That’s A Rap: Kate and Maggie Fox Hear The Spirits Knocking On Unobscured

Female Ghost Against Piano In Darkroom

On this episode of Unobscured, host Aaron Mahnke dives further into the story of American Spiritualism. On the last episode, we learned about Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the first people to give “trance lectures” after being mesmerized. But though Andrew had already been lecturing and practicing magnetic healing throughout the state of New York, most historians trace the real start of spiritualism to 1848, when two young girls named Maggie and Kate Fox heard the knocking. These raps and knocks from beyond the veil would be the beginning of a movement that entranced abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, Quakers, people who lived in isolated Utopian communities, and many more. Aaron gives a detailed account of the spirits who visited with Maggie and Kate, and the believers who wanted to share the spirits’ revelations with the world.

 

Maggie, Kate, and their parents had all lived in in the rapidly expanding city of Rochester for awhile, but then they moved to the much smaller and sleepier Hydesville. The family rented out a small farmhouse to stay in until a house could be built after the winter was over. Author Nancy Rubin Stuart tells Aaron, “You have this 15-year-old bored Maggie Fox...and Katie...a little sister who’d follow her...they live in this old farmhouse, and they start thinking about, well who lived there before? People lived here before; did people die here before?” 

One night, as the family lay down to sleep in the communal room they shared, they started hearing strange noises, “a series of thumps,” Aaron says, “almost as if someone was walking around. Then the sounds moved into the wall. It was as if someone was standing beside the beds where they slept, knocking on the bed frame with an invisible hand.” For months, the sounds continued, until one night “Maggie...said out loud into the air, ‘Now do as I do. Count one, two, three, four,” clapping along in time. The knocking sounds obeyed her.” Their mother tried, too, asking aloud, “if the sound was a spirit, it should knock twice. After a breath, two knocks rang out.” 

The family was shocked and scared by this phenomenon, bringing friends and other family members to the house to witness it. Word got to Leah Fish, Maggie and Kate’s older sister, who was living in Rochester at the time. The Fox family decided to split the girls up, leaving Maggie in Hydesville at her brother David’s house, and Leah taking Kate to Rochester with her. But the knocks and visitations didn’t stop. Leah’s Bible, kept under her pillow, was shoved onto the floor by an unseen hand; Leah's daughter and Kate both claimed to feel a cold hand touching their bodies at night. Leah’s hosts, Isaac and Amy Post, were radical Quakers, and at first they were skeptical, even mocking, of the family’s account. Until one day, they witnessed a piano, lid closed over the keys, playing itself. Isaac and Amy were stunned; they, too, brought friends to witness the phenomenon. But though the Fox family had been excommunicated from their Episcopal Church for “devil worship,” these new guests of the Posts felt very differently: “They fell to their knees and started to pray, their hands opening to Leah and the girls as they said out loud, ‘Sustain this family, oh God, your chosen instruments for the benefit of mankind.” 

Antique illustration of seance session

Aaron notes that the telegraph machine had been recently invented; users tap out a message, and on the other end of the line, a telegraph operator would write out the message, translating the taps into words. Essentially, that’s what was happening here; Maggie and Kate were seen as a “spiritual telegraph.” And their operator? Their older sister, Leah Fish. “Amy would later recall watching her friends, a middle-aged couple seated beside Maggie in rapt attention...they were asking gentle questions and the thumps and knocks were answering back,” Aaron tells us. “A new form of devotion was beginning to take shape.” 

Learn more about the Fox sisters, the radical Quakers who became the core of the spiritualist movement, and the spirits who visited them, from Benjamin Franklin to William Penn, on this episode of Unobscured

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