A Spirited Performance – Issue 10

The editors of The Inconsequential have no wish to ridicule a person’s beliefs or belittle the comfort that they gain from apparently receiving news of a departed loved one. However, before handing your money over to people who claim to be in contact with the deceased, you might find it interesting to learn how it al  came about…

In 1848, the Fox family, living near Rochester, New York, in a house that was purportedly haunted, began to experience strange sounds emanating from around their home. The noises were likened to knocking or moving furniture. During the night of 31 March 1848, the two younger sisters, Kate (1838-92) and Margaret (1836-93) challenged the source of the sounds to repeat the snapping of their fingers, which it did, and then rap out the ages of the girls. It duly obliged. The neighbours were called to witness the phenomenon and over the next few days a code was established whereby a certain number of knocks would mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or indicate a letter of the alphabet, in response to a series of questions.  The girls related that the spirit of a peddlar, Charles B Rosma, who had been murdered five years earlier and buried in the cellar, was claiming to be the source of the sounds. This caused quite a stir, especially when the cellar was dug up and, allegedly, a few bones found. The girls were sent away, Kate to her sister Leah, and Margaret to her brother David, both of whom lived in Rochester, until the excitement had died down. The strange knocking sounds followed them and the girls were invited to the home of radical Quaker couple, Amy and Isaac Post (old friends of the Fox family), who were immediately convinced that the girls were genuine and began to spread the word to their radical Quaker friends.

The Spiritualist movement had been born and, through its Quaker connections, its association with radical political causes of the time, such as temperance, abolition of slavery and equal rights for women, had been established. The Fox sisters became world famous and attracted several notable figures of the time to their seances. Over the next thirty or forty years, they amassed quite a following and hundreds of others claimed an ability to communicate with the spirits.

Spiritualism, ironically, took on a life of its own and mediums began to flourish in many English-speaking countries, especially in England itself. Both Margaret and Kate, who by this time had become heavy drinkers, travelled to England, separately, in the 1870s and sat for more prominent people who were prepared to let their names be printed as witnesses to a séance. Kate was tested by a noted scientist, William Crookes, over a period of three years, who concluded that the rapping sounds Kate produced were “not produced by trickery or mechanical means.”

By 1888, Margaret and Kate were engaged in constant arguments with their sister, Leah, and other spiritualists, over Kate’s ability to look after her two children, given her serious drinking problem. At the same time, Margaret, thinking of returning to her Roman Catholic faith, became convinced her ‘powers’ were diabolical. The two sisters were bent on causing Leah as much harm as they could and so they returned to New York, where a reporter offered them $1500.00 for an exclusive exposé on how the sisters performed their act.

So it was, that on 21 October 1888, Margaret appeared publicly at the New York Academy of Music and, before an audience of 2000, with Kate present, Margaret demonstrated how she could produce – at will – raps that could be heard throughout the theatre. A doctor was called up on stage to verify that the source of the sounds was… the cracking of her toe joints. In a signed confession published in New York World, also on 21 October 1888, Margaret stated that the cause of the original bumps and knocks heard in her parents house in 1848 was an apple on a string being bounced off the floor by Margaret and her sister. Their mother didn’t understand what the noise could be and didn’t suspect her children because they were so young. Later the girls developed and perfected the toe-cracking technique until they could perform it easily in the dark with either foot.

Naturally, Spiritualists were not impressed with the news that the wide range of knocks and raps that seemingly came from all parts of a room or building, actually emanated from Margaret’s toe. They were more dismayed to learn that Margaret could produce the raps at will, as they were supposedly produced by spirits. However, they were soon able to convince themselves that a medium’s own will was a valid constituent of the phenomena surrounding a séance. Somewhat surprisingly, given that she was complicit in the deception, Kate’s letters to London following her sisters’s revelations expressed shock and dismay at Margaret’s attack on Spiritualism, though she didn’t criticise her sister publicly. No doubt swayed by Kate’s feelings on the matter and realising that her earnings would be drastically affected, Margaret recanted her confession in writing in November 1889. It didn’t help, though, and within five years, deserted by former friends, both sisters died penniless and were buried in pauper’s graves.

So there you have it. Spiritualism: the established religion, the rock to which the vulnerable might cling in their despair, even the Oracle ready to reveal the answers to man’s questions on the supposed afterlife, the entire phenomenon is based on a prank perpetrated by two bored schoolgirls and compounded by a Society of Friends willing to give it credence. It certainly makes you think…I would hope.

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