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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,486

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This is the grave of Margaret and Catherine Fox.

Margaretta Fox was born in Rochester in 1833 and Catherine, or Kate as she was known, was born in that city in 1837. They grew up in the town of Hydesville. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening. That brought so many of the modern religious movements into the United States. Most infamous today is the Mormons, a religion with a completely ridiculous origin story that just so happens to fit with early 19th century masculine worries about a changing America. And yet, it stuck and has exploded. Well, maybe it isn’t that much crazier than other religions. In any case, more mainstream were the huge revivals of the Methodists especially. In short, the rapid transformation of industrial America completely blew up everything people thought they knew. This is why you can trace the center of revivals along the path of the Erie Canal. The Burned-Over District, as it became known, was a center of both rapid industrial transformation and enormous religious revival. The arrival of the canal and then the railroad simply exploded space and time. And if your sense of time is completely transformed, why not everything else? The only possible comparison to this in the modern era is the arrival of the internet, but even that hasn’t changed society like the Erie Canal did in upstate New York.

Well, a sucker is born or converted every minute. And from the time they were kids, the Fox sisters thought it was hilarious to take advantage of the gullible scared stupidity of others around spirits. They started claiming that their house was haunted and they discovered they could make sounds to get people to believe it. They fooled their parents, their neighbors, all sorts of people. What a great practice trial for the little grifters. It was not at all surprising that they people who became believers in the seances the Fox sisters began putting on in the late 1840s were also people already involved in all the other reform movements of the time. It’s worth noting here the southern critique of the North was very much about slavery, but it was also about all the other weirdo social movements of the North and there were a lot of weirdo social movements in the North, including things like this, oddball religious cults practicing free love and such, and plenty to make fun of. So of course it was a bunch of social radicals who initially promoted the Fox sisters and set up seances in New York in 1850 attended by almost entire elite of the period, including William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, and many others. In fact, Greeley became something of a mentor to them.

Now, in order to understand why anyone would believe this garbage, we have to understand not only the Second Great Awakening but the Victorian obsession with death. This was of course the era where people such as Edgar Allan Poe became major American authors and where book after book focused on the “good death,” surrounded by friends and family and a pastor as you passed on to the next world. But of course many people did not die this way. They died horrible deaths from industrial accidents, random disease, violence, so many other things. This would all get turbocharged with the Civil War, when so many people died alone, shot to death or eaten up with disease far from home. The sadness this caused led people to be desperate to communicate with their dead. Of course this just asked for grifters such as the Fox sisters.

From the very beginning of all this, people who didn’t want to be fooled were like, this is obviously bullshit. It’s not as if people didn’t call this out publicly from the very beginning. They did, and that included in prominent newspapers. But a lot of people just didn’t want to hear it. They wanted to believe, so they did. And these were among the most well-educated cultural elites in America. The Boston Courier put up a $500 prize to any spiritualist who could prove their claims in front a committee. The sisters wanted that money so they tried, but the committee just said they were obviously making noises with their bodies. That is of course exactly what they were doing. But again, when people want to believe things, they will. Among the other people who openly called all this out as fraud was Harry Houdini, a man who most certainly knew what people could and could not do with their bodies.

But after the Civil War, their fame just grew and grew because people wanted to communicate with those dead relatives and your brother who was killed at Shiloh was totally listening to these raps under a table and communicating back with more raps. I mean, c’mon. And yet. Their spiritualist ideas led to all sorts of copycats. Whether these copycats thought they were really communicating with the dead or whether they were also just grifters, I suppose I can’t say. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

It was in 1888 that the fraud finally came out. A reporter offered the sisters $1,500 if they would reveal their methods to him. They decided to cash in on it. I don’t really know enough about the timing, but I assume by 1888 this was starting to wane anyway and it was more or less a good time to cut bait on the scam. I mean, they had only been doing for 40 damn years by this point and they weren’t getting any younger. Margaretta started talking to the New York World about the ways she had been able to manipulate her body. She claimed that she could make knocking noises by manipulating her lower leg muscles, which if true had to have really hurt, no? She did public events too showing the world how to do it. Some of this as well had to do with her moving toward Catholicism, which she had been converted to in an earlier marriage in the 1850s but the guy died. She was moving back in that direction and began to think that maybe her actions were Satanic.

This confession led to huge anger in the spiritualist community. Also, Margaretta especially needed money. The sisters had made plenty but they liked to spend too. So in 1889, she recanted the confession but now no one believed her. Her days of grifting the hoopleheads were done. Both sisters were serious alcoholics as well, which I find kind of interesting given how closely spiritualism and temperance overlapped. Kate especially had such a bad problem that other spiritualists had to intervene because they worried about her children.

In 1892, Kate died at the age of 65. A year later, Margaretta was found drunk and almost homeless. Another leading spiritualist took her in, but she died in 1893, at the age of 69.

Ridiculously, the parapsychology world today, made up of complete morons and fools, still hold the Fox sisters dear and just ignore all the confessions of the truth. Because of course they do.

Margaretta and Kate Fox are buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit visit other American religious grifters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Billy Graham is in Charlotte (this may be the only historical site in Charlotte, certainly it is the only one advertised around the city and in the airport) and Shaker founder Ann Lee is in Colonie, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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