The Religion That Was Built On A Prank

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 2, 2014
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“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began.” —Maggie Fox, early prankster devotee of Spiritualism

In A Nutshell

The ideas of Spiritualism—communicating with the dead—has long seized the imaginations of the world. When it started in America, it got a massive boost in popularity from two practical jokes. The first started with a “performance” by the Fox sisters that took place on April Fools’ Eve, where they pretended to converse with the spirit of a peddler who had been killed and buried in their home. The second was the apparent discovery of the skeleton of the peddler, later revealed to have been put there as a practical joke.

The Whole Bushel

Spiritualism embraces the idea that the living can speak with the dead. The ideas have been mentioned in the Bible, making it possible to exist alongside Christianity with no real stigma. There have been numerous “mesmerists” that had long been popular in Europe before Spiritualism came to the United States; when it did, it was standing on the shoulders of a couple of practical gags.

The popularity of Spiritualism skyrocketed with the demonstrations of a trio of sisters. Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox were advertised as the real thing. Unfortunately, no one noticed that their first demonstration of their channeling abilities happened on April Fools’ Eve, 1848.

Maggie and Kate summoned a neighbor to their home, where they displayed their ability to interact with a spirit that was rapping on walls and floors in response to their questions and requests. The whole thing was overseen by their mother, who apparently didn’t think it odd that her daughters weren’t scared by the unseen peddler man who was apparently lurking in their bedroom.

From there, the stories of the girls’ abilities skyrocketed. They moved to Rochester, New York and joined their older sister Leah. It might have ended there, but remember what was coming out of the Finger Lakes area in that time. It was the birthplace of the Mormon religion, and later the Seventh Day Adventism branch. Religious—and paranormal—activity was already of huge interest, and the arrival of these girls who had already changed the mind of a skeptical witness was adding more fuel to the fire.

Once the three sisters had convinced the city leaders of Rochester that they really could speak to the dead, they went on to New York City where they—ironically—set up their suite for seances in the Barnum Hotel. News of what they could do spread, and anyone who was anyone came to see them.

Eventually, the trio went their separate ways. Maggie eventually married a man who had seen through their act, accepting that he knew they were frauds. She gave up the Spiritualism life and practice and converted to Catholicism.

Leah kept up the ruse in New York City, and Kate married a Spiritualist and continued her work in other places.

It all almost fell apart when Maggie came forward and confessed that they were frauds. Not only did she confess, but she showed the world how the tricks were done. The started out using apples on a string, and their methods got more and more complex from there.

Spiritualism didn’t die there, though, largely thanks to the second practical joke. The Fox sisters’ original house was abandoned and turned into something of a haunted house. Neighborhood children would play there on dares, and one day they found the skeleton of the peddler that the girls had been communicating with. He had been sealed in the walls, and those who still supported Spiritualism pointed to the skeleton as proof that the girls were telling the truth after all. They said that Maggie’s confession had just been a weak attempt at discrediting sisters she had fallen out of favor with, and what should have been a death blow to Spiritualism was forgotten.

Skeptics and believers alike scrambled to find the real identity of the peddler. His initials had long been given as C.B., but no searches ever turned up any missing persons in the area, in that time, with those initials.

Finally, as a footnote in the history of Spiritualism, a doctor who had examined the skeleton came forward. Apparently most of the bones that were found were animal and chicken bones. Those that were human were put there by a neighbor as a practical joke; once the story went as far as it did, he was too ashamed to publicly admit what he had done.

Show Me The Proof

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism
Smithsonian: The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism