April 1, 2013: The Fox Sisters


(This 1149th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 31, 2013.)


One of the interesting features of our area is its contradictions. It seems appropriate as we approach April first, a date noted for pseudoscience, that I address one of them. We have in nearby Lilydale a group of spiritualists, mediums who claim that they can communicate with the spirit world. And at the opposite extreme we have the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, whose central activity is the exposure of paranormal and fringe science claims like those of those same spiritualists.


We also have an interesting historical connection with spiritualism. The movement is said to have been founded by two Hydesville sisters who gained international notoriety: Kate and Margaret Fox. Hydesville is a rural crossroads located between Palmyra and Newark, a few miles east of Rochester.


Beginning on March 31, 1848, when they were still young children, Kate and Margaret first produced the strange knocking sounds for which they would become famous. The girls claimed that spirits had taken power over them and were producing this rapping. The phenomenon frightened first their parents and then others in their local community. Soon their fame spread still further. It was eventually to take them as far as Europe. Along the way their public seances attracted people like James Fennimore Cooper, Horace Greeley and Sojourner Truth.


To gain better appreciation for this strange noisemaking, place it in the context of Samuel Morse's telegraph. Invented in 1835, it was by the 1850s becoming widely used as a communication device carrying messages over wires. Now in addition to the new telegraphic dots and dashes observers heard the Foxes' knocking produced without any wires at all.


Of course, many believed that the sisters were tricksters, but even critical observers had difficulty explaining their strange power. One of them, recognized scientist William Crooks, who observed them in the 1870s wrote: "These sounds are noticed with almost every medium... but for power and certainty I have met with no one who at all approached Miss Kate Fox. For several months I enjoyed almost unlimited opportunity of testing the various phenomena occurring in the presence of this lady, and I especially examined the phenomena of these sounds. It seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree – on a sheet of glass – on a stretched iron wire – on a tambourine – and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium's hands and feet were held – when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling - when she was enclosed in a wire cage – and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started, chiefly in America, to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means."


Finally in 1888, however, Margaret and Kate appeared at a public meeting in New York City where Margaret demonstrated before doctors how they had gulled the public by cracking their toe joints. She is quoted as having said then, "I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world." What had begun as an innocent April Fool trick on their mother had led to this sorry history.


Many, including Margaret herself later, rejected her admission and Arthur Conan Doyle and Alfred Russel Wallace remained staunch believers in spiritualism. But the sisters, now shunned by their friends and supporters, soon died in poverty.


Despite this challenging historical interlude, spiritualism remains alive and well here in New York.-- Gerry Rising