Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
—1 John 4:1
In 1848, two sisters were living with their parents in Hydesville, New York. The fact that the place was named “Hydesville” was probably already creepy enough, but their house had a reputation for being haunted as well. The sisters reacted to these rumors of a haunted house the same way any young girls would: by starting some trouble.
For Kate (age ten) and Maggie (age fourteen), the whole thing started as a harmless prank: After their parents put them to bed at night, they would tie apples on their fingers with string, and then bounce and roll the apples on the floor. I’m not 100% positive what an apple rolling on the floor sounds like, but apparently it’s really spooky, because their parents started to get awfully freaked out.
Having gotten their attention, Kate decided to take things to the next level, and began talking to the “spirit.” She challenged him to repeat the snaps of her fingers, which (surprise!) he did. She then began to ask him simple questions, like how old she and her sister were, which he would answer with a series of raps, counting up to their ages. From there, it wasn’t hard to work out a series of knocks for spelling things out, and soon the sisters were conducting full-blown séances. The entity eventually revealed himself to be the ghost of a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, who (he claimed) had been murdered and buried in the house’s cellar; excavation of the cellar failed to yield a body, and there was no evidence that anyone named “Charles B. Rosna” had ever existed anywhere, but that hardly seemed to bother the sisters or the people who wanted to believe them. The people of Hydesville were so committed to the idea that the sisters could speak to the dead that they picked a random resident, accused him of the murder, and ran him out of town. Which, justice, amirite?Soon it became clear that an entirely new sect was breaking away from Quakerism—one that was less about talking to God and more about talking to, y’know, dead people.
Things were getting a little crazy at this point, so Maggie and Kate’s parents sent them to crash at their adult brother’s and sister’s houses, respectively. The mysterious rappings followed Maggie and Kate to these new locations, which probably should have clued people in that Charles B. Rosna was not actually haunting their parents’ home, and they were instead cracking their knuckles and kicking table legs, but of course it didn’t. While there, they attracted the attention of Amy and Isaac Post, a pair of radical Quakers, who were instantly convinced of the rappings’ authenticity and invited all of their Quaker friends to put down their oatmeal spoons and attend one of the girls’ séances. (Note: Yes, I know that Quaker Oatmeal has no association with actual Quakers. Something, something, cultural appropriation.) Soon it became clear that an entirely new sect was breaking away from Quakerism—one that was less about talking to God and more about talking to, y’know, dead people.
It wasn’t long before the Fox Sisters (now joined by their much-older sister Leah, who presumably served as the Curly to their Larry and Moe) were giving paid demonstrations of their abilities—not just in the revival-heavy Burned-over District, but in New York City itself, many of which were attended by the celebrities of the day. The sisters’ star was rising, and countless imitators were springing up all over the United States and Britain—because, when all you have to do to win fame and fortune is turn out the lights, say some spoopy stuff, and crack your knuckles a few times, well, a lot of people are going to want in on that.
Soon, Spiritualism—as it was now called—was a full-blown movement, with figures such as Cora L. V. Scott (whose claim to fame was that she could speak intelligently on many subjects, which apparently was enough to prove you were a medium for spirits in the nineteenth century) and Paschal Beverly Randolph (a noted proponent of “erotic alchemy,” whatever that is) joining the fray. All of them claimed the gift of speaking with spirits, and all of them—coincidentally, I’m sure—had show tickets and books to sell you.
It probably goes without saying that skeptics considered this stuff thoroughly debunked, basically from the word go. The first one to investigate the Fox Sisters, physician E. P. Longworthy, had them figured out just a couple years into their careers, observing that the rappings always seemed to come from beneath the girls’ feet or happen when their dresses were touching the table. A year after Longworthy, three investigators from the University of Buffalo proved that the noises didn’t happen if they made the girls sit on an upholstered couch with pillows under their feet. A year after that, patent examiner Charles Grafton Page demonstrated that simple noise-making machines could be built and concealed under nineteenth-century-style dresses, in case the girls ran out of joints to pop, I guess. Skeptics remained unconvinced by the copycat mediums as well.
If you’re expecting any of that to have changed the trajectory of the Spiritualist movement, though, you’re (of course) mistaken. There were just an awful lot of people who really wanted to talk to the dead, even if the dead were seemingly only good at rapping out Morse Code. It didn’t hurt that the dead also seemed consistently to be on the proverbial Right Side of History, frequently championing fashionable causes like abolition, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. (Two out of three ain’t bad.) It also didn’t hurt that two of the bloodiest wars in American history—the Civil War and World War I—were right around the corner, providing mediums with two huge waves of bereaved people looking for closure. Each of these waves was met with its share of skeptics—including, in the 1920s, Harry Houdini himself—but it was never enough to overcome the desire of believers to believe.
For their part, the Fox Sisters actually admitted the whole thing had been a hoax in their later lives. In 1888, Maggie and Kate took the stage in New York one last time to show how they’d been making the sounds for forty years. With doctors to present to confirm, Maggie demonstrated that pretty much the whole trick had consisted of—wait for it—cracking her toes.
Those determined to believe the claims of the Fox Sisters will point out that by this time in their lives they were all living in near-poverty and would have said pretty much anything for money; Maggie more-or-less confirmed this a year later by attempting to recant her previous confession, apparently due to financial pressure from the Spiritualist movement. Back in New York City, though, her own words against the movement had been pretty forceful: “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.”
Of course, forty years into the movement was probably too late to recant, if she had hoped to put an end to it. At its height, Spiritualism had eight million adherents globally, and while that number has dwindled to six figures since, I’m currently just a few minutes away from several Spiritualist congregations (I wonder what their Zoom services are like). I’m not sure if this sort of thing was what St. John had in mind when he admonished believers to “test the spirits,” but I’d say that verse doesn’t not apply here.
I, personally, am not a knee-jerking skeptic when it comes to all supernatural and paranormal claims—I probably couldn’t be a Christian if I were—but there is something to be said about having a healthy skepticism about them, especially when they’re what we already want to believe, and especially when there are much more obvious explanations.
And also to keep in mind that, if ghosts do exist, they’re probably up to something much cooler than tapping out answers to tedious questions.