Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine] (1836–1892)
and Margaret(ta) (1833–1893)
The pioneers of modern Spiritualism, along with a third
sister, (Ann) Leah (1814–1890), variously known by marriage
as Mrs. Fish, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Underhill. According to
Leah Fox’s book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885),
psychic power ran in the family.
Their great-grandmother was a somnambulist (sleepwalker).
She attended phantom funerals of people yet living and described
every detail about the officiating minister and the persons
present. Her descriptions corresponded with the facts as
they were later observed. An aunt, Elisabeth Higgins, as told in
Robert Dale Owen’s Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World
(1860), saw in a dream her own tombstone; she died on the day
inscribed in her vision.
The events that made the Fox family name historic date
from December 11, 1847, the day on which John D. Fox, the
father, took the tenancy of a house in Hydesville, New York.
The house had a mysterious reputation. Michael Weakman, the
former tenant who had moved in two years before, left it because
of strange noises, but the family of John D. Fox did not
experience serious discomfort until March 1848. At that time
raps, knocks, and noises as of moving furniture were heard at
night. They increased in intensity. On March 31 there was a
very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. Fox’s
wife suggested that the sashes might have rattled since the
night was windy. John Fox got up and tried the sashes, shaking
them to see if they were loose. One of the girls happened to remark
that when her father shook the window sash the noises
seemed to reply. The idea came to her to ask for an answer by
imitating the sounds. John’s wife, Margaret, in a testimony
signed four days later, described the occurrences as follows
‘‘On the night of the first disturbance we all got up, lighted
a candle and searched the entire house, the noises continuing
during the time and being heard near the same place. Although
not very loud, it produced a jar of the bedsteads and
chairs that could be felt when we were in bed. It was a tremulous
motion, more than a sudden jar. We could feel the jar when
standing on the floor. It continued on this night until we slept.
I did not sleep until about twelve o’clock. On March 30 we were
disturbed all night. The noises were heard in all parts of the
house. My husband stationed himself outside the door while I
stood inside, and the knocks came on the door between us. We
heard footsteps in the pantry, and walking downstairs; we could
not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted
by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such
things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I
could not account for before.
Fox, Oliver Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
‘‘On Friday night, March 31, 1848, we concluded to go to
bed early and not permit ourselves to be disturbed by the
noises, but try and get a night’s rest. My husband was here on
all these occasions, heard the noises and helped in the search.
It was very early when we went to bed on this night—hardly
dark. I had been so broken of my rest I was almost sick. My husband
had not gone to bed when we first heard the noise on this
evening. I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew
it from all the other noises I had ever heard before. The children,
who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the rapping
and tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers.
‘‘My youngest child, Cathie, said ‘Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,’
clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the
same number of raps. When she stopped the sound ceased for
a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, ‘No, do just as I
do. Count one, two, three, four,’ striking one hand against the
other at the same time; and the raps came as before. She was
afraid to repeat them. Then Cathie said in her childish simplicity,
‘Oh, mother, I know what it is. To-morrow is April-fool day
and it is somebody trying to fool us.’ ‘‘I then thought I could
put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the
noise to rap my different children’s ages, successively. Instantly
each one of my children’s ages was given correctly, pausing between
them sufficiently long to individualize them until the seventh,
at which a longer pause was made, and then three more
emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little
one that died, which was my youngest child.
‘‘I then asked ‘Is this a human being that answers my questions
so correctly’ There was no rap. I asked ‘Is it a spirit If
it is make two raps.’ Two sounds were given as soon as the request
was made. I then said ‘If it was an injured spirit, make
two raps,’ which were instantly made, causing the house to
tremble. I asked ‘Were you injured in this house’ The answer
was given as before. ‘Is the person living that injured you’ Answered
by raps in the same manner. I ascertained by the same
simple method that it was a man, aged 31 years, that he had
been murdered in this house and his remains were buried in
the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children,
two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death,
but that the wife had since died. I asked ‘Will you continue to
rap if I call my neighbors that they may hear it too’ The raps
were loud in the affirmative.
‘‘My husband went and called in Mrs. Redfield, our nearest
neighbor. She is a very candid woman. The girls were sitting up
in bed clinging to each other and trembling with terror. I think
I was as calm as I am now. Mrs. Redfield came immediately (this
was about half past seven), thinking she would have a laugh at
the children. But when she saw them pale with fright and nearly
speechless, she was amazed and believed there was something
more serious than she had supposed. I asked a few questions
for her and she was answered as before. He told her age exactly.
She then called her husband, and the same questions were
asked and answered.
‘‘Then Mr. Redfield called in Mr. Duesler and wife, and several
others. Mr. Duesler then called in Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, also
Mr. and Mrs. Jewell. Mr. Duesler asked many questions and received
answers. I then named all the neighbors I could think
of and asked if any of them had injured him and received no
answer. Mr. Duesler then asked questions and received answers.
