Fox Sisters: pioneers of American Feminism

Spiritualism was a religious reaction to the “crisis in faith” that the Civil War produced across the United States of America, with millions of citizens seeking to reconnect with loved ones who died in that extremely bloody confrontation. It did not have a formal structure nor supervising hierarchy, for which women welcomed it as a spontaneous way to express their feeling, fears and hopes, without the castrating influence of the Patriarchate that dominated civic and religious entities.

In an era where women were excluded to the back of religious congregations and were prohibited from speaking loud and clear, let alone address the worshippers, it offered an uncensored and unsupervised channel for them to address critical social issues like abolition, labor reform, education of children, health reform, temperance. Spiritualism gave oppressed women a venue to express their opinions without the censoring gaze of the State or the Official churches; it gave them a human presence.

Spirituals affirmed that God gave the gift of talking to every human being, which enabled women to express their personal opinions and fight for a progressive agenda. Acting as inspired “mediums” and “trance speakers” they slowly but steadily gained confidence in talking before the public at large and they forever left the anonymity of their kitchens where they had been perfidiously relegated for many generations. They immediately clashed with the male-dominated healthcare institutions as they were branded of “quacks” and “illegitimate healers” by the envious professionals.

The religious movement, which was born before the Civil War and thrived during the conflict and its very traumatic aftermath, was paradoxically born in the Fingers Lake region of Upstate New York, where Mormonism and Millerism also started. Two young girls named Margareta “Maggie” Fox, 14 years old, and Kate, her 11 years old sister, were living in a farm in Hydesville, New York. In March 1848, they confided to a lady that lived next door, that they had been hearing a series of raps on the walls and the furniture lately. They invited her to witness the experience and under the guidance of Margaret, their mother, they huddled in the girls’ bedroom.

– “Count five,” said Margaret. Then the room shook five times.

– “Count fifteen,” ordered Margaret. The mysterious presence obeyed her command.

– “What’s our neighbor’s age?” she asked. There were thirty-three clear raps.

– “If you are an injured spirit,” she finally asked, “manifest it with three raps. It did.

Note. This image of the Fox Sisters was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

An excellent review article in the Smithsonian Magazine explained what happened afterwards with the Foxx sisters. “The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.

The Posts invited the girls to a gathering at their home, anxious to see if they could communicate with spirits in another locale. “I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended,” Isaac Post wrote, but he was swayed by “very distinct thumps under the floor… and several apparent answers.” He was further convinced when Leah Fox also proved to be a medium, communicating with the Posts’ recently deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.”

There are many references in The Bible about human beings talking with spirits, angels, demons, etc., for which Modern Spiritualism found a fertile ground in the fervently religious, mostly rural communities of the New World. By the mid-1800s the preaching of Franz Anton Mesmer, an Australian healer, had spread all over the young nation. He claimed that everything in the Universe, including the bodies of all living beings, is ruled by a “magnetic fluid” that produces sickness when it is out of balance. He waved his hands over the body of the sick patient and supposedly induce a hypnotic state to restore the homeostasis and get rid of the pathogens. Thus, the verb “to mesmerize” came into being as it referred to a person that can hypnotize another person with a rather uncommon, even supernatural, mode.

The American population of the mid-nineteenth century was also influenced by the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher and mystic, that described. After Life as a collection of three heavens, three hells and an intermediate staging ground where everybody went right after their death. Selfish beliefs and deeds pushed you closer to one of the hells while generous ones push you closer to one of the heavens. He claimed to have interacted with spirits in all levels. Seventy-five years later, Andrew Jackson Davis, an American seer nicknamed the “John Baptist of Modern Spiritualism”, claimed that Swedenborg had spoken to him in a trance and urged him to combine the philosophical tenets of Mesmer and his own to create a novel current that would better serve the needs of the American people.

The Fox Sisters had peripatetic lives, full of public demonstrations and excitement. Being national celebrities, Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a tour across the country, even presenting their act before the most rancid New York society. They carried their act in the parlor of the Barnum Hotel with 10 AM, 5 PM and 8 PM sessions that could accommodate up to 30 attendees who had to pay one dollar each. Leah set up a cabinet in the Big Apple where she set up regular office hours for her clientele, while the two sisters went on a national tour in major Eastern cities.

The Smithsonian article added: “On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism. She was paid $1,500 for the exclusive. Her main motivation, however, was rage at her sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who had publicly chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. Kate planned to be in the audience when Maggie gave her speech, lending her tacit support.” Maggie confessed that together with her sister Kate they tied an apple with a string and manipulated it to resemble the clapping that supposedly spirits might make.

Notwithstanding this confession, which she would later recant, Spiritualism became an extremely popular religion, with as many as 10,00,000 adherents in its heyday. And it opened the doors of public discourse and civic engagement to many smart and committed ladies that wanted to voice their opinions about social issues dear to them.

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

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