The Mystery of the Three Fox Sisters
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Mystery of the Three Fox Sisters
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It is an error to suppose that the movement which is called Spiritism or Spiritualism — the name is indifferent — found either its physical or its intellectual birth in the Fox family. So far as the physical signs, unexplained knockings and the like, are concerned, they could be matched by many older instances, none more fully reported than that in which the Wesley family were involved at Epworth, in 1726. On the mental side they find their prototype in previous philosophies, especially that of Swedenborg, and there was existing a very active school who had studied the lucidity of clairvoyance, first in connection with medical treatment, but later with the design of attaining a broadened religious vision. The world in the 'forties was full of discussions as to the powers of the released soul. Such speculations found their way into the highest and most unlikely quarters. I have myself seen a watch with an inscription, which stated that it was a gift from Queen Victoria to the recipient, in acknowledgment of the benefits received from her clairvoyance. The date was 1846. The wonderful books of Andrew Jackson Davis, written by an unlettered and untravelled youth, had already begun to appear, and these books, written under trance conditions, present a philosophy and scheme of the universe which either coincided with or inspired the subsequent spiritual teaching. The visions and career of Davis had a close relation to the new movement. He was accustomed to keep a diary, and under the heading of March 31st, 1848, occurs the entry: "About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face, and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying, Brother, the good work has begun — behold a living demonstration is born.' I was left wondering what could be meant by such a message." That was the actual date of the culmination of the Hydesville disturbances in another part of the country, which had been preceded by several days of phenomenal activity.
Let us turn to the family who inhabited the little farm-house at Hydesville, and were the centre of this singular story. They were certainly, so far as we can reconstruct them, as commonplace a group as could well be conceived. There was Fox himself, a small farmer, a Methodist, very regular in his religious duties. His wife was a quiet, gentle soul, of whom no one has an evil word to say. In her family, which was French in origin, there was some tradition of clairvoyance and other psychic powers. Fox had three elder children who were out in the world. At home there were only little Margaret and Kate, whose age seems most difficult to determine. Mrs. Fox, according to Dale Owen, said that they were respectively twelve and nine. Some say fifteen and twelve. On the other hand, it is stated that Margaret was born in 1840, and Kate was two years younger. These dates were sanctioned by Dr. Kane, who describes Margaret, his future wife, as being thirteen in 1852. If this be correct, she was only nine, and Kate seven, at the time of the rappings. In view of their solemn appearance before Committees of Investigators and other grave bodies, I cannot help thinking that the higher estimate is correct, and that Dr. Kane was mistaken in the young lady's age. Since he regarded her as a half unwilling accomplice in fraud, and as he wished to make out the best case for her, he would naturally be ready to believe her to be as young and irresponsible as possible.
The actual outbreak of phenomena, and what followed from it is a twice told tale, which need not be repeated here, but there are one or two aspects of it which must be dwelt upon, since they have a very direct bearing upon the sad scandal which darkened the closing years of the two sisters. It is a subject which is intensely painful to Spiritualists, and yet it is one which they must boldly face, lest their opponents should think that no answer is forthcoming, when, in fact, the answer lies ready to hand. That scandal lies in the fact that both sisters seem to have inherited a weakness for alcohol, said to have existed in their father's family, and that while in a state of mental frenzy, depending upon this cause, they had a furious family quarrel, in the course of which they both denounced Spiritualism, and proclaimed that they had themselves been the cause of the Hydesville knockings, which they had caused by many devices, chief among which was the use of apples on the end of a string. Margaret sustained her contention by actually producing in public certain rapping sounds, ostensibly by the action of her foot. It is true that both women afterwards withdrew these statements, and confessed that they had been made for private reasons, but still the actual demonstration. makes an ugly effect, and the facts have to be faced by honest Spiritualists. So, too, has the fact that Dr. Kane, in his love-letters to Margaret Fox, continually alludes to her leading a life of deception — a charge which she does not appear to resent, although in one passage he shows that he had been quite unable to fathom what the deception was. Let us inquire how far all this tangle can be unravelled — the case for the prosecution being found in "The Love-Life of Dr. Kane" and in "The Death Blow to Spiritualism," by R. B. Davenport (New York, 1897). No one can read these two books without feeling that there is a case to be answered. Spiritualists can face the facts unabashed, because they are aware, either from their own personal experience or from their study of the subject, how immense is the independent evidence in their favour. Had this episode occurred early in the movement, it might have obscured the truth for many years, possibly for some generations.
To return then to what happened at Hydesville, there are two main, and several subsidiary reasons, which show that the girls were not concerned in any deception.
1. Every witness agrees that they were not present at all during the night of March 31st, when the local Committee were at work upon their investigation. Few historical matters have been more closely recorded, for this local Committee, who seem to have done their work in a very shrewd and practical fashion, had their results in print within a month of the occurrence. This little book, "Report of the Mysterious Noises," was published at Canandaigua by the village printer, and was signed by nineteen persons. It is now a rare and valuable pamphlet. A few years later, in 1855, Mr. E. W. Capron, who had been in touch with the events from almost the beginning, published his narrative. "The Facts and Fanaticisms of Modern Spiritualism." A collection of the evidence of the various witnesses was also made by Dr. Campbell in 1851; and yet another eleven years after the event by Dale Owen, a most capable investigator, formerly American Minister to Naples, who visited Hydesville in person. There is also Leah Fish's account in "The Missing Link in Spiritualism." We have plenty of urquellen, therefore, from which to drink.
In Mrs. Hardinge Britten's summing up of the evidence, she says, "As it was deemed best for Mrs. Fox and her children to seek the shelter of a neighbour's house on the night of March 31st, when they had departed Mr. Fox and the neighbours, to the number of seventy or eighty people, remained to question their mysterious visitor by the knocks — a process which seems to have taken up most of the night."
