Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism by Barbara Weisberg, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead

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by Barbara Weisberg

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A fascinating story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts in the second half of nineteenth century America viewed through the lives of Kate and Maggie Fox, the sisters whose purported communication with the dead gave rise to the Spiritualism movement – and whose recanting forty years later is still shrouded in mystery.

In March of 1848, Kate


A fascinating story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts in the second half of nineteenth century America viewed through the lives of Kate and Maggie Fox, the sisters whose purported communication with the dead gave rise to the Spiritualism movement – and whose recanting forty years later is still shrouded in mystery.

In March of 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox – sisters aged 11 and 14 – anxiously reported to a neighbor that they had been hearing strange, unidentified sounds in their house. From a sequence of knocks and rattles translated by the young girls as a "voice from beyond," the Modern Spiritualism movement was born.

Talking to the Dead follows the fascinating story of the two girls who were catapulted into an odd limelight after communicating with spirits that March night. Within a few years, tens of thousands of Americans were flocking to seances. An international movement followed. Yet thirty years after those first knocks, the sisters shocked the country by denying they had ever contacted spirits. Shortly after, the sisters once again changed their story and reaffirmed their belief in the spirit world. Weisberg traces not only the lives of the Fox sisters and their family (including their mysterious Svengali–like sister Leah) but also the social, religious, economic and political climates that provided the breeding ground for the movement. While this is a thorough, compelling overview of a potent time in US history, it is also an incredible ghost story.

An entertaining read – a story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts – Talking to the Dead is full of emotion and surprise. Yet it will also provoke questions that were being asked in the 19th century, and are still being asked today – how do we know what we know, and how secure are we in our knowledge?

Editorial Reviews

Lloyd Rose
In Talking to the Dead, Barbara Weisberg illustrates that this seemingly simple account of fakery and gullibility is in fact mesmerizingly complex. The Fox sisters' story itself has been written about several times; Weisberg's innovation is to examine it as social history, an approach that enriches the familiar story and raises it above the level of simple hoax.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
When the Fox family moved to Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848, they were confronted with strange and unexplainable noises coming from their bedroom. After an evening of listening to these raps and knocks on the walls, the Foxes' youngest children, Maggie and Kate, discovered that they had a gift for communicating with the spirits that made the sounds-when one of the girls knocked on the wall, the spirits would knock back. In her engaging study, Weisberg, a former documentary filmmaker, sets the case of the Fox sisters into the context of a 19th-century America that was developing a fascination with the world of spirits and the paranormal. The two Fox sisters began making public appearances in which they would talk to ghosts; along with their older sister, Leah, they eventually developed a traveling psychic show that took them across America and to Europe, leading tens of thousands of Americans to attend s ances. While many clerics accused them of working for the devil, they cultivated a huge following, who, Weisberg says, needed to allay the anxieties of the modern age. In 1888, however, Maggie announced that the sisters had been engaged in deceptive practices. Her announcement shook the world of spiritualists. Although Maggie recanted one year later, the question had been raised: do spiritualists really speak to the dead? Weisberg refuses to judge the Fox sisters, saying only that it's plausible that they were deceptive, in this lively tale of a little-known slice of American history. Agent, Mel Berger. (On sale Apr. 13) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1848 two adolescent sisters in New York State convinced friends and neighbors that the spirit of a murdered peddler was communicating with them through a series of audible raps or knocks. That they were able to do so reveals as much about the American psyche at mid-19th century as it does about the remarkable sisters, Catherine and Margaret Fox. The "Rochester rappings" precipitated a national furor over Spiritualism, a religious and cultural phenomenon whose followers believed spirit communication was based in scientific principles similar to those underlying magnetism and electricity. Author and documentary filmmaker Weisberg captures the essence of that era in this gracefully written scholarly biography tracing the Fox sisters' private lives and public careers as mediums. One of the few books devoted to the sisters, it complements more definitive studies of Spiritualism, such as Ann Braude's 1989 Radical Spirits and R. Laurence Moore's 1977 In Search of White Crows. Appropriate for general readers and undergraduate students interested in 19th-century religion, culture, or women's history.-Linda V. Carlisle, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wide-ranging account that persuasively demonstrates that the Fox sisters' role in the founding of modern spiritualism was more a reflection of mid-19th-century culture than an occult phenomenon. Setting the story firmly in the context of their times, former TV producer Weisberg gives an informative history of a turbulent and fast-changing era. She begins in 1848, when the Maggie and Kate Fox, 14 and 11, respectively, still living with their parents in Hytheville, New York, claimed that they were able to speak to the dead. These claims resonated with thousands of people, and spiritualism became increasingly popular. Arguing that the Fox sisters' influence was a product of a society in transition, the author offers numerous examples of such ongoing changes: the effects of the invention of the telegraph, evolving attitudes toward women, an expanding frontier, scientific discoveries that were calling into question aspects of conventional faith, and a growing belief in an afterlife without eternal damnation. More somberly, the mortality rate, especially for children, was still very high, and spiritualism appealed to grieving parents. Weisberg also relates how the sisters, soon famous, befriended reformers and abolitionists and began holding meeting in New York City, where they were taken up by luminaries like Horace Greeley. But by their 30s, they began to find the work onerous and, in the case of Maggie, shameful. Courted briefly by the noted Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, who disapproved of her work, Maggie admitted publicly in1888 that communication with the dead was impossible, though she later recanted. By then the movement was in decline, as better health care extended life and newtechnology changed thinking. The sisters both became alcoholics and died in poverty. Weisberg admits to being ambivalent about them, but suggests that they offered comfort in uncertain times. Well-grounded social history.

