Why the Victorians saw ghosts: one
The story of spiritualism starts with a house that had an uncanny reputation in Hydesville, New York, a hamlet which no longer exists but was then situated in Wayne County in New York State. John Fox, a farmer, took over the tenancy with his wife Margaret and two of his children, Margaret and Kate on December 11th, 1847. Three months of relative peace went by, then at the tail end of March, when his daughters were aged fourteen and eleven respectively, the knocking began. Noises were heard all through the house. John and his wife investigated, but could find no explanation for the sounds.
On Friday the 31st of March the family retired early for the night, with the girls sleeping in the same room as their parents, when the commotion began again. Kate, the youngest challenged the noise-maker, saying, "Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do," whilst clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps.
According to Mrs Fox’s own testimony, "…[Kate] said in her childish simplicity, "Oh, mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day, and it's somebody trying to fool us." I then thought I could put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the noise to rap my different children's ages, successively. Instantly, each one of my children's ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualize them until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child. I then asked: "Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly?" There was no rap. I asked: "Is it a spirit? If it is, make two raps." Two sounds were given as soon as the request was made. I then said "If it was an injured spirit, make two raps," which were instantly made, causing the house to tremble. I asked: "Were you injured in this house?" The answer was given as before. "Is the person living that injured you?" Answered by raps in the same manner. I ascertained by the same method that it was a man, aged thirty-one years, that he had been murdered in this house, and his remains were buried in the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children, two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death, but that his wife had since died. I asked: "Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbours that they may hear it too?" The raps were loud in the affirmative."
Mr Fox called in a neighbour, a no-nonsense woman named Mrs Redfield. After the spirit had answered her questions she called for her husband, who then called in all the other neighbours, one of whom, Mr Duesler, managed to ascertain that the man was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago; that the murder was committed on a Tuesday night at twelve o'clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher knife; that he was murdered for money; that the body was taken down to the cellar; that it was not buried until the next night; that it was taken through the buttery, down the stairway, and that it was now buried ten feet below the surface of the ground.
By the next day (April 1st) the house was full to overflowing with people curious to experience the now celebrated phenomena for themselves. In the evening they dug up the cellar until they came to water, and then they gave up. The knocking continued intermittently over the next few days. Within a week Mrs Fox’s hair had turned white from the anxiety.
Fourteen-year-old Margaret was sent to stay with her older brother David in the nearby town of Rochester; Kate also went to Rochester to stay with her older sister Leah, a music teacher whose married name was Fish. Unfortunately the rapping knocks went too. Hundreds flocked to Mrs Fish’s house to witness and marvel.
The knocking became contagious. It was no longer confined to the Fox family. Similar sounds were heard in the homes of the Reverend A. H. Jervis, a Methodist minister from Rochester, and a Mrs Sarah A. Tamlin, a Mrs Benedict, and a certain Deacon Hale, who lived in surrounding towns. Now the knocks claimed that they came from the deceased friends of those who were gathered there. The amateur séance was born.
These early enthusiasts were often reformers who championed the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and the temperance movement. Their involvement with spiritualism reflects a link between spiritualists and radical reformers, especially those who advocated women's rights, that would last for more than half a century.
At this point séances were essentially domestic affairs held in private homes. Soon, however, they would become much, much more.
Next month: there’s no business like show business
The Fox sisters; Kate and Margaret Fox with their married sister, Mrs Leah Fish
Photographer and date unknown
The Foxes’ House, Hydesville, New York
Photographer and date unknown
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Michael Gallagher is the author of The Bridge of Dead Things and The Scarab Heart.