How Did Spiritualism Begin?

By Wes Annac, Editor, Openhearted Rebel

This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Enlightened Afterlife, my ebook centered on Spiritualist philosophy on life after death. You can purchase a PDF file of the book at the bottom of this post, or you can check out the Kindle version by clicking the book cover below.

Enlightened Afterlife cover-photo

History of the Fox Home

Troy Taylor writes that the Spiritualist movement officially began in the home of the Fox sisters in Hydesdale, New York in 1848. (4)

It was revived once or twice in the mid-1900s after its popularity had waned, and the greatest of these revivals took place during World Wars I and II. (4)

Legend states that the Fox family house was haunted before they moved in. (4) A couple with the last name Bell occupied the house between 1843 and 1844, and a young local woman, Lucretia Pulver, did chores and other related things for them. (4)

A young peddler came to the door one day looking to sell goods to the family, and he ended up staying with them for a short time. (4) It’s believed that the peddler had a closer relationship with Mrs. Bell than anyone knew. (4)

Shortly after he began staying with the family, Lucretia was fired for unknown reasons. (4) No explanation was given for her firing, but there were no hard feelings involved. (4)

Before Mrs. Bell was to take her home, Lucretia decided to buy a small kitchen knife from the peddler which she requested he bring to her father’s farm later. He never showed up. (4)

To her delight, Lucretia was rehired a week later. (4) When she returned, she noticed the peddler was gone but Mrs. Bell was in possession of most of his things. (4) She assumed Mrs. Bell had bought them from him before sending him on his way, however, and everything seemed back to normal. (4)

The sense of normalcy wouldn’t last.

Lucretia quickly began to notice strange happenings: knocking and tapping noises from the peddler’s old room; eerie footsteps pacing the house before descending down the stairs to the cellar; and a nervous and frightening feeling that would overwhelm her when she was alone in the house. (4)

The noises would sometimes cease if she had a friend or relative stay in the house with her, but oftentimes they’d go on for hours whether or not she was alone. (4) The noises scared her brother so bad on one occasion that he left the house and refused to return. (4)

One day while down in the cellar, Lucretia stumbled over a fresh mound of dirt she didn’t remember being there before. (4) Mrs. Bell’s explanation was that she’d dumped it there to cover rat holes. (4)

Shortly after, the Bells moved out of the house and the Weekman family moved in along with a relative, Ms. Lafe. They didn’t stay long. (4)

Ms. Lafe was entering the kitchen one day when she spotted an apparition of a man in a black frock coat. (4) She screamed and it vanished. (4) Soon, the whole family would be aware of a strange presence in the house.

It wasn’t long before the Weekmans noticed noises similar to those reported by Lucretia in the evening and night. They moved out shortly after because they couldn’t handle it. (4)

Then, in 1848, the Fox family moved in. (4)

Legend of the Fox Sisters

The Fox family consisted of John Fox, his wife and their three daughters Margaret, Kate and Leah. (4,5) John was a farmer from Canada who’d recently purchased land in New York and was building a house on it. (4) They stayed in the Hydesdale cottage temporarily while their family home was being built. (4)

Within days of moving in, they began to notice strange noises. (4) They’d be awoken suddenly at night by loud banging, rattling and other noises, and at first John Fox thought nothing of it. (4)

He figured they were simply the sounds of a new and unfamiliar house exaggerated by his family’s active imaginations. (4) However, the noises and the reports from his wife and daughters became harder to dismiss. (4)

One night, Kate woke up screaming and said a hand had touched her face. (4) In another instance, Margaret reported feeling invisible fists pull the covers off of her bed. (4) Mrs. Fox even reported hearing footsteps in the house that descended into the cellar, like Lucretia had a few years earlier. (4)

Not a superstitious man, John Fox was perplexed. (4) He couldn’t explain or figure out the source of the noises, and his wife and daughters quickly began to believe the house was haunted. (4)

On the evening of March 31st, 1848, John examined the noises in an attempt to find a source as he had every single evening up to that point with no success. (4)

Things would be different on that night, however, when one of the Fox sisters decided to take the investigation in a new direction. (4)

Kate noticed that when John would knock on a wall or doorframe, they’d hear the same number of knocks in response from the ghostly presence. (4) It was as if someone was trying to communicate with them. (4)

Being assured of its existence and even naming it “Mr. Splitfoot”, Kate addressed it by this name and told it to “do as I do” before clapping her hands twice. (4) Two knocks were immediately heard, and it was as if they came from inside the wall. (4)