He asked ‘Were you murdered’ Raps affirmative. ‘Can
your murderer be brought to justice’ No sound. ‘Can he be
punished by law’ No answer. He then said ‘If your murderer
cannot be punished by the law manifest it by raps,’ and the raps
were made clearly and distinctly. In the same way Mr. Duesler
ascertained that he was murdered in the east bedroom about
five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr.—
on a Tuesday night at twelve o’clock; that he was murdered by
having his throat cut with a butcher’s knife; that the body was
taken through the buttery, down the stairway and that it was
buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained
that he was murdered for his money by raps affirmative.
‘‘‘How much was it—one hundred’ No rap. ‘Was it two hundred’
etc., and when he mentioned five hundred the raps replied
in the affirmative.
‘‘Many called in who were fishing in the creek, and all heard
the same questions and answers. Many remained in the house
all night. I and my children left the house. My husband remained
in the house with Mr. Redfield all night. On the next
Saturday the house was filled to overflowing. There were no
sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the
evening. It was said that there were over three hundred persons
present at the time. On Sunday morning the noises were heard
throughout the day by all who came to the house.
‘‘On Saturday night, April 1, they commenced digging in
the cellar; they dug until they came to water and then gave it
up. The noise was not heard on Sunday evening nor during the
night. Stephen B. Smith and wife (my daughter Marie) and my
son David S. Fox and wife, slept in the room this night.
‘‘I have heard nothing since that time until yesterday. In the
forenoon of yesterday there were several questions answered in
way by rapping. I have heard the noise several times to-day.
‘‘I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances.
I am very sorry there has been so much excitement
about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our misfortune
to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious
that the truth should be known and that a true statement
should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I
know is that they have been heard repeatedly as I have stated.
I have heard this rapping again this (Tuesday) morning, April
4. My children have also heard it.’’
John D. Fox then signed the following statement
‘‘I have also heard the above statement of my wife, Margaret
Fox, read, and hereby certify that the same is true in all its particulars.
I heard the same rappings which she has spoken of, in
answer to the questions, as stated by her. There have been a
great many questions besides those asked, and answered in the
same way. Some have been asked a great many times and they
have always received the same answer. There has never been
any contradiction whatever.
‘‘I do not know of any way to account for those noises, as
being caused by any natural means. We have searched every
nook and corner in and about the house at different times to
ascertain if possible whether anything or anybody was secreted
there that could make the noise and have not been able to find
anything which would or could explain the mystery. It has
caused a great deal of trouble and anxiety.
‘‘Hundreds have visited the house, so that it is impossible for
us to attend to our daily occupations; and I hope that, whether
caused by natural or supernatural means, it will be ascertained
soon. The digging in the cellar will be resumed as soon as the
water settles, and then it can be ascertained whether there are
any indications of a body ever having been buried there; and
if there are I shall have no doubt but that it is of supernatural
The digging could not be resumed until summer. Then, at
a depth of five feet, they found a plank, along with charcoal and
quicklime, and finally hair and some bones, which were pronounced
by medical men to belong to a human skeleton. The
rest of the skeleton was believed to be found 56 years later. According
to a report of the Boston Journal, November 23, 1904,
some parts of a rough wall built one yard from the true wall of
the cellar fell down. Excavations were made by the owner of
‘‘the spook house’’ and an almost complete human skeleton
was found. It was thought that the murderer first buried the
body in the middle of the cellar, then became alarmed, dug it
up, and buried it in the space between the two walls.
As the murder victim’s spirit continued to communicate with
the Foxes in 1848, Mrs. Fox’s hair turned white as a result of
the disturbances in the house. The phenomena soon assumed
the character of formal haunting. The sound of a death strugEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine]
gle, the gurgling of a throat, and the heavy dragging of a body
across the room was heard night after night. Finally the family
could not stand it any longer and moved out. But the raps continued
in the house even after they left, and one night more
than 300 people conversed with the invisible entity.
From Raps to the Message of Spiritualism
Kate took refuge at her brother’s house in Auburn, and her
sister Margaret went to her sister Leah’s house in Rochester.
The raps broke out again in both places. In Rochester they
were especially violent. Calvin Brown, who afterward became
Leah’s second husband and who lived in the same house, was
opposed to the manifestations and became the object of poltergeist
attacks. Things were thrown at him, but without causing
him injury. Blocks of wood were found scattered in the rooms,
sometimes with sentences written on them. The manifestation
was intelligent and spiteful.
‘‘We had become satisfied,’’ writes Leah in The Missing Link
(1885), ‘‘that no earthly power could relieve us. While on our
knees pins would be stuck into different parts of our persons.
