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)