The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox

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9780151010134: The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox

* Nominated for a New York Historical Society Book Prize in American History * Honorable Mention in General Nonfiction from the American Society of Journalists and Authors  Here is the first authoritative biography of Margaret Fox, the world-famous medium and cofounder of the Spiritualism movement that swept America in the mid-1800s. In 1848, fifteen-year-old Maggie and her sister Katy created rapping sounds by manipulating their toe joints, practicing until they convinced their parents that their farmhouse was haunted. What started as a prank soon transformed into a movement: By 1853 more than thirty thousand mediums were at work, with Maggie among the most famous. But when she denounced the faith in 1888-appearing before a packed auditorium in her stocking feet to demonstrate-Spiritualism withered almost as quickly as it had bloomed.

Through the memoirs of the Fox sisters, the letters of Maggie's Arctic explorer husband, contemporary newspaper accounts, and other primary sources, Nancy Rubin Stuart creates a vibrant portrait of a Victorian-era woman at the heart of the tumults of her time.

 

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About the Author:

Nancy Rubin Stuart is the author of several books, including American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post and Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Humble Beginnings

There is no death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb to the life elysian.

-HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

AMERICAN SPIRITUALISM-a movement that at its peak claimed more than a million followers-was born of out of the basic human longing for contact with a loved one lost to death. But to literalists, spiritualism's true spark came in 1848 from something no more or less powerful than a bored teenage girl.

Her discontent, Maggie Fox would explain in interviews with the New York press some forty years later, had been stirred by the relocation of her parents, John and Margaret Fox, from Rochester, a cosmopolitan city of thirty thousand, to a rented farmhouse in the rural hamlet of Hydesville in Wayne County, New York-a day's boat ride away.

For months the elder Foxes had toyed with the idea of moving. Maggie's older sister Maria and her husband already resided in Wayne County, while her brother, David, had married and purchased a farm nearby in the township of Arcadia. There was, after all, as David and his young wife, Elizabeth, reminded their elders, plenty of space down the hill from their home for a second farmhouse. Peppermint, then a lucrative cash crop, already grew on David's land and there was room for John to plant his own fields. When John and Margaret Fox learned that the Hyde family, the area's major landowners, needed a new blacksmith, they seized the opportunity. On December 11, 1847, the elder Foxes, accompanied by the last of their brood, the petulant Maggie and her little sister, Katy, loaded their possessions into a wagon, hitched it to a strong horse, made the long, chill drive east into Wayne County, and finally arrived at the farmhouse at the corner of Parker and Hydesville Road.

From earlier visits to her relatives in Wayne County, the pretty, dark-eyed teenager considered the woodlands, high rolling pastures, and wide fields of Wayne County dull. Within a few weeks of moving into the Hydesville farmhouse, Maggie's initial impression was reconfirmed when she and Katy were forced to remain inside their parents' new saltbox home out of the desolate countryside's icy winds and drifting snows.

That is not to say that Maggie and her family were completely isolated from others. Nearby lived several friendly farm families, among them the Redfields and Dueslers and, most important of all, Dr. Henry Hyde and his son, Artemus. The Hydes, for whom the hamlet was named, seemed to own nearly everything in sight: large tracts of farmland, their nearby mansion, the farmhouse where the Foxes lived, and the forge where John was employed as a blacksmith. As democratic as they were prosperous, the Hydes also became good friends of Maggie's parents and they took "a great fancy," in Maggie's words, to her and eleven-year-old Katy, who was still in braids and pinafores.

The benevolence of the Hydes, combined with the proximity of other Fox relatives, undoubtedly had much to do with the family's decision to move to Hydesville. At sixty-one, the wiry, taciturn John Fox-or Voss, as his family name was known in his ancestral Germany-was already planning for his old age and that of his good-hearted wife, Margaret Rutan Fox, the mother of his six surviving children, the last being Maggie and Katy.

~

The saltbox farmhouse was meant to be a temporary residence, but it suited the Foxes well, because it was conveniently adjacent to the forge and large enough to accommodate their small family. The front door opened directly into a front room behind which, on the right, was a bedroom where the elder Foxes slept. To the left was a kitchen and beyond it a pantry. A staircase separated the two back rooms and led to a cellar and an attic.

A hundred feet or so behind the farmhouse a small waterfall flowed from the Ganargua River, or Mud Creek as the locals called it, flanked by two mills, one for flour, the second for lumber. The property's western corner bordered Parker Road, two miles away from David's farm. Close by was the red clapboard schoolhouse where Maggie and Katy learned their lessons. Nearer still was the Methodist Episcopal Church, where the devout Foxes attended services every Sunday.

