New-York Historical Society

Concerning Spooks: The Spiritualists of New York

This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page

The Fox Sisters, Margaret, Catherine (Kate), and Leah. PR 052, Portrait File.

The Fox Sisters, Margaret, Catherine (Kate), and Leah. PR 052, Portrait File.

In March of 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox, teenagers living in Hydesville, New York, reported something fantastic: they had developed a system of communicating with the dead. Their home, in a small hamlet near Rochester, was rumored to be haunted, and for months the family had been woken in the night by loud knocking sounds. On March 31, Kate challenged the ghostly knocker to repeat the pattern she tapped out. To the astonishment of the family, it did. The sensational story of the young mediums captivated the citizens of New York. In the excitement, Kate and Margaret were sent to live with their older sister Leah in Rochester, but the mysterious knockings followed them. Soon, the Fox Sisters began holding public séances all over New York State.

Drawing on religious revivalism and novel scientific discoveries like electricity and magnetism, the Spiritualist movement attested that the souls of the dead resided in an astral realm and could communicate with the living. Through travelling medium shows that exhibited spirit-rappings, table-tippings, and thought-readings, as well as published communiqués from famous dead people, the doctrine of Spiritualism spread quickly across America. The idea was irresistibly fascinating, and the believers ranged from common people to prominent judges and politicians. Columbia University held symposiums on the topic. In 1854, a group of New York spiritualists petitioned Congress to use their newly-installed electromagnetic telegraph to open a line of communication between Heaven and Earth. (The Senate tabled the proposal.)

The Spiritual Telegraph was the most popular Spiritualist publication, issued in New York from 1853 until the Civil War. (Newspaper Collection)

The Spiritual Telegraph was the most popular Spiritualist publication, issued in New York from 1853 until the Civil War. (Newspaper Collection)

George Templeton Strong, a New York City lawyer and diarist, wrote frequently on Spiritualism, which interested him as an intellectual possibility.

The Davenport Brothers, from Buffalo, had a traveling medium show in which they communicated with the dead using a "spirit cabinet". (SY1873 no.83)

The Davenport Brothers, from Buffalo, had a traveling medium show in which they communicated with the dead using a “spirit cabinet”. (SY1873 no.83)

On June 16, 1850, he spoke of being “mystified” by the Rochester knockings and speculated that,“all things considered, it seems much more likely to me that some obscure, occult, mysterious, but natural agency would be concerned, if anything but adroit humbug is concerned in the matter.” He and his discerning friends held private séances with Leah Fox and other mediums. While Strong remained a skeptic, he was impressed by the performances he witnessed, noting in 1852 that “[i]t is a strange chapter in the history of human credulity at all events, and as such worth investigating.” (The Diary of George Templeton Strong, F128. 44 .S925 1988).

The proponents of Spiritualism imbued their beliefs with scientific proof. Experiments were conducted to investigate the existence of the soul and the possibility of mind reading. One 1925 publication attests, “[c]ertain Dutch physicists have, indeed, calculated [the soul’s] approximate constitution. Its weight is said to be ‘about 12.24 mgs lighter than hydrogen, and 176.6 mgs lighter than air’.” (BF1031 .W168 .1925). Charles White Kellogg, a New York diarist and a believer in Spiritualism, conducted his own experiments, consulting the spirits aided by a system of knocking and a planchette (a device similar to a Ouija board). He kept a record of his communications, which included advice from his dead mother and inquiries on the philosophy and science of the soul.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

Of course, many people doubted this new religious science of talking to the dead. Many Christians dismissed Spiritualism as fraud combined with devil worship, and noted that the séance was a convenient excuse to “… mingle males and females….. in the same circle…. and then put out the lights!” (Spirit Rappings Unveiled, BF 1042 .M38)

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

Other skeptics included scientists and entertainers, who were eager to expose the showmanship and trickery of the Spiritualist performers. Harry Houdini had a long-running feud in the Letters to the Editor of the New York Times with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a fervent believer in the spirit realm. William Sidney Mount, a contemporary of the Hudson River School, warned his friend T. H. Hadaway in an 1855 letter that he had heard from a friend that a prominent medium was planning on writing a tell-all book that would expose Spiritualism as a fraud and name all the public figures he had successfully hoodwinked. (MSS William S Mount Papers)

By 1859, George Templeton Strong attributed “seventy-five per cent of the spiritualistic phenomena to mere trick, twenty per cent to psychometry or thought-reading (whatever that may be), and a residuum of five per cent more or less to something they cannot explain.”  By the late 19th century, most prominent mediums had confessed to fraud and trickery. The Fox sisters eventually admitted that their spirit knockings had been produced by the strange but entirely natural ability of Margaret Fox to loudly crack the joints of her toes. In 1865, P.T. Barnum published The Humbugs of the World (AZ999 .B3), in which he elaborated on the skills and devices used by Spiritualists to perform supposedly supernatural acts. Still, the Spiritualist debate raged on through the 1920s. Whether the ghosts of New York were real or imagined, they certainly put on a good show.

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

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