Then Kate rapped on the table. The knocks repeated her again. (4)

Their attention thoroughly captured, her family entered the room and watched as she communicated with the presence through sound. (4) They began to ask it questions, such as the age of one of the daughters and the age of a Fox child who’d passed away. (4)

The number of knocks always corresponded with the accurate age or number, making it seem as if they were communicating with a presence or intelligence that somehow had deeper knowledge of the family. (4)

John Fox brought his neighbors over to witness the phenomenon. (4) Many of them were initially skeptical but surprised to receive accurate answers to their own questions, and scientific experiments began in the house to determine if proof of a discarnate spirit had really been found. (4)

William Duesler was a neighbor and former occupier of the house who embarked on his own experiments by asking repeated questions and creating a form of alphabet using a series of knocks. (4)

He was able to determine the cause of the disturbances through a group session with the spirit wherein it revealed it was a peddler who’d been murdered in the house. (4) Lucretia just happened to be in attendance and quickly came forward with her experiences and the story of stumbling over the dirt mound in the cellar. (4)

John Fox and William Dueselr went to the area in the cellar where Lucretia had reported finding the mound and dug, and after over an hour, they found nothing except a strange object underneath the blade of Fox’s shovel. (4)

It was a small piece of bone with some hair still attached, and a local doctor later determined it was a piece of a skull. (4) The Fox family (as well as the masses who’d gathered at their home by this point) were convinced it was from the peddler. (4) From there, what we now know as the Spiritualist movement took off. (4)

Fox Sisters Claim Psychic Abilities

The two younger Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate, now claimed to have psychic abilities and a special connection with the spirit of the peddler. (4) News spread fast, and by just a little over a year later in November 1849, the two sisters were giving public displays of their abilities. (4)

Their older sister Leah became their manager. (5)

Everyone was intrigued and wanted to be a part of what was going on, and thus, the Spiritualist movement was born. (4) The Fox sisters gained international fame, but their credibility was called into question often. (4)

After a while, the Fox family became overwhelmed with all the visitors to their home and moved to Rochester. (3) The peddler reportedly followed the sisters and continued to make contact; they presented evidence for this contact at a public demonstration organized in Corinthian Hall, the city’s largest assembly. (3)

A committee was appointed to investigate the sisters’ legitimacy before the demonstration, and they’d formed the opinion beforehand that the sisters were making the tapping sounds by snapping their knee joints. (3)

However, according to Spiritualism and Beyond, they passed every test and the committee “had no choice” but to let them go on stage. (3)

Horace Greely Puts Fox Sisters to the Test

Horace Greely, owner of the New York Tribune, was an important figure in the introduction of Spiritualist philosophy to a wider audience. (3) He’d given the Hydesville rappings extensive publicity in his newspaper, and he was alerted to the Rochester demonstration by a letter that was sent to his office. (3)

Having lost a son, he was intrigued and sent a reporter, Charles Partridge, to the demonstration to report what he saw. (3) Partridge’s report was favorable, so Greely arranged for the Fox sisters to come to New York City for further examination by the scientific community. (3)

Public demonstrations were produced by Greely at a theater off Broadway, and by the end of it Greely stated he did not believe the sisters were making the noises themselves. (3) He was convinced they were genuine. (3)

Spiritualist Movement Grows

The increasing popularity of the American and European Spiritualist movement attracted the attention of “eminent” scientists, intellectuals and other respected public figures. (2) As this was happening, the movement was gaining followers and becoming a legitimate religion.

The first Spiritualist church was established in 1853 in the British Isles by David Richmond at Keighley in Yorkshire. It’s still in use today. (2) The first Spiritualist newspaper, the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph, was published in 1855 at Keighley. (2)

Sixteen years later, a committee was formed by the Dialectical Society which published a favorable report on the Spiritualist movement. (2) Two years after that in 1871, Sir William Crookes published his findings on the movement in the Quarterly Journal of Science and reported to the Royal Society about it. (2)

Mrs. Emma Hardrige Britten established the Two Worlds Spiritualist weekly newspaper in 1887. (2) She was a channel for Robert Owen, who dictated through her the “Seven Principles of Spiritualism”. (2)

Civil War Generates Mass Interest in Spiritualist Philosophy

The Civil War was one of the reasons the movement became so popular, and later, both World Wars would cause a resurgence in the public’s interest in the afterlife.

