It all started in Hydesville, a small town in upstate New York. Four members of the Fox family lived on a humble farm near the town : the married couple John and Margaret and their two youngest daughters, Maggie, 9 years old, and Katie, 7. The couple also had a son, David, who was married and whose farm was about three kilometers away, and another daughter, Leah, already in her thirties and a resident of the nearby city of Rochester, where she lived with her daughter Lizzie, the same age as Maggie.
The Foxes’ home was a simple two-story frame house : the family lived in the downstairs room, while the upper floor was the bedroom, furnished with two beds . It was there that, since the beginning of December 1847, strange noises had been heard. Since then it was part of her daily life to listen to a concert of sounds every time the little ones got into bed. But on March 31 everything changed . That afternoon Katie yelled in the bedroom, “Hey you, Splitfoot, do what I do.” Clapping her hands, the girl said: “Let’s see, count: one, two, three”. The strange knocks sounded once, twice, three times. The mother, between astonished and frightened, questioned the mysterious noises: “Are you perhaps a spirit? If so, hit three times.” Three loud and clear knocks were heard at once. Modern spiritualism had just been born.
Needless to say, the girls were the real ghost. It had all started long ago , when Katie and Maggie wanted to scare their niece -and game friend- Lizzie. According to The New York Herald journalist Reuben B. Davenport, who interviewed the Fox sisters decades later , “the invention was due to Katie, the youngest … When the little girls discovered that they could make those noises while in bed and having their hands in full view of everyone, they were filled with joy…, especially when they noticed that, by placing their feet on the back of the wooden bed, the noises were louder, the boards serving as sounding boards” .
Dozens of people flocked to the house to admire the wonder , to see for themselves how mere mortals could chat with the spirits. The house was converted into a theater . One day the older brother, David, suggested a method to speed up conversations with the spirit. As it seemed that English was perfectly understood in the beyond, he devised a primitive oui-ja: the letters of the alphabet were named aloud and when the appropriate one was reached, the spirit gave a blow. In this way the gruesome story of the poor ghost could be known . According to the information that has reached us, the unfortunate peddler, named Charles Bryan Rosma, had allegedly been murdered by a local neighbor and buried in the basement of the house . The story, or even the existence, of the alleged peddler was never confirmed.
In May 1848 the older sister, Leah , knowing what was happening, went to Hydesville. Shortly after arriving, he took Katie and Maggie aside and forced them to tell him how they produced the mysterious knocks. The trick discovered, Leah took them to Rochester and became their manager. Bored with his ghostly life on a farm, the pedlar emigrated with them. A short time later, Charles made a discreet exit from the forum and new spirits with more packaging than a sad pedlar took over the reins of the show.
Following the method of naming the letters of the alphabet devised by David, the new spirits gave their most important communication: “You must announce these truths to the world. The dawn of a new era has begun. You must not hide it any longer.” They had it well thought out, because they provided the Fox with the plan of operations to follow: they had to rent the Corinthian Hall – the largest assembly hall in Rochester – for three days offering one session a day . The mediums would go up on stage in the company of some friends, who would read a text narrating the events that had occurred in recent months . So that nothing would fail, the spirits promised that they would be heard throughout the room . On November 14, 1849, before a packed room (400 people, each of whom had paid the then not insignificant sum of 25 cents) the Fox sisters began their spectral show. At the end of the three days, the Fox sisters were declared genuine. But most ironic of all , a Rochester doctor named Potts amused the audience by crunching his toes, implying that this was how spirits made noises: he never knew how close they had come to solving the riddle. .
The sessions at the Corinthian Hall were the catapult to the success of Fox by drawing the attention of Horace Greeley, director of the New York Tribune , who had just lost his son due to those hazards of life. Eager to speak with him again, he invited them to New York , and in the spring of 1850 they packed their bags. Comfortably installed in the Hotel Barnum, the consultation hours for the beyond were 9 and 11 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. The sisters sat together on a sofa in front of a table, with 12 to a maximum of 50 visitors around them. The season that the Foxes spent in New York made them all public figures. Their sessions -charged at a dollar per head- brought them fame and considerable economic benefits, diligently managed by Leah.
But not everyone was convinced. In 1850 the Reverend John M. Austin wrote in the New York Tribune that the sounds were made by girls crunching their toe joints . That same year, the Rev. Charles Chauncey Burr and his brother published the book Knocks for the knockings , in which they claimed to have investigated the Fox sisters and other mediums in five states. Their conclusion: The whole phenomenon was nothing more than fraud and deception, and they proposed seventeen different methods of producing the noises, their favorite being the cracking of finger joints . In 1851 her brother’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Culver, revealed that Katie had confessed the trick to her: “The blows are produced with the joints of the toes. I used all of them. After practicing for a week with Catherine, I was able to do it perfectly.”
We had to wait until September 1888 when the New York Herald published in big headlines: “GOD HAS NOT ORDERED IT. A well-known medium says that the spirits never return. “Everything is a trick?” the journalist asked. “Completely,” Margaret answered. “Spirits,” he said, “can we easily deceive you?” Three loud knocks were heard on the bedroom door. When reporters went to Leah’s house to get the other side of the story, her maid told them that she had left town and didn’t know when she would be back.
On October 21, 1888, the second bomb fell. At the New York Academy of Music Margaret and Kate showed, before a packed room and the entire United States press, how they managed to perform the famous blows of the spirits.