Children sometimes play tricks on others, usually ending with a giggle, scolding or both. The Fox sisters played a game back in the mid 1840s and accidentally founded a religion that operates to this day. At its peak, Spiritualism had over 8 million members in the late 1800s, and it's all because of two sisters playing an April Fools joke on their mother.
In 1848, Kate and Maggie, Fox lived with their mother Margret in a small home just outside of modern day Newark. A rumor had long circulated around the small town of Hydesville that a peddler had been murdered in the Fox's home. That rumor gave the precocious sisters an idea, one they executed too well.
They told their mother that at night they would hear mysterious rappings on the door or floor, and whatever being was making those rappings was using them to communicate with them.
Obviously doubtful the mother demanded a demonstration. Sitting at the dining room table the sisters asked the being to identify itself, which it did with a loud knock on the floor.
The mother was naturally startled, but then the sisters asked the spirit how old they were. Maggie asked first, and got 14 knocks, then Kate got 11. To Margaret's ears a creature from another plane had correctly named her daughter's age. She rushed out and grabbed her nearest neighbor, inviting her in to experience the otherworldly messages.
In several unsourced accounts of what would come to be known as "The Hydesville Event" the sisters began to get nervous with the arrival of the neighbor. It was March 31, the day before April Fools, and they never intended the joke to go beyond some light teasing of their mother.
Perhaps afraid of getting in trouble, the sisters again demonstrated their "talent" for speaking with the other side to the neighbor. Shortly after Margaret sold the "haunted" home and sent the sisters to go live with their older sister Leah near Rochester.
The Story Spreads
Presumably the younger Fox sisters told their older sister about their prank gone wrong, but they didn't count on Leah being such a savvy con artist. She leaked news of the event, and even began testing her own abilities as a medium. Isaac and Amy Post were upstanding members of the Rochester community and asked for a demonstration from the Fox sisters.
"I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended," Isaac wrote. Saying later he was convinced by "distinct thumps under the floor, answering different questions." The posts, convinced the Fox sisters had put them in touch with their late daughter, rented out the town hall, inviting over 400 people to watch the sisters in action. After yet another successful demonstration the 3 girls were searched for signs of a hoax, and none were found.
Around this same time people began turning to religions other than the established Christian denominations that dominated the country. Philosophers and preachers such as Franz Anton Mesmer and Emanuel Swedenborg had spread across the nation spouting ideas of spiritual connectivity, and claimed to also talk to the spirits of those passed. These came years before the Fox sisters pulled their prank, but laid the groundwork for a new faith.
The idea with connecting with lost ones is appealing, and death was a frequent companion for people living in the 1800s. Spiritualism caught on like wildfire. Andrew Jackson Davis claimed the spirt of Swedenborg came to him and predicted the rise of Spiritualism. Around the time that the Fox sisters were performing in Rochester, Davis wrote in his diary:
"A warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong saying 'Brother, the good work has begun - behold a living demonstration is born."
When Davis heard of the Fox sisters abilities he became a True Believer, inviting them to his New York City home to perform for crowds. The Fox sisters became household names in New York.
The bizarre story begins to unravel on the next page!