Dr. Campbell, in his narrative, says, "The family being much fatigued and somewhat alarmed, left the house for the night."
William Duesler, in describing his investigation in the cellar two days later, cleared the house altogether, save for his fellow-investigators, and took the precaution of sending one, Stephen Smith, out of the cellar to see that the house really was clear. The raps came louder than ever.
Mr. Dale Owen says, "Mrs. Fox left the house for that of Mrs. Redfield, while the children were taken home by another neighbour. Mr. Fox remained. Many of the crowd put questions to the noises, requesting that assent should be testified by rapping."
Most of the witnesses, whose evidence is given in the original pamphlet, declare their conviction that the family had no agency in producing the sounds, and that these were not referable to trick or deception.
Therefore I maintain that it is clearly shown that when Margaret is reported to have said in 1888, "The sounds which were heard at those times were all produced by Katie and myself, and by no other being or spirit under the sun," she was lying in order to annoy certain Spiritualists, including her own elder sister Leah, who she thought had injured her. This she admitted afterwards, and fortified her assertions by a solemn signed statement. But even had she not done so, it is perfectly certain that the Fox children could not have produced the original rappings, since there is a clear alibi.
2. The second proof that the rappings were genuine is the actual discovery of the skeleton of the murdered pedlar, after the Foxes were all in their graves. The "Boston Journal" of November 23rd, 1904, a non-spiritualist paper, says, "The skeleton of the man, supposed to have caused the rappings first heard by the Fox sisters in 1848, has been found in the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication. The Fox sisters declared they learned to communicate with the spirit of a man, and that he told them he had been murdered, and buried in the cellar. Repeated excavations failed to locate the body, and thus give proof positive of their story. The discovery was made by school children playing in the cellar of the building in Hydesville, known as the 'Spook House,' where the Fox sisters heard the wonderful rappings. William H. Hyde, a reputable citizen, who owns the house, made an investigation, and found an almost entire human skeleton between the earth and crumbling cellar walls, undoubtedly that of the wandering pedlar who, it was claimed, was murdered in the east room of the house, and whose body was hidden in the cellar." To this account it may be added that the pedlar's tin box was discovered, as well as the skeleton, and it is preserved by the Spiritualists of America.
This, surely, is perfectly final. If human remains are found in the foundations of houses, it means murder, and no opponent has as yet gone so far as to accuse the Foxes of murder, in order to bolster up their case. No bobbing of apples by mischievous girls could account for that grim proof, emerging after fifty-six years from the grave into which the murderer had thrust it.
An interesting psychic question is raised by this discovery. The raps indicated the centre of the cellar as the place of burial, and some remains, including quick lime, were actually found there as is fully set out in the early documents, but the body was elsewhere. Why was this? I have no doubt that the body was originally buried where the raps indicated, but that the murderer came to the conclusion that it was too dangerous there. dug it up again after it was partly quick-limed, and reburied it under the wall: The knowledge which spirits have of what occurs upon the earth surface appears to be limited, and it would seem that they can actually see nothing save in the psychic light which surrounds a medium. Immediately after death is the most material time, and it was then no doubt that the victim was sufficiently in touch with earth to realize that his body was being buried in the cellar. The subsequent change would be unknown to him. Every student of psychic matters could furnish parallel cases.
This discovery makes it clear to any who are not wilfully blind that the Hydesville phenomena were objective with a definite end, which was eventually made clear, and which frees everyone concerned from any suspicion of being agents in their production. There are several minor points, however, which demonstrate the same thing.
One is that similar rappings occurred before the Fox family took over the house. Dr. Campbell gives clear evidence that during the tenancy of Mr. and Mrs. Weekman, the same phenomena occurred, and if they were not so strong, it was doubtless because the mediumistic outflow of the inmates was less than in the case of the Foxes. A Miss Lavinia Pulver and others also testified to the phenomena before the Fox family arrived. This inherent haunting, carried on apart from any particular individual, explains the fact that even when the Fox family were temporarily out of the house the rappings were still carried on.
A second point is that the information as to the ages of neighbours, their children, etc., conveyed by the raps, was far above the knowledge of the Fox children or even of their parents. Duesler says, in his evidence, "I then asked it to rap the number of years of my age. It rapped thirty times. This is my age, and I do not think anyone about here knew it, except myself and family. I then told it to rap my wife's age, and it rapped thirty times, which is her exact age ; several of us counted it at the same time. I then asked it to rap A. W. Hyde's age; then Mrs. A. W. Hyde's age. I then continued to ask it to rap the ages of different persons — naming them — in the room, and it did so correctly, as they all said. I then asked the number of children in the different families in the neighbourhood, and it told them correctly in the usual way, by rapping; also the number of deaths that had taken place in the different families, and it told them correctly."
Weighing all these various facts and arguments, I claim confidently that the truth of the Hydesville incident is as firmly established as any religious fact in the world's history. Yet there is another possibility to be faced. It is that the incident, true as it was, made a deep impression upon the minds of the girls, that they then set themselves to produce sounds which would also give answers to questions, and that their subsequent career was fraudulent.
