The Fox Sisters – Early Rappers?

The Fox sisters, credited with the birth of Spiritualism in the United States, got their start in Hydesville, New York, once a hamlet in Wayne County, not far from Rochester. Margaretta “Maggie” and Catherine “Kate” gained attention in 1848 when unexplained rapping from within the walls of their home began to disturb the family. The girls, who were 11 and 14 years old, insisted the sounds were made by the spirit of a murdered peddler trying to communicate with the living. They created a code for the spirit to talk with them, capturing neighbors’ imaginations. Little did young Maggie and Kate realize at the time, their actions would catapult them into the fickle spotlight of celebrity.

Family Background

Their father, John Fox was born in Rockland County, New York in 1789, and was the son of a blacksmith. John followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming blacksmith as a young man. He married Margaret “Peggy” Smith at a Dutch Reformed Church in 1812 at Kakiat, New York. The couple had a daughter Anna Leah the following year, and the infant was baptized at the same church. Several other children were born to the couple, some of whom died in infancy. The family began moving around a great deal, and John struggled to stay employed since he had taken to drinking heavily. Finally, sometime after 1820, Margaret could no longer cope with the turmoil and left her husband, taking the children with her. After several years, John sought out his family and showed himself a reformed alcoholic and also a Methodist. Margaret took him back, and they moved to Consecon, Ontario, Canada, a town near Lake Ontario. While in Canada, two more daughters were born to the middle-aged couple, Margaretta in 1833 and Catherine in 1837.

Hydesville House

By 1840, the family was in Greece, New York, until Margaret, John, Margaretta, and Catherine moved to Wayne County in 1845. John rented a rumored “haunted house” in 1847 as he was having a new home constructed for his family. The oldest daughter, Leah, had married and was living in Rochester. A son, David, also remained in the city, taking up his father’s trade as a blacksmith.

The long New York winter of 1848 wore on into March, and life in the small rental must have been quite dull and confining to 14-year-old Margaretta and 11-year-old Catherine. One night mysterious thumps and rapping were heard by the family. These occurrences continued, and the girls began talking to the sounds. The rapping was quite upsetting to Margaret and John, who wondered what could be the meaning of these mysterious noises. On the evening of March 31, 1848, Kate spoke boldly to the sound maker.

“Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do,” and she snapped her fingers a few times. (Split-foot is another name for the devil). There was an immediate reply, the raps matching Kate’s. Mrs. Fox ordered it to count to ten, which was done, then she asked for it to count out the ages of her children. The rapping counted out the correct ages for her children living and dead. Convinced that something supernatural was happening, she asked if it would “speak” to a neighbor, and the answer was in the affirmative, rapped out in the code developed by Maggie and Kate.

The neighbor was just as impressed with the rapping answers she received that evening, and as in any small community, everyone was aware of the “entity” living in the Fox house within a few days. This confirmed to neighbors the rumors of a murdered peddler being buried in the house’s cellar.

Birth of Spiritualism

As soon as their oldest sister, Leah Fox Fish, heard of the strange goings on connected with her sisters, she made a trip to the family home around May 1848. Abandoned by her husband, Bowman Fish, 25-year-old Leah struggled to support her daughter by giving music lessons. She took charge of her younger sisters, insisting that Maggie and Leah come live with her. While Maggie and Kate stayed in Rochester, their strange story soon garnered the interest of former Quakers Isaac Post and his wife, Amy, who were leading reformers in the city.

Rochester, at that time, was one of the centers of reform—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, temperance, and other social issues of the day. It was also where numerous revivals led by Charles Grandison Finney had been held during the Second Great Awakening from 1825-1835. The Genesee and Central New York regions were often called “the Burned-Over District” by Finney, alluding to the many emotional revivals held in these areas. After this decade of revival meetings, many strange religious groups came into existence within New York State. There were several utopian societies, Mormonism, Millerism, and at least one free-love community, most of which failed within a few years. The 1840s and 1850s also saw the rise of entertainment, and everyone was looking for something new and more exciting. It was in this setting the meteoric rise of the Fox sisters’ celebrity began.

Center Stage

The Posts wanted to see if the girls could “talk” to spirits away from the Hydesville house, and after a successful session at their home, Isaac was convinced they were authentic. In 1849, he booked the Corinthian Hall in the city, charging 25 cents a head for the girls to perform a séance. The event sold out and was a great success as thumping and raps enthralled the audience. This was just the beginning of a long and troubled career in the spotlight for the girls, who were soon managed by their older sister, Leah, who declared herself a medium as well.

