The well-publicized phenomena in the Fox household, as well as the large public hall demonstrations became a sensation, and kicked off a huge worldwide wave of interest in the supernatural which lasted for some 40 years. After the initial phenomena, Kate, Maggie and Leah (who developed into a fair medium herself) were investigated over and over by various groups of both skeptics and believers. Committee after committee examined them. No one was ever able to prove any form of deception, although numerous skeptics were always laying traps and trying to fabricate results. The skeptics clumsy debunking rather increased the popularity of the sisters and of Spiritualism, the newly “re-discovered” religion that virtually began with them.
By 1854, the number of spiritualists in America was estimated to be between one and two million, and growing. This was probably because more and more people, upon hearing about the spirits in the Fox residence, began to experiment with “spirit boards”, table tipping and automatic writing. Some then discovered that they were themselves psychic sensitives, and they began to spread the message which caused their friends and neighbors to experiment, and so on, until a snowball effect produced a worldwide avalanche of belief in the ability of the dead to communicate with the living. (Note: Experimenting with Ouija boards and other means of “contacting the dead” can be dangerous because it can lead to obsession or possession. This is discussed more thoroughly by Dr Wickland in Thirty Years among the Dead, and also in my chapter on demonic possession,)
But as the popularity of spirit phenomena grew, so did the anger of the skeptics. Ministers of mainstream religious denominations thought that the spirits were really demons. Some people who had become disenchanted with religious hucksterism gave up religion entirely abandoning all belief in God, heaven, and spiritual matters and became avowed materialists. (Religious hucksterism was a real problem since religion was a serious money making business in those days.) Materialism became a religion unto itself and competed with established religion for new disbelievers, something that continues right up to the present day.
Between 1853 and 1855, spiritualism’s popularity soared so dramatically that many of America’s most prominent writers, thinkers, atheists and scientists became alarmed, and the vitriol behind their criticisms increased to a fever pitch. Many of these people composed the nation’s elite then, as they still do today. Their enduring skepticism, born of materialistic values, combined with their control of all forms of public media, began to bring about a slow, but relentless change in the public’s perception of spiritual matters. The obtuseness and poor quality of the spirits evoked on household spirit boards and by untrained mediums probably facilitated the process.
On the other side, some believers directed their interest toward a serious understanding of psychic phenomena, but many others were simply bereaved and naive people willing to spend large sums of money on psychics who held out the hope that they could contact their dead loved ones.
Death and grief were constant presences in every family in 1848. The average lifespan for laborers and tradesmen was about 39. There were no antibiotics. Robert Koch would not publish the germ theory of infectious disease until 1890. Medicine had barely progressed beyond the arts of the medieval era, and an infected finger or a blister on a foot could lead to gangrene or blood poisoning and bring about an agonizing death in an otherwise healthy person. Prior to the Public Health Act of 1848, public health measures were non-existent, and whole families died almost regularly in local epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, cholera and influenza.
The likelihood of unexpected death was an ever present shadow hanging over the head of every mother’s child, and the question of life beyond death was a hot topic. The possibility that the dead could communicate with the living was something that enraptured nearly everyone. Not surprisingly, this led to the establishment of a thriving underworld of fraudulent psychics who were in business to profit from personal grief and the public’s ignorance about the real nature of spiritual phenomena.
As more and more of the frauds were debunked, the angry denunciations of the skeptics gained additional fertile ground and the public started to become more skeptical of psychic phenomena and of psychics in general. Over the next forty years, lifespans began to increase rapidly due to advances in medicine and public health laws. Fewer people were experiencing the grief of the premature loss of a loved one.
To top this off, over the years Kate and Maggie Fox had drifted into alcoholism and poverty. During their 40 year careers, both girls had developed into famous and accomplished spirit mediums. They were able to produce many types of spirit phenomena, and they were tested at every step. The testing continued and in their later years they were either exposed as frauds or authenticated as real depending on the biases of the investigators. This happened over and over again and probably was a factor in their alcoholism. The constant criticism from skeptics, the repetitive humiliating testing and the slow disengagement of the public were starting to take their toll on the sisters.
Another factor in their alcoholism may well have been spirit obsession (see chapter 12). Well after the Fox sisters began their careers, psychic mediums began to realize that they were at the mercy of low level spirits who would like nothing better than to experience their former vices through them. Early mediums had learned from hard experience that without spiritual help, their brethren had a tendency to fall by the wayside due to alcohol, drugs, sex and other vices. (Dr. Wickland tells of one such case.) This was when the concept of a “spirit control” was born.
Spirit controls, today called “spirit guides”, are higher level spirits that act as gatekeepers for the medium, protecting him or her from “evil”, or low level spirits who might take advantage of a vulnerable medium in a trance. This is one of the reasons that modern mediums pray to God for protection prior to communicating with the other side. All experienced mediums today maintain spirit guides. Anna Wickland had a group of higher spirits that ran interference for her. They called themselves the Mercy Band. Unfortunately, the Fox sisters, who began their careers with no idea of the dangers they faced had no such protection.