As Margaret has been shown to have lied in connection with the original episode, and as she admitted afterwards that her whole confession in New York was a lie, we cannot attach much weight to it ; and yet the fact that she could and did produce raps with her feet — or at least that she produced them at volition — is a disturbing one, and suggests an amount of practice which would not have been undertaken without an object. We most examine the evidence, therefore, to see if she (and Kate) were capable of fraud, and, if so, whether their manifestations were all fraud, as apart from the Hydesville episode. The uncanny happenings had brought much unhappiness to the family, for Fox was driven to change his house, and Mrs. Fox's hair is said to have turned white in a week, owing to the constant annoyance. The two girls went to live with their elder sister, Mrs. Fish, or Leah, who was twenty-three years older than themselves. She was a music teacher in the neighbouring town of Rochester. It was quickly discovered that the raps had followed the girls, and that they came quite as readily for Kate as for Margaret, so that if they were really produced by a cracking of the toe, or partial dislocation of the hones of the foot, then both children had equally learned this extraordinary accomplishment. It was noted that the answers obtained by the sounds were very intelligent, and that they were usually, if not always, correct. If Dr. Kane's chronology be right, and Kate was at that time only seven years of age, it is surely an insult to commonsense to suppose that she could answer by any normal means test questions put by an acute and hostile committee, and even if we advance her age to nine or twelve, it becomes very marvellous. Three such committees examined them in Rochester, each of them more rigorous and critical than the last. The raps were shown to be loud enough to sound distinctly in a large hall before a crowded audience.
The first committee, of five responsible citizens, reported that the sounds were not only near the girls (the "two ladies" they are called in the report, which surely proves that they were not so juvenile as Dr. Kane imagined). They were heard also on the wall, on the outside of a front door and on a closet door. "By placing the hand upon the door, there was a sensible jar felt when the rapping was heard. One of the committee placed one of his hands upon the feet of the ladies and one on the floor, and though the feet were not moved there was a distinct jar upon the floor."
The sceptics clamoured for a second trial, and a fresh committee was appointed, with a medical man, two town councillors and two assessors. It conducted the inquiry in a lawyer's office. Margaret only was present. The sounds were heard "on the floor, chairs, table, walls, door, and, in fact, everywhere."
There followed an examination by a committee of ladies, with the same result. "When they were standing on pillows, with a handkerchief tied to the ankles, we all heard the rapping on the wall and floor distinctly." The third committee added the remark that their questions, many of them mental, were correctly answered. So ended the first public investigation in the complete and threefold vindication of the actuality of the raps, and of their independence of the normal bodily mechanism of the mediums.
A clergyman, the Rev. C. Hammond, in describing the raps at this early period of the movement, declared not only that they gave him much information, known only to himself, but that "they continued to multiply and became more violent, until every part of the room trembled with their demonstrations." Pretty good for a child's toe joint! All the preceding results were confirmed after close observation by some of the most acute minds in New York when the Fox family had finally made their way to that city. Horace Greeley, the famous Editor of the New York "Tribune," had the girls to stay at his house, tried all manner of tests, and finally published a statement of his experiences, winding up, "Whatever may be the cause of the rappings the ladies, in whose presence they occur, do not make them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire satisfaction."
Mr. Greeley's paper had an article in the spring of 1850, which described a sitting, specially arranged at the house of Dr. Griswold to test the ladies, who were now four in number, the mother, Leah and the two young girls — the former professing no psychic powers. Besides several medical men, there were present such celebrities as Fenimore Cooper, Bancroft, the historian, Willis and Bryant, the poets, and Bigelow, Editor of the "Evening Post." In the detailed description, it says: "Sounds were heard from under the floor, around the table, and in different parts of the room. They produced a vibration of the panels, which was felt by everyone who touched them. Different gentlemen stood at the inside and outside of the door at the same time when loud knockings were heard on the opposite side to that where they stood, the ladies being at a distance from the door." It is further added that the raps often came fifty in quick succession, so quick indeed that the hearers lost count, and they had to be repeated. This also seems pretty good for a child's toe joint — or for that dislocation of the knee joint, which was diagnosed by three Buffalo doctors as the true explanation of the phenomena.
So deep was the impression made upon this highly intelligent company, not by the raps, but by the obviously independent intelligence at the back of the raps, that Fenimore Cooper, upon his deathbed shortly afterwards, sent the following message, "Tell the Fox family that I bless them. I have been made happy through them. They have prepared me for this hour."
One could continue to pile up descriptions of the phenomena as described by early investigators, but surely enough has been already said to show that Margaret and Kate were at that time free from any suspicion of producing the sounds. "We saw the door vibrate with the knocks," said one sceptical observer. The evidence is overwhelming that they were produced apart from the mediums, and that they gave information which the mediums could not know. I hope that the quotations given above will convince the impartial judge that this was so.
And yet it is at the end of this very period, namely, in 1852, that Dr. Kane, afterwards the great Arctic explorer, met Margaret Fox, and wrote those letters which record one of the most curious love stories in literature. Elisha Kane, as his first name might imply, was a man of Puritan extraction, and Puritans, with their belief that the Bible represents the absolutely final and literal word in spiritual inspiration, are instinctively antagonistic to a new cult.
He was also a doctor of medicine, and the medical profession is at the same time the most noble and the most cynically incredulous in the world. From the first, Kane made up his mind that the young girl was involved in fraud, and formed the theory that her elder sister Leah was, for purposes of gain, exploiting the fraud. The fact that Leah shortly afterwards married a wealthy man, named Underhill, a Wall Street insurance magnate, does not appear to have modified Kane's views as to her greed for illicit earnings. The doctor formed a close friendship with Margaret, put her under his own aunt for purposes of education whilst he was away in the Arctic, and finally married her under the curious Gretna-Green kind of marriage law which seems to have prevailed at the time. Shortly afterwards he died (in 1857), and the widow, now calling herself Mrs. Fox-Kane, foreswore all phenomena for a time, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
In these letters Kane continually reproaches Margaret with living in deceit and hypocrisy. We have very few of her letters, so that we do not know how far she defended herself. The compiler of the book, though a non-spiritualist, says, "Poor girl, with her simplicity, ingenuousness and timidity, she could not, had she been so inclined, have practised the slightest deception with any chance of success." This testimony is valuable as the writer was clearly intimately acquainted with everyone concerned. Kane himself, writing to the younger sister Kate, says, "Take my advice, and never talk of the spirits, either to friends or strangers. You know that with all my intimacy with Maggie, after a whole month's trial, I could make nothing of them. Therefore, they are a great mystery."
