Ghosts & Séances: How Teenage Psychics Started a New Religion in the United States
Have you ever wondered if Psychic Mediums really can speak to ghosts? While I was researching the séance scene in my bestselling Victorian Romance, Scoundrel for Hire, I learned how teenage girls started Spiritualism in the United States. Here’s their fascinating true story* — just in time for Halloween!
Isaac and Amy Post were residents of Rochester, New York, in the 1840s. When they buried their five-year-old daughter, they were inconsolable. They desperately wanted to speak with their dead child. Grief drove them to conceive a new idea.
In 19th Century America, electricity was a mysterious force, and it wasn’t widely understood. Telegraph wires crisscrossed the country (much like telephone lines do, today.) The telegraph let people communicate with relatives, who lived thousands of miles away.
Based on the Posts’ faulty understanding of electricity, they reasoned that an electrical current might let the living speak with the dead. All the Posts needed was some way to access this so-called “spiritual telegraph.”
Enter the Fox sisters, who were making friends with “disembodied spirits” in another New York town. For an entire week in 1848, unexplained rapping and other spooky noises emanated from the girls’ Hydesville home.
On the night of March 31, 11-year-old Kate and 13-year-old Maggie were put to bed early. Their parents were determined to discover the source of the nocturnal sounds. When the rapping began again, the Fox parents rushed upstairs, only to find their daughters in bed. The rapping, however, was louder than ever.
To prove that she and her sister had nothing to do with the sounds, young Kate threw back her covers and jumped to the floor. As her astonished parents watched, she snapped her fingers and commanded, “Follow me.”
A steady progression of raps followed her.
“Now, do as I do,” she said, clapping her hands three times.
Three distinct raps answered her.
“Three raps mean, `yes,’” Kate announced to her gaping parents.
Her mother then asked, “Are you a disembodied spirit?”
Three rapid raps followed.
Needless to say, word spread quickly. Gawkers and curiosity seekers made so many pilgrimages to the Fox home, that Kate and Maggie soon fled, moving to Rochester (where Issac and Amy Post lived.) The girls moved in with an older sister, Leah.
Soon, spooks were making themselves heard during séances in the Fox sisters’ new home. At first, the messages were spelled out, word by word. Spirits would “rap” whenever one of the girls indicated a particular letter of the alphabet. However, this method was slow and tedious.
To communicate faster, 11-year-old Kate started falling into trances so she could speak directly with the dead. About this same time, Kate contacted Amy Post to say that she’d received a message from Amy’s dead daughter, via the spiritual telegraph.
Fox-family séances were conducted around circular, parlor tables, where men and women held hands. Ouija boards were common accessories. Visitors reported the cool touch of spirit hands. At dinner, guests would often hear rappings. Sometimes, guests would witness one end of the table rising up and thumping down, sending plates and glasses flying.
As these stories gained greater circulation, newspapers clamored for an end to what they claimed was unabashed fraud. The Fox sisters agreed to a public demonstration of their strange powers.
The following November, Amy Post chaperoned 13-year-old Maggie and her sister, Leah, as they traveled to the largest auditorium in Rochester. In a back room, a sour-faced committee of ladies instructed the teens to strip off their clothes. These instructions appalled Amy, who draped the girls’ naked bodies in borrowed shawls.
Next, the sour-faced ladies inspected the girls’ garments. Grudgingly, the committee had to admit that they could find no incriminating evidence. So they marched Maggie and Leah onto a stage. Here, the girls were confronted by a group of stern, skeptical men. These men had been selected as judges because they were considered experts at exposing fraud.
As the inquisition began, Maggie’s and Leah’s skirts were twisted around their ankles and tied securely with handkerchiefs. Their feet were held down by their male inquisitors. When these precautions did not eliminate the raps, ventriloquism was suspected.
When the girls were gagged, the spirits continued knocking.
Next, the inquisitors decided to test for electrical energy. Almost a century before, Benjamin Franklin had said that electricity represented the force of disembodied spirits. Hoping to demonstrate a hoax, the inquisitors demanded that Maggie and Leah stand on pillows. This tactic was supposed to keep the girls from transmitting electrical forces that could somehow rattle the floorboards.
But when Maggie and Leah called upon the spirits, time and again, rapping came from the floor.
The inquisitors couldn’t expose any fraud, and Spiritualism—a new religious movement—was underway in America.
* Source: Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher.