The ruse that gave rise to the spiritualist movement

Fox-sistersEdward White at The Paris Review:

With entrepreneurial sharpness, Leah moved herself, Maggie, and Kate into a house in Rochester where, for a dollar each, visitors could attend a séance with them. It was an instant hit. The Fox sisters’ fame as spirit mediums spread so quickly that they soon performed to packed theaters in New York, New England, and beyond. It marked a shift in popular attitudes toward the paranormal. Two hundred years earlier, a couple of adolescent females who claimed to be in conversation with the dead may well have been burned alive as witches; in the mid-nineteenth century they became show-business celebrities. Most who came to see them were happy to believe the Fox girls were the real deal, though Maggie in particular was subject to some terrifying abuse from those who thought her either a fraud or a heretic. In Troy, New York, she was even the victim of an attempted kidnapping by a group of men who seemed offended by the sisters’ show. For Maggie and Kate, children who had started this as a prank to enliven the dullness of their daily routine, it was too much. As early as November 1849 they tried to bring the circus to an end, spelling out “we will now bid you farewell” with their toe joints during a séance. For two weeks the spirits remained silent; their reappearance was testament to Leah’s unshakable belief that the show must go on, and her formidable skill at ensuring that it would.

Even had they stopped, it wouldn’t have slowed the juggernaut they had set in motion. By 1850, “rapping” had become a nationwide craze. That October, the New Haven Journal reported that there were forty families in upstate New York who claimed to have the same gifts as the Foxes, and hundreds more ranging from Virginia to Ohio.

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