Considering their close relations, and that Margaret clearly gave Kane every demonstration of her powers, it is inconceivable that a trained medical man would have to admit after a month that he could make nothing of it, if it were indeed a mere cracking of a joint. I find no evidence for fraud in these letters, but I do find ample proof that these two young girls, Margaret and Kate, had not the least idea of the religious implications involved in these powers, or of the grave responsibilities of mediumship, and that they misused their gift in the direction of giving worldly advice, receiving promiscuous sitters, and answering comic and frivolous questions. If, under sods circumstances, both their powers and their character were to deteriorate, it would not surprise any experienced Spiritualist. They deserved no better, though their age and ignorance furnished an excuse.
To realize their position, one has to remember that they were little more than children, poorly educated, and quite ignorant of the philosophy of the subject. When a man like Dr. Kane assured Margaret that it was very wrong, he was only saying what was dinned into her ears from every quarter, including half the pulpits of New York. Probably she had an uneasy feeling that it was wrong, without in the least knowing why, and this may account for the fact that she does not seem to remonstrate with him for his suspicions. Indeed, we may admit that, au fond, Kane was right, and that the proceedings were in some ways unjustifiable. Had they used their gift, as D. D. Home used his, with no thought of worldly things, and for the purpose of proving immortality and consoling the afflicted, then, indeed, they would have been above criticism. He was wrong in doubting their gift, but right in looking askance at some examples of their use of it. In some ways Kane's position is hopelessly illogical. He was on most intimate and affectionate terms with the mother and the two girls, although, if words have any meaning, he thought them to be swindlers living on the credulity of the public. "Kiss Katie for me," he says, and he continually sends love to the mother. Already, young as they were, he had a glimpse of the alcoholic danger to which they were exposed by late hours and promiscuous company. "Tell Katie to drink no champagne, and do you follow the same advice," said he. It was sound counsel, and it would have been well for themselves and for the movement if they had both followed it, but again we must remember their inexperienced youth and the constant temptations.
Kane was a curious blend of the hero and the prig. Spirit-rapping, unfortified by any of the religious or scientific sanctions which came later, was a low-down thing, a superstition of the illiterate, and was he, a man of repute, to marry a spirit-rapper? He vacillated over it in an extraordinary way, beginning a letter with claims to be her brother, and ending by reminding her of the warmth of his kisses. "Nose that you have given me your heart, I will be a. brother to you," he says. He had a vein of real superstition running through him, which was far below the credulity which he ascribed to others. He frequently alludes to the fact that by raising his right hand he had powers of divination, and that he had learned it "from a conjurer in the Indies." Occasionally he is a snob as well as a prig. "At the very dinner-table of the President I thought of you," and again, "You could never lift yourself up to my thoughts and my objects. I could never bring myself down to yours." As a matter of fact, the few extracts given from her letters show an intelligent and sympathetic mind. On at least one occasion we find Kane suggesting deceit to her, and she combating the idea.
There are four fixed points which can be established by the letters:—
1. That Kane thought in a vague way that there was trickery.
2. That in the years of their close intimacy she never admitted it.
3. That he could not even suggest in what the trickery lay.
4. That she did use her powers in a way which serious Spiritualists would deplore. She really knew no more of the nature of these forces than those around her did. The Editor says, "She had always averred that she never fully believed the rappings to be the work of spirits, but imagined some occult laws of Nature were concerned." This was her attitude later in life, for on her professional card she printed that people must judge the nature of the powers for themselves. Some idea of the pressure upon the Fox girls may be gathered from Mrs. Hardinge Britten's allusion in her Autobiography (p. 40). She talks of "pausing on the first floor to hear poor, patient Katie Fox, in the midst of a captious, grumbling crowd of investigators, repeating hour after hour the letters of the alphabet, while the no less patient spirits rapped out names, ages and dates to suit all comers." Can one wonder that the girls, with vitality sapped, the beautiful influence of the mother removed, and harassed by enemies, succumbed to stimulants?
So much for the earlier days of the Fox sisters, and for the purposes of this investigation they, Margaret and Kate, may be taken together, since it is inconceivable that similar effects were normal in the case of one and abnormal in the other. We find a very clear account of the phenomena produced by Kate Fox in the evidence of Cromwell Varley, the eminent electrician. He had investigated her mediumship with the idea of showing a relationship between it and those electric phenomena upon which he was an admitted authority. The sittings in question were at New York in 1867. He says, "I was received with a chorus of raps, such as fifty hammers, all striking rapidly, could hardly produce." Apart from the continued and sometimes violent physical phenomena, he remarked that when in the dark he asked questions as to his own manipulations of the electric apparatus which he held in his hand, such as whether the current was on or off, there was never a mistake in the answers, though ten different tests were made. Such results seem to indicate an intelligence outside the medium, and are incompatible with fraud.
