At Leah’s insistence, the girls thumped on. After the family moved to New York City, where newspaper editor Horace Greeley got on the bandwagon, spiritualism became respectable, almost fashionable. Outsiders took notice and reckoned they, too, could rap—or at least make horns toot on their own, etc. By early 1850 a “spirit circle” had formed in Philadelphia—the Foxes had lost their spiritualist monopoly. The practice spread to the Midwest, leapfrogged to San Francisco. What had begun inside the stockings of two country girls was now a national fad.

Despite being kept on a short leash by the mercenary Leah, Maggie became acquainted with and then engaged to a prominent Philadelphian, Elisha Kent Kane. An 1842 graduate of the Penn medical school, Kane was overcoming physical weakness—he had a rheumatic heart—to make a name for himself as an Arctic explorer. Lively Maggie was a refreshing contrast to the stiff upper-class girls he’d grown up with, but he frowned on her involvement in spiritualism, which still bore a whiff of chicanery. Both Mrs. Fox and Leah disapproved of the engagement, and the lovers had to meet on the sly. Upon Kane’s return from an Arctic voyage, they entered into a common-law marriage that may or may not have been consummated. Soon afterward, in 1857, Kane was dead at age 37.

Having renounced spiritualism in deference to Kane and converted to Roman Catholicism, which takes a dim view of séances, Maggie bailed out of the family enterprise at the age of 23. But she made the mistake of rooming with Katy, who liked to drink, and the sisters became alcoholics together. Maggie eventually dried out and, with no other way to support herself, re-emerged as a medium in 1871.

A few years later, she accepted an unusual offer: to be medium-in-residence at Henry Seybert’s Philadelphia house, also known as the Spiritualist Mansion. The salary was good, the trappings were elegant, and at first the attention was flattering. But Maggie came to resent Seybert and his hangers-on, who pressed her to contact a long list of historical figures, including, as she put it in her authorized biography, “nearly every martyr and saint in the Protestant calendar, and … the famous sages and rulers of old.” Maggie quit and went back to New York, complaining that Seybert was in the grip of “pure religious insanity.” After Seybert’s death, Horace Furness invited Maggie to return to Philadelphia so that the commission could take her measure. She ignored the letter. Furness wrote again. She agreed to come but kept her ulterior motive to herself: a desire to hoodwink the commission, thereby striking back at her late patron.

At first, on that fall evening in 1884, the commissioners heard raps aplenty. With her legs out of sight under a table, Maggie toe-popped away, crediting the noise to the spirit of Henry Seybert, who approved of the commission’s work so far. But the commissioners called for proof. Who was really making these sounds, they wanted to know, a spirit or the medium herself? Coleman Sellers asked Maggie if she could think of a test by which her agency could be ruled out. Yes, she said, one in which the medium stands on glass while raps resonate through the floor below.

Let the commission’s stenographer introduce the screwball episode that followed: “At this point attention is directed to the first of a series of experiments with four glass tumblers, which are placed together, with the bottoms upward, on the carpeted floor, in the centre of a vacant space. The Medium stands directly upon these, the heels of her shoes resting upon the rear tumblers and the soles upon the front tumblers. The Committee cooperate with the Medium, and, in conformity with her suggestions, all the men clasp hands and form a semi-circle in front of the Medium, the hands of the latter being grasped by the gentlemen nearest to her on either side.”

And then, nothing. Unless you count the odd rap audible to the medium alone. She climbs down. She gets back up. She gets down, asks for pencil and paper, writes out a note purportedly from Seybert. It counsels patience. Once more the medium mounts the tumblers. This time both Sellers and Furness hear raps. With the medium’s permission, Furness places a hand on one of her feet. More raps. “This is the most wonderful thing of all, Mrs. Kane,” Furness exclaims. “I distinctly feel them in your foot. There is not a particle of motion in your foot, but there is an unusual pulsation.” Instead of following through by asking her to remove her shoes, however, he goes squishy and lets her engage him in a colloquy on footwear. A solicitous onlooker wonders if the medium isn’t “wearied.” The commission calls it a night. When Furness asks the medium to return for another round of tests, she begs off.

What makes Maggie’s close call so tantalizing is that by then she’d just about had it with spiritualism. Being caught in the act might have inspired her to confess. And her combined apprehension and confession might have dealt what she later called “the death-blow to spiritualism,” persuading all but hard-core fanatics that every séance was the fruit of a poisonous tree in upstate New York. As it happened, Maggie’s tipping point didn’t come until four years later, when a New York Herald reporter finally got her to show and tell.

“Is it all a trick?” the reporter asked.

“Absolutely,” Maggie replied.

Katy corroborated her sister’s revelation, and she and Maggie now drew crowds by displaying their once-secret technique. Shaken fellow-mediums and their outraged followers fought back, making much of the sisters’ long history with the bottle. Then, in financial straits, Maggie recanted. According to Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox, this reconversion may in fact have been genuine. For some time before her death in 1893, however, the mother of all mediums was so ill that rapping was beyond her.

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

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FEATURE: Feet and Faith
By Dennis Drabelle