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The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders

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Author Topic: The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders  (Read 359 times)
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« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2009, 07:06:37 am »

Leah’s timing had been ideal. The notion of a collective spirit — a benevolent force that endowed each human being with the capacity to right the world’s wrongs — was flowing through American thought. Spiritualism, as Leah would casually explain then and later in her memoir, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, encompassed all souls regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or other religious affiliations. Intrigued with Leah’s concept, the Posts and their circle soon accepted spiritualism as the first stirrings of a universalism or communalism — a brotherhood of the human spirit that mirrored their own resolve to find an alternative faith devoid of intolerance.

Before long the Fox sisters were besieged with requests for séances. Sometimes with only Maggie, sometimes with only Katy and sometimes with both, Leah presided over the meetings. Once guests arrived, they sat around a table, recited an opening prayer and sang. After joining hands and sitting in silence, Maggie or Katy fell into a trance. Then the audience heard the faint sound of ghostly raps.

Not everyone, of course, believed them. Members of Rochester’s clergy railed against them as witches and heretics. Some citizens considered the séances evil and unnatural. Still others thought the sisterly trio was mad. Privately, Maggie continued to wrestle with her own concept of reality. Complicating that was Leah’s sudden insistence that the spirits were real — a concept that her youngest sister, Katy, by then 12 years old, had readily accepted. Confused by her sisters’ reaction, Maggie became increasingly introverted and moody.

Only once did Maggie decide to revolt, and she did so by refusing to rap for 12 days. Abruptly the séances stopped, Leah grew tense and the household funds dwindled. The resultant upheaval was too much for Maggie to bear and finally she relented. Once heard again, the raps, Leah later recounted, [were] like the return of long absent friends.

In the fall of 1849, Leah announced that the spirits had demanded that she and Maggie publicize spiritualism to the larger Rochester community. Hire Corinthian Hall, Rochester’s largest auditorium, they had proclaimed. The designated night was Wednesday, November 14, the time 7 p.m., the price of a ticket 25 cents. The audience, reported the Rochester Daily Democrat, was in the best possible humor, ready to be entertained by what they anticipated as an exposé of the sisters who they thought were perpetrating a fraud.

That night Maggie sat timorously on a platform at Corinthian Hall next to Leah and Mr. and Mrs. Post as a jeering audience hissed. Grudgingly, the Rochester Daily Democrat later admitted that THE GHOST was there…[but] the more the ghost rapped with that muffled tone, the higher rose the spirit of mirth.

Afterward, an outraged group of citizens demanded that a committee of Rochester’s most prominent citizens examine Maggie and Leah to discover the source of the sounds. The following morning the sisters complied, but following the committee’s investigation, its members remained perplexed. That Thursday night a committee representative confessed to the restive audience their inability to explain the phenomenon. Desperately, still other committees attempted to test Maggie and Leah — placing them on glass, on pillows and even by appointing a subcommittee of ladies to discover if they had concealed any machinery in their underclothes.

With each unsuccessful committee report, the crowds at Corinthian Hall grew increasingly raucous. On the final night, Saturday, November 17, tensions in the auditorium were palpable: Already a barrel of warmed tar had been detected in a stairway and removed. Finally, as a committee representative began to admit that the sounds defied explanation, Stamping, shrieking and all kinds of hideous noises…obliged him to desist, Isaac Post later wrote. Blinding cascades of light from firecrackers lit by raucous nonbelievers exploded in the back of the auditorium. In the resultant smoke and din, men howled that the females must have concealed lead balls in their dresses to make sounds and attempted to storm the stage. Thanks to police intervention, Maggie, Leah, the Posts and other terrified spiritualists were whisked out of the building.

Implying that the committee’s studies had been at worst rigged, or at best incomplete, the Rochester Daily Advertiser complained that the wary and eagle-eyed are kept out and excluded from [an] opportunity of investigation. A reporter at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune observed, It is difficult to understand why spirits, who act with as little reason as children or idiots, would spend time thumping the wall. The attendant publicity nevertheless transformed Maggie and her sisters into celebrities, and they were now recognized, for good or ill, as leaders of a new social and religious movement. They began to carry their message further afield.

