The unhappy mediums

By Jim Warwood.

March 31, 2011 was the 163rd anniversary of the beginnings of modern Spiritualism.  On this date in 1848, in a small cottage in Hydesville, New York State, the Fox family discovered that the rapping noises heard in their home were made by a dead pedlar. At first frightened by the rappings, Mr and Mrs Fox, their daughters, Margaretta (Maggie), and Catharine (Kate), and their neighbours, were soon convinced of the reality of the phenomena that made clear life continued after physical death, and that those in the spirit realms could communicate from beyond the grave.

The Fox Sisters

News of this astonishing revelation spread quickly, and the Fox sisters became widely known for their ability to make contact with the spirit world. Many others soon discovered that they, too, could talk to the spirits, and by 1850 the movement we now know as Spiritualism had come into being.

While researching this historic event I came across an article entitled The Fox Sisters: Some Unsolved Problems, published on June 24, 1943 in Light, the then weekly journal of Spiritualism. The article raised a number of issues. First, that there appeared to be no properly researched history of the Fox family. Attempts to establish where the Fox family had come from, or where the girls were born, had apparently failed. This seemed a great failure, given their importance in initiating spirit communication.

Second, there was uncertainty about the ages of the girls at the time of the events at Hydesville. Maggie may have been 15, 14, 13 or 12, and Kate 12, 11 or 9. The third issue of concern was whether there was any validity to Maggie and Kate’s confessions that what had occurred at Hydesville, and afterwards, had “been humbuggery from first to last” and “an absolute falsehood”. It was noted that these admissions led to the publication in 1888 of A Death Blow to Spiritualism by Reuben Briggs Davenport. While arguing that Spiritualism did not stand or fall on the work of the Fox sisters, the writer thought that a true record would be of benefit.

When examining the importance of the Fox Sisters to the Spiritualist movement, there is little doubt that it was their work in the first three years that helped fuel the interest of many, as the reports of events in Rochester and then New York spread through the country. The interest taken in the girls by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, meant that many people attended séances, including some in a position of influence, who left impressed by the information they had received. After the Fox sisters left New York, the New York Tribune of September 30, 1850 carried a report praising their “integrity and good faith”.

Although the Fox sisters were friendly with many who became the founders of the Spiritualist movement, Maggie and Kate largely remained distanced from the actual events that helped promote its development. Indeed, the personal circumstances of each of the sisters were to see them take very different pathways in life and would ultimately result in the breakdown of their relationship with the family, especially with their eldest sister Ann Leah, and with Spiritualism.

The famous Hydesville Cottage of the Fox Sisters

In 1849, Kate Fox spent time in the home of Eliab Wilkinson Capron in Auburn and did not take part in the first public demonstration of mediumship (with its subsequent investigation) at Rochester in November of that year. In 1851, Greeley persuaded the Foxes to let Kate go to school and gain a proper education. She spent some months at his residence, until the living conditions with Mrs Greeley became intolerable. On returning home Kate resumed holding séances and giving readings. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the way her life later developed, Kate was often described as a person who seldom embraced life joyously. As far as possible she worked away from her sister Ann Leah Fox.

Towards the end of 1852, Maggie Fox met Elisha Kane, an arctic explorer. He became enamoured with her, but not with Spiritualism – which he felt was an improper way of life. Throughout 1853 he worked to convince her that if she were to marry him she would need to give up the spirits and take up schooling. Finally, in the latter half of 1853, she stopped working as a medium and, moving away from her family, commenced a period of private schooling, arranged by Kane.

Maggie claimed that she and Elisha Kane were married in secret in October 1856. Despite moving back with her family while he was away on his travels, she honoured his wishes and did not return to spirit work. Sadly, 37-year-old Kane died in Havana on Feb 16, 1857. After his passing, Kane’s family refused to provide for Maggie, denying her alleged marriage to their son. Despite financial hardship, Maggie did not return to spirit work, but spent years fighting Kane’s family over money she believed he had intended her to receive. During this period, with its distress, bouts of anger and depression, Maggie began to suffer the effects of alcoholism, a problem that continued for the rest of her life. Kate, too, would soon suffer from the condition.

