Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: the original mediums of the mysterious noises at Rochester Western, N.Y. 1852. Library of Congress

Hypnotic Séance, painting by Richard Bergh 1887. National Museum of Sweden 


In 1848, 15-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate Fox, sisters living in Hydesville, NY, claimed to communicate with a ghost haunting their home. The girls reported hearing knocks and noises, so they began asking the spirit questions and received responses in the form of knocks and noises. They demonstrated this for their parents and their older, married sister, Leah Fox Fish. Despite attempts to find another explanation for the phenomenon, none was found. Word of the sisters' talent spread, and by 1849, it was believed to be the spirit’s wish that the sisters display their abilities to the world. On November 14, under the management of Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox took to the stage at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY, where they communicated with a spirit through questions and responding muffled raps and tones. Thus began the Fox sisters' career as famous mediums, regularly sought after by a paying public for séances to speak to deceased loved ones. Ultimately, to escape the oppressive management of their older sister Leah, the two younger Fox sisters revealed they were frauds and had been creating the mysterious knocks by cracking their toe joints.

Many believe this event marked the launch of modern Spiritualism, a movement popular from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Spiritualism is a religious and social movement based on the core belief that individual spirits survive after death in a spiritual realm where they can be contacted by the living. Followers believed that spirits could ascend within the spirit realm to a greater spiritual plane. Therefore, if the living could communicate with the dead, and the dead could elevate themselves closer to God, these communications could offer the living greater insights into the moral world, God, and the afterlife.

The zeal for Spiritualism developed both as a reaction to the rigid dogmas of established religions and as a response to the rapid scientific and technological advancements of the era. Spiritualism's focus on communication with spirits directly challenged conventional religious authorities. The democratization of spiritual experience appealed to those dissatisfied with traditional Christian religions, which often seemed out of touch with individuals' personal and existential needs. The ability to speak to deceased loved ones without the intermediary of a clergy member or priest felt liberating for many.

Social and Cultural Impact

With the rise of scientific discovery and advancements in technology came a disconnect with religion. Religion found itself at odds with science. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution emerged around the same time as the Fox sisters' talents. The theory of evolution directly opposed the Christian creationist doctrine, sparking debate. This is just one example of how science and technology changed individuals' perspectives, making them more open-minded to ideas outside the prevailing views. Spiritualism could be studied and understood using the scientific method, thus offering a spiritual dimension compatible with the scientific worldview. Notably, some scientists, such as chemist William Crookes and Nobel Prize-winning scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, took an interest in investigating spiritualist claims, albeit with varying degrees of skepticism and acceptance.

As the decades progressed, it was hard to avoid Spiritualism. Books, magazines, and newspaper articles on the topic were published abundantly. In 1853, a song was even written about the tapping sounds mediums used during séances to communicate with spirits. (Click here to listen to the piano music and read the lyrics). The popularity of Spiritualism reached such heights that notable figures like Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, and Queen Victoria attended séances. One prominent supporter of Spiritualism in the United States was Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln sought the services of mediums following the death of her son Willie in 1862 from typhoid fever. She held séances in the White House, and it is said that President Lincoln occasionally joined her. This was not her only foray into Spiritualism. Ten years later, Mrs. Lincoln visited a spiritualist photographer named William H. Mumler. Mumler claimed to capture photographs of deceased loved ones behind or close to their living friends or relatives. In one of Mumler’s most famous images, he captured a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln with an eerie, hazy image of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders.

While Mumler’s services provided comfort to many, including Mrs. Lincoln, in their grief, his photographs have since been exposed as fraudulent, created using a double exposure technique.

Spiritualism and Women

At a time when societal norms restricted women's roles and limited their participation in public and religious life, spiritualism provided an avenue for empowerment and influence. Female mediums gained prominence and respect, often achieving a level of public recognition and financial independence that was otherwise inaccessible.

Prominent female spiritualists included Cora L.V. Scott, Emma Hardinge Britten, and Victoria Woodhull. Scott, known for her eloquence and oratory skills, began her career as a teenage medium and became a renowned speaker and writer. Britten was a prolific author and lecturer who played a significant role in documenting and promoting spiritualist philosophy. Woodhull, also a women's rights activist, used her platform as a spiritualist to advocate for social reforms, including women's suffrage and free love.

Spiritualism intersected with the burgeoning women's rights movement in several ways. The movement’s emphasis on personal spiritual experience and its rejection of orthodox religious hierarchies resonated with feminist ideals. Women’s prominent roles within spiritualism challenged traditional gender roles and provided a model of female authority and competence.

By the early 20th century, the popularity of spiritualism began to wane, partly due to exposure of fraudulent mediums and the rise of new scientific paradigms. However, its legacy persisted in various forms. Spiritualism contributed to the development of parapsychology and continued to influence new religious movements and occult practices. It provided a unique platform for women’s voices and challenged conventional religious and societal norms, leaving a lasting impact on both spiritual and secular ideas.