dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

While I was promoting WE HEAR THE DEAD in the early months of 2010, I had a startling revelation about the role played by séances in the 19th century. Too bad I only had 5 blog followers at the time …

Thanks to the Déjà Vu Blogfest – The Day of the Do-Over – I get to share it again!

While working on a guest post for my blog tour, trying to explain why abolitionists and suffragettes endorsed the Fox sisters’ séances, it suddenly hit me: Seances were the 19th century’s version of Twitter!

Picture it — People receiving brief, cryptic messages sent by faceless entities from a far away place. That pretty much describes both a séance and Twitter, doesn’t it?

While I was writing the Fox sisters’ story in WE HEAR THE DEAD, I struggled to find an explanation for why intelligent and educated people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass supported something that was just a clever hoax. Were they really taken in? Eventually I came to the conclusion that – just like today – people endorse things that benefit them.

People were quick to believe messages sent from Heaven, but, of course, as with Twitter, one can never be really certain of the sender’s true identity. 19th century Senator John Calhoun was a staunch (even rabid) advocate of slavery. Yet, after his death, Calhoun’s spirit (@johncalhoun if you please) visited the Fox sisters’ séances, claiming he’d been enlightened by the Truth in the afterlife and recanting his former position!

Stanton, Mott, Douglass, and other reformers knew exactly what they were doing when they endorsed the Fox sisters. They had a message they wanted to spread, and the Fox sisters, abolitionists and fledgling feminists themselves, were more than happy to cooperate. As @benjaminfranklin said in one of their séances, “Great changes are on the horizon!”

In writing We Hear the Dead, it became necessary for me to focus on one of the two Fox sisters. Maggie was my obvious choice, because she was the morally conflicted sister who faced a mob at Corinthian Hall, a violent attack in Troy, and the one who was drawn into a star-crossed romance with a man above her station.

Many readers have wanted to know more about Kate, but unfortunately the timeline of the novel didn’t allow me to fully address her strange life. Although she was a central figure in the Hydesville incident and the early Rochester spirit circles, Kate was subsequently shipped off to school by her family and remained out of sight for a couple years. Horace Greeley took an interest in Kate’s schooling and housed the girl in his home while she attended a private school. This seems very generous, unless you know that Mrs. Greeley was mentally disturbed. Grief for her dead son had made her a morose, temperamental, and difficult companion. Horace Greeley installed Kate Fox in his home and then vanished to his private Manhattan apartment — he rarely inhabited the same home as his wife. Kate attended school during the day and performed private séances for the unhappy Mrs. Greeley at night.

Kate was miserable. She wrote countless letters begging her family to bring her home. Unfortunately, Horace Greeley was too important an ally to cross, and Kate was left for months at a time in Mrs. Greeley’s less-than-tender care. It’s no wonder that when she finally escaped, the poor girl wallowed in the social activity which her fame allowed. Sadly, she developed a taste for alcohol – so much so that Elisha Kane remarked on it warningly in some of his letters to Maggie.

Did Kate really have “the second sight” as I suggest in We Hear the Dead? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. However, unlike Maggie, Kate never confessed to fraud and worked as a spirit medium for most of her life. Kate was subject to fits and migraines, and even before she started drinking alcohol, her family dosed her with a tonic that may have been laced with morphine (as many were at that time). This might explain some of her “visions.”

Kate’s work as a medium grew increasingly strange in her early twenties (beyond the timeline of We Hear the Dead). She performed a series of séances for a banker named Charles Livermore in which she supposedly produced a physical manifestation of his dead wife. In the pitch darkness of the room, the wife’s spirit held Livermore’s hand, stroked his face, placed her fingers in his mouth – and he reported fingering the ribbons on the bodice of her gown. (What was going on in that dark room??)

Kate married and had two sons, one of whom was diagnosed with epilepsy – lending credence to the idea that she had some mild form of epilepsy herself. During her marriage, her life stabilized for awhile, but after her husband died, she allowed her fondness for alcohol to take over. At one point, her sister Leah attempted to seize custody of her two sons, and only Maggie’s intervention prevented this from happening.

Kate Fox may have been the nineteenth century version of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. Which reminds me that there are 2 days left for you to enter the Teenage Celebrity contest and win a We Hear the Dead t-shirt!

