Segment from Haunted Histories

The Fox Sisters

Reporter Nate DiMeo tells the story of Kate and Margaret Fox, the small-town girls who triggered the 19th century movement known as Spiritualism.


Nocturne by Podington Bear

Children’s Toy Box Nightmare by Audio Blocks

Orchestral Excerpts by Audio Blocks

Solace Acoustic Guitar Piano by Audio Blocks

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment For The Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation.

Joanne Freeman: From Virginia Humanities this is Backstory. Welcome to Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Joanne Freeman. If you’re new to the podcast, each week, my colleagues, Brian Balogh, Ed Ayers, Nathan Connolly and I explore a different aspect of American history. Now, October 31st is lurching towards us like a zombie stalking the nighttime streets. So many are decorating their haunted houses and stocking up on candy in preparation for one of America’s favorite holidays, Halloween. A Testament to its enduring popularity. Halloween spending is expected to top $8.8 billion this year according to a 2019 survey by the National Retail Federation.

Joanne Freeman: So today on the show, as ghosts and ghouls of all ages get ready to do descend on neighborhoods across the country, we’re digging into the archives and bringing you our spookiest segments. You’ll find out how one man made a fortune off photographs that allegedly captured spirits from the other side. And you’ll learn how Edgar Allen Poe’s horror stories reflected 19th century fears of slave insurrection.

Joanne Freeman: But first we’re going to begin in the 19th century when the idea that the living could commune with the dead turned into a full fledged American religion. It was known as spiritualism. And while there’s been plenty of debate about what to make of it, most people agree on when and where it started. In 1848 in a tiny town in upstate New York. I’m going to hand things over now to Nate Dimeo to tell us the story of the Fox sisters.

Nate: People said the house was haunted and that was even before the two girls started talking to the dead. Kate Fox was 11, her sister Margaret was 14 when they moved into a little house in a nothing village, 40 miles East of Rochester, New York. A little house that all their neighbors knew as the one where the traveling salesman had been invited in years before and was never heard from again. Never heard from that is until one night in March of 1848 when their parents first heard the sound. Some nights it would sound like knocking other nights like furniture moving and it always seemed to come from the girl’s bedroom. But they’d open the door and their daughters would be fast asleep.

Nate: They never suspected that their daughters could be tricking them. They were just young girls, but they were tricking them. What started with a little tap tapping on the wall and tiptoeing back into bed with giggles muffled by pillows, got more sophisticated as the nights went on. And on the night of March 31st the Fox sisters revealed the latest in their growing repertoire of ghost stimulating techniques. The one that would place the two girls at the center of a cultural and religious revolution.

Nate: They call their mother into the room. Margaret snapped her fingers once and they heard a tap and response. She snapped twice and it tapped twice the next night. All of their neighbors squeezed into the girls candle it room. They explained that one tap meant yes, two taps meant no. And then they started asking questions. And in the morning the audience left convinced that they had spent the night in the presence of a dead man and two girls with incredible powers.

Nate: Mr and Mrs. Fox wanted to protect their daughters and they sent them to live with their responsible older sister, Leah. But they soon found that the ghost followed the girls and Leah found an opportunity. She had booked her little sisters in a 400 seat theater in Rochester. By 1850 they were the toast of New York city. People would wait in line for hours to ask the sisters for words of their dead loved ones on the other side. William Colon Bryant caught their act, James Fenimore Cooper, George Ripley, though we don’t know whether he believed it or not. The newspaper man, Horace Greeley introduced them to New York nightlife in the pages of his paper, introduced them to the world. Soon people were holding seances like we hold dinner parties, but even as spiritualism was sweeping the nation, it was leaving the sisters who started it behind.

Nate: On October 21st, 1888 a 54 year old Margaret Fox sat on the stage at the New York Academy of Music in front of 2000 paying customers and her sister Kate and showed them all how she spoke to the dead. She told them about how 40 years before back in that little house in the nothing town after a few nights of knocking and tiptoeing back to bed, she and her little sister realized that they could both crack their toes and no one could see them doing it. And that when they did, people actually believed they were hearing from dead people. Because sounds are hard to place in space and because you believe pretty much anything if you really want to believe it.

Nate: She revealed all of that but not everything. She didn’t tell them about how she and her little sister started to unravel not long after Horace Greeley introduced them to the world. And to worldly things like power in wealth and wine. She didn’t tell them about how her sister began to believe that maybe there was something to it all, even as they both struggled under the growing weight if their shared secret. And she certainly didn’t tell them about the night she tested her own belief. After scurvy had taken the life of a polar explorer who had taken her heart. Now she broke down and tried to contact him, tried to do for real what she had spent the last nine years pretending to do. She didn’t say how she called out to him and how he didn’t call back. And how she sat in the dark knowing that he never would.

Nate: Kate and Margaret Fox weren’t forgotten, but at the times of their deaths, they weren’t remembered fondly. Each died poor, neither living to see 60. The people who still clung to spiritualism were glad to see them go. And people who never believed, they were too. Now, there is a postscript here that really can’t be resisted and you can do with it what you will. They tore that little house down in 1904 and inside one of the walls near the girls room. They found the skeleton of a man believed to be a traveling salesman who appeared to have been murdered a few years before the Fox family moved in. It’s true.

Joanne Freeman: That was Nate Dimeo. You can listen to a longer version of the story as well as many more of Nate’s American history stories at