In November 1858, Ann Leah married the wealthy Spiritualist Daniel Underhill, entering a very different, more affluent lifestyle with many influential friends. This allowed her to remain more intimately involved with Spiritualism. Emma Hardinge Britten’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1900, highlights Ann Leah’s friendship with Robert Dale Owen and Emma. Indeed, this book states that it was at a séance with Ann Leah and Robert Dale Owen, around 1862, that Robert Owen came through to Emma, impressing her with the Ten Spiritual Laws and Ten Spiritual Commandments which were then included in the first Lyceum Manual.

In December 1864, friends of Maggie and Kate discovered the state of their dependence upon alcohol and it was arranged that the sisters go into the treatment centre of a George Taylor, the costs to be borne by Ann Leah and Daniel Underhill. However, the death of their father John Fox on Jan 5, 1865 delayed matters. Subsequently Kate agreed to go ahead with treatment, but Maggie refused.

On August 3, 1865 Mrs Fox passed away, leaving Maggie and Kate to grieve once again. Maggie, disillusioned with her continued mistreatment at the hands of Kane’s family, released The Love Life of Doctor Kane, a book based on his letters to her. If Maggie had hoped the book would end her financial worries she was sadly disappointed and was finally driven back to working as a medium. Throughout this period her relationship with Ann Leah continued to deteriorate. They were seldom on speaking terms, and the rift between them would ultimately prove permanent.

Despite receiving treatment, Kate was too easily drawn back to alcohol by her sister, so a subterfuge was worked out whereby she was invited to London. The trip proved successful and her mediumship moved to a new level, proving successful under strict test conditions, particularly for Sir William Crookes. On a personal level she also benefited, marrying the barrister Henry Jencken on December 14, 1872. Theirs was a very happy partnership which saw the birth of two children.

Sadly, on November 26,, 1881 Jencken died, leaving his affairs in a state that made it difficult for Kate. She finally managed to return to New York in 1885. Her arrival coincided with the release of Ann Leah’s book, The Missing Link in Spiritualism, which added to the disharmony between the sisters. Sadly, Kate’s return also saw a progressive relapse into alcoholism for both Maggie and Kate.

It is these disparate events that have led to a fractured account of the real history of the Fox family. Many accounts have softened the truth, others have changed it in various ways. Given the sad way in which the lives of Kate and Maggie played out, it is probably not surprising that their stories have been inadequately and inaccurately reported.

Particularly relevant was the way that Ann Leah Fox Underhill embellished her accounts of Spiritualism’s beginnings. We see this, both in her 1885 book and in the story she passed on to Dale Owen, recorded in Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, published in 1860. In these books, the two young girls’ ages change, and it is Kate, not Maggie, who asks “Mr Split-foot” to “do as I do”. In Mrs Fox’s initial account of events recorded just four days after the fateful night communication with the spirit world began, and published a few weeks later by E. E. Lewis in the pamphlet A Report of the Mysterious Noises, Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox, no mention is made of Mr Split-foot. Mrs Fox’s elder daughter, Maggie, is described as having said “Do as I do”, and the girls are respectively described as being in their fifteenth year, and about twelve.

How and why the “Mr Split-foot” aspect of the story came to be incorporated into later records is still unclear. That the ages of the girls stated by Mrs Fox in her deposition to Lewis in April 1848 should subsequently become so uncertain, can, however, largely be attributed to the deliberate  obscuration of the truth on the part of Maggie, Kate and Ann Leah, though why they did so remains unclear.

The Lewis report is a collection of statements made by all adult members of the Fox family, and the various neighbours who had witnessed or been involved in communicating with the spirit of the pedlar in the Fox home in Hydesville. Reading through the statements gathered by Lewis, a lawyer and journalist, it is evident that the spirit world continued to communicate when Maggie and Kate were not present. This fact lends credence to the view the Fox sisters’ confessions were false, and that the origins of Spiritualism do not stand or fall by their actions at the time or subsequently. A copy of the Lewis Report can be found at Research into the ages of the Fox sisters at

As for Maggie and Kate’s confessions, we must remember that both sisters were in a sorry state at the time, short of money and drinking excessively again. It is almost certain that Maggie received money to confess. An Oct 12, 1888 Chicago Tribune article revealed Kate was furious with Ann Leah and her Spiritualist friends. She believed they had her two children taken away by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, because her drinking made her incapable of looking after them. It is no wonder, therefore, that she then turned upon her perceived enemies.