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Talking to the Dead

Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
By Weisberg, Barbara


ISBN: 0060566671

Chapter One

"A Large, Intelligent and Candid Community"

Two weeks before Christmas 1847 a blacksmith named John David Fox, accompanied by his wife, Margaret, and their two youngest daughters, Kate and Maggie,moved to the rural community of Hydesville, New York. One of the worst winters in recent memory was pummeling the region, a windy, fertile plain in the northwest corner of the state.

"The almost unparalleled bad weather which we have experienced since 'cold December' set in," complained the Western Argus, a local newspaper, "nearly diverted our attention from the fact that Christmas is almost at hand." The writer regretted that residents were staying home by the fire instead of venturing out, by wagon or sleigh, to make the customary holiday calls.

The weather not only dampened good cheer, it also stalled construction on the new home that John and Margaret were building two miles from Hydesville, next to their son David's farm. Since work wouldn't resume until spring, the couple had rented a modest, one-and-a-half-story frame house to wait out the winter.

Today Hydesville has vanished from all but the most detailed local maps, but it was -- and is -- part of the township of Arcadia, located in New York's Wayne County. Farmhouses, barns, and steeple-capped villages dot the surrounding countryside; here and there flat-topped hills, called drumlins, rise up like ancient burial grounds. The county's northern boundary is Lake Ontario, which separates western New York from Canada. In August, fields of peppermint, a major crop, blossom with pink flowers that release a faint, delicious scent, but winters like the one of 1847 bring month after month of slate skies and snow.

Slight but sturdy, a country girl, Maggie was an ebullient fourteen-year- old with glossy dark hair, a broad-boned face, and frank brown eyes. Black-haired Kate was slim and soulful, at ten years old still very much a child, with compelling eyes that struck some people as deep purple and others as black or gray. The girls were the youngest of six children, the only two still living at home with their parents, and they were often thrown back on each other for company.Their four siblings, Leah, Elizabeth, Maria, and David, were already adults with families of their own.

The girls' father, John, was a wiry man who peered out at the world through brooding eyes, his spectacles balanced on his hawk nose. Sometimes considered disagreeable by people other than his children, he was intense and inward, an impassioned Methodist who knelt each morning and night in prayer.

His wife, the former Margaret Smith,was in most respects his opposite. A kindly matron with an ample bosom and a double chin, she was as chatty and sociable as her husband was withdrawn. In the uncharitable opinion of one Hydesville neighbor, sweet-faced Margaret was superior to John "in weight and good looks" and in personality "the best horse in the team by odds."

Already in their fifties, the weary survivors of economic reversals and marital crises, John and Margaret undoubtedly hoped that when their new home was finished it would be their last: a permanent, comfortable place to complete the tasks of child-rearing. They even may have looked forward to help from their grown children who lived nearby.

Raising two young daughters was a responsibility that must have weighed increasingly on them as they aged. What would happen if they fell ill? Or if they died? How would Kate and Maggie manage, and who would care for them?

The couple had accumulated little in the way of land or money, and girls who grew up without either eventually needed to find a devoted husband or a decent livelihood.Teaching was one alternative for a young woman, the drudgery of factory labor another. It was possible to slip down the ladder of opportunity as well as to climb up it.

A close-knit family, however, could provide refuge in times of trouble, and despite a history of geographical dislocations and separations, John and Margaret's six children had remained remarkably attached to one another. With the exception of Elizabeth, who lived in Canada with her husband, they had settled down within an easy radius of one another, having forged what Maggie called "tender ties" to western New York.

Twenty-seven-year-old David Smith Fox, a farmer, lived in Arcadia with his wife and three children in the house that had once belonged to his maternal uncle, John J. Smith. Surrounded by the peppermint fields, filled with good conversation and well-thumbed books, the farm was a place where friends and family liked to gather. Maria, who lived only a few miles from her brother, had done her part to solidify family bonds by marrying one of her cousins, Stephen Smith.

Leah, the oldest of the six Fox siblings, had settled farther away, thirty miles west of Arcadia in the thriving young city of Rochester, New York, but she too retained close ties to her family. Her adolescent daughter, Lizzie, spent almost as much time in Hydesville with her young aunts, Kate and Maggie, as she did with her mother in Rochester.

Officially a hamlet within Arcadia's borders, Hydesville was an ordinary little cluster of farms and establishments that served the farmer: a sawmill, gristmill, and general store, along with a few artisans' workshops such as the cobbler's. The hamlet had been named for Henry Hyde, a doctor who arrived in Arcadia by wagon in 1810, in the days before physicians needed either a license or formal training.

Death was a constant fact of life. The reaper struck with fire and drowning; typhus, malaria, yellow fever, and a host of other diseases; accidents that ranged from the swift shock of a horse's kick to a slowspreading infection from a cut finger; and suicide and murder. More than one-fifth of the children born died before their first birthday; at birth the average life expectancy for an adult was little more than forty ...


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Meet the Author

Barbara Weisberg has also written about the Fox sisters for American Heritage magazine. Formerly a freelance producer whose work has appeared on cable, network, and public television, she lives with her stepchildren and husband, writer and producer David Black, in New York City.

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