Some years later we have the testimony of Professor Crookes, which is surely absolutely final. He says, "For power and certainty I have met with no one who at all approached Miss Kate Fox. For several months I enjoyed almost unlimited opportunity of testing the various phenomena occurring in the presence of this lady, and I especially examined the phenomena of these sounds. With mediums generally it is necessary to sit for a formal séance before anything is heard; but in the case of Miss Fox it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree, on a sheet of glass, on a stretched iron wire, on a stretched membrane, a tambourine, on the roof of a cab and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary ; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium's hands and feet were held, when she was standing on a chair, when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling, when she was enclosed in a wire cage, when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass harmonicon. I have felt them on my own shoulder and under any own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started, chiefly in America, to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means."
To this he adds, "The intelligence is. frequently in direct opposition to the wishes of the medium, and is sometimes of such a character as to lead to the belief that it does not emanate from any person present."
Surely any reasonable person must agree that such testimony cannot be thrown aside on account of a confession given under most unsatisfactory circumstances, and shortly afterwards most solemnly retracted. Let us now examine the conditions tinder which this confession was made.
Both the ladies had by the year 1888 acquired those habits, which were partly the result of an hereditary predisposition and partly caused by the irregular life and promiscuous conditions under which they were unwisely permitted to exercise their most delicate gifts. Similar tragedies have unhappily been only too common in the ranks of our mediums, and will continue to be so until we learn to care for and protect them. In the course of the complications produced by this unhappy state of affairs, the eldest sister Leah had interfered, possibly in an irritating and tactless way, with her sisters' domestic affairs, and both of them were furiously enraged against her. Their anger seems to have extended to other Spiritualists, who may have been associated with Leah's action. Looking round for some weapon — any weapon — with which they could injure those whom they so bitterly hated, it seems to have occurred to them, or — according to their subsequent statement — have been suggested to them with promises of pecuniary reward, that if they injured the whole cult by an admission of fraud, they would wound Leah and her associates in their most sensitive part. On the top of alcoholic excitement, and the frenzy of hatred, there was added religious fanaticism, for Margaret had been lectured by some of the leading spirits of the Church of Rome, and persuaded, as Home had also for a short time been, that her own powers were evil. She mentions Cardinal Manning as having influenced her mind in this way, but her statements are not to be taken too seriously. At any rate, all these causes combined had reduced her to a state which was perilously near madness. Before leaving London she had written to the "New York Herald" denouncing the cult, but stating in one sentence that the rappings were "the only part of the phenomena that is worthy of notice." On reaching New York, where, according to her own subsequent statement, she was to receive a sum of money for the newspaper sensation which she promised to produce, she broke out into absolute raving. After saying that she had been foiled in committing suicide on the voyage, she went on, according to the "Herald" reporter, in this fashion "She (Leah) is my damnable enemy. I hate her. My God! I'd poison her. No, I wouldn't, but I'll lash her with my tongue. She was twenty-three years old the day I was born. I was an aunt seven years before I was born. Ha! Ha! Yes, I am going to expose Spiritualism from its very foundation."
In the midst of protestations of her own fraud, she cries: "Mother was a silly old woman. ... Our sister used us in her exhibitions, and we made money for her. Now she turns upon us, because she is the wife of a rich man. Oh! I am after her! You can kill sometimes without using weapons, you know."
It is a curious psychological study, and equally curious is the mental attitude of the people who could imagine that the assertions of a raving woman, acting not only from motives of hatred, but also from, as she herself stated, the hope of pecuniary reward, could upset the critical investigation of a generation of observers.
None the less we have to face the fact that she did actually produce rappings, or noises of some sort, at a subsequent meeting in the New York Academy of music. This might be discounted upon the grounds that in so large a hall any prearranged sound might be attributed to the medium. More important is the evidence of the reporter of the "Herald," who had a previous private performance. He described it thus: "I heard first a rapping under the floor near my feet, then under the chair in which I was seated, and again under a table on which I was leaning. She led me to the door, and I heard the same sound on the other side of it. Then when she sat on the piano stool the instrument reverberated more loudly, and the 'tap, tap' resounded throughout its hollow structure." This account makes it clear that she had the noises under control, though the reporter must have been more unsophisticated than most pressmen of my acquaintance, if he could believe that sounds varying both in quality and in position all came from some click within the medium's foot. He clearly did not know how the sounds came, and it is my opinion, as I shall shortly show, that Margaret did not know either. That she had really something which she could exhibit is proved not only by the experience of the reporter, but by that of Mr. Wedgewood, a London Spiritualist, to whom she gave a demonstration before she started for America and who said, in commenting upon it, "The illusion was perfect while it lasted. You do well to expose these infamous frauds, and I thank you for having enlightened me." It is vain, therefore, to contend that there was no basis at all in Margaret's exposure. What that basis was we must endeavour to define.
The Margaret Fox-Kane sensation was in August and September, 1888 — a welcome boon for the enterprising paper which had exploited it. In October Kate came over to join forces with her sister. It should be explained that the real quarrel, so far as is known, was between Kate and Leah, for Leah had endeavoured to get Kate's children taken from her, on the grounds that the mother's influence was not for good. Therefore, though Kate did not rave, and though she volunteered no exposures in public or private, she was quite at one with her sister in the general plot to down Leah at all costs. "She was the one who caused my arrest last spring," she said, "and the bringing of the preposterous charge that I was cruel to my children. I don't know why it is she has always been jealous of Maggie and use; I suppose because we could do things in Spiritualism that she couldn't." It will be observed that she does not say, "because we can crack our joints and she can't." To the further question as to the Hydesville incidents in 1848, and the finding of remains in the cellar, she said, or is reported as saying, "All humbuggery, every bit of it." The reader is in a position to say for certain that this statement at least was false, which must discount the value of the other ones. "I certainly know," she added, "that every so-called manifestation produced through me in London or anywhere was a fraud." She was present at the Hall of Music meeting on October 21st, when Margaret made her repudiation and produced the raps. She was silent on that occasion, but that silence may be taken as support of the statements to which she listened.
