The Little Girls Who Invented Spiritualism in Victorian America

Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox
On the evening of March 31, 1848, occult history was made in the tiny town of Hydesville, New York.  Two young sisters, fifteen-year-old Maggie Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate, professed to talk to the spirit of a murdered peddler that they claimed had been buried in the basement of their rented house.

The family had been hearing strange noises for several weeks, but on that particular night the rapping or clicking sounds seemed to respond to questions. The neighbors were called in to witness the phenomenon and the notoriety soon grew.

The story of the murdered peddler inspired the men of the town to dig up the basement. Unfortunately, they struck water at four feet down and had to discontinue their search. The two girls were sent to live with two older siblings in separate towns, but the knocking and rapping sounds continued regardless of their domicile.

Kate moved in with her 34-year-old sister Leah, who lived in nearby Rochester and was fascinated by the ghostly communications. Soon she was inviting curious neighbors in for séances and the news spread widely that the spirit world was talking to the Fox sisters through their own version of a spiritual telegraph.

Skeptics began to question the nonsense and demanded to examine the young sisters to identify how they were actually creating the mysterious noises. The girls appeared in public before a jeering crowd and were "investigated" by several committees who ultimately could not explain the phenomenon. The public performances and the investigations were widely reported in the press, as far away as New York and the girls were soon celebrities.

By 1850, the Rochester Rappers, as the papers called them, were touring numerous cities and conducting séances for many well known individuals, including the author James Fenimore Cooper. Leah Fox managed her young sisters' appearances and "interpreted" the rappings.

Though many clergymen denounced spiritualism as either sideshow hokum or dangerous and demonic, the craze spread faster than a wildfire through America of the 1850's and 60's. Thousands wanted to communicate with their lost love ones and countless spiritualists began to practice the trade.

Mediums were so numerous, they formed professional associations and hosted annual meetings attended by practitioners from throughout the young country. A grieving Mary Todd Lincoln tried to contact the spirit of her deceased son during a séance conducted at the White House.

For the famous Fox sisters, the party came to a shocking end in 1888. Maggie Fox publicly announced that the actions of her and her sisters had been a colossal hoax. Before a large audience, she told that world that she and Kate had produced the sounds by popping their toe joints and snapping their toes together as one would snap one's fingers. She demonstrated this to the assembled group who clearly heard the sounds she made. Though Kate was present at the event, she neither confessed nor contradicted her sister.

A year later, Maggie recanted her confession. She claimed she had been destitute and a reporter had paid her $1500 to offer the exposé. The damage was done, though, and the reputation of the Fox sisters was ruined. Their story might have ended there--both Maggie and Kate were alcoholics and were dead within five years of the confession--but in 1905 the Rochester Rappers were back in the news.

Back in Hydesville, a wall in the basement of their childhood home collapsed, revealing a second wall which purportedly held the bones and a tin chest belonging to the murdered peddler. The story appeared in many newspapers, but skeptics claim this was just another hoax.


The Possibility of Ghosts: The World of the Victorian Occult--and its Modern (Televised) Counterpart

As readers of my last two mystery novels, Seance in Sepia and The Second Glass of Absinthe, know, I love researching--and writing about--the world of the Victorian occult. I plan on profiling at least one major figure in that world each week, starting soon.

Why am I doing this? Well, it actually has something to do with the novel I am currently writing. In it, the main character is an expert on the subject of Modern Spiritualism ("modern" in this case referring to the late 19th century) and has written a book on the subject which does just what I plan to do: profile prominent mediums and other practitioners who were famous in their own time.

Were they legitimate or were they fraudsters? Many were exposed during their lifetime to be charlatans, others were self-confessed hoaxers. Some were suspected of fraud but defied detection.  True believers in spiritualism, even today, still ask, did they successfully contact that other world that may exist in "the undiscovered country," as Shakespeare called death.

Now modern (21st century) readers are too sophisticated to believe in spiritualism, right? Wrong, that is, if you take note of the fact that there are currently on television more than three dozen shows about ghosts, haunted houses, and mediums!

Here is a partial list of shows that are currently or have recently been available for your viewing pleasure--if you subscribe to basic cable:

The notorious Fox sisters who are widely credited
with founding the movement called spiritualism in 1848

A Haunting
Haunted Hotels
American Paranormal
Celebrity Ghost Stories
Dead Famous
Extreme Paranormal
Ghost Adventures
Ghost Detectives
Ghost Hunters
Ghost Lab
Ghost Stories
Ghost Trackers
Ghostly Encounters
Ghosts Caught On Tape
Ghosts: Fact or Fiction
Haunted History
Haunted Homes
Haunting Evidence
Living with the Dead
Long Island Medium
Most Haunted
My Ghost Story
Mystery Hunters
Paranormal Cops
Psychic Witness
Scariest Places On Earth
The Haunted
The Othersiders
The Unexplained

What does this astoundingly long list tell us? That Americans in the 21st century believe in ghosts as much as their 19th century ancestors? I don't know if this is true, but I am certain that we love the possibility of ghosts.

