Maggie and Kate Fox, two young sisters in a village in western New York State, began to hear noises supposedly caused by spirit visitors in the spring of 1848. Within a few years the girls were nationally known and "spiritualism" was sweeping the nation.
The incidents in Hydesville, New York, began when the family of John Fox, a blacksmith, started to hear weird noises in the old house they had bought. The bizarre rapping in the walls seemed to focus on the bedrooms of young Maggie and Kate. The girls challenged the "spirit" to communicate with them.
According to Maggie and Kate, the spirit was that of a traveling peddler who had been murdered on the premises years earlier. The dead peddler kept communicating with the girls, and before long other spirits joined in.
The story about the Fox sister and their connection to the spirit world spread into the community. The sisters appeared in a theater in Rochester, New York, and charged admission for a demonstration of their communications with spirits. These events became known as the "Rochester rappings" or "Rochester knockings."
The Fox Sisters Inspired a National Craze for "Spiritualism"
America in the late 1840s seemed ready to believe the story about spirits noisily communicating with two young sisters, and the Fox girls became a national sensation.
A newspaper article in 1850 claimed that people in Ohio, Connecticut, and other places were also hearing the rappings of spirits. And "mediums" who claimed to speak to the dead were popping up in cites across America.
An editorial in the June 29, 1850 issue of Scientific American magazine scoffed at the arrival of the Fox sisters in New York City, referring to the girls as the "Spiritual Knockers from Rochester."
Despite the skeptics, famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley became fascinated with spiritualism, and one of the Fox sisters even lived with Greeley and his family for a time in New York City.
In 1888, four decades after the Rochester knockings, the Fox sisters appeared onstage in New York City to say it had all been a hoax. It had started as girlish mischief, an attempt to frighten their mother, and things kept escalating. The rappings, they explained, had actually been noises caused by cracking the joints in their toes.
However, spiritualist followers claimed that the admission of fraud was itself a ruse inspired by the sisters needing money. The sisters, who did experience poverty, both died in the early 1890s.
The spiritualist movement inspired by the Fox sisters outlived them. And in 1904, children playing at the supposedly haunted house where the family had lived in 1848 discovered a crumbling wall in a basement. Behind it was the skeleton of a man.
Those who believe in the spiritual powers of the Fox sisters contend the skeleton was surely that of the murdered peddler who first communicated with the young girls in the spring of 1848.