When I tell people I’m a mentalist, they correctly assume that I do what I do via a combination of methods: magic, psychology, and suggestion. Very real, tangible things that have very real, tangible explanations.
And that’s at least a little bit by design. I mostly perform for corporate audiences at private events, which are packed full of very savvy, intelligent people. Plus, the general population is a little more “on the ball” than previous generations, so pulling a fast one on today’s audiences is much more difficult than it was in the yesteryears before.
What a lot of people don’t know is that a lot of mentalism effects of today originate from fraudulent psychics and mediums in the past. Many of their methods were adopted by magicians looking to add some mind-reading miracles to their act under the guise of being in cahoots with “spirits” or the “Great Beyond.”
But where did that idea come from? How did the Spiritualism movement that inspired these fake mediums (which, in turn, inspired countless magicians and mentalists) adopt their methods?
Well, I’m here to tell you the story. And it's a little bit spooky.
In 1848, in Hydesville, New York (just outside of modern-day Newark). Margaret and John Fox had just moved into a new house, with their young daughters Maggie (age 11) and Kate age (age 15) in tow. Margaret and John were, as Houdini put it in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, "Good, honest, but not mentally keen type of farmer folk." They set up life in their new home, and for a while, everything seemed normal.
What the Foxes didn’t know was that their house had a reputation for being haunted. So, when the very superstitious Margaret began to hear unusual bangs, thumps, and raps, her beliefs took over, and she accused the supposed resident spirit as the culprit. Margaret quizzed her neighbours about the strange noises, and they agreed that the sounds were likely from a spirit belonging to who had previously died in Margaret’s home.
Margaret's husband, John, scoffed at the idea. After all, it was March 31st, and April Fool's was only a day away. However, Margaret (being the superstitious lady that she was) dismissed her husband’s skepticism in favour of supernatural explanations.
As the noises continued, Margaret’s daughters - Maggie and Kate - began attempts to make contact with the bumps in the night, eventually named the spirit Mr. Splitfoot. Kate stood in the middle of the room with her mother and spoke to the spirit:
"Mr. Splitfoot, please let us know you're here."
"Mr. Splitfoot, can you count to ten?"
"Mr. Splitfoot, how old are we?"
Successive raps indicate the ages of Maggie and Kate.
"Please, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do."
Kate Fox then snapped her fingers three times. And soon after, three taps from Mr. Splitfoot.
"Please, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do again."
This time, Kate almost snapped her fingers three times. She brought her fingers together, then apart, but not a sound was made.
"See Mother?" Kate whispered, "It can see, as well as hear."
Over time, Maggie and Kate worked out a code with Mr. Splitfoot and began communicating with the spirit. The Fox sisters discovered that Mr. Splitfoot was the spirit of a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered in the house and buried in the basement years before. Neighbours and friends were brought into the house to witness these amazing spectacles. They asked the spirit all sorts of questions, and the spirit unfailingly responded. Skeptics and believers alike came to see the impressive acts of mediumship showcased by the two young girls from Hydesville. The Fox Sisters and Hydesville, New York, became an overnight sensation.
Eventually, the Fox Sisters took their newfound talent on the road, and the mysterious noises followed them wherever they went. Under the care of their (much) older sister, Leah Fox Fish, the sisters would display their spirit connections publicly and rake in hundreds of dollars in an evening. They toured across the United States, inspiring people with their amazing connection to "The Other Side." And, just like that, modern-day Spiritualism was born.
Wherever the Fox Sisters went, a crowd followed. Theologians, doctors, scientists, and many more would crowd the stage where the Fox Sisters appeared. They would give public demonstrations, where people would not only hear the rapping responses from the spirits but also claim to feel them. A presence, a touch, a cold gust of air across their necks; all evidence that something incredible was there, and the Fox Sisters had dialled into a supernatural frequency that allowed them to bridge the gap between this world and the next. With each demonstration, the sisters became bolder, making each performance a larger spectacle than the previous. Under the tutelage of their older sister Leah, the Fox Sisters began doing sittings and seances for high-paying customers looking to contact the Spirit World.
After touring the United States, Kate pursued an education in England, sponsored by a wealthy benefactor named Horace Greeley. Greeley covered all her expenses in an effort to dissuade her from continuing her spiritualist habits. Maggie eventually caught the eye of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane (a notable doctor, explorer, and all-around amazing man) and the two married in 1853.
Kane convinced Maggie to denounce her spiritualist ways and become a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Maggie refused to continue her seances and sittings, saying that she was being driven to the Devil himself when she was contacting the Spirit World. Of course, it wouldn't last; following a lengthy battle with illness, Kane died in 1857, leaving Maggie alone and penniless. In an effort to make a living, Maggie went back to holding seances for those willing to pay to contact their loved ones. Kate had her fair share of tragedy as well. She married a London-based barrister in 1872 but was left a widow with two sons when her husband died in 1881. Just as her sister did years before, Kate turned back to her mediumship as a way to support herself.
The Fox Sisters fell into a deep depression and severe alcoholism. They began to feud with other Spiritualists. Their families had concerns about their well-being and whether or not Kate was in the proper mindset to care for her children. In a fit of desperation, guilt, or need, the Fox Sisters did something drastic.
On October 21st, 1888, Maggie and Kate Fox told the world they were frauds.
Maggie had reached out to the New York World, exposing their entire sham. A reporter promised the sisters $1500 to expose their methods and give exclusivity to the paper. Maggie explained how she and her sister Kate initially started the odd sounds and raps in their Hydesville home by tying strings to apples and bouncing them on the floor to mimic footsteps. When they realized that their apple method wasn't going to last, they learned to create the sounds with their feet. They would crack their joints (much like a person does with their knuckles) or snap their toes like a person snaps their fingers. They explained it all in their letter to the New York World:
"Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers, she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things, when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. ... This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps...A great many people, when they hear the rapping, imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street, and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair, and one of the ladies cried out: 'I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.' Of course, that was pure imagination."
In front of a crowd of two thousand people, the Fox Sisters demonstrated their methods.
Doctors from the audience examined the sisters and confirmed their confession. Suddenly, the mystic and amazing Fox Sisters became nothing but charlatans. While some claim that the exposure of the sisters' methods itself was a fraudulent act, most walked away, certain that they'd been had by the two girls from Hydesville.
A year later, Maggie recanted her confession and attempted to continue her sittings and seances to support herself. But despite having a handful of true believers seek out the sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox drifted away into obscurity. Succumbing to ailing health and alcoholism, Kate died in 1892, and Maggie soon after in 1893. But in their wake, they left an entire culture of believers, copycats, and people claiming to truly be a conduit of the supernatural. While the Fox Sisters may not be a common household name today, their influence in the world of Spiritualism lives on. People still claim to speak to the dead, Ouija boards still populate suburban houses during teen sleep-overs, and seances still attempt to channel the deceased. The Fox Sisters essentially started a new religion, and the Fox Sisters were the ones that opened the door.
Like Maggie and Kate, the Hydesville house also met its fate. It sat empty for decades and eventually was torn down in 1903. Which, in itself, is nothing unusual.
Except for the old, dusty remains of an unidentified man with a tin peddler's box that was found in the walls of the cellar.