Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

By Barbara Weisberg. HarperSanFrancisco. 324 pp. $24.95 The tables started tapping in Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848. The apparent mediums were Maggie and Kate Fox, 14 and 11 respectively, who in March of that year began to "communicate" with supposed spirits that had been knocking on the floor and walls of their house for the past two weeks. Forty years later, the sisters declared it had all been a hoax. In Talking to the Dead, Barbara Weisberg illustrates that this seemingly simple account of fakery and gullibility is in fact mesmerizingly complex. The Fox sisters' story itself has been written about several times; Weisberg's innovation is to examine it as social history, an approach that enriches the familiar story and raises it above the level of simple hoax. In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe had one more year to live; Neptune had recently been discovered; revolution threatened in Europe; and the railroad was still transforming American life. The Civil War was 13 years away, and Weisberg points out that the Fox family (including a brother and another sister) were anti-slavery in their sentiments and counted as close friends the Quaker social radicals Amy and Isaac Post, who ran a station on the Underground Railroad.

Modern readers may be surprised to learn how closely spiritualism (as the Fox sisters' practice came to be called) was allied with movements such as abolitionism and women's rights. Yet even into this century, the nutty and the progressive have often shared a bed. The area of New York State around Hydesville was the '60s San Francisco of its day, seething with utopian, socially experimental ways of living and daringly liberal politics. As in the '60s, participation was by no means limited to cranks. Frederick Douglass (on whom Maggie seems to have had a mild crush) attended seances. So did Poe's literary executor, Rufus Griswold, and Horace ("Go West, young man!") Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

It's easy today to sneer at spiritualism, and it was easy for many people then, too. But Weisberg's interest is in those who believed. The 19th century had its share of hellfire Christianity, but it was also when the idea of God as essentially a nice guy rather than a stern judge was beginning to take hold in the middle classes. Spiritualism went one step further: Though the movement sincerely espoused belief in the biblical deity, in practice He tended to slip out of the picture. None of the dead relatives contacted by the bereaved seemed to be in anything like hell -- or heaven, for that matter. They appeared to exist in a friendly, if rather bland, place. Spiritualism had created an afterlife without judgment or salvation or, by extension, God. The 19th century wasn't squeamish about death. There was a lot of it around, mostly among young children (There was almost no family in which at least one child didn't make it to adolescence.) Disease was often virulent. People died at home and were laid out in the parlor. As photography advanced, portraits of the dead in their coffins became a vogue. It was only a step from this homey attitude toward the deceased to attempting to contact them.

The era saw many mediums, but the Fox sisters were an uncharacteristically provocative phenomenon. Before performing in public, they were taken into private rooms, stripped and searched -- always by ladies, but the gentlemen waiting outside could visualize what was happening. And sometimes men tested the sisters by holding their ankles or arms. Young and virginal, Kate and Maggie nonetheless appeared on stage, usually the prerogative only of actresses, who were assumed to be little above prostitutes. This good-girl/bad-girl sexual aura seems to have been strong stuff.

So, how did the sisters fake it? Throughout their career, some skeptics postulated that Maggie and Kate were doing no more than cracking their unusually flexible joints to provide the coded messages from "beyond." This turned out to be the case. Still, for Weisberg and the reader, the question lingers: What was really going on in the sisters' minds? Were they only pranksters? Forty years is a long time to carry on a joke, even if you have been trapped by it. Con artists? They didn't make much money from their trade. Crazy? Both sisters suffered from terrible headaches and what, from the little evidence we have, might have been a mild manic-depressive syndrome, but they clearly weren't psychotic. At the end, they claimed they'd always been frauds, driven on by their exploitative older sister (and sometime mystic) Leah. Yet there are indications that something more complicated was going on, that at least at times they half-believed in the reality of the spirits whose appearances they were faking. Weisberg leaves that question, and its implications about the complexity of human motive, wisely open. *

Lloyd Rose is a former theater critic for The Post.

Kate and Maggie Fox