If this were indeed so, and if she spoke as reported to the interviewer, her repentance must have come very rapidly. Upon November 17th, less than a month after the famous meeting, she wrote to a lady in London, Mrs. Cottell, who was the tenant of Carlyle's old house, this remarkable letter from New York ("Light," p. 619; 1888):—
"I would have written to you before this, but my surprise was so great on my arrival to hear of Maggie's exposure of Spiritualism that I had no heart to write to anyone.
"The Manager of the affair engaged the Academy of Music, the very largest place of entertainment in New York City; it was filled to overflowing.
"They made 1,500 dol. clear. I have often wished I had remained with you, and if I had the means I would now return, to get out of all this.
"I think now I could make money in proving that the knockings are not made with the toes. So many people come to me to ask me about this exposure of Maggie's that I have to deny myself to them.
"They are hard at work to expose the whole thing, if they can; but they certainly cannot.
"Maggie is giving public exposures in all the large places in America, but I have only seen her once since I arrived."
This letter of Kate's points to pecuniary temptation as playing a large part in the transaction. Maggie, however, seems to have soon found that there was little money in it, and could see no profit in telling lies for which she was not paid, and which had only proved that the spiritual movement was so firmly established that it was quite unruffled by her treachery. For this or other reasons--let us hope with some final twinges of conscience, as to the part she had played — she now admitted that she had been telling falsehoods from the lowest motives. The interview was reported in the "New York Press," November 20th, 1889, about a year after the onslaught.
"Would to God," she said, in a voice that trembled with intense excitement, "that I could undo the injustice I did the cause of Spiritualism when under the influence of persons inimical to it. I gave expression to utterances that had no foundation in fact.
"Long before I spoke to any person on this matter, I was unceasingly reminded by my spirit control what I should do, and at last I have come to the conclusion that it would be useless for me to further thwart their promptings."
"Has there been no mention of a monetary consideration for this statement?"
"Not the smallest; none whatever."
"Then financial gain is not the end which you are looking to?"
"Indirectly, yes. You know that even a mortal instrument in the hands of the spirit must have the maintenance of life. This I propose to derive from my lectures. Not one cent has passed to me from any person because I adopted this course."
"What cause led up to your exposure of the spirit rappings?"
"At that time I was in great need of money, and persons, who for the present I prefer not to name, took advantage of the situation ; hence the trouble. The excitement, too, helped to upset my mental equilibrium."
"What was the object of the persons who induced you to make the confession that you and all other mediums traded on the credulity of people?"
"They had several objects in view. Their first and paramount idea was to crush Spiritualism, to make money for themselves, and to get up a great excitement, as that was an element in which they flourish."
"Was there any truth in the charges you made against Spiritualism?"
"Those charges were false in every particular. I have no hesitation in saying that."
* * * * *
"No, my belief in Spiritualism has undergone no change. When I made those dreadful statements I was not responsible for my words. Its genuineness is an incontrovertible fact. Not all the Herrmans that ever breathed can duplicate the wonders that are produced through some mediums. By deftness of fingers and smartness of wits they may produce writing on papers and slates, but even this cannot bear close investigation — materialization is beyond their mental calibre to reproduce, and I challenge anyone to make the 'rap' under the same conditions which I will. There is not a human being on earth can produce the "raps" in the same way as they are through me."
"Do you propose to hold seances?"
"No, I will devote myself entirely to platform work, as that will find me a better opportunity to refute the foul slanders uttered by me against Spiritualism."
"What does your sister Kate say of your present course?"
"She is in complete sympathy with me. She did not approve my course in the past."
"Will you have a manager for your lecture tour?"
"No, sir; I have a horror of them. They, too, treated me most outrageously. Frank Stechen acted shamefully with me. He made considerable money through his management for me, and left me in Boston without a cent. All I got from him was 550 dollars, which was given to me at the beginning of the contract."
To give greater authenticity to the interview, at her suggestion, the following open letter was written, to which she placed her signature:—
"128, West Forty-third Street,
"New York City.
"November 16th, 1889.
"TO THE PUBLIC,
"The foregoing interview having been read over to me, I find nothing contained therein that is not a correct record of my words and truthful expression of my sentiments. I have not given a detailed account of the ways and means which were devised to bring me under subjection, and so extract from me a declaration that the spiritual phenomena as exemplified through my organism were a fraud. But I shall fully atone for this incompleteness when I get upon the platform."
The exactness of this interview was testified to by the names of a number of witnesses, including J. L. O'Sullivan, who was U.S. Minister to Portugal for twenty-five years. He said,
"If ever I heard a woman speak truth it was then."
So it may have been, but the failure of her lecture agent to keep her in funds seems to leave been the determining factor.
The statement would settle the question if we could take the speaker's words at face value, but, unfortunately, I ant compelled to agree with Mr. Isaac Funk, an indefatigable and impartial researcher, who says, in his "Widow's Mite": "But does someone remind me that Mrs. Margaret Fox-Kane, not long before her death, confessed that she and her sisters had duped the public, that the phenomena of raps., etc., which were manifested through them, were produced by the snappings of joints, etc.? I know all this, knew of this theory at the time of my experiments through her ; but I also know that so low had this unfortunate woman sunk that for five dollars she would have denied her mother, sworn to anything. At that time her affidavit for or against anything should not be given the slightest weight."
What is a good deal more to the purpose is that Mr. Funk sat with Margaret, that he heard the raps "all round the room" without detecting their origin, and that they spelt out to him a name and address, which was correct and entirely beyond the knowledge of the medium. The information given was wrong, but, on the other hand, abnormal power was shown by reading the contents of a letter in Mr. Funk's pocket. Such mixed results are as puzzling as the other larger problem which is the subject of this article.