In early June 1850, after touring Albany and Troy, the Fox sisters sailed down the Hudson River and arrived in New York City, where they soon began receiving guests and giving séances. Within two days of their arrival, they were invited to appear before some of Manhattan’s most illustrious literati — among them, historian George Bancroft; William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the progressive Evening Post; poet and essayist Henry Tuckerman; Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the society-minded Home Journal; and author James Fenimore Cooper.

That evening Maggie and her sisters raised the spirit of Cooper’s sister and so precisely described her fatal horseback riding accident of 50 years earlier that the famous author instantly became a believer. The New York Tribune’s George Ripley, who also had been present, wrote: We are in the dark as any of our readers. The manners and bearing of the ladies are such as to create a prepossession in their favor. They have no theories to offer in explanation of the acts…and apparently have no control of their incomings and outgoings. Some newspapers that formerly had accused the Fox sisters of devil baiting and fraud now retracted their comments. Even the openly scornful New York Herald admitted that its reporter believed the ladies were in every sense incapable of any intentional deception.

Predictably, the Fox sisters — or Rochester Rappers as they were dubbed — were besieged with requests for séances. By summer’s end actress Mary Taylor crooned a new song on Broadway, The Rochester Rappers at Barnum’s Hotel. Inexpensive souvenirs were sold emblazoned with the Rochester Rappers. Ladies, you are the lions of New York! Tribune reporter Ripley finally told the sisters.

After that New York reception, spiritualism was hailed as one of the wonders of the age. Periodicals with titles such as Spirit World, Spiritual Philosopher, New Era and The Spiritualist Messenger appeared. To the nation’s new believers, mediumship, with its odd knocking sounds and eerie messages, was a spiritual telegraph — a name subsequently appearing on the masthead of the faith’s leading periodical.

Mediums appeared from Vermont to California claiming that they, too, had spiritualist powers. Much like Maggie and Katy, many were pubescent girls and young women who were thought to have souls so pure that they were perfect intermediaries between the two worlds. In Boston, Mrs. Sisson, a so-called clairvoyant physician, and Lucinda Tuttle, among others, attracted large followings; so too in Buffalo, N.Y., did a pretty blonde teenager, Cora Scott. In Providence, R.I., Edgar Allen Poe’s former fiancée, Sarah Helen Whitman, wrote trance-inspired spiritualist poetry. In Hartford, Conn., crowds of ailing individuals waited to see Semantha Mettler, whose trances were said to effect miraculous cures.

Spiritualism, with its guiding principle of the equality of all souls regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religious affiliation, was inspired by, and inspired the growth of, other reformist movements of the time. Like the women behind those causes, female mediums broke the rules of Victorian propriety and spoke out, albeit in a trance voice, and many became financially independent, encouraging others to follow suit. It is no wonder that there soon came to be a close link between spiritualism, temperance, abolition and women’s rights.

But the spiritualist movement was not exclusively female. Among its most prominent spokespersons were former Universalist ministers Reverend Charles Hammond, author of the 1852 Light from the Spirit World, and Reverend Samuel Byron Brittan, co-publisher of The Spiritual Telegraph. In Athens, Ohio, musical spirits directed Jonathan Koons, an uneducated farmer, to build a spirit room. In nearby Columbus George Walcutt and George Rogers painted portraits of people they never knew — which, eerily, relatives later identified as deceased members of their families. In Connecticut a young Scottish orphan, Daniel Douglas Home, was already becoming famous for his levitations during séances.

Some of America’s most distinguished men also counted themselves as believers, and several, such as General Waddy Thompson, former U.S. representative from South Carolina, General Edward Bullard of New York and former Wisconsin Territory Governor Nathaniel Tallmadge, were the Fox sisters’ personal friends. To the astonishment of the scientific community, their renowned colleague, Professor Emeritus Robert Hare, the University of Pennsylvania chemist who invented the oxyhydrogen blowpipe, enthusiastically endorsed spiritualism.