With little more than a clever prank, two adolescent girls hornswoggled scores of adults into believing they had a special power to communicate with the dead. It is tempting to think of these people as ridiculously gullible, but in fact, they lived in an age where the impossible was rapidly becoming not only possible, but commonplace.

Michael Faraday was, at this time, experimenting with electromagnetism. Fossilized bones of giant monsters—later called “dinosaurs”—were discovered in New Jersey. The steamboat had been invented; the Erie Canal had been excavated. And then there was the telegraph! Messages spelled out in one place flew through the air and magically tapped themselves into existence somewhere else. Was it beyond the realm of possibility that, in a world where such things could happen, men could find a way to communicate with the dead? Inventor Nikola Tesla didn’t think it so strange. Before the end of the century, he began work on a radio transmitter he hoped would be able to receive broadcasts from Heaven—or at least from outer space.

Nevertheless, scientific gullibility aside, it is doubtful that the Fox girls’ notoriety would have lasted if it had not been for the intervention of their oldest sister, Mrs. Leah Fish. This woman shrewdly recognized the money-making potential in the scam and relocated the family to Rochester, New York. There, she set up a profitable business conducting “spirit circles” at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took additional steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who then introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. The ghost of Benjamin Franklin promised “great changes,” and pro-slavery Senator John Calhoun stopped by the spirit table shortly after his death to announce that he had been converted to the abolitionist cause in the afterlife!

Although there were critics who condemned the Fox sisters as frauds, and many who believed they were witches, several churches accepted spiritual communication as a religious experience. One Protestant minister stated that “God’s telegraph” had completely overshadowed the more mundane version invented by Samuel Morse. Leah Fish’s connection to abolitionists, suffragettes, and religious leaders became a social stepping stone for the sisters, who consorted with people high above their station. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous eventually brought them into the social circle of Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and Arctic explorer. Kane immediately saw through the pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her sister.

Elisha Kane’s pursuit of Maggie Fox soon caused a crisis of conscience for the young girl. She was being asked to choose between her family and the man she loved. Soon, Elisha Kane and Leah Fish, both charismatic and influential in their own ways, were engaged in a battle for control of Maggie’s future. The Fox-Kane romance and the ethics of spirit rapping is the heart and soul of my novel, We Hear the Dead, but by the time this conflict erupted, spiritualism was already a movement which had taken on a life of its own. What had begun as a prank perpetrated by two mischievous girls had become a political vehicle, a new religion, and a source of entertainment for the popular media into the next century … and beyond.

Uncle Albert, are you with us? Knock twice for yes …

It’s a recurring theme in popular media. Whether Patricia Arquette is solving crimes in the television show Medium, or Haley Joel Osment is whispering, “I see dead people,” our fascination with contacting the dead is undeniable. Even someone who has never attended a seance can certainly imagine one: solemn people seated around a table, holding hands in the dark, waiting for the curtains to billow mysteriously and Uncle Albert to tell them where his will is hidden. Although the “seance” is embedded in our popular culture, few people know that the concept originated with two adolescent girls in the mid-19th century — and that it all began as a high-spirited prank.
I’ve chosen to revisit the tale of these two teenaged girls in my historical novel, We Hear the Dead, due for release in May 2010. For me, truth really was more strange and compelling than fiction!
Maggie and Kate Fox, aged fourteen and eleven, were the youngest daughters of working class parents who, in 1848, entertained family members with a trick that ultimately founded the spiritualist movement. When life in the rural town of Hydesville, New York became too dull, Maggie and Kate invented a game that convinced their parents — and then the neighbors — that their house was haunted. By means of a knocking code, the girls communicated with the ghost of a murdered man supposedly buried in the basement. When the parents of the girls and the neighbors searched the house from top to bottom but could find no earthly explanation for the rapping noises, they commenced digging up the basement. Results were inconclusive — some hair and bone fragments were discovered — but this was enough to convince the residents of Hydesville that supernatural events were afoot.
Word of the ghostly occurrences spread, and people from the surrounding towns came to hear the knocking spirit. A newspaper reporter published a pamphlet on the mystery. Like a snowball, the story grew in the telling. Maggie and Kate Fox, who up to that point had lived ordinary and rather dull lives, had suddenly been thrust into the limelight. And neither one of them was in a hurry to see that light fade. (to be continued)