Why? Well, for one thing, it's fun. It's fun to imagine that ghosts might exist. And it's scary and Americans love to be scared. (Just look at Stephen King's sales figures, if you don't believe this.)

A fascination with ghosts speaks to a deep and profound yearning in the human soul to know what happens after death. Most religions are grounded on this very basic fear and longing for an explanation. Plus the possibility of contacting or interacting in some way with the departed answers another kind of  longing in the hearts of all grieving people.

Of course, grief stricken people tend to be easier to exploit than more emotionally objective individuals and less-than-scrupulous 19th-century mediums were quick to capitalize on this fact. I tackled this issue in my recent novel, Seance in Sepia, when I explored the world of spirit photography. (Several posts in my blog archive on this subject can be found here. ) My current work in progress also poses the question of whether a spiritualist is committing fraud or not.

Stay tuned for weekly supernatural profiles in upcoming posts here at The Victorian West. First up will be the little girls who started it all: The Fox Sisters.


Congratulations to the Winners of Seance in Sepia

Three names were drawn last week for free copies of the new trade paperback edition of Seance in Sepia. They spanned the entire country--one from Maine, one from Colorado, and one from Washington state!

Happy reading, you guys and thanks again to all who stopped by the Victorian West to enter!


Win a FREE Copy of Séance in Sepia

Séance in Sepia is now available in both paperback and as an e-book on the Kindle format.

To celebrate this big event in my "book life," I want to send a FREE trade paperback copy to three lucky readers. Simply leave a comment on this post and you will be registered for the drawing which will take place on Tuesday, November 20.

[U.S. addresses only, please, and make sure I have a way to contact you to get your mailing address, if you are a winner!]

Séance in Sepia has been enjoying a busy and gratifying fall. In October, the book was honored at a finalists’ luncheon for the 2012 WILLA Literary Award.

The luncheon took place during the annual conference of Women Writing the West, an organization that I have been a member of since its very early days in the 1990's. I served on the group's board of directors for several years, helping with marketing and one year editing the newsletter.

Receiving an honor from this group was very touching to me, recalling all those early years of service and struggle. Now the group has matured and grown, but the writers all have that same spark of enthusiasm and love for the American West.

The second lovely honor my book received was a nod from Colorado Country Life Magazine in their annual roundup of Best Books For 2012. You can access the article online here.

If you would like to read the first two chapters, there is a link to the excerpt on the tab at the top of this blog under the banner.

Good luck!


The NaNoWriMo Challenge Comes to Hanging Lake

I have signed up to participate in the National Novel Writing Month. I have never done this before but since I was writing my seventh novel anyway, I thought it might be a good way to stay motivated.

In a way, I have already started the book in the sense that I have been researching the setting and time period for more than a year. The characters have names and backstories developing and the plot is slinking its way towards an outline.

The working title of this new venture is "Hanging Lake." For those who live outside Colorado, Hanging Lake is a real place, located just east of Glenwood Springs.

I first visited Hanging Lake in the early 1990's. This photo was taken then of my two sons and their friends. The lake is accessed from a trailhead near Interstate 70 at a place called Dead Horse Gulch.

The hike is short--a little more than a mile--but very steep. One thousand feet in altitude is gained in that short distance so it becomes similar to climbing stairs for an hour. (No need to visit the gym's stairclimber after this day's workout.)

"Hanging" in this instance does not refer to anyone getting hanged, despite that fact that I am writing a mystery novel set in 1893. The name comes instead from the creation of the lake itself. A mineral-filled waterfall has splashed over the area for eons, the resulting layers of travertine on the side of the canyon wall eventually formed a basin which now acts like a giant sink, holding the water there.

The falls and the crystal clear waters of the lake are a dazzling sight--breath-taking, literally and figuratively--and well worth the climb to visit.

On November 1st, the fun begins. I think each participant in NaNoWriMo is psyched to challenge themselves to meet the grueling 50,000 word deadline on the 30th. For more information on NaNo, as it is fondly referred to by its thousands of participants, click here to visit the National Novel Writing Month website.


The Splendor That was Prairie Avenue

A great resource for information
about Prairie Avenue is this
"Images of America" book by
William H. Tyre.
One of the best perks to writing historical fiction is gaining a nodding acquaintance with fascinating places in the past. Some still exist today and can be visited, but most have disintegrated into a bygone time or only exist in a radically altered form.