By 1852 spirit circles had been formed in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and even across the Atlantic in England and Europe. Paralleling spiritualism’s spread was an array of new spiritual manifestations including table tipping, spirit music and dancing lights. There were, as well, growing demands for serious scientific investigations.

Between 1853 and 1855, spiritualism’s popularity soared so dramatically that many of America’s most prominent writers, thinkers and scientists became alarmed. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was so disgusted with the movement’s rapid spread that he denounced it as a rat revelation, the gospel that comes by taps in the wall and humps in the table drawer. Poet James Russell ridiculed the idea that spirits had the ability to raise tables and move chairs. Respect should be paid to all spiritualists, he sardonically remarked, including a certain Judge Wells, a man who was such a powerful medium that he was forced to drive back the furniture from following him when he goes out, as one might a pack of too affectionate dogs.

By 1854, followers, according to the spiritualists’ own estimates, numbered from 1 to 2 million Americans. In the spring of that year, the prevalence of reports about uncanny spiritualist phenomena appearing in America’s cities attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. On April 17, General James Shields, a senator from Illinois, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts presented a petition signed by 15,000 Americans requesting the appointment of a scientific commission to study spiritualist phenomena. Ultimately, in an executive session, there was a pleasant debate during which senators suggested that the petition be referred to one of several possible groups — including the committees on foreign relations, on military affairs or on post offices and post roads — the last because of the possibility of establishing spiritual telegraph between the material and spiritual worlds. In the end the petition was tabled.

The debate continued. Spiritualism, founding editor of The New York Times Henry Raymond lamented in September 1855, had an appeal that is wider, stronger and deeper than that of any philosophical or socialistic theory, since it appeals to the marvelous in man. He continued: In five years it has spread like wildfire over this continent so that there is scarcely a village without its mediums and its miracles….If it be a delusion, it has misled very many of the intelligent as well as the ignorant….

A month later, an increasingly alarmed Raymond added: Clergymen, formerly preachers of evangelical denominations, are now lecturing on Spiritualism and its wildest heresies to large congregations. The whole West, and to a greater extent the whole country, has been deeply infiltrated. Yet, despite the ongoing protests, by 1856 several influential religious leaders embraced spiritualism — among them prominent Unitarian ministers Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker.Ironically, spiritualism, with its promise of a joyous afterlife, the comfort it gave mourners and the confidence it imparted to America’s early suffragists and social reformers would ultimately betray Maggie and Katy. As new mediums appeared and produced increasingly spectacular effects — table tippings and levitations, for example — and subsequent investigations exposed many as frauds, the Fox sisters were often pushed from center stage. At times believing the rappings were the manifestations of spirits and at times wracked by guilt induced by their deceptions, the two quarreled with each other and their supporters.

In the fall of 1888 when Maggie publicly admitted that spiritualism was a fraud, nonbelievers rejoiced. Advocates blamed it on the fact that for some time Maggie — as well as her sister Katy — had been slipping into severe alcoholism. A year later when Maggie recanted her confession, the credibility of the Fox sisters shriveled, and they slipped into obscurity. Katy died of end-stage alcoholism on July 1, 1892, and Maggie on March 8 the following year.

Yet the mysterious raps heard in Hydesville in 1848 sowed the seeds of spiritualism that have continued to sprout, evolve and flourish to the present day. Even today, spiritualism, represented by celebrity mediums, the practice of channeling, descriptions of near-death experiences, New Age philosophies, hundreds of books and a spate of new television shows and movies featuring conversations with the dead, continues to fascinate.

Hope you enjoy the read everyone ......................

« Last Edit: July 18, 2009, 07:13:55 am by medusa » Report Spam   Report to moderator   Logged

Rest In Peace Dragon Rider ? ATS

"Don't regret what you have already done, but look forward to what is still to come!"

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