A spooky non-fiction recommendation to get you in the mood for Halloween.
The 19th Century is full of strange true stories, but none as weird or poignant as the story of the two little American girls who accidentally started a religion. Neither eleven year old Kate Fox or her older sister Maggie could ever have imagined that their knocks, raps and taps would turn into a movement that turned a lot more than just tables – although numerous items of furniture were certainly disturbed throughout the ensuing decades.
It started in the early spring of 1848, in Hydesville, a tiny town near Rochester NY. The girls, Maggie and Kate, began to complain of their bed moving beneath them. Taps, rappings and knocks were heard, until one night Kate confronted the ‘presence’ saying “Here, Mr. Splitfoot – do as I do.” She tapped a number of times on the floor with her foot and was answered in kind. Without saying a word, she held up her fingers and the raps returned corresponding numbers. “Only look, mother,” she said. “It can see as well as hear!”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Or fuckery. Or both.
The story of the Fox Sisters has been told many times and in many ways. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing in his horribly credulous History of Spiritualism, pronounced ‘the Hydesville Revelation’ as important as the coming of Christ. Sceptics were a lot less enthusiastic, mocking the ‘Rochester Knockings’ and looking askance at the amount of cash that had started flowing since news of the spooky knockings began to spread. The ghosts were certainly working out well for the Fox family, particularly an older married daughter, Leah Fish, who had taken it upon herself to act as a business manager for her oracular younger siblings.
It’s hard to find a real account of the lives of the Fox sisters. Even their dates of birth are controversial since a Spiritualist biography shaved some four years from their ages in order to make them seem more innocent and less likely to have perpetrated a deliberate hoax. Houdini accidentally repeated this fiction in his book A Magician Amongst The Spirits in which he portrayed the girls more as victims of their own celebrity than cold hearted con-artists while in the believer’s camp the girls were mawkishly eulogised as saints and martyrs.
The great thing about Weisberg is that she doesn’t give a shit. She’s not interested in ascertaining whether the girls were genuine or pushing an agenda, either spiritualist or sceptic. This is just pure biography, and it’s a good biography – well researched and judicious. It’s all about the girls, pushed into the spotlight before they were sixteen, chucked out there to be loved and loathed and eventually to suffer the usual sad alcoholic fate of child stars. In death and in history they are variously con-artists, martyrs, drunks and prophetesses. In life they were often treated as ciphers, as tabulae rasae on which could be projected a dead child, a lost husband, a work in progress. They were conduits, female shapes only tolerated in darkened rooms because they gave breath and voice to the dead. So it’s nice – nice to see them with a little meat on their bones and thoughts in their head, speaking in their own voices for once.