D. D. Home-Sweet-Home
Thousands of books about spiritualism have been written by believers, skeptics, and fence-sitters, but none demonstrates as convincingly as The Spiritualists ( Knopf, 1983; paper ed., Prometheus, 1985) the unbelievable ease with which persons of the highest intelligence can be flimflammed by the crudest of psychic frauds. Drawing on rare volumes and obscure articles, Ruth Brandon has skillfully interlaced the highlights of a history so sordid and fantastic that one finishes her book with an overwhelming sense of the futility of all efforts to expose fraud. "It is like punching a feather pillow," she writes, "an indentation is made, but soon refills, and the whole soft, spongy mass continues as before."
The book opens, as all such histories must, with the sad saga of the three Fox sisters. Leah, the oldest, was the "tigress" who dominated the others, ran the show, and died wealthy. Kate and Maggie ended their lives as miserable alcoholics whose bodies now molder in paupers' graves in Brooklyn. Before they died, both Kate and Maggie declared themselves charlatans. To a packed house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Maggie demonstrated how easily she produced spirit raps by cracking an abnormal joint of her toe. Later, she wrote an incoherent recantation.
Maggie's lover was a wealthy Arctic explorer and physician, Dr. Elisha Kane. After his death, Maggie published a book of his love letters and described their "secret marriage." Kane, who knew the sisters were cheats, constantly urged Maggie to abandon her detestable trade. Brandon reprints part of a prophetic letter from Kane to Kate, expressing his disgust:
Now, Katy, although you and Maggie never go so far as this, yet circumstances must occur where you have to lacerate the feelings of other people. . . . You do things now which you would never have dreamed of doing years ago; and there will come a time when you will be worse than Mrs. Fish [Leah], a hardened woman, gathering around you victims of a delusion.
Alas, as Brandon makes clear, deceiving the gullible was the only way poor Kate and Maggie knew how to make a living.