The Religion That Was Built On A Prank

“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

  • Hillyard

    The religion that was built on a prank, I thought this would be about Scientology.
    Good article.

    • Andy West

      I was about to say exactly the same thing. Tell me when a person becomes a Christian they are said to have found god, what do scientologists say, I have found a 12 foot high alien called Xenu?

    • Andy West

      I was about to say exactly the same thing. Tell me, when people become christians they are said to have found god, what do scientologists say, I have found a 12 foot tall alien called Xenu?

    • JRHatt

      My first thought, but Scientology was founded to get L. Ron Hubbard tax free income.

      • OC

        That’s mostly true of Christian churches too.

        • lbatfish

          Judging from the timing, it’s fortunate for LDS (“Mormon”) church that God changed his mind about black people (“Sons of Ham”) shortly before the IRS yanked their tax-exempt status.

  • Here’s a picture of those foxy sisters. (I asked for permission and they said ‘OK do what you must … post it … whatever.’)

    • Andy West

      I’ll take the one in the middle.

      • She says you’ll have to “summon her father” and “ask his permission” before “courtship may commend”.

        • OC

          If Herman Munster could be called old-fashioned.

      • Hillyard

        If I can get plausible deniability and two paper bags, I’ll have the one on the left.

    • Check

      So, what does the Fox say?

      • lbatfish

        Well, I just KNEW that it was going to be said sooner or later . . . but dear god, why so SOON?

        • Mikey Godsey

          I missed you guys.

  • OC

    That’s not any definition of Spiritualism that I’d ever come across. So . .

  • Jum1801

    Scientology would have been a much better subject. It is a “religion” created in 1954 by convicted con man and consummate fraudster L. Ron Hubbard as a cash cow and tax dodge.

    • OC

      True but it works for many people; isn’t that the definition of a Religion? A philosophical framework for managing one’s life?

    • Chris

      Everyone on earth knows about scientology… It would have been pointless to write about it cos most people, and especially regular readers, know too much about it already

  • Carlos Fantastico

    Would like to mention that spiritualism has nothing to do with spirituality, which are often mixed up.

    • OC

      Your avatar’s like: “lookee everybuddy, got me a WHITE gurl”!!!!!

      • Carlos Fantastico

        Not sure if its an insult, but it is quite funny. Must be because I don’t look at skin color to choose who I want to be with. Beside she seems to be really happy with her Latino man. So far I can say I am the happiest thing that happened to her, not to sound like I’m full of it.

        • Joseph

          Let me be the first to congratulate you on your white girl. I lost the instructions that came with mine. Can you send me a copy?

          • OC

            Add a photo so we’ll all see.

          • Carlos Fantastico

            I feel sorry for you, but even that is a waste of my time lol. enjoy the rest of your life going around listverse writting unrelated comments and doing nothing for yourself.

          • OC

            OK. Maybe you’re just insecure about a few things.

          • Joseph

            It was related because of OC’s comment and it was a joke. Your reply wasted more of your time than my joke.

        • OC

          It looks disrespectful, slavish and fake.

          • Carlos Fantastico

            and you think I care? Haters fall back.

          • heli chopter

            I was on your side until you said haters fall back. Stupid hipster shit.

  • Check

    At first, I thought this article was going to be on the Jedi census joke of Australia.

    • lbatfish

      Sounds good! Write it up and submit it to KN!

  • Woody

    I’m surprised that detective fuck didn’t comment on this post. Pardon the language. He seems to smell out the lists or posts related to religion and in his own words call us atheists retarded. While he defends his own beliefs and says its inappropriate to harass another for that very reason. To any religious man or woman that reads this answer one question for me with out bias. If God gave mankind free will. Then give mankind rules to follow or face consequences. Are we a taste subject? Has always made me revoke religion with any holy book and superior or single god (all religions)

  • Thank you for All information.