In 1848, two girls in the Fox family living in Hydesville, New York, reported strange knocking sounds in their bedroom at night. On March 31, some time after the family began hearing the strange noises throughout the house, Katherine – then twelve – spoke aloud to the unseen noisemaker, challenging him (it?) to a game – she would snap her fingers a number of times, then the invisible visitor would repeat with the same number of knocks. The neighbors were called over to witness the proceedings, and over the next couple of days, the spirits (for such they were presumed to be) communicated with them as much as possible – a code was worked out for yes or no answers, for example, and over time it was established that the beings knew much about the Fox family.
Thus began the Spiritualist movement of the latter half of the 19th century, a quasi-mystical belief system whose basic tenets included survival beyond death, and the ability of the living to communicate with those who have passed on. This was the period of American history when many families would gather in their parlors for seances, Tarot card readings, or sessions with a Ouija board. The movement would become especially popular with families who were grieving over sons, brothers, or fathers lost in war; and, of course, there were those who would prey upon these people’s suffering and extract cash while offering empty, vague platitudes about the pleasant world awaiting those beyond the grave (a practice which continues to this day, with little change in methods).
In any case, however, it began with the Fox sisters’ strange knocking spirits. Katherine (12) and Margaret (15) were sent to stay with relative in Rochester during the ensuing public tumult, but mysteriously, the spirits followed them there. Over time the girls became celebrities, with members of high society entreating them for a chance to communicate with the spirit world. They were studied and their mysterious messengers probed, and over time the sisters turned their unique situation into a career, touring music halls and giving ‘performances’ both in the U.S. and overseas.
By the late 1880’s, however, the sisters were beginning to quarrel, both with their older sibling Leah – who herself claimed to be a medium – and the proponents in Spiritualism in general. The two younger Fox sisters had become alcoholics over the past several years and, perhaps tired of their situation, publicly confessed to the true source of the mysterious knocks: their toe joints, which the girls were able to crack loudly at will.They even did so before an audience – in 1888 at the New York Academy of Music, with over 2,000 people watching, the Fox sisters showed how they were able to make their toe joints produce the sounds which reverberated around the theater.
The jig was up, as it were, but – as with the exposure of many phenomena of humble origins, there were those who refused to believe that it was all made up. Prominent Spiritualists claimed the women had been coerced into confessing, many of them claiming that they had heard the knockings coming from several different directions during personal sittings. Katherine and Margaret continued to tour, only this time audiences came to hear about how the young ladies had earlier defrauded them; and on the side the sisters continued to give seances to those who still believed.
Their alcoholism reaching alarming levels, both sisters eventually became unable to tour, and both died penniless and unmourned, their old friends and comrades having turned their backs on them long before.