New York. She had enjoyed their company and missed them when they left. As life was to prove, Leah was fiercely ambitious, and there were times when the calm respectability of her music-teaching life, fell well short of fulfillment. She felt her resources were not being tapped. Surely life had more to offer? The Foxes had another two daughters, both married. Elizabeth lived in Canada and Maria nearby, married to her cousin. Marriage to relatives was not uncommon. They were not to play an important role in either Kate or Maggie's lives.
The only son, David, in his late 20s, was a big, bluff and popular man, married with three children. He lived close to Hydesville, one of the reasons the Foxes had moved there. He had put them up before they had moved into the cottage. He was a successful peppermint farmer with a large homestead. In the season the pungent smell of his plants permeated the atmosphere and their pink flowers could be seen for miles. It was a peaceful place, and in times of crisis family members converged there. With the good-hearted, down-to-earth David in charge, it seemed a secure haven.
John found it difficult to take over the reins of his new family. He'd been away too long to assert authority. Margaret had run things on her own for over a decade and did not intend to alter her ways now. Although a God-fearing Methodist she had a distinct respect for, and belief in, the supernatural. Her grandmother, so she would tell, had been blessed with foresight, being able to decipher omens, and was uncomfortably accurate in predicting deaths. This clearly ran in the family as grandmother had had a sister who had successfully predicted her own death date. This was common talk in the house.
It wasn't until 29 March 1848 that the family was disrupted by noises at night. The days were still short then, and the whole family retired soon after dark. These noises were not the normal nocturnal scuffles of wild animals, nor the sighs of a house cooling down, but distinct knocks as though someone were trying deliberately to attract attention. The cottage was two stories high, a single large room above four rooms below, comprising of a sitting room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. A pantry in the kitchen opened onto steps leading down to a cellar. Margaret and John occupied one bedroom and the girls the other. The noises were coming from the girls' room.
These sounds were not terrible in themselves and not particularly loud, but it was their manifestation in the dead of night that made them so frightening. They were loud enough to wake John and Margaret who lit a candle and went to the girls' room to investigate. The noises continued while they were there, seeming to centre on the girls' bed. There seemed to be two types of knocks: distinct clicks and a heavier, thudding sound. The latter seemed to make the floor vibrate.
John looked through the other rooms but there was nothing unusual there. The sounds were certainly coming from the vicinity of the girls. All four looked at each other in silence. The girls were so frightened they refused to sleep alone so their bed was moved into their parents' room. But the sounds continued there. John prayed and Margaret wrung her hands but the noises did not stop. Eventually, with great difficulty, the family drifted into troubled sleep.
As dawn lit the house and the countryside, things didn't seem so terrible. Margaret half-heartedly suggested it might have been neighbours playing a trick on them or, perhaps, even the nearby cobbler working late. Even as she spoke she knew this was nonsense. Why would their practical, hard-working neighbours do such a stupid thing as make jokey noises in the dead of night? And the cobbler? He'd never kept such hours before. But it was something to cling to.
That evening before sunset, as they settled round the blazing fire, the talk returned to the raps, which they'd been thinking about all day anyway. Margaret, with her superstitious nature, was certainly not going to let it drop. The children were nervous but excited. Would the sounds come again?
They could hardly miss them.
Loud knocks, even more insistent than those of the previous night, started as soon as they went to bed. The girls were still in their parents' room. This time they seemed to come from all round, on the furniture, floor and even the door. Then footsteps were heard, heading to the pantry and, seemingly, continuing down the stairs to the cellar. Margaret wrote in her statement a few days later, 'I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit.' She thought it was her dead, psychic grandmother. John agreed with his wife's statement and added, 'I do not know of any way to account for those noises, as being caused by any natural means.'
The raps came to a head the next night, Friday 31 March 1848, the date when the new religion of Spiritualism was officially born. It seemed the Gods had something fanciful in mind for the weather had worsened during the day and a downfall of sleet was being pelted by an angry wind against the cottage. It was no weather to be out in. But David called and was upset by the nigh hysterical state of his mother. She told him of the two frightening nights the family had endured. Knowing her fanciful disposition he didn't take it too seriously but comforted her, saying there was probably a natural reason for it all. Odd things happened in the country at night.
This could not continue. Margaret decided that whatever happened that night, even if the raps caused the roof to fall in, they would not rise from their beds. She was determined they would all get some sleep. She was, after all, a mother.
Her resolution was dashed as soon as night fell. With the exception of John, who was sitting up on guard, they all went to bed early, before nightfall in fact, to try to make up for all the sleep they had lost. The raps started at once. Whatever was causing them seemed annoyed at being ignored and was determined to be noticed. They were more insistent, more regular, and unrelenting.
Margaret moaned while the girls huddled together in bed. John checked the window frames to make sure no draught could be causing the noises, there were loose planks outside – he knew no wind could produce such a rhythmic pattern, but with a terrified wife and two young daughters, he was desperate. He had to do something.
The children seemed less afraid now, it was almost as if they had formed some rapport with the sounds; as though the noises had got through to them. To Margaret's horror, Kate had got up and was standing by her bed, listening.
Now, in addition to the knocks there was also the sound of muffled laughter but this had no supernatural source. Torn between fear and exhaustion the youngsters had a fit of hysterical giggles. This was to be a pattern throughout Kate's life. Often, when phenomena was at its height she would nervously giggle.
'Mr Splitfoot, do as I do!'
Margaret jumped out of her skin. The voice seemed to come from the depth of a tomb — but it was no spirit speaking, it was Kate. A single candle lit the bedroom and the words cut through the shadows.
'Mr Splitfoot' was a colloquial name for the devil. On a night such as this, with the wind howling and the spirits knocking, the last thing Margaret wanted was for the devil to be called up. She watched aghast as Kate clapped three times. Was her daughter possessed? She was even more aghast when three raps echoed the rhythm of the claps. In the silence that followed all that could be heard was the howling wind. Then Maggie spoke.
'Now, do just as I do,' she said slowly, in a similarly deep voice to the one Kate had used. 'Count one, two, three, four.' She clapped her hands four times. Four raps followed, again in the same rhythm. The girls suddenly seemed to realise what was happening and grew frightened. There was silence for a while. All sorts of fears crashed through Margaret's mind. Was a Satanic spirit in the room with her two virgin daughters? It was too ghastly to contemplate.
'Oh, mother, I know what it is,' Kate said weakly. 'Tomorrow is April Fool day, and it's somebody trying to fool us.'
Margaret seized on that as a life belt. That's what it was, of course, an April Fool's prank. But who was playing it? She dismissed the idea even as it entered her head. It was impossible for anyone to have entered the house unknown and make these noises. She now took command and devised a test to determine if it was a neighbour or not. Although she could not bring herself to address the spirit as Mr Splitfoot, for she was convinced it was a spirit, she nervously spoke to it.
'Can you rap out the different ages of my children,' she asked. None of the neighbours, to her knowledge, knew their exact ages. Mr Splitfoot seemed to.
He rapped out correctly the ages of her six children and then, after a pause, gave three more raps. Margaret had actually had seven children but one, a girl, had died at the age of three, long before the births of Kate and Maggie. Margaret was sure this was information none of the neighbours knew. She wasn't even sure that Kate and Maggie knew.
Excerpted from People from the Other Side by Maurice Leonard. Copyright © 2011 Maurice Leonard. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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