Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Barbara Weisberg - Talking to the Dead

It was in 1848 that sisters Maggie and Kate Fox, then fourteen and eleven years old respectively, were first in the presence of mysterious sounds, “rappings”, as they came to be known. Soon they would be catapulted into the sort of hysterical teenage celebrity we might easily equate with our own times and would both help to establish the new belief in Spiritualism. Were they teen con-artists or the real deal? As the famous and wealthy gathered around them, two girls from humble origins, it soon became impossible to determine who was using who.

As neighbour after neighbour was called into the Fox home in rural Hydesville, state of New York, to witness the strange sounds, it quickly became apparent that there was some sort of intelligence behind the knockings for they could – more often than not, correctly - answer questions.

At first, the answers could only consist of numbers (ages, dates, how many etc) but soon, someone came up with the nifty plan of saying the alphabet out loud, so the spirit could rap on the appropriate letter (how exhausting it must have been), and say his peace.

The spirit belonged apparently to a murdered man buried in the cellar, but as the girls were sent to Rochester to stay with their older sister Leah (34, at the time) the rappings followed them and would soon adopt a multitude of spirit personas.

For many, (Maggie and Kate included) Leah would be seen, in hindsight, as a scheming opportunist, pimping the young girls to advance her own standing. There is little doubt she was ambitious – she even sent her own little girl away to live with her estranged husband, when she said out loud she wished the awful sounds would silence for ever.

It certainly would not be unreasonable for Leah to see Maggie and Kate as a possible sort of income. As Weisberg clearly enumerates there was no shortage of would be mediums, seers, founders of new religions (Joseph Smith of Mormon fame lived nearby when he received his visions) and revivalists in the region. The area came to be known as the “burnt-over district” for there was a hardly a soul left to convert. Between the shakers throwing themselves around, the circus side-shows coming through the region and science looking more like magic (and often performed as such) than anything else, the world must have looked very mysterious indeed. Who was to say those who had passed could not be reached? And in a time of high infant and general mortality what better gift than to receive messages from the dearly departed?

Shrewd as Leah was she could have definitely have seen that the demand was present for a service the girls could easily perform – that they were young and pretty didn’t harm the cause either. Ok, just to make it clear, this is me talking now, all right? I am not channeling the author, because one thing Barbara Weisberg does not do is pick a side regarding the veracity of the Fox sisters’ “performance”. And kudos to her because I think it’s nearly impossible to write a book on these girls without making apparent what you really think.

One thing is clear: Kate and Maggie’s real or otherwise spirit communications allowed them to live very different lives than they would have otherwise. They sold-out public venues wherever they went; travelled extensively (Kate would eventually go as far as Russia), met with numerous personalities of their time (artists, political activists, writers, scientists, captains of industry other celebrities such as James Fenimoore Cooper, the abolitionist Amy Post and Frederick Douglass– Maggie would meet and secretly marry the Arctic explorer Elisha Kane); were wined and dined (to the end result that they would both become alcoholics); spent months as guests in comfortable and beautiful homes they could hardly have known otherwise.

But, there was the reverse too, because for every fan there seemed to be two adversaries, and some went so far as to dedicate years to the pursuit of unmasking the sisters’ “fraud”. In order to silence their critics the sisters endured many a humiliating trial: groups of “scientists” would go so far as to place the girls in various positions (some probably not very decorous), touch their knees and feet (hardly acceptable) and make rude remarks as they attempted to establish if the raps were produced by their own bodies. Several times they conceded to be completely undressed and examined by “Ladies’ Committees” searching for hidden apparatus.

No-one ever found proof of their scam but when, in 1888, Maggie came out publicly and confessed to deception, and proceeded to demonstrate how she snapped the articulation of her big toe, many a critic felt vindicated.

Just a year after, however, Maggie recanted her confession. The reasons for her false confession (if indeed it was false) could have been manifold: she desperately needed the money the confession brought in (a fee payed by a reporter and tickets for the public “outing”) and even more importantly she badly wanted to get back at her sister Leah, whom she saw as the culprit for her failed marriage with Kane (After Kane’s death his family never acknowledged the marriage and withheld the money Kane had left for Maggie, largely because of her outcast status as a celebrity medium – how lucky you are to have been born later, John Edwards). She presented Leah as a manipulator who had basically forced the girls to put on the show.

A year later she died in poverty as would Kate. Ironically, only Leah was able to make the final transformation into a respected upper middle class matron through her successful marriage.

Of all the historical characters we might wish had left personal journals filled with information, Kate and Maggie are surely up there on the list. As Weisberg concedes there is scant information regarding their thoughts, beliefs and even personalities. Especially in the beginning when they were both little more than children, hardly anyone even distinguished between the two. Later on they would go on tour separately, and it seemed as if they were interchangeable. Rich patrons would invite them to stay over and often treat the girls as entertainment, something to be gawked at and envied by equally well-to-do friends. Only die-hard spiritualists seem to have really cared about the girls individually and to have protected them. How ironic it would be, if it turned out these kind souls, desperate for contact with dead sons, daughters, wives and husbands had been duped by Kate and Maggie.

They were seen as enigmas by their contemporaries and so they’ll have to stay. Yes, they probably were complete frauds, but the reasons, the motivations to endure so much – the hatred of some, the suffocating attention of others, the complete disruption of their personal lives – the stuff we tell ourselves but know is not true, that would be the real Fox Sisters story.

“Talking to the Dead” felt a bit long winded at times (sort of like this review…yikes!) it didn’t have any peaks of excitement, it’s very…even. Some of it might be attributed to the carefully impartial tone of the author, some of it to the lack of written material by the girls. Some days I despaired of ending it, but I’m still very glad I did stumble across it (in the blog A Garden Carried in the Pocket - thanks again jenclair!), because it’s such a fascinating story. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some grad student or home renovator might come across a box of old journals by the sisters … but I wonder if that would answer questions or pose some more?


jenclair said...

Were they very cautious about writing their personal thoughts and experiences? Were they too busy living their experiences to keep a written account? It is frustrating to have so little in their own words.

The author did try to be impartial, but I got the feeling that she believed the Fox Sisters were more than just charlatans, especially Kate.

I had a hard time writing my review, but yours is excellent!

bookworm (inês) said...

Thanks jenclair!
I had a hard time getting started though...

The whole "foot snapping" explanation is so hard to swallow by our standards - it's impossible to believe you couldn't tell where the noise come from...and wouldn't their joints completely give out after being abused for years?!

Kate does comes across more "spooky" - Maggie's love affair, that she doubted herself, struggled with abandoning Spiritualism, somehow humanizes her. Kate seems to have kept quiet (younger sister often do) and let everyone think what they wanted.

I hope we get another chance to read the same book - this is fun!