To the lively and imaginative Maggie, nearly fifteen at the time, such surroundings seemed monotonous, an appalling contrast to the stimulation she enjoyed in Rochester, whose streets were filled with shops, markets, well-dressed pedestrians, and the cacophony of its daily life. Several months earlier, during the summer of 1847 while visiting David's farm in nearby Arcadia, Maggie had wistfully written her middle-aged friend Amy Post that she deeply missed Rochester. "Oh Amy it is a very gloomy day [here]," she scrawled on August 24, 1847. "I love the noise and confusion of the city...[and]...am like the woman who becomes so accustomed to her husband's snoring that I could not get to sleep without it."

~

While there were new chores to perform-fetching water from Ganargua stream, totting wood to the fireplace, and sweeping snow from the front steps-there was little in the way of amusements to cheer the bored teenager. With Katy, she would tease their "simple, gentle and true-hearted" mother, as Maggie described Mrs. Fox years later, or indulge in tickling matches with their niece, Lizzie Fish, the teenage daughter of their eldest sister, Leah, who visited from Rochester that first winter in Hydesville.

The nights were the worst of all, the time, as Maggie had written Amy Post, when she felt the most lonesome. What were the families like, she, Katy, and Lizzie idly wondered, who had lived in the farmhouse before them? Strangers must have lived in their home, and died there too. And perhaps their ghosts still haunted the place? Maggie's trusting and superstitious mother had helped lead the girls to this speculation: Not only did Margaret Fox believe in the existence of ghosts, but she often mentioned that her own grandmother and other Rutan relatives were known to have a sixth sense, or the ability to communicate with spirits.

"Until first suggested to us by our mother...the thought of 'spirits' had never entered our heads," Maggie later told her biographer. That was all the help the girls needed to hatch a mischievous plan. Why not frighten Mrs. Fox and, still more challenging, the skeptical John Fox? The inventive threesome started waking at night, tying apples to strings, and then dropping and retracting them on the floor to mimic the sounds of footsteps.

Night after night Maggie's mother awakened to the sound of those ghostly footsteps. She would jump out of bed, light a candle, and rush anxiously into the room where her young charges slept. Hearing her footsteps, the giggling trio would hide the apples, crawl into bed, and greet the concerned matron with feigned expressions of fright.

The apple trick inevitably excited other schemes. Once, after Katy learned to snap her fingers, she and her companions decided to create similar sounds with their toes. Lizzie was the first to perfect the trick. Planting one foot on the headboard of the bed, she applied pressure to her big toe, and then thrust her second toe against it in the opposite direction. The result was a resounding popping or knocking sound as she snapped her toe joints. Determined to keep up with their older relative, Maggie and Katy practiced that same technique and soon became so adept that they could "knock," as they dubbed their stunt, while standing on the floor in shoes or barefoot or even while sitting in a chair. After weeks of practice, Maggie explained, the girls' flexible joints grew so accustomed to the knocks that "we could do it with hardly an effort."

By late winter Lizzie had returned to Rochester. Nevertheless Maggie and Katy persisted in their game, vying with each other to see who could make the loudest sounds. Sometimes, the girls did so with their fingers. To avoid being seen, one of them would sit "with one hand hidden by an elbow resting upon the table, or the woodwork of a chair," unwittingly goaded on by Mrs. Fox, who "in her earnest belief, pour soul, excited us to do a great deal more than otherwise, we would have done."

Before long, Maggie and Katy had incorporated their tricks into their daily lives as a kind of sport, much as contemporary teenagers blast music from their rooms to annoy their parents today. Executed silently and persistently upon the furniture, the repeated raps sometimes caused a table or chair to vibrate and even move from its original position, inevitably frightening the already agitated Mrs. Fox.

In contrast was her husband John's diffidence. More skeptical by nature, the aging blacksmith did not believe in ghosts and continued to insist that there was a practical reason for the sounds. Yet the nocturnal noises persisted, upsetting his wife so much that he agreed to move Maggie and Katy into their bedroom to sleep on a trundle bed.

Even at such close range to their parents, the girls brazenly persisted in their antics. "It was not very loud...yet it [the spirit] produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs that could be felt by placing our hands on the chairs, or while we were in bed," Mrs. Fox later complained. Afterward, rejecting her exasperated husband's pleas to ignore the sounds, the unnerved woman would rise and search the farmhouse by candlelight.


Copyright © 2005 by Nancy Rubin Stuart

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be
mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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