Unbelievable True Story About the Fox Sisters, Spiritualism, and the Biggest Hoax of the 19th Century

Many may not know that the religious movement that swept the world during the nineteenth century was essentially concocted by a couple of girls playing a trick on their parents some 173 years ago in Hydesville, New York.

On March 31, 1848, Margaretta and Catherine Fox were home alone sewing carpet rags and scheming about what pranks they would pull on their friends on the following All Fools’ Day while their parents were out shopping in the nearby town of Newark, New Jersey.

As nighttime approached, Maggie and Kate (as they were called) suddenly heard a loud knock upon the wall. Terrified, both girls asked who was there but received no (verbal) answer…all the while, the rapping continued even louder and harder than before.

The Home of the Fox Sisters

Somehow (and this part of the story always seemed a bit far-fetched to me), they figured out that the spirit was an intelligent being and a system of communication was devised. The ghost was told to knock once for the letter “A,” twice for “B,” thrice for “C,” and so on and so forth – you get the idea.

Anyway, after what I’m sure would have been a ridiculously long time (were this tale actually true), the sisters learned that the rapper was a peddler named Charles B. Rosma that was murdered at their house a while ago and buried in their cellar. [1]

OK. Sure. Before leaving (to where exactly?), our buddy Charlie told them that if they dug in a certain corner they would find his bones and some jewelry (wtf, who in their right mind would do that?).

Kate and Maggie Fox in 1851
The Fox Sisters in 1851

At any rate, Mr. and Mrs. John Fox came home and like any rational person would, straight up did not believe their daughters. They had wild imaginations and All Fools’ Day was coming up. The whole story was absurd.

Yet, Maggie and Kate insisted and just as the family had retired for the night, the knocks came again. This time, the girls’ mother Margaret was the one to speak with the spirit so there was no denying it. Surprisingly (I really don’t know how) the girls convinced their parents to actually start tearing up the cellar floors the next morning. In fact, it became a whole affair with the majority of the village in attendance.

So what do you think happened?

Back to the story. Soon after this, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where another sister, Mrs. Leah Fish, resided. Having heard the details of what a sensation her sisters had become, Leah thought she would capitalize on it. It was here that the Fox sisters (and modern spiritualism) truly flourished.

A public meeting was called in November of 1849 at Corinthian hall in Rochester to “prove” that Kate and Maggie were indeed the “spiritual mediums” they claimed to be:

“They had dug but a few inches when they made the startling discovery that bones were buried there and a few minutes afterward they had unearthed the dismembered skeleton of a man whom the girls identified by various articles the spirit had mentioned, an old fashioned watch and a brass ring, as the bones of the murdered peddler, whose spirit had spoken to them the day before.” [2]

Word got around and before they knew it, people from all over New Jersey and New York were coming to talk to the famous spirit (with help from Maggie and Kate, of course). Thus, modern spiritualism was born and the Fox sisters became the first “mediums.” In fact, the movement grew so large that by the year 1867, more than 11,000,000 Americans (or two-fifths of the entire population at the time) were “spiritualists.” [2]

The Fox sisters appeared on the stage, and the spiritual phenomena being freely manifested, were investigated by a committee of prominent gentlemen, who, after continuing their researches for several days, reported their inability to trace them to any human agency.” [1]

That’s it then. Spiritualism spread like wildfire after that. Mediums were popping up all over the place and the Fox sisters continued reaping the rewards. That is, until some 40 years later when Maggie exposed them as frauds on stage on October 21, 1888. [3]

Wait a second. Why would she do that? While at first the sisters enjoyed the fame and fortune that came with their “talents,” the two eventually developed a drinking problem. On top of that, they had a falling out with Leah (who tried to have Kate’s children taken away from her [she was married by then]). Finally, Maggie was debating returning to the Roman Catholic faith and thought that her “powers” (???) were evil. It was for all of these reasons that Maggie revealed their deception:

She declared that the raps were produced by the sisters cracking their toe-joints, ability to do which they discovered accidentally. They practiced the trick until they became proficient in toe-cracking, and then they set about fooling the whole world. [4]

BUT SHE WAS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE. Millions of people believed in spiritualism and there was no way she’d have been able to convince them all that it was a hoax. The consequence? The public denounced them as mediums and spiritualism lived on.



[1] “HOW IT ORIGINATED. Hydesville, the Birthplace of Modern Spiritualism. THE NAUGHTY FOX SISTERS. Cracking Toe Joints in Fun Starts a New Religion, Which Has Since Gained a Great Many Adherents,” The Salt Lake Herald, March 30, 1890, 13.

[2] “FOX SISTERS ARE FIRST TO HEAR,” The Oklahoma Post, April 9, 1907, 2.

[3] Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism: (1926; repr., New York: Arno Press 1975), 89-111.

[4] “SPIRITUALISM’S BIRTHDAY. Forty-Five Years Ago This Month Rappings Were First Heard,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 19, 1893, 27.

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