Were The Famous Fox Sisters Gifted Mediums Or Spiritualist Frauds?

On a March evening in 1848, two young girls inadvertently began an international religious movement: Spiritualism. It wasn't long before Maggie and Kate Fox had careers as world-famous mediums. Famed for their countless performances and seances, the Fox sisters were celebrities for the same thing that would have gotten them burned at the stake two centuries prior, and they were called upon by everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Mary Todd Lincoln. 

But did the Fox sisters have abilities in communicating with the dead, or was it all just a scam? Here is the incredible, twisting, and strange story of the Fox sisters.

  • The Fox Family Moved Into A Small Home In Hydesville, NY, Where The Strange Sounds Began

    On a March evening in 1848, two young sisters, 15-year-old Margaretta “Maggie” Fox and 11-year-old Kate experienced something that would not only change the path of their lives forever but also affect the lives of many more.

    The girls heard a mysterious knocking sound and immediately yelled for their parents, terrified. Mr. and Mrs. Fox searched the house for the source of the rapping but found nothing. The knocking eventually stopped, and the family went to bed. The next evening, the phenomenon happened again. The more they engaged with the knocking, the more responsive it became. The spirit only responded to Maggie and Kate - when their mother attempted to communicate with it, she was met with silence.

    For 14 nights, the Fox family experienced the disembodied rapping. By the end of those two weeks, they were both frightened and exhausted.

  • After Several Nights, Kate Tried To Respond To The Rapping Sounds

    On the evening of March 31, Kate's curiosity got the best of her, and she began asking the source of the knocking questions. It would respond with a series of loud thuds or knocks in response. Kate would clap four times, and the disembodied spirit would knock four times. Maggie soon tried it out for herself, asking aloud for the spirit to do as she did in a game of ghostly Simon Says. For hours, the girls questioned the spirit, experimenting with the rapping responses.

    Finally, young Kate said, "Oh, mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day, and it's somebody trying to fool us," in an attempt to quell her parents' and sister's fear so they could get some rest.

    By this time, the Fox family decided to seek help. Kate and her family went to their neighbor to describe the frightening experiences they had been having every evening for the past two weeks.

  • Townsfolk Came To Hear The Spirit For Themselves, And Disturbing Information Was Revealed

    After the Fox family explained their experiences to their neighbor, the skeptical man - along with several other neighbors - paid them a visit the following evening to see the phenomenon for himself. They were soon shocked and amazed when the ghostly tapping sounds responded to questions, providing information that shocked them. It started simply, with the girls asking the ghost to tap a certain amount of times, which it would. 

    They then began asking more specific questions. When asked what their neighbor's age was, the ghostly entity made 33 clearly audible and succinct taps. The neighbors began to ask more and more specific questions - things no one besides themselves would know. They were shocked, amazed, and scared to find that the spirit would answer them correctly every time. 

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who attended this early demonstration, described the scene in great detail in his book The History of Spiritualism, saying:

    That rude room, with its earnest, expectant, half-clad occupants with eager upturned faces, its circle of candlelight, and its heavy shadows lurking in the corners, might well be made the subject of a great historical painting.

    After the questioning proved its existence, the girls wanted to learn more about the entity. Maggie asked the spirit to rap twice if it was injured, and two clear knocks rang throughout the house.

  • The Spirit Shared That It Had Died In The Fox Home

    From their conversations with the knocking ghost, the Fox sisters learned the spirit was that of a tin peddler whose body was buried underneath the house. The sisters' brother David suggested they allow the entity to provide more complex answers by spelling out the alphabet.

    The ghost would knock on the next letter in the word. After hours of communication that reached well into the night, they discovered that the man's name was Charles Rosna. He claimed he was murdered for $500 and buried under the Fox's house by a former tenant.

    In a letter from the girls' mother, Margaret Fox, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famed author and Spiritualist, she described the experience: 

    In the same way, [we] ascertained that he was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr. — on a Tuesday night at twelve o'clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher knife; that the body was taken down to the cellar; that it was not buried until the next night; that it was taken through the buttery, down the stairway, and that it was buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained that he was murdered for his money, by raps affirmative.

    The neighbors witnessing the revelation couldn't think of anyone from the town's recent past who fit the description. They soon decided to grab some shovels and see if they could locate Mr. Rosna.

  • A Group Of Men Began Digging In The Cellar To Find The Spirit's Body

    Once Charles Rosna revealed himself, the men of the town got together to excavate the Fox family's basement. It was, fittingly, a dark and stormy night, so when they arrived at the basement with their shovels, the flooding made excavating impossible. They decided they would have to hold off on their dig. 

    In the months that followed, many of the townsfolk claimed the excavation had happened at a later time. Some even insisted that human bone fragments and hair had been found. To Maggie and Kate, the condition of the basement that night served as a stroke of luck. Both sisters would later admit to making up the entire story of Charles Rosna on the fly.

  • Eventually, Kate And Maggie Both Moved In With Their Older Sister Leah, Who Helped The Girls Hone Their Abilities

    Margaret feared that Hydesville, NY, was too small of a town for her daughters to further explore their abilities. Maggie and Kate moved to Rochester with their older sister, Leah, to further explore their newfound powers. Leah became the girls' manager, setting up seances in her home in Rochester, which at the time was a hotbed for political and industrial leaders and entrepreneurs.

    Leah Fox made sure that wealthy and important people were invited, along with other prominent Spiritualists like Isaac and Amy Post, to vet the authenticity of their skills. 

    Leah rented a parlor in Rochester and charged $1 per person for seances with Maggie and Kate. The show was a hit, and their fame grew by the day - more than the Fox family had ever imagined.