Spiritualism Explained

Spiritualism became an international movement, but it started with the excited whispers of 14- and 11-year-old sisters Maggie and Kate Fox. On March 31, 1848, the Fox sisters told their neighbor something amazing: They had started communicating with a spirit that knocked on the walls of their bedroom, seeming to answer their questions. Interested, the neighbor joined the sisters and their family for a demo — and exactly what they said would happen, happened. By that time, it was April Fools’ Day — something that no one seemed to realize.

The sisters’ parents were so creeped out by it that they left and moved to Rochester, New York. It was there, says the Smithsonian, that the sisters added a story about a man who had been murdered in their home, and when curiosity-seekers found bone fragments in the basement, imagination did the rest.

The sisters were asked to perform in public, and it wasn’t long before hundreds of people were going to see them. Later joined by sister Leah, Maggie and Kate established themselves as professional mediums — and the fact that they set themselves up at a hotel belonging to showman PT Barnum wasn’t a hint, either. Their shows got bigger and better, until in 1888, Maggie publicly confessed that the entire thing had been a hoax developed by teenage girls looking to fool the grown-ups. By then, it was too late: No one cared where it came from, spiritualism had been born.

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