The Fox Sisters in the 19th Century and Mediumship Today by Barbara Weisberg

***image1***I’ve been intrigued recently by the spate of TV dramas featuring teenage girls or young women who seem to possess paranormal powers. In one program, the adolescent heroine talks on a regular basis with God, who assumes different mortal forms. In another, a young woman chats with inanimate objects. In yet a third, corpses communicate with the fictional protagonist. Whether as mediums, saints, psychics, oracles, sirens, witches, or vampire slayers, young women with alleged paranormal powers have long been objects of fascination, and they very obviously continue to be so today.

Two historical figures who fit the model and entranced 19th century America were the charismatic Fox sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Maggie, who lived in western New York State and in whose presence mysterious raps could be heard, ones that seemed to answer questions with an acuity that stunned witnesses. Were the raps caused by an otherworldly spirit, as many people of the day believed, or were they a hoax perpetuated by two clever children, as skeptics argued?

The debate riveted the nation 150 years ago, and, following the emergence of the Fox sisters as mediums in the 1840s, hundreds of other individuals pronounced themselves capable of acting as intermediaries between this world and the next. There was an explosion of interest in the subject of spirit communication. So great was the cultural response to Kate and Maggie that they frequently have been called the founders of Spiritualism.

One factor in their appeal and in their rapid rise from anonymity to celebrity may well have been that they were, like actresses featured on current TV shows, attractive females. Bearded philosophers like “the Poughkeepsie Seer” Andrew Jackson Davis, a contemporary who lectured at length on the subject of spirit communication, didn’t caused nearly the sensation that the Fox sisters did. This statement is not meant as a comment either on the Fox sisters’ gifts or on their significance in society; only as an observation on the enduring charm of the “magical female” on the public imagination.

While not everyone attended seances in mid-19th century America, tens of thousands of men and women did, including some of the most well-respected and renowned citizens of the time. Many sought the help of a medium, not because they were necessarily convinced believers, but because they were open-minded and curious. Reasons for turning to mediums of course varied then, as they do now. Grief-stricken parents hoped to hear from children they had lost. Skeptics hoped to trap mediums in acts of fraud. Since seances could be exciting, some people hoped simply for an evening of lively entertainment.

***image2***Over the next few decades, through the Civil War, types of manifestations multiplied. Mediums engaged in automatic writing and trance speaking to convey messages, but communications also occurred in more overtly dramatic ways. While today examples of physical mediumship seem relatively rare, in 19th century America they were common. Tables levitated, trumpets floated, invisible instruments played beautiful music, and apparitions comforted the bereaved. One handsome 30-year-old widower, a successful banker named Charles Livermore, a practical man whose firm was the second largest marketer of Federal bonds during the Civil War, believed profoundly that in his sessions with Kate Fox he was enabled to see, touch, and even kiss his dead wife.

Although I’ve never personally witnessed an example of physical mediumship, I’ve been told by a number of mediums that such manifestations are once again becoming more frequent. However, a medium I interviewed several years ago, a man in his mid-nineties, expressed his doubts. He told me that when he was a young man, a friend he hadn’t seen in a year came up to him in church, paused by the pew, and then seemed to pass right through the church wall. That was how my interviewee first learned that his friend had died.

Talking further, this elderly gentleman went on to wonder whether we, who live in the twenty-first century, will ever have a chance to experience otherworldly phenomena comparable to the manifestations he had witnessed in his youth. The problem, he mused, has nothing to do with the strength of the spirits or with the skill of mediums; instead, the problem is time. Life has speeded up to the point where very few of us have the opportunity to devote hours and years to the concentration and meditation that he felt were necessary to becoming instruments for the spirits.

Yet an increase in the number of mediums, or at least widespread interest in the subject of mediumship, in the mid-19th century coincided with technological advances and innovations that radically altered the pace of ordinary life. In the decade in which the Fox sisters rose to fame, the 1840s, photography was new, the railroads were new, telegraphy was new. The culture was open to new ideas, excited about change, and willing to believe that almost anything could happen. In our century, when it seems increasingly possible to communicate instantaneously with others across any distance, we can speculate that contact with spirits may one day seem as commonplace as e-mail between friends.

by Barbara Weisberg
Barbara Weisberg, a writer and television producer, is the author of Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), a biography of the Fox sisters and a cultural history of their times.