Subsequently, Maggie recanted her confession. Indeed, when she died on March 9, 1893, the records show that raps were occurring all around her bedchamber. Kate had died on July 2, 1892. Largely shunned and ignored by the Spiritualist movement, their unhappy and troubled lives had finally come to an end.

Last but not least – on November 24, 1904 The New York Times reported the finding of a headless skeleton in the foundations of the Fox cottage, thus apparently corroborating the story of the rappings. However, the identity of the pedlar, what happened to his bones, and what else, if anything, was found to substantiate his existence, is another story.

9 responses to “The unhappy mediums

  1. A revealing article Jim. I don’t know if you are aware that the Mr Splitfoot story has been written about by an SNU tutor and it is quite worrying that someone who teaches aspiring spiritualists and mediums should be writing what, based on your research are inaccurate stories.

  2. Hi Giles,
    Unfortunately the news about Mr Splitfoot has been around for a while but the official version remains unchanged. Paul Gaunt, that excellent researcher and historian, was the first to publish this some years ago.

    Like you I feel that it is unfortunate that we remain dedicated to an official position on our history even when new facts emerge which cahnge the picture. Unfortunately so much of the earliest material about Spiritualism disappeared from sight over the years. The work of people like Paul Gaunt, Leslie Price, Marc Demarest, Pat Deveney and others is helping to get a lot of this back in e-form. Add to that the many library projects making the early literature or newspapers available and we probably have better access to early material than those people in the movement’s early years.

    This further edition of Psypioneer is also worth reading about this From January 2005

    Then there is an excellent article by Garth Willey in the June 2009 Psypioneer

    The 1848 statement of Mrs Fox is confirmed in an 1851 interview she gave which can be seen in this psypioneer

    Additionally there was an exchange of letters in Psychic News, concerning Stella Upton’s children book series where Mr Splitfoot was a principle character.

    In a reply to Garth Willey’s letter of 10th January 2009 pointing out the historical error Stella Upton replied on 17th January. She said “Mr Willey states in his letter that it was not until 1860, some twelve years after the event, that it was first reported that the ‘Splitfoot’ statement by Catharine Fox was ever made. I have to contradict this, and refer Mr Willey to a signed statement made by Margaret Fox (Catharine’s mother) on 11th April 1848, only eleven days after the event. The following is an extract from her statement: ““…My youngest child said, ‘Mr Splitfoot, do as I do,’clapping her hands…”” My book is aimed at young children and is intended to be historically accurate.”

    A subsequent letter by Lis Warwood pointed out that this quote came from an incorrect account in Anne Leah Fox’s 1885 book and gave the correct version from the original E.E. Lewis report.

    Of course her husband Steven Upton is the narrator of the official SNU video about the History of Spiritualism and this repeats the Splitfoot error. Sadly even the National Spiritualist Association of Churches in the USA also subscribes to this version of history.

    It seems that we may be permanently stuck with this erroneous version of history in the same way we are with the idea that the 7 Principles were given by Robert Owen to Emma Hardinge Britten at Cleveland Hall in 1871.

    Of course there are dedicated researchers still looking to see if there is any direct clue to the actual date the devil made his appearance in Spiritualism, the correct name for the Spirit who communicated and what else was actually found in the foundations of the Cottage.


  3. The perils of relying upon a secodary reference. I now have a copy of the New York Tribune Article Mentioned above for September 30th about their perfect Integrity.

    It was actually in teh Tribune for August 10th 1950 and teh actual section was
    “It would be the basest cowardice not to say that we
    are convinced beyond a doubt of their perfect integrity
    and good faith in the premises. Whatever may
    be the origin or the cause of the ‘Rappings,’ the
    ladies in whose presence they occur do not make
    them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire

  4. Geoff Griffiths

    Should that date of the New York Tribune be 1850, rather than 1950?

  5. Well spotted Geoff yes its 1850

  6. I have just read the prior article and susequent comments with great interest, since the Fox Sisters were my great-great aunts on my father’s side. My grandmother was Elizabeth Fox Oliver and her father was Benjamin Franklin Calvin Fox, son of David, brother to the sisters.

    There is so much to read about them, and one book I found quite helpful is “Time is Kind” – The Story of the Unfortunate Fox Family, by an in-law, Mariam Buckner-Pond and published in 1947. It was also published in England under the title” The Unwilling Martyrs”.

    I will bookmark this page, and I look forward to any communications.