The real life locale of much of the action in Seance in Sepia is a storied street in Chicago called Prairie Avenue. In 1875, the year my novel takes place, Prairie Avenue was the finest address one could hope to claim in that city. Chicago's elite all built mansions there after the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city center.

Household names like Marshall Fields, of department store fame, Phillip Armour of  meatpacking renown, and George Pullman of the train cars carrying his name, are just three of the millionaires who built mansions there which eventually totaled fifty in number.  Those built during the 1870's and 80's were styled in the manner the Second Empire with mansard roofs.

The home I describe my characters living in was inspired by the Daniel Thompson house. Readers of Seance in Sepia will recognize the third floor tower room in the drawing as the location where the lifeless bodies of Medora Lamb and Cameron Curtis Langley were discovered by Medora's husband, Alec Ingersoll, who was subsequently charged with their murders.

Viewing a photograph of this house and that tower room literally created the scenes of the novel in my mind. Sadly the mansion in question no longer exists. I visited the real Prairie Avenue on a trip to Chicago a number of years ago and found only remnants of its past glory. The monied interests of Chicago eventually migrated northward to the shores of Lake Michigan near the end of the 19th century. The encroaching heavy industry and the growing rail lines in the Prairie Avenue area made it a less than desirable place to live for families who could afford to live anywhere.

A few mansions remain and one, the Glessner House, is now operating as a restored Museum. It has a website listing events there:

The elegance of Victorian Chicago can be experienced or at least imagined there.

Seance in Sepia is available for purchase from Amazon.com and other fine online retailers. Or ask for it at your local library. 


A Time Traveling Victorian Village...with a Killer View of the Rocky Mountains

Erie Village as viewed from the neighborhood park
Regular readers of this blog know that I write novels set during the Victorian era. That said, what better inspiration could such a writer have than living in a neighborhood which seems to have appeared from that time period, full blown, like a Victorian version of Brigadoon?

Imagine, if you will, a modern housing development whose homeowners' association encourages rather than proscribes unique and even eccentric house colors, that mandates large, covered front porches, and requires that house designs date from 1880 to 1910.

My own house is shown here. A white picket fence surrounds the front yard and the porch includes a full sized gazebo for three-season outdoor dining.

The neighborhood was conceived about fourteen years ago on farmland once owned by the Erie town doctor. It lies twelve miles east of Boulder and about twenty miles north of Denver.

The interior of the homes here can be as modern or traditional as the owner wishes. Naturally, given my love of all things Victorian, I favor as many historical design touches as possible, as long as they do not actually interfere with modern comfort and convenience.
My Writer's Nook

My home office, for example, offers all modern necessities, yet still conveys a homey warmth supplied by a fireplace and abundant window light.

The room is small--small enough to almost merit a designation as an "Inglenook" or chimney corner. An inglenook, historically, was an alcove containing a fireplace and a seating area. It was originally used for cooking, but in later times became a cozy spot to shake off the winter's chill and enjoy conversation and a warm beverage or two.

My writing companion
and silent critic relaxes nearby
Frank Lloyd Wright often incorporated such design features into his Prairie Style homes.

Though traditional inglenooks feature a centered fireplace with built-in seating lining both walls, my office feels cozy enough to at least be called a Writer's Nook.

My office also contains a lovely stained glass window, one of five in the home. Does all of this Neo-Victoriana inspire me and infuse my writing with its own unique flavor? Too early to tell. Though I have owned this house for two years, I have only just begun to live here full time.

I have previously written books in all sorts of surroundings and I sometimes think too much comfort is actually a detriment. It becomes so easy to let one's mind start wandering...and not in a creative way. Yet, there is much to be said for surrounding oneself with whatever sparks the imagination.

Living in Erie Village is a full-throttle immersion in the grace and beauty of a bygone moment in America's past and I feel so fortunate to call it home. 



A Short Vacation into the Long Past

Nearly a decade ago, this profile of me was published in True West Magazine. I recently came across it when moving my office files from my farm outside Kansas City to my present, now full-time, home in Colorado. The interview reflects my writing life as I viewed it in early 2003.

I read it over and was mildly surprised that I would probably answer many of the reviewer's questions exactly the same way today. I still love historical research, it is still one of the main reasons I love to write, and I still believe that America's ideas about the West--whether true or myth or something in-between--define much of our national character.

By the way, the novel referred to in the article as "The Eye Dazzler" was re-titled before its publication to become, The Second Glass of Absinthe. And my first horse, Solomon Spring, also mentioned below, is still in the family. He is now cared for  by my daughter-in-law, who is studying to become a veterinarian. Final declaimer: My hair is no longer brunette!