Imagine sitting in the darkened attic room of an isolated cottage, conversing with a disembodied intelligence—an intelligence that seems to know about you.
On March 31, 1848, just such a communication seemingly began between two young girls and the ghost of a murdered man, a conversation conducted by a series of coded knocks, taps and raps. Within two years Kate Fox and her sister Maggie were propelled to national and international fame—some would say infamy—as the world’s first professional spirit mediums.
The story of the Fox sisters is a tale so often told, and by so many, that it is difficult to separate myth from history. Anyone who has read accounts of the “Hydesville Knockings” (later known as the more alliterative “Rochester Rappings” after the spirits moved to the big city) has been confronted with a tangle of conflicting information. How old were the girls when they apparently opened a line of communication to the spirit world? Their ages were recorded in various sources as being anywhere between eight and sixteen years old. When did these ghostly goings-on begin? Some sources stated that the spirits manifested only after the Fox family moved into the cottage in Hydesville, New York, in 1847; others asserted that knocking sounds and other weird phenomena began years before, while the cottage was occupied by other (corporeal) tenants.
Barbara Weisberg has sorted through decades of embellishment and exaggeration, and in Talking to the Dead she pieces together from personal letters, diaries and firsthand testimony a remarkably clear picture of the origins of Spiritualism. Weisberg’s account of what happened in Hydesville in 1848 is somewhat less spectacular than those reported in the nineteenth-century press, but it is certainly no less compelling. Talking to the Dead, as it traces Kate and Maggie’s meteoric rise to fame and their final descent into obscurity, reads like a well-written novel filled with fascinatingly flawed characters, remarkable coincidences and twists of fate, tremendous successes and terrible betrayals.
Having read a number of books on the history of séances and Spiritualism, what I find most refreshing about Talking to the Dead is that the author does not approach the subject from the standpoint of a debunker, condemning Kate and Maggie as con artists and dismissing Spiritualists as dupes and simpletons, nor does she set out to prove that the Fox sisters really were prophets of a new age, in contact with the great beyond. Instead, Weisberg writes about the Fox sisters as fascinating individuals who lived in an exciting time; as independent women who achieved much in an era when many social changes were taking place, but when young women were presented with few opportunities for forging their own destinies. In doing so, the author accomplishes the most important and difficult task of a biographer: She makes readers care about Kate and Maggie Fox. We see them as real human beings with human emotions, needs, desires, and foibles.
Weisberg is also to be commended for resisting the temptation to cast Kate and Maggie’s elder sister Leah as the villain of the piece. In the early years of Spiritualism, Leah acted as her sisters’ manager and surrogate parent, and she herself eventually became a spirit medium of some renown. While Leah was clearly not the warmest of individuals, and she was probably a lousy parental figure, there is little evidence to support the idea that she forced her sisters into a life of slavish servitude to her will, as many writers have suggested. The only testimony to this effect comes from Maggie’s 1888 confession, a public statement made ostensibly to unburden herself of years of deceit, but which was almost certainly intended to discredit and destroy her sister Leah.
Ultimately, the story of the rise of Spiritualism and the Fox sisters is a puzzle that the author admits can never be fully reassembled. Too many pieces are missing, and all the individuals involved are now past providing answers to any persistent mysteries. For instance:
Did Kate and Maggie Fox actually believe in spirits?
We’ll never know. In Talking to the Dead, Barbara Weisberg encourages us to pursue the path of a true skeptic—one who finds a way to live with unanswerable questions.