The emergence of photos from the Civil War made people aware of its horrors firsthand. (1)

Because of this, belief in life after death soared as people found that Spiritualist philosophy – the idea that the soul lives on after death – was the perfect aid for their woes. (1)

Many looked to the movement for comfort and knowledge about the afterlife. Mary Todd Lincoln, who’d lost a son, is said to have held séances in the White House attended by her husband. (1)

Many scientists and respected public figures became converts after investigating the movement. (1)

They include William Crookes; evolutionary biologist Alfred Russell Wallace; William T. Stead; and Arthur Conan Doyle. (1)

Doyle had lost a son in the war and was a member of the Ghost Club, an organization that studied paranormal activity for the purpose of proving or debunking it. (1)

Skeptics and Debunkers

Not every respected public figure was infatuated with the movement. Professional researchers such as Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research, Harry Prince of the National Laboratory of Psychical research and professional conjuror John Nevil Maskelyne exposed many mediums as frauds. (1)

Maskelyne may be best remembered for exposing the Davenport Brothers – magicians who claimed their tricks were the work of the supernatural – by appearing in the audience during one of their shows and explaining how their tricks were done. (1)

Famously skeptical of Spiritualism, illusionist Harry Houdini underwent a well-known campaign to expose fraudulent mediums in the 1920s. (1)

Psychical researcher Hereward Carrington also exposed tricks used by fraudulent mediums, and Joseph McCabe documented these tricks. (1)

Magicians and illusionists were often skeptical since they knew how to do tricks that appeared supernatural. Many would use their experience fooling people with tricks to debunk those used by mediums. (1)

Houdini may be the most famous, but others include Henry Evans; Chung Ling Soo; Fulton Oursler; Julien Proskauer; Joseph Rinn; and Joseph Dunninger. (1)

Spiritualist Takes His Own Life to Communicate from the Afterlife

In February 1921, dedicated Spiritualist Thomas Lynn Bradford took his own life as part of an experiment where he would contact a medium on earth and communicate information about the afterlife. (1) Unfortunately, he was never heard from. (1)

Skeptics may point to this and other cases, such as the fact that the Fox sisters were never heard from after their deaths, as evidence against spirit communication, whereas advocates may argue that Bradford and other “discarnate humans” took up different work when arriving in the spirit planes.

Showmanship and Fraud

During the movement’s peak, public séances and other demonstrations basically became a form of entertainment. (1) This wasn’t true for every practicing Spiritualist, but there were a lot of frauds interested only in money, fame and showmanship.

The Fox sisters and other mediums were making a lot of money, and the demonstrations became increasingly competitive and flashy; especially in regard to the noises (rappings etc.) and other phenomena attributed to spirits. (1)

People began to showboat, and fraud became pervasive. (1) Some cases of fraud were prosecuted in court. (1) Despite this, the movement’s appeal remained for those grieving the loss of a loved one and those generally interested in the idea of an afterlife. (1)

Fox Sisters Confess to Fraud

Despite their success, by the 1880s Margaret and Kate Fox fell into poverty and alcoholism. (5) In 1888, they confessed to orchestrating the rappings and condemned Spiritualism – the movement they launched – for its “falsehood”. (5)

The following is an 1888 quote from Margaret describing her sorrow for her perpetuation of “fraud”:

“That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know.

“The greatest sorrow in my life has been that this is true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God! I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” (5)

Kate Fox made a statement the same year denouncing the movement:

“I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.” (5)

Those are harsh words, but Margaret took back her statement a year later and embraced the movement again. (5)

Margaret later noted that her staged rappings caused problems for Mr. Bell who, if you recall, hosted the peddler before the strange incidences began in the Hydesville home:

“They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer ‘yes,’ not three as we did afterwards.

“The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house.

“Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer.” (5)

There was no evidence a peddler had ever been killed in the house, and the Fox sisters were accused of orchestrating the knocks and using the story to boost their claims of psychic abilities. (4) As we just learned, they would later admit to staging the whole thing.

To read the rest of this chapter, purchase Enlightened Afterlife on Kindle above or as a PDF below.

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  1. “Spiritualism”, org, n.d.
  2. “History of Spiritualism”, SNU International, n.d.
  3. “History”, Spiritualism and Beyond, n.d. –
  4. Troy Taylor, “History & Mystery of Spiritualism”, Prairie Ghosts, n.d. –
  5. “Fox Sisters”, org, n.d. –

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About the author: 

I’