Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity

Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity

Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity

Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity


Exploring Other Worlds tells the intertwined stories of the Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane and the spiritualist medium Margaret Fox and examines their unlikely relationship. Kane, from a prominent Philadelphia family, became one of the most renowned and honored explorers of the antebellum era. Fox grew up in rural upstate New York and, as one of the Fox Sisters, became a famed and somewhat notorious "spirit rapper" whose strange "knocks" were said to be communications from the dead. The two were rumored to have had a love affair, and they may even have been secretly married. In their separate professional lives, Kane and Fox each revealed something new and strange (though not necessarily true) to their audiences--the unknown worlds of the globe and the spirit. They brought experiences to their listeners that were exotic and delightful. The burgeoning commercial mass culture of antebellum America provided a natural venue for tales of huge icebergs, fierce polar bears, and messages from the dead.Their public careers bridged the gaps between the scientific investigations of an earlier Enlightenment age and a newer form of sensational inquiry growing up in a democratic marketplace. While Kane and Fox began by generating curiosity about geography and the nature of the human soul, in time their personal relationship became the basis for what newspaperman Horace Greeley would call an "impertinent curiosity." Newspapers printed letters about their supposed romance, and eventually a book purporting to be the famous explorer's love-letters to the notorious spiritualist was published. Curiosity about the Arctic and curiosity about the fate of the soul after death were transformed into curiosityabout the private affairs of a new kind of media-driven public celebrity.


Remember then as a sort of dream, that Doctor Kane of the Arctic Seas loved Maggie Fox of the Spirit Rappings.

Elisha Kane to Margaret Fox, in The Love-Life of Dr. Kane

By the winter of 1853, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane was a young man with wonderful prospects. At the age of thirty-three, this short, almost frail navy surgeon was already making a name for himself as an explorer. the eldest son of a prominent federal judge, who mingled in the nation's highest social circles, Kane had traveled much of the world. in his twenties he had visited parts of South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. He'd hunted elephants in India and climbed live volcanoes in the Philippines. Most recently, in 1850, he had been a member of the U. S. Grinnell Expedition, which had sailed north to the frozen regions of the Arctic in search of the lost British navigator Sir John Franklin. Kane's scientific researches while a member of the Grinnell Expedition had brought him membership in the prestigious American Philosophical Society. His world travels had also gained him a certain celebrity status with a wider American audience. Kane's popular lectures on the Arctic in eastern cities from Baltimore to Boston were attracting crowds who were thrilled by the young surgeon's dramatic descriptions of the frozen North.

Unknown at the time to his many admirers, Elisha Kane was secretly involved with another celebrated American, Margaret Fox, a “spirit rapper” whose mysterious life was shrouded in controversy. in 1848, according to believers, she and her sister Kate had begun to communicate with the dead by means of mysterious knocking sounds. Two years later these pale, dark-haired, dark-eyed teenage girls were holding séances in New York City. Hundreds of people came to see the Fox sisters and participate in their séances in the hope that they might contact dead loved ones and thus explore the unknown regions of the afterlife. Some excited witnesses thought that the activities of the Fox sisters heralded the beginning of a new age of spiritual enlightenment, while observers of a more philosoph-

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