Mother’s cap would be removed from her head, her comb
jerked out of her hair and every conceivable thing done to
annoy us.’’ The spirits ‘‘carried on the manifestations on the
very peak of the roof. It sounded like the frequent discharge of
heavy artillery. It was stated to us the next day that the sounds
were heard a mile away. We feared that the roof would fall in
upon us.’’
These violent disturbances went on until Isaac Post, a visiting
friend, suddenly remembered that Leah’s brother David
‘‘conversed with the Hydesville spirits by using the alphabet.’’
Tremendous raps came in answer to the first question and this
message was spelled out ‘‘Dear Friends, you must proclaim this
truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must
not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty God
will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.’’ From
that time on, communications began to pour through and the
manifestations became orderly. The table rocked, objects
moved, guitars were played, and psychic touches were experienced.
On November 14, 1849, the first meeting of a small band
of Spiritualists took place in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester.
The excitement grew. Public investigation was demanded. The
report of a committee of five that could not explain the phenomena
as fraud was rejected and another committee was delegated.
They were also forced to report that when the girls ‘‘were
standing on pillows with a handkerchief tied round the bottom
of their dresses, tight to the ankles, we all heard rapping on the
wall and floor distinctly.’’
Passions rose to fury; once the girls were nearly lynched, but
in spite of a hostile atmosphere and denunciation in the press,
the movement kept growing. Other mediums sprang up. Mrs.
Tamlin and Mrs. Benedict of Auburn, the first two well-known
mediums who were developed in the circle of Kate Fox (see Apostolic
Circle), were followed by a host of others, and on November
28, 1849, because of the increasing demand for sittings,
Leah became a professional medium.
The first public sittings were soon followed by a propaganda
tour to Albany in May 1850, then to Troy, where their lives were
threatened and they were fired on. On June 4, 1850, they took
the message of Spiritualism to New York City. Horace Greeley,
the editor of the New York Tribune, was their first caller. Fearing
for their safety, he advised them to charge a $5 admission fee.
Later, under the aegis of the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual
Knowledge, free public sittings were initiated, for which
Mr. H. H. Day paid $1,200 per annum to Kate. Interest ran
high from the very first.
Greeley’s report in the Tribune was enthusiastic
‘‘We devoted what time we could spare from our duties out
of three days to this subject, and it would be the basest cowardice
not to say that we are convinced beyond a doubt of their perfect
integrity and good faith in the premises. Whatever may be
the origin or cause of the ‘rappings,’ the ladies in whose presence
they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly
and to our entire satisfaction.’’
The phenomena in these first seances were not spectacular
in light of later occurrences associated with the Fox sisters.
Raps were heard, the table and chairs moved, and the sitters
were touched by invisible hands. Perhaps their most powerful
early manifestation was recorded in 1853 by Governor Talmadge.
It was the complete levitation of the table with the governor
himself on top. He also claimed to have received a communication
in direct writing from the spirit of John C.
Calhoun. According to Robert Dale Owen, Leah was the best
medium for raps. With her he obtained them on the seashore
on a rock, in a sailing boat (sounding from underneath), on
tree trunks in the woods, and on the ground beneath their feet
in open air. Spirit lights and materializations were a comparatively
late development, and they were produced by both Kate
and Leah Fox.
‘‘Exposures,’’ Tests, and Confessions
Claimed exposures from time to time were common. In February
1851 the ‘‘snapping of the knee joints’’ explanation of the
raps was advanced for the first time. Dr. Austin Flint, Dr.
Charles A. Lee, and Dr. C. B. Coventry of the University of Buffalo
published in the Commercial Advertiser of February 18,
1851, the disclosure that the raps were produced within the sisters’
anatomies. A second investigation upheld this theory, and
an alleged confession of Margaret Fox, published in April 1851
by a relation named Mrs. Norman Culver, threatened to bury
both the Fox sisters and the fledgling Spiritualistic movement.
There was, however, a flagrant contradiction in the allegation,
which claimed that when the committee held the ankles
of the Fox sisters in Rochester a Dutch servant girl rapped with
her knuckles under the floor of the cellar. She was instructed
to rap whenever she heard their voices calling on the spirits.
Yet the investigation to which the revelation referred was held
in the houses of the members of the committee or in a public
hall, the girls did not keep a servant, and Kate Fox was not
present at these meetings at all. Nevertheless, the effect of the
revelation was that ‘‘the Rochester impostors’’ were at the
mercy of the press, having but one significant defender—
Horace Greeley. His interest was so deep, however, that he furnished
funds for Kate Fox to polish up her imperfect education.
Investigations into the reality of the phenomena were numerous.
Test after test was applied. The skeptics faced two
problems explaining what they believed were the ‘‘fraudulent’’
production of the rappings and determining the nature of the
intelligence that answered the questions, which were in many
cases asked mentally. The second problem was seldom tackled;
the first was addressed often and with very great ardor. One
popular explanation was that the raps were produced by flexing
the knee joints. In 1857, as a result of the challenge to mediums
in the Boston Courier, several mediums appeared before
a committee of Harvard professors in Boston. Kate and Leah
Fox were among them. The committee was difficult to satisfy
and their promised report was never published.