    Celeste Oliver

  7. Celeste

    Thank you for joining into the comments and identifying yourself in that way. I would imagine family members are often approaced by researchers to gain access to any of the original correspondence that exists.

    Overall the lives of Margaretta and Catherine make a very sad story. They had such an important role initially but nothing could have prepared them for what was to happen after 1848.

    Living with such widespread hostility and yet with such faithful support a normal life must have been quite impossible. Then although the initial affair at Hydesville seemed to only attract a little publicity the amount that came after the demonstration at Rochestershows the wide level of public interest both good and bad. Clearly they were the first ever celebrity Mediums and received a level of publicity in the National Press that is never seen today.

    In my last run through the archives I discovered one very odd headline. It related to the estate of Leah and seemed to mark a rather sad end to your ancestor David’s ownership of the farm at Arcadia.


    End to That Action.
    A decision filed in the Wayne’ county Clerk’s office yesterday in the case of George R. Blauvelt against David S. Fox put an end to that action. The plaintiff, as the sole surviving heir of Anna Leah Underhill. deceased, who was one of the famous Fox sisters, of Hydesville, sought to gain possession of a farm in Arcadia which for more than twenty years had been occupied by his uncle. David S. Fox.
    The defendant in this action. Mr. Fox put in a voluminous defence, Claiming title by transfer from his sister, Mrs. Underhill. The trial was had before Justice Nash at Lyons a year ago. Half the evidence was in when Attorney E. D. Mitler offered in evidence a lease made in 1874 between the defendant and Mrs Underhill, by which the former acquired, possession of the farm. The defence was not prepared to meet the evidence, and the court directed a verdict for Blauvelt.
    Mr. Fox went to the appellate division where thejudgment of the trial court was affirmed. The appellate division having heard argument on appeal to the court of appeals, has now denied the defense permission to carry up the case.”

    I was unsure whether you had ever seen this stor,y or what was the the final end to the matter I do have a pdf file of that newspaper. Obviously I have gathered many more articles as well related to the career and life of the family.


  8. Hello, Jim!

    Thank you so much for your kind welcome and insightful response concerning my aunts. After reading “Time is Kind” it struck me how much the family had been torn apart – it really is a sad history; so much was sacrificed for what they felt spirit told them they were meant to do. And their poor father, after reforming and returning to the family, finds it torn apart from 1848 until the end of his life.

    I live just north of Philadelphia, can I assume you live in England? Where do you get the articles you refer to? A cousin had told me that we had second cousins who were sitting on information, but when I asked her about it a few months ago, she claimed not to remember saying that. I’ll ask her brother if he knows who it might be. I, personally, have no actual artifacts and have gleaned my knowledge from articles and books. My cousin Jimmy has an online album of photos you may be interested in. You have my email; email me yours and I’ll send it along to you.

    I didn’t know that about David’s farm; what a sad thing to have happen near the end of his life. (He passed in 1902.) I’ll ask the cousins what they may know.
    Barbara Weisburg who wrote “Talking to the Dead”, and whom I’d met, recently told me after we restablished contact, that Leslie Price was asking her if she knew any descendants, and she’d mentioned me. The very next morning, my email was forwarded to her!
    I would like to be in touch with him, also – would you be so kind as to send him my email?

    I will be reading the past blogs I see in the history and I look forward to hearing from anyone who wishes to contact me.

    And I thank you all for your respectful rememberances of my aunts.


  9. Hi Celeste,

    No I am not in England, I come from the land down under, actually Adelaide South Australia, although by birth I am English. It is interesting because through our contacts with Leslie Price and my wife Lis’s contact with Barbara Wiseberg through Leslie we actually realised we have your email and I think you have exchanged contact with Lis.

    The articles I mentioned have been hunted down by hours and hours of painstaking reasearch working through every electronic archive I can lay my hands upon. As Lis and I both contribute articles you can imagine how much research goes into it all. Being in South Australia we have to rely more heavily on becoming adept on internet searching, or else purchasing really hard to find books from the UK or US On top of that there is the need to work for money and a heavy commitment to running a Spiritualist Centre Development Groups, platform work etc etc

    The stoty of your great aunts is, of course, one which as Spiritualists we return to every year on March 31st as we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Spiritualism. They may have been ignored by Spiritualists late in their life but they will never be forgotten and it is important that the story is as accurate as possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s