Day 901: Yapping With The Dead – The Fabulous Fraud Of The Fox Sisters

originally published June 19, 2014

The perpetual gullibility of the human race provides an unending cavalcade of hilarity. We believe – sometimes because we want to, sometimes because the hoaxsters and peddlers of smarm know how to take advantage of our weak moments. For the born-again skeptics, no phenomenon travels in this world without an accompanying explanation stuffed into its baggage. Most folks believe there might be something to the unseen – that’s where the scammers step in.

When Kate and Margaret Fox discovered at a young age (12 and 15 respectively) that with tremendous ease they could convince their family and community that they could communicate with the deceased, it must have been a revelation. The world is ripe and ready for free-form plucking once you convince it that your fingertips hold a quiver of magic. The Fox sisters learned this when they were young enough to be gobsmacked by their success, yet old enough to work it into a career.

Or maybe it’s all true. Maybe they did possess the gift of gab with the dearly departed. After all, the spiritualism movement that ensued in their wake included a number of intellectual heavyweights and revered luminaries. Though when push comes to push-overs, I think I’ll side with the skeptics on this one.

Kate and Margaret lived in an allegedly haunted house in a place called Hydesville in northwestern New York. In 1848, when the girls were the ages I mentioned above, strange noises began oozing through the floorboards. The girls began communicating with this mysterious spirit: Kate would snap her fingers and the ghost would repeat the sequence. The spirit would tap out the girls’ ages. Eventually, a system developed by which the ethereal stranger could answer yes-no questions through its otherworldly tapping.

The spirit claimed to belong to a man named Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered a few years earlier and buried in the cellar, or so he claimed. The neighbors had become fascinated by this astounding connection with the deceased, and they began scouring the town in search of who lived at that house before the Fox family moved in. A man named Bell was found and subsequently accused of having murdered Charles B. Rosna. There was no tangible earthly evidence, so no charges were laid. But Bell was shunned by the community and judged a murderer by the court of public gullibility.

The girls were shipped off to Rochester in the midst of the frantic excitement, and suddenly the mysterious rapping noises stopped. They did, however, start up again in Rochester. And nobody suspected anything – man, people were stupid in the 1800’s.

Amy and Isaac Post, a pair of “radical” Quakers who believed in such crazy notions as women’s rights, abolition and temperance (okay, that last one is a little kooky), fully subscribed to the girls’ abilities. Kate had been sent to live with their older sister, Leah, and Leah soon joined them on their occultist shenanigans. The trio became minor celebrities, holding séances for respectable, reputable people. Great minds like James Fenimore “Last of the Mohicans” Cooper, Horace “New York Tribune” Greeley and William Cullen “I Had A Beard” Bryant showed up and enjoyed the girls’ talents.

This was the dawn of the spiritualist movement, and the three Fox sisters were the purveyors of the sunrise. Critics and skeptics often gave them the thumbs-down, but the sisters had acquired enough of a following – and even imitators – that their careers were secure.

Sir William Crookes, the British scientist who had pioneered vacuum tubes and early atomic theory, investigated Kate’s skills in the early 1870’s, finding the sounds that surrounded her to be utterly transfixing. Crookes was on a skeptic-spree, looking to debunk phony mediums and cut-rate con artists, but he concluded that the sounds in Kate’s séances were 100% not produced by trickery or mechanical sneakiness. The girls’ reputations were safe.

Along the way they got married – Leah to a Wall Street banker, Margaret to Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, and Kate to H.D. Jencken, a London barrister. Margaret and Kate became widows at a relatively young age, and while they continued to dish with the dead for their immodest fees, they also developed a healthy drinking habit – something that didn’t sit well with the Quakers who had helped to build the altar of spiritualism at their feet.

In 1888, the mischievous prank that had begun forty years earlier finally came to an end. After a falling-out with older sister Leah, and a confrontation with the spiritualist faithful over Kate’s excessive alcohol consumption and questionable parenting, her frothy fury finally boiled over. Margaret was also on the outs with Leah, and her return to Roman Catholicism convinced her that their ‘powers’ weren’t healthy. The two younger sisters returned from London to New York, looking to do some damage to their older sister’s reputation.

When a reporter offered $1,500 for the sisters to come clean about their decades-long fraud, they decided to take it. They appeared before a crowd of 2,000 at the New York Academy of Music, while Margaret demonstrated specifically how they had duped the public for all those years. She offered up everything, confessed to all their tricks and published a signed confession in New York World.

The jig was up.

Those weird noises back in Hydesville? That was an apple on a string, thumping against the floor. That was also when Kate learned she could crack her knuckles and joints, simply by swishing her fingers. The real secret was in the toes. By mastering their muscles south of the knee, the girls learned to train their tendons to snap, crackle and pop on command, creating echoing noises that could have come from anywhere, yet could not be traced back to any physical trickery by the girls. People would “feel” the raps against their clothing if they were truly caught up in the moment – such was the nature of the mind’s tensile imagination.

Skeptics had suspected knuckle-cracking before, but the spiritualists didn’t buy it. Even after the confession, prominent spiritualists like Arthur Conan Doyle simply chalked up their statement to the medium having influenced the natural phenomena of the séance. The girls denounced the faith they’d helped to create. Margaret recanted her confession about a year later, but the damage had been done. Both girls were shunned by everyone they’d known, and they died in poverty within five years of coming clean.

But wait… what about the body?

The body of Charles B. Rosna was found in the cellar of the girls’ old Hydesville house in 1904. So the scam that had started it all was… true? Someone actually died in that old house? But if that’s true, then maybe… the rest of it…

Nah, it was another hoax, likely perpetrated by a devout spiritualist who wanted to stuff a little padding behind their beliefs. While the Boston Journal was happy to report on the story and shed a little bit of murk on what should have by then been a closed case of lifelong fraud by the Fox sisters, there was no truth to it. Modern-day skeptic Joe Nickell examined the remains, which currently reside in the Lily Dale Museum. They are animal bones, not human.

Lily Dale is a spiritualist community, founded in 1927 when a group of devout believers bought the Fox sisters’ old home and had it transported to the hamlet. These people deeply wanted to believe in a fraud that had been dispelled almost four decades earlier by the fraudsters themselves.

Some people simply won’t give up, even in the face of inarguable reason. How truly hilarious we can be.

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