Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity/The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox/Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

By Sawin, Mark Metzler | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity/The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox/Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism


Sawin, Mark Metzler, Journal of the Early Republic


Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity. By David Chapin. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 257. Cloth, $80.00; paper, $24.95.)

The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. By Nancy Rubin Stuart. (New York: Harcourt Books, 2005. Pp. xiii, 393. Cloth $25.00; paper, $14.00.)

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. By Barbara Weisberg. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. Pp. viii, 324. Cloth $14.95; paper $24.95.)

On April Fool's Day 1848, fourteen-year-old Maggie and eleven-yearold Kate Fox were surprised to find that the strange "rapping" noises that had so vexed their parents over the past weeks were causing a huge stir in their small farming community. As interest in the rappings spread, Maggie and Kate joined their sister Leah (twenty years their senior) in nearby Rochester and the "spirit raps" that followed soon attracted the allegiance of the city's reformers and radicals. With Leah as their guide, over the next five years the Fox sisters became famous. They hobnobbed with many of the nation's most prestigious citizens as their séances sparked both controversy and a new religious movement, Spiritualism, all within the context of a nation bursting with issues of industrialization, immigration, urbanization, scientific discovery, and religious fervor. In the mid-185Os, Maggie abandoned Spiritualism and became secretly engaged to the politically and socially powerful Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, only to wind up abandoned after his untimely death. By the 186Os both she and Kate struggled with personal problems and growing feelings of resentment toward Leah, who had married a wealthy man and achieved a secure social status that eluded them. By 1888, after Leah published a self-aggrandizing account of their history and Kate was stripped of her funds after being widowed, the two younger Fox sisters, alcoholic and largely destitute, lashed out at Spiritualism by publicly revealing that the "spirit raps" were nothing but the sound of their toe joints popping. But less than a year later, with little explanation, they reasserted their devotion to Spiritualism and retracted their earlier confession. Both died a few years later, essentially forgotten.

The story of the Fox sisters has it all: ghost story, romance, mystery, and tragedy. It is thus not surprising that they have been the subjects of multiple biographies, all of which rely almost entirely on the sisters' own contradictory histories.1 Mariam Pond (wife of a grand-nephew of the sisters) wrote a sympathetic, first-hand history based on her in-laws' recollections of nearly century-old events, backing them with little evidence and no concrete sources. Earl Wesley Fornell attempted a more academic biography, but outside of a bit of historical contextualization (much of it erroneous), added little to the story. Herbert G.Jackson did a better job, tapping the vast contemporary newspaper sources that chronicled the sisters' public lives, but with little new analysis. One other biography, George Corner's Doctor Kane of the Arctic Seas (1972) further outlined Maggie's relationship to Elisha Kane and his family, but none of these books penetrated much deeper than the confusing and contradictory story that the sisters put before the public in their own books. None even dug deep enough to solidify birth dates.

Cultural and social historians have also been tantalized by the Fox sisters because the spiritualist movement they helped launch is wonderful fodder for explaining many antebellum trends. R. Laurence Moore's demonstration of the interplay between nineteenth-century religious and scientific rhetoric (In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture [1977]) and Ann Braude's linking of Spiritualism and the early women's movement (Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America [1989]) have both heavily impacted thinking about the era. …

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