The Washington Post
Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualismby Barbara Weisberg
A former television producer, Weisberg has written about the Fox sisters for American Heritage magazine. Here she offers a full length account of the teen-age sisters whose experience in upstate New York during 1848 launched the spiritualist movement. She describes the earth and the world of spirits 1789-1849, the progress of modern spiritualism through 1852, the darling little spirit to 1857, worldly trials to 1888, and the movement from then to the present. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Talking to the Dead
Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
"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 ...Talking to the Dead
Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. Copyright © by Barbara Weisberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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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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