True Crime Sunday: The Fox Sisters

Welcome back to True Crime Sunday! For the last week of June’s focus on con artists, we’re going to take a look at the Fox sisters, whose prank on their mother led to a lasting legacy in the world of spiritualism and parapsychology.

In New York in 1848, 14-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate discovered they could play a trick on their mother and make her think the house was haunted. They would tie strings to apples and let them thud on the floor, mimicking ghostly rapping. Their mother was understandably terrified. Eventually the neighbors caught wind of what was happening in the house and wanted to check it out.

With their neighborly audience, the girls began making demands of the “spirit” in the house. They would ask questions, and the spirit answered correctly each time. The girls began telling people the entity was the spirit of a peddler who was murdered and buried in the basement five years before (and before the family lived there).

The basement was searched, and bones were found. However, it was later discovered the bones were from animals.

The girls’ mother was concerned about the impact a haunted house was having on her children and sent them to live with their older sister in Rochester. This was a great idea except, wouldn’t you know it, the sprits followed the girls. At that time Rochester was a hotbed for a variety of religious movements, and the Fox sisters caught the attention of an influential couple, the Posts.

This couple was impressed by the girls’ abilities and were further taken when Leah, the eldest sister, was able to communicate with the couple’s deceased daughter. By this time, the girls had moved on from dropping apples to something that required a little more skill—cracking their joints to produce the rapping sound the audience heard.

The Posts rented a hall in Rochester for the sisters to perform as mediums. This got the girls started on quite the road.

However, as usually happens in these stories, some people were skeptical. After the performance at the hall, the girls were examined by the skeptics and there was no evidence of a hoax. They didn’t know what to look for yet.

The sisters took their show on the road and served as mediums for a number of people in different cities. Business was good until Maggie had a change of heart in 1888. New York World paid Maggie a handsome $1,500 for the exclusive interview in which she would let the world in on what really happened. She talked about the apples when they were girls and how they moved onto cracking their joints during the seances. Maggie proved her claims when she cracked her big toe for the interview.

Maggie would recant her claims a year later, saying she was instructed to do so by her spirit guides. Though she recanted her confession, the damage was done. The sisters’ reputation never did recover, and all three died within a few years.

While the Fox sisters were shown to be frauds, they are still linked with Spiritualist history and parapsychology. The sisters’ prank opened the door to the mediums and psychics found all over the world. Are they all playing tricks to wow their audience? Who knows?  

Looking for more?

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism by Barbara Weisberg

Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances by Lisa Morton

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