The celebrated seances of the spooky Fox Sisters

Claiming to be able to talk to the dead is a skill that can instantly turn you into a celebrity. This was especially true in 1848, when Ouija boards and seances were all the rage.

That’s how the Fox sisters became notorious in New York. Growing up in Rochester, word spread that Katherine and Margaret Fox, then 12 and 15, could communicate with spirits.

How? They would snap their fingers, and this would elicit rapping sounds from the deceased that could be decoded into a message.

Within a few years, the sisters, along with their older sister and manager, Leah, were invited to the city by showman P.T. Barnum.

They quickly became the talk of pre-Civil War New York, serving as mediums for high society.

Among the bold-face names they attracted to their hundreds of seances were journalist and poet William Cullen Bryant, writer James Feinmore Cooper, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

Though thousands of people believed the sisters and followed their quasi-religion “spiritualism,” skeptics publicly doubted them. The girls eventually quarreled and became alcoholics.

In 1888, Margaret confessed in the New York World that their medium powers were a hoax; the rappings sounds that supposedly came from dead people were created by cracking their joints.

They died before the century’s end, as paupers.

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2 Responses to “The celebrated seances of the spooky Fox Sisters”

  1. T.J. Connick Says:

    The sisters stayed at a hotel at 176 Broadway when they arrived in June, 1850. Known as Howard’s Hotel, Leah Fox Fish identified it as Barnum’s, as he was the current owner. He was an A.S. Barnum, not Phineas T., and while the ever on-the-make Phineas may have invited the Foxes down from upstate, the sisters had an audience of the well connected, not the hoi polloi.

    The building that today bears the hotel’s address was among the first couple of buildings south of Chambers Street to convert office space to residential units, successfully opened as a co-operatively owned operation before 1980. Don’t know if the Fox sisters foresaw the future of 176 Broadway, but if they could construe messages from the dead, why not from those not yet alive?

    Thanks for another clever entry that reminds us of the never-ending array of remarkable people and events with connections to our city.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks TJ for your follow-up info. I love these kinds of characters, the celebrities of the day whose popularity rose and fell as time marched on.

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