In the late 19th century, skepticism concerning communication with spirits was the predominant social mindset, just as it is today. This attitude was the result of the unfortunate history of the great wave of spiritualism, which swept the world beginning in 1848. It began in the rented home of the Fox family in Hydesville, New York, about 2 miles north of Newark. It is nearly impossible to find a balanced accounting of the historical events today because the skeptics literally own the discourse and have done a good job of scrubbing all evidence of spiritual and psychic phenomena from public media. Barely a whiff gets past them. They have edited all the relevant pages in Wikipedia. This chapter is meant to correct the record because the events in Hydesville and those that occurred later were of seminal importance in the history of Spiritualism, as well as for the subject matter of this book.
The Fox family was haunted by a poltergeist which was able to communicate in the presence of the two young daughters residing in the household. It communicated by means of loud, audible raps that sounded like they came from the walls and ceilings of the house. The children’s names were Kate and Margaret (Maggie) Fox. They had an older, divorced sister named Leah who lived in neighboring Rochester and who also figures into their story. When word of the disturbances got out, approximately 300 people from neighboring Newark, Palmyra and Lyons descended upon the small farmhouse to experience the phenomenon for themselves. They were amazed at what they discovered, and a committee composed of 20 friends and neighbors set about a program of investigation which lasted about a week.
The committee was formed to bring some order to the chaos of so many interested persons who wanted to understand what was going on. It was not composed of professional magicians or scientists, but they were not superstitious either. They were all Christians, and believed in God and Jesus, and most testified that they did not believe in ghosts or that the spirits of the dead returned to accuse their murderers. They were a group of ordinary, skeptical people trying to find out how these ghostly phenomena could come about. They described the raps as coming from various locations, and about as loud as if someone was dropping a knife or fork on the floor. But sometimes they were substantially louder when the spirit wanted to emphasize a point.
The people of the committee at first believed that the entire thing was a trick played by Kate and Maggie, the two Fox children. The rapping happened exclusively in the presence of these girls, so it was logical to assume that they were the ones causing the phenomena. To rule this out, the girls were isolated in a locked room with a committee of women who closely observed them while other members of the group continued to communicate with the spirit. Try as they might, the committee found no evidence of fraud, and the spirit kept tapping away.
An attorney named E.E. Lewis from a neighboring town questioned the neighbors and the committee members, interviewed former tenants of the farmhouse and asked the elder Foxes to describe the events in their own words. He published a forty page pamphlet documenting the phenomena using the interviews he had conducted. (You can find a copy by entering an internet search query or see the report on this website by clicking on this link: “A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County”. By the time Lewis published his report, the disturbances had been going on for about three weeks. Aside from the visitors who wanted to debunk the raps as fraudulent, a majority who observed the initial phenomena seemed mostly interested in discovering if they were caused by the spirit of someone who was murdered in the house, and if his body was buried someplace on the property. They also asked the spirit who the murderer was and if he would ever be brought to justice. The story of the murder was interesting, but they were more amazed by the spirit’s apparently thorough knowledge of themselves, their families and their community.
The spirit indicated by rapping that he was a peddler named Charles B. Rosma. According to the affidavit signed by Margaret Fox (the mother) on April 11, 1848:
“I ascertained by the same method [raps] that it was a man, aged thirty-one years; that he had been murdered in this house, and his remains were buried in the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children, two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death, but that his wife had since died; that he was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr. [John C. Bell] on a Tuesday night at twelve o’clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher knife; that the body was taken down to the cellar; that it was not buried until the next night; that it was taken through the buttery, down the stairway, and that it was buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained that he was murdered for his money, by raps affirmative. “‘How much was it – one hundred?’ No rap. ‘Was it two hundred?’ etc., and when [another questioner] mentioned five hundred the raps replied in the affirmative.