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?
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About 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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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.
What People are Saying About This
“Weisberg writes with clarity and intelligence...This book tells us a lot about our own relationship with death and dying.”
“…vividly brings alive one of America’s most fascinating historical eras. This book is a fine read and an excellent reference.”
“A fascinating exploration of the mysteries of mortality and faith..... A most readable and instructive story.”
“Whether you are a sucker for the supernatural or a rabid non-believer, this book is compelling....”
“Engrossing and poignant…a fascinating read, both for scholars and the general reading public.”
“Fascinating…an excellent history of spiritualism in America.”
“The reach of this story is extraordinary. A fabulous read.”
“Weisberg has given us a story of enduring human emotions.”
“Talking to the Dead takes you on a thrilling ride....you are sure to be mesmerized.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Barbara Weisberg has the unique talent of completely researching a true story, 150 years old that few people have even heard of. She literally brings little Maggie and Kate Fox back to life. Her portrayal of big sister Leah, the liberal,domineering big sister, who is so complex adds credence. I havn't read a really good book like this in years. It was better than TV! (my set was off for a week). This is definately a fascinating story not only of the Fox sisters themselves but of the rise of the entire spiritual movement. A guaranteed 'Good Read', it left me thirsting for more. Read Talking to the Dead before Lily Dale.
It's certainly probably just me, because so many people gave this book top ratings, but while the subject matter was quite interesting, I thought the presentation of it to be just kind of dull. The book runs along the lines of an introduction to Spiritualism (a phrase coined by Horace Greeley (147-148)) in the United States, starting with the Fox sisters, Kate and Maggie, in the late 1840s. It is the author's thought that starting with these two and their experiences with spirit rapping from the time of their childhood, American Spiritualism became a phenomenon. The question is why? I've long been interested in the topic of the Fox Sisters, in fraudulent mediumship and in the growth of the spiritualist movement in general, and although this book is helpful, in hindsight, I probably wouldn't have started with this one (although I certainly would have eventually not missed it) in gaining some knowledge about the subject.The info between the covers is interesting, and I think I might have enjoyed it more with a better presentation of the story.
Reviewed August 2007 What a wonderful book, maybe I should have read this one before the Houdini one so they could be in sequence. Houdini and Doyle were mentioned in the last chapter but the main story of these interesting women is very well researched. The author did her best to balance her narrative. These sisters did what they had to do to survive in a man's world. Even though I don't condone their actions you have to admire them and feel sadness at their awful lives. The author mentions Lilly Dale several times which is really cool as I've been there. Wish I had read this book first though. I also wish the author could have included more pictures of the people mentioned. She did a good job setting the story in events of antebellum America, war and post civil war. i had no idea that mediums were on par with prostitutes. I also learned that "music could be used by the devil to incite carnal excitement as well as by that interest in Spiritualism was waining in America, her reason for this includes, raising life expectancy, women were given more opportunities for work and school, Spiritualists were not likely to organize, the excitement at the beginning lessened as technology increased and religion took on some aspects of spiritualism." (p. 261) 19-2007
This was a very interesting topic, but rather dry reading in parts. I used it as research for the novel I was writing (about the Fox Sisters) although I rather preferred The Reluctant Spriritualist and Exploring Other Worlds. Still, this was the first book I read on the topic, and it inspired me to write my novel in the first place.
I am about half-way through but I give up. Too boring and it goes on and on over the same type of material, endlessly.
More like a muddled chronology of events than a portrait of the Fox sisters. Not recommended.