A century before intelligent design’s claims to science status wilted under close scrutiny, a Penn commission debunked another popular—and fraudulent—religious movement.

On November 6, 1884, Horace Howard Furness came within millimeters of exposing one of the biggest frauds in American religious history. The near-miss occurred in the Shakespeare scholar’s own house on Philadelphia’s Washington Square, at a meeting of the University of Pennsylvania’s Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism, of which Furness was acting chairman.

Appearing before the commission that night was none other than Maggie Fox, who with her sister Katy had launched the spiritualist movement more than three decades earlier, by producing raps that allegedly spelled out messages from the dead. In the interim, a whole industry had grown out of the girls’ performances. And with it had come a new profession: the medium, who held séances in dark rooms; evoked raps (which sounded like thumps on wood) out of thin air; handed over slates covered with new writing, even though these had supposedly been out of reach throughout the séance; levitated tables; caused remote musical instruments to play of their own accord; and, above all, relayed comforting words from deceased loved ones.

Long before the battle over intelligent design, the Seybert Commission applied rigorous, dispassionate scrutiny to supernatural claims. Although the mediums it examined said they were treated fairly, none of them managed to cause a miraculous effect. Yet if Furness had been less of a proper Victorian gentleman, he and his fellow investigators might have accomplished even more. They might have brought the whole edifice of spiritualism crashing down around Maggie Fox’s supple feet.

The commission’s progenitor was Henry Seybert, born to money and the sole survivor of his parents at the age of 24. After studying mineralogy in Paris, Seybert came home to Philadelphia, where he contented himself with being a dilettante and philanthropist; city directories listed his occupation as “gentleman.” He donated the money for the bell and clock tower added to Independence Hall for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1876. And he spent freely on his favorite avocation, spiritualism, which he hoped to place on a solid empirical footing. To that end, he left the university $20,000 to investigate “all systems of Morals, Religion or Philosophy which assume to represent the Truth; and particularly of Modern Spiritualism.” A second bequest to Penn, of $60,000, funded a chair in philosophy, the Adam Seybert Professorship in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy honoring his father, which exists to this day. (For some of these details, I am indebted to Mary Ann Meyers’s article on the commission in the May 1973 issue of this magazine.)


Seybert died in 1881; the Commission on Spiritualism was up and running by 1883. Its 10 members, many of them drawn from the Penn faculty, were a mix of humanists and scientists. Besides Furness, they included William Pepper C1862 M1864, the provost and a cousin of Seybert’s; George S. Fullerton, the first Seybert Professor, who held the position from 1883 until 1904; and Coleman Sellers, an electrical engineer whose achievements included designing the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls. (All busy men, they had to squeeze in Commission work as best they could.) Among the criteria for membership was a receptive mind, and Furness, for one, went further. “I do not hesitate to acknowledge,” he wrote when the commission’s work was done, “that I have been throughout sincerely and extremely anxious to become converted to Spiritualism.”

The commissioners read everything they could on the subject, including volumes from Seybert’s personal library (the material they used survives as a special collection in the Van Pelt Library’s rare-book room), and they encouraged mediums to come forward, promising to pay their expenses and a modest fee. Some mediums demanded whopping sums and limits on what could be asked of them, all of which were turned down. But others, including some of the biggest names in the business, cooperated. The commissioners sat through scores of séances and demonstrations, watching and listening, writing down their impressions afterward, ever on the lookout for a manifestation of occult power.

The phenomenon they were probing went back to 1848 and upstate New York, a part of the world that once been fertile religious ground. The Mormon faith had originated there, along with Seventh-Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so many preachers of all kinds had passed through that it came to be known as the burnt-over district—that is, exhausted like a forest after a wildfire. Perhaps because spiritualism relied more on showing than urging, it thrived even in that worn-out soil. Maggie and Katy Fox started out by playing tricks on their gullible mother. They had a trait in common: extraordinary flexibility in their toes, which may have been double-jointed. By snapping the big and second toes against each other, they could imitate a knock on wood. These and other sound effects persuaded Mrs. Fox that the girls were in touch with spirits, and Maggie and Katy obligingly worked out a code: one rap for no, two for maybe, three for yes. Later came a sequence pegged to the letters of the alphabet.

Mr. and Mrs. Fox were so wowed that they invited the neighbors over. Given the choice of prolonging the ruse or humiliating their parents, the girls stayed in character. As their antics drew wider attention—their breakthrough was the publication of a pamphlet, “A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County”—their older sister Leah Fox Fish saw dollar signs in their future. She became their manager and eventually their nemesis.

Borrowing from mesmerism and transcendentalism, Leah fashioned a simple creed. After death, souls linger in a kind of mezzanine, doing penance to qualify for heaven but in the meantime free to chat with their loved ones via selected intermediaries. Leah charged $1 a head for the girls’ at-home sessions, and soon they were raking in $100 a day. Then Leah had a better idea. Why not rent a hall in nearby Rochester and play to hundreds of people at a time? These mass séances brought out skeptics, who demanded that the girls submit to a committee of prominent local citizens. But Maggie and Katy had been honing their skills, and they fooled the investigators. Other critics, however, seized upon the silly factor. “How then,” asked the Rochester Courier and Enquirer, “can any rational man suppose that [God] would undertake to convey intelligence on his creatures by unintelligible thumping on a table?”

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/06

Feet and Faith
By Dennis Drabelle

Illustration by David Hollenbach

page 1 > 2 > 3

MAR|APR 06 Contents
Gazette Home