There is one factor which has been scarcely touched upon in this examination. It is the character and career of Mrs. Fisk, afterwards Mrs. Underhill, who as Leah, the eldest sister, plays so prominent a part in the matter. We know her chiefly by her book, "The Missing Link of Spiritualism" (Knox & Co., New York, 1885). The book was written by a friend, but the facts and documents were provided by Mrs. Underhill, who checked the whole narrative. It is simply and even crudely put together, and the Spiritualist is bound to conclude that the entities with whom the Fox circle were at first in contact were not of the highest order. Perhaps on another plane as on this, it is the plebians and the lowly who carry out spiritual pioneer work in their own rough way, and open the path for other and more refined agencies. With this sole criticism one may say that the book gives a sure impression of candour and good sense, and as a personal narrative of one who was so nearly concerned in these momentous happenings, it is destined to outlive most of our current literature, and to be read with close attention, and even with reverence by generations unborn. Those humble folk who watched over the new birth, Capron of Auburn, who first lectured upon it in public, Jervis, the gallant Methodist Minister, who cried, "I know it is true, and I will face the frowning world"; George Willets, the Quaker ; Isaac Post, who called the first spiritual meeting, the gallant band who testified upon the Rochester platform, while the rowdies were heating the tar — all of them are destined to live in history. Of Leah it can truly be said that she recognized the religious meaning of the movement far more clearly than her sisters were able to do. and that she set her face against that use of it for purely worldly objects, which is a degradation of the celestial. The following passage is of great interest as showing how the Fox family first regarded this visitation, and must impress the reader with the sincerity of the writer, "We all of us were strongly adverse to this strange and uncanny thing. We regarded it as a great misfortune which had fallen upon us; how, whence or why, we knew not. We resisted it, struggled against it, and constantly and earnestly prayed for deliverance from it, even while a strange fascination attached to the marvellous manifestations thus forced upon us, against our will, by invisible agencies whom we could neither resist, control nor understand. If our will, earnest desires and prayers could have availed, the whole thing would have ended then and there, and the world outside of our little neighbourhood would never have heard more of the Rochester Rappings or of the unfortunate Fox family." These words give the impression of sincerity, and altogether Leah stands forth in her book, and in the evidence of the many witnesses quoted. as one who was worthy to play a part in a great movement. Both Kate Fox-Jencken and Margaret Fox-Kane died in the early 'nineties, and their end was one of sadness and gloom, which, fortunately, need not be dwelt upon in this article. The problem which they present is put fairly before the reader, avoiding the extremes of the too sensitive Spiritualist who will not face the facts and the special-pleading sceptic who lays stress upon those parts of the narrative which suit his purpose, and omit or minimise everything else. Let us see if any sort of explanation can be found which covers the double fact that these sisters could do what was plainly abnormal, and yet that it was, to some extent at least, under their control. It is not a simple problem, but an exceedingly deep one, which exhausts, and more than exhausts, the psychic knowledge which is at this date available, and was altogether beyond the reach of the generation in which the Fox sisters were alive.
The simple explanation which was given by the Spiritualists of the time is not to be set aside readily — and least readily by those who know most. It was that a medium who ill-uses her gifts and suffers debasement of moral character through bad habits, becomes accessible to evil influences which may use her for false information or for the defilement of a pure cause. That may be true enough as a causa causans. But we must look closer to see the actual how and why.
I am of opinion that the true explanation will be found by coupling all these happenings with the recent investigations of Dr. Crawford upon the means by which physical phenomena are produced. He showed very clearly and confirmed by photographs, that raps (we are dealing at present only with that phase( are caused by a protrusion from the medium's person of a long rod of a substance which has certain properties which distinguish it from all other forms of matter. This substance has been closely examined by the great French physiologist, Dr. Charles Richet, who has named it Ectoplasm. So exact were Crawford's experiments that he was able, by staining the medium's blouse with carmine, to get the ectoplasm rods to make raps and also leave carmine stains upon the opposite wall. These rods are invisible to the eye, partly visible to the sensitive plate, and yet conduct energy in such a fashion as to make sounds and strike blows at a distance.
Now, if Margaret produced the raps in the same fashion as Miss Goligher, we have only to make one or two assumptions which are probable in themselves, and which the Science of the future may definitely prove, in order to make the case quite clear. The one assumption is that a centre of psychic force is formed in some part of the body from which the ectoplasm rod is protruded. Supposing that centre to be in Margaret's foot it would throw a very clear light upon the evidence collected in the Seybert Inquiry. In examining Margaret, and endeavouring to get raps from her one of the Committee, with the permission of the medium, placed his hand upon her foot. Raps at once followed. The investigator cried, "This is the most wonderful thing of all, Mrs. Kane. I distinctly feel them in your foot There is not a particle of motion in your foot, but there is an unusual pulsation."
This experiment by no means bears out the idea of joint dislocation or snapping toes. It is, however, exactly what one could imagine in the case of a centre from which psychic power was projected. This power is in material shape, and is drawn from the body of the medium, so that there must be some nexus. This nexus may vary. In the carmine experiment it was under Miss Goligher's blouse. In the case quoted, it was in Margaret's foot. It was observed by the Buffalo doctors that there was a subtle movement of a medium at the moment of a rap. The observation was correct, though the inference was wrong. I have myself distinctly seen, in the case of an amateur medium, a slight general pulsation when a rap was given — a recoil, as it were, after the discharge of force.