There is much in the personal history of the Fox sisters in
these early years that remains obscure. Years of public mediumship
in a hostile atmosphere, the drain of too-frequent sittings
on their energy, the commercial exploitation of their talents,
and the absence of understanding regarding the religious
implications of Spiritualism combined to produce a deteriorating
Margaret Fox married Dr. Elisha Kane, the famous Arctic
explorer. With marriage, she retired from public mediumship.
Before his marriage to Margaret, Kane was skeptical. He never
arrived at any satisfactory solution to the phenomena, and apparently
was convinced that Margaret was exploited in a mercenary
spirit by her elder sister, Leah. When he was away in the
Arctic he had Margaret stay with his aunt for the purpose of
Fox Sisters, Kate [Catharine] Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
polishing up her education and married her on his return.
Some time after Kane’s death in 1857, under the title The Love
Letters of Dr. Elisha Kane (1865), was published a book that exacerbated
suspicion of the Fox sisters. Kane, in his letters, continually
reproached Margaret for living in deceit and hypocrisy.
He also strongly objected to the sisters’ indulgence in alcohol.
In 1861 Kate Fox was engaged as a medium exclusively for
Charles F. Livermore, a rich banker from New York whose wife,
Estelle, had died a year before. Over a period of five years Kate
gave him nearly 400 sittings of which detailed records were
kept. The doors and windows were carefully locked and the seances,
witnessed by prominent men, were often held in Livermore’s
own house.
The medium retained consciousness while ‘‘Estelle’’ gradually
materialized. She was not recognized until the 43rd sitting
when she was illuminated by a psychic light. Later the materialization
became more complete, but the figure could not speak
except for a few words. The communication took place through
raps and writing. Estelle and another phantom, calling himself
‘‘Benjamin Franklin,’’ wrote on cards brought by Livermore.
Kate Fox’s hands were held while she wrote. The script was said
to be a perfect reproduction of the characters ‘‘Estelle’’ used
when on earth. At the 388th seance, ‘‘Estelle’’ declared that she
was appearing for the last time. Livermore never saw her again.
In gratitude for the consolation he derived from these sittings,
he enabled Kate Fox to visit England in 1871. In a letter to
Benjamin Coleman he praised Kate’s irreproachable character
and detailed her idiosyncrasies.
The career of Kate Fox in England was undisturbed. She sat
for many important people, gave excellent opportunities to Sir
William Crookes for investigation, and often held joint sittings
with D. D. Home and Agnes Guppy-Volckman. On December
14, 1872, Kate married H. D. Jencken, a barrister-at-law. They
had two sons, both strongly psychic at an early age. Jencken
died in 1881. In 1883 the widowed medium visited Russia on
the invitation of Alexander Aksakof and was consulted about
the auspices of the coronation of the czar.
Financial circumstances forced Margaret Fox back into professional
mediumship. According to Isaac Funk, she lived in
poverty. Leah died in 1890, Kate in 1892, and Margaret in
1893. Kate (known as Mrs. Sparr from her last marriage) and
Margaret were buried in the Brooklyn Cypress Hill Cemetery.
In 1916 the old Hydesville house where the Fox family had
lived in 1848 was moved to Lily Dale, a campground in Western
New York that has served at times as an informal headquarters
for American Spiritualists. Unfortunately, it burned to the
ground in 1955. The house was reconstructed in 1968 as a tourist
attraction on the Hydesville site, which bears a marker erected
in 1927 reading ‘‘Birthplace of Modern Spiritualism 1848.’’
The reconstructed building includes a niche in the cellar wall
where the skeleton was found.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York Hawthorn
Books, 1970.
Davenport, Reuben Briggs. The Death Blow to Spiritualism.
New York G. W. Dillingham, 1888.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. 2 vols. London,
New York, 1926. Reprint, Arno Press, 1975.
Fornell, Earl Wesley. The Unhappy Medium Spiritualism and
the Life of Margaret Fox. Austin, Tex. University of Texas Press,
Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City,
N.Y. Doubleday, 1972.
Lewis, E. E. A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House
of Mr. John D. Fox. Canandaigua, N.Y. The Author, 1848.
Pond, Mariam Buckner. Time Is Kind The Story of the Unfortunate
Fox Family. New York Centennial Press, 1947. Reprinted
as The Unwilling Martyrs. London Psychic Book Club, 1947.
Taylor, W. G. Langworthy. Katie Fox, Epochmaking Medium
and the Making of the Fox-Taylor Record. Boston Bruce, 1933.
Underhill, A. Leah. The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism.
New York T. R. Knox, 1885. Reprint, New York Arno Press,