Talking to the dead

Barbara Weisberg. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. Harper SanFrancisco, 2004.

This book seeks to place the story of the Fox sisters and the rise of spiritualism in the social and cultural context of their time, and, in particular the changing role of women as the nineteenth century progressed. Their story has much wider connotations than the paranormal, for the story also touches on the rising cult of celebrity and the intricacies of class relationships. Kate, Maggie and their elder sister Leah all sought ways of integrating into respectable bourgeois society.
Leah finally succeeding, but the younger sisters failed, though Kate had perhaps a decade of respectability as Mrs Jenken. Maggie’s relationship with the arctic explorer and superstar Elisha Kane was much more problematic, and she was never accepted by his family. Kane like the Fox sisters was someone who transgressed boundaries, going places where no-one had gone before.

Like many of today’s celebrities the younger Fox sisters had problems with drink and drugs, and there was no Betty Ford Clinic to rescue them in the end. Maggie denounced spiritualism, explaining how her tricks worked, or pretending to, before recanting, both actions being blamed on drink. This was of course a time when liquor was seen as the fast track to the abyss for the destitute underclass, which is pretty much where Kate and Maggie ended up.

This book I think highlights how tales of paranormal experiences have to be evaluated in the context of the total lives of the experients. There appear to be similarities with other child/youth paranormal prodigies such as Bernadette Soubrious or Joseph Smith; the disturbed home and being born into a once semi-respectable family on the downward slope. As with many female visionaries, extraordinary experiences lift them up from the bottom of the social pile (young, female and working class) and give them positions of power.

In the beginning the sisters may have been little more than puppets of community rough justice, mouthpieces of people who had it in for the former tenant Bell, who was accused of murdering a peddler by the raps, (a point not really brought out by Weisberg) However later they were able to become autonomous actors, for a time, and for a price.

Weisberg is agnostic as to whether the sisters were just tricksters, or the origin of the raps. One can note that extraordinary experiences, then as now, mirrored cultural and technological developments, in this case the telegraph and Morse Code. If, as is very probable, these were tricks of some kind, then we can see how perhaps starting out as a childish game, they become a means of gaining power and respect within the home, then the wider community. The perception among onlookers than they were dealing with “innocent little girls”, a fact helped in later years by their reduction in age. (Weisberg suggests that their most probable ages were 11 for Kate and 14 for Maggie at the start). But of course children know (or half know) much more than adults would like to believe, including the local gossip, and have a knack of exploiting the gullibility of adults.

Perhaps if they channelled any spirit at all, it was not one from the dead generations, but the stalking spirit of modernity. After all 1848 was the year of revolutions, something which would have caught the attention of radical neighbours such as the Posts, and the rappings on the wall of the Fox home came from the poltergeist which Marx and Engels saw stalking Europe.   -- Peter Rogerson

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