Granting that Margaret's power worked in this way, we have now only to discuss whether ectoplastic rods can, under any circumstances, be protruded at will. So far as I know, there are no observations which bear directly upon the point, but my knowledge may be at fault. Miss Goligher seems always to have manifested when in trance, so that the question did not arise. But in other physical phenomena there is some reason to think that in their simpler form they are closely connected with the medium, but that, as they progress, they pass out of her control, and are swayed by forces outside herself. Thus the ectoplasm pictures photographed by Madame Bisson and Dr. Schrenck Notzing (as shown in his recent book), may in their first forms be ascribed to the medium's thoughts or memories taking visible shape in ectoplasm, but as she becomes lost in trance they take the form of figures which in extreme cases are endowed with independent life. If there be a general analogy between the two classes of phenomena, then it is entirely possible that Margaret had some control over the expulsion of ectoplasm which causes the sound, but that when the sound gave forth messages which were beyond her possible knowledge, as in the case instanced by Funk, the power was no longer used by her but by some independent intelligence.
It is to be remembered that no one is more ignorant of how effects are produced than the medium (I speak of real mediums), who is the centre of them. One of the greatest physical mediums in the world told me once that he had never witnessed a physical phenomenon, as he was himself always in trance when they occurred. The opinion of any one of the sitters would be more valuable than his own. Thus in the case of these Fox sisters, who were mere children when the phenomena began, they knew little of the philosophy of the subject, and Margaret frequently said that she did not understand her own results. If she found that she had herself some power of producing the raps, however obscure the way by which she did it, she would be in a frame of mind when she might well find it impossible to contradict Dr. Kane when he accused her of being concerned in it. Her confession, too, and that of her sister would, to that extent, be true, but each would be aware, as they afterwards admitted, that there was a great deal more which could not be explained, and which did not emanate from themselves. On this line, I think, will be found the final true explanation of the mystery of the Fox sisters.
There remains, however, one very important point to be discussed — the most important of all to those who accept the religious significance of this movement. It is a most natural argument for those who are unversed in the subject to say, "Are these your fruits? Can a philosophy or religion be good which has such an effect upon those who have had a prominent place in its establishment?" No one can cavil at such an objection, and it calls for a clear answer, which has often been made, and yet is in need of repetition.
Let it then be clearly stated that there is no more connection between physical mediumship and morality than there is between a refined ear for music and morality. Both are purely physical gifts. The musician might interpret the most lovely thoughts and excite the highest emotions in others, influencing their thoughts and raising their minds. Yet in himself he might be a drug-taker, a dipsomaniac or a pervert. On the other hand, he might combine his musical powers with an angelic personal character. There is simply no connection at all between the two things, save that they both have their centre in the same human body.
So it is in physical mediumship. We all, or nearly all, exude a certain substance from our bodies which has very peculiar properties. With most of us, as is shown by Crawford's weighing chairs, the amount is negligible. With one in 100,000 it is considerable. That person is a physical medium. He or she gives forth a raw material which can, we hold, be used by independent external forces. The individual's character has nothing to do with the matter. Such is the result of two generations of observation.
If it were exactly as stated, then the physical medium's character would be in no way affected by his gift. Unfortunately that is to understate the case. Under our present unintelligent conditions, the physical medium is subjected to certain moral risks which it takes a strong and well-guarded nature to withstand. The failures of these most useful and devoted people may be likened to those physical injuries, the loss of fingers and hands, incurred by those who have worked with the X-Rays before their full properties were comprehended. Means have been taken to overcome these physical dangers after a certain number have become martyrs for science, and the moral dangers will also be met, when a tardy reparation will be made to the pioneers who have injured themselves in forcing the gates of knowledge. These dangers lie in the weakening of the will, in the extreme debility after phenomenal sittings, and the temptations to gain temporary relief from alcohol, in the temptation to fraud when the power wanes, and in the mixed and possibly noxious spirit influences which surround a promiscuous circle, drawn together from motives of curiosity rather than religion. The remedy is to segregate our mediums, to give them salaries instead of paying by results, to regulate their sittings, and thus to remove them from influences and temptations which overwhelmed the Fox sisters as they have done other of the strongest physical mediums of the past. On the other hand, there are physical mediums, some of whom I can call my friends, who retain such high motives and work upon such religious lines that they are of the salt of the earth. It is the same power which is used by the Buddha or by the Witch of Endor. The objects and methods of its use are what determine the character.
I have said that there is little connection between physical mediumship and morality. I could imagine the ectoplasm flow being as brisk from a sinner as a saint, impinging upon material objects in the same way, and producing results which would equally have the good effect of convincing the materialist of forces outside his ken. This does not apply, however, to internal mediumship, taking the form not of phenomena but of teaching and messages, given either by spirit voice, human voice, automatic writing or any other device. Here the vessel is chosen that it may match that which it contains. I could not imagine a small nature giving temporary habitation to a great spirit. One must be a Vale Owen before one gets Vale Owen messages. If a high medium degenerated in character, I should expect to find the messages cease, or share in the degeneration. Here, too, the messages of a divine spirit, such as is periodically sent to cleanse the world, of a mediaeval saint, of Joan of Arc, of Swedenborg, of Andrew Jackson Davis, or of the humblest automatic writer in London, provided that the impulse is a true one, are really the same thing in various degrees. Each is a genuine breath from beyond, and yet each intermediary tinges with his or her personality the message which comes through. So, as in a glass darkly, we see this wondrous mystery, so vital and yet so undefined. It is its very greatness which prevents it from being defined. We have done a little but we hand back many a problem to those who march behind us. They may look upon our own most advanced speculation as elementary, and yet may see vistas of thought before them which will stretch to the uttermost bounds of their mental vision.