In an unassuming house in Hydesville, upstate New York, strange noises started coming from the walls. It was 1848 and Kate Fox, 11 and Maggie Fox, 14, reported hearing raps on the walls and the furniture around bedtime.
They wondered if they could communicate with these odd sounds. Kate would click three times, and heard back ‘tap…tap…..tap.’ Their mother, intrigued, brought one of their neighbours over to observe the phenomenon. She asked it to rap if it was ‘an injured spirit’.
Three raps came back.
The news of their communication with spirits spread around town, to their neighbours, Amy and Isaac Post, radical Quakers who were active abolitionists (whose home was a stop on the underground railroad) and campaigners for women’s rights. They promoted the sisters and word spread fast through curiosity and a deep desire to communicate with those who had passed away.
People have been communicating with the dead for millennia. Whether through shamans, rituals or shrines, or even people sitting by themselves chatting to those who have passed away, people continue to talk to those they love. It is part of a desire for human connection and a desire to believe that life continues after death. It is deeply comforting for our sense of identity too, to believe that we have an essence that is immutable.
Spiritualism became incredibly popular, and eventually, an official religion. It’s not often that girls, especially teenage girls, are considered experts in anything. But in this instance, when it came to relaying messages from the dead, Americans found the occurrence most plausible when delivered by teenage girls. It’s not just a modern phenomenon, either: in ancient Egypt, children and young women would ‘scry’ in a bowl of water with a film of oil on top. This is an old form of looking into a reflection to see visions, like a crystal ball. The idea was that teenage girls were ‘pure’ and couldn’t possibly be lying.
The Fox sisters were lying.
Given that communicating with spirits has been around for centuries, how did a prank played by teenage girls become an official religion?
While technology can provide us with disembodied voices and movements, it also leaves a lack of literal bodies. The First World War provided so many corpses that not all of them could be taken home. The galloping pace of technology at the time provided the type of mechanised mass death that meant that not all bodies could be recovered. Of the million British soldiers that left and didn’t return, only half received marked graves. Loved ones had no physical remains nor even a physical memorial to aid the grieving process. And before the war even ended, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 killed 30-50 million people worldwide—essentially the same number as had died in the war (about 40 million). It affected a fifth of the world’s population. Most US cities put bans on public gatherings—which included funerals. Traditional methods of mourning were interrupted.
Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened by Howard Carter in 1922 and pop culture went Egyptology mad. Not only were Egyptian motifs a huge influence on art and architecture, but the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb captured the collective imagination. It resonated so strongly because it was when “one death-haunted culture found itself face to face with the ancient relics of another.” The photos of bodies wrapped in bandages echoed the images of the wounded being removed from the trenches. It is no accident that people became obsessed with a culture that was not only obsessed with death but had very strict physical rituals associated with it. Egyptians went to great lengths to care for the body after death, with mummification serving as an integral part of the funeral process. Its squeamish details (a red hot poker removing the brain from the nose, for example) were as important as the careful wrapping of the body and burial of the remains with all the objects the soul would need for its journey to the afterlife.
Legally, the practice of calling up the dead was forbidden under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. The act was still in effect through the years of spiritualism’s popularity; the last person to be prosecuted under the act was Helen Duncan in 1944. Spiritualism marked a major turning point because it absorbed the idea that spirits wanted to be contacted. In the years preceding spiritualism, if you were visited by a spirit it was either heretical, or terrifying. In the face of huge human loss, the church was not providing enough support to a society that had been through the intense trauma of war. Spiritualism presented the idea that not only was there life after death, but that communicating with spirits is normal and welcome. The spirits are benign. There is an idea that there is no suffering in the spirit world, physicality is irrelevant. But yet, people would continue to age as they would on earth in the spirit world .
But what about the body within magic itself? Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon proved the existence of the appearance of her brother Walter during seances with a thumb print in wax. Margery only performed seances for friends and did not take money for her services. Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent spiritualist, recommended her to the editors of Scientific American. The magazine was offering a $2,500 prize to the first medium who could produce evidence of ‘visual psychic manifestation’ to a six man panel. The committee had already investigated Margery and had found no evidence of trickery, but Harry Houdini was intent on catching spiritualist frauds after death of his mother in 1915. Where he wanted connection, he found only magic tricks. As he told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.” In addition to Walter’s fingerprints, Margery would make ectoplasm appear—which was supposed to be the physical manifestation of spirits. It was usually cheesecloth or animal organs concealed in the medium’s mouth (by swallowing and regurgitating it!), or other orifices. She was eventually caught out by the fact that that the wax imprint of ‘Walter’s’ fingerprint exactly matched that of her dentist’s. She did not get the money.
The Fox sisters, despite their initial fame, did eventually get exposed—but it was Maggie who revealed the charade. In 1888, she confessed to the trick executed by her and Kate, who had trained themselves to crack their toes. When they did this next to a wooden floor, or furniture, the sound became amplified. Like all magic tricks, it’s deceptively simple and a disappointing explanation. Maggie retracted her confession shortly after making it, which spiritualists took as evidence that she had been forced into it in some way.
But why fool people? The Spiritualist Church offered women roles as leaders, which no other Church afforded women at the time. It offered income, independence, and creative expression at a time when women had to be married to achieve any of these goals. Women had been prosecuted as witches for hundreds of years under the church. Now they were finally being taken seriously.