There were many skeptics, and the girls submitted to examinations numerous times. It was noted in an examination performed in Buffalo that there were no sounds when the girls’ feet were placed on cushions. Similar findings from other examinations yielded the same results, however, this didn’t deter their success.  They held private séances and performed on stages up and down the East Coast, gaining fans and supporters everywhere.

The spiritualism craze swept through the United States and Europe during the mid-to-late 1800s, so opportunities were plentiful for their appearances. The demand for spirit encounters grew especially during the Civil War when so many husbands and sons were lost in combat. Mothers and wives were desperate to talk to loved ones, looking for assurance their men were at peace. Demand only grew for the Fox sisters’ special abilities during this dark period.

Those fascinated with spiritualism were quick to promote the sisters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the sisters’ famous supporters, as were William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Horace Greeley, and Sojourner Truth. Many other mediums and philosophers of the day promoted the spiritualism religion, as it gained tremendous popularity, and public exhibitions and private séances were plentiful.

Unhappy Endings

The three sisters led troubled and tragic lives, despite their fame and irregular fortunes. Leah married three times. Leah’s third husband, a Mr. Underhill, was quite wealthy, and she settled into a quiet domestic life in later years, distancing herself from the Spiritualist community. After Maggie and Kate went out on their own, they wanted nothing to do with their elder sister, blaming her for their troubles.

Catherine left the U.S. and lived in England for several years as a “missionary” for spiritualism, traveling in popular society circles and gaining fans. While living in London, she met her future husband, H. D. Jencken, who was a barrister. The couple married in 1872. They had two sons during their marriage, and they seemed to have a more stable family life. However, Jencken died suddenly in 1881, leaving an inadequate estate to support his family. After his death, Kate decided to rejoin the Spiritualist circuit to earn a living. She also returned to alcohol once more for comfort under the pressures of public appearances, and excessive drinking led to her arrest in 1888 on charges of child neglect. 

Maggie had a brief and undocumented marriage with Artic explorer Elisha Kane who died in 1857. Their relationship was unique—mainly by correspondence since Kane the adventurer traveled much of the time. A sickly man, he died in Havana, leaving Maggie without any financial support. He had urged Maggie to give up Spiritualism during their so-called marriage, but now she turned back the stage to make a living. She also battled alcoholism, which grew worse after the deaths of her parents in 1865.

The downfall of the women came about after Kate’s arrest in May 1888. Maggie confessed that she and her sisters were frauds that fall, demonstrating their deceit on a stage in New York. She and Kate authorized a book which was a scathing exposé of the trickery behind the scenes. Death-Blow to Spiritualism: The True Story of the Fox Sisters was hastily written by R. B. Davenport after the confession, and the book made it into the hands of eager readers before Christmas that year.

Maggie said this about the beginnings of spiritualism:

“When Spiritualism first began, Kate and I were little children, and this old woman, my other sister, made us her tools. Mother was a silly woman. She was a fanatic. I call her that because she was honest. She believed in these things. Spiritualism started from just nothing. We were but innocent little children. What did we know? Ah, we grew to know too much! Our sister used us in her exhibitions and we made money for her.”

She revealed that many of their methods were simple, such as cracking toe joints, knees, and knuckles for the desired effect. The women had perfected these physical contortions and were highly skilled in manipulating audiences into believing that spirits from the “Other Side” were sending messages to the living. Maggie and Kate also exposed the scams of other mediums, some who used luminous paper, wires, accomplices planted in the audience, and other means to produce visitations of spirits. They stated unequivocally that nothing was supernatural; it was all a money-making scheme.

Leah, the eldest, died in 1890 from a heart problem, still estranged from her sisters. Kate died in 1892 from alcoholism, and Maggie, who also succumbed to alcohol abuse, followed in 1893, her burial paid for by a friend. Even though the women admitted their deceptions and other mediums were exposed, emotions ran high in the general public and spiritualist societies who insisted that the séances were legitimate. As we know, people still believe what they want to believe despite the evidence.


Reuben Briggs Davenport, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism, 1888

Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 1926

U.S. Census, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880

Dig: A History Podcast, Spectacle and Spiritualism in the Lives of Maggie and Kate Fox, Averill Earls, September 4, 2022

Smithsonian Magazine, The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism, Karen Abbott, October 30, 2012

Dutch Reformed Church Records

Boston Evening Transcript, The Fox Sisters’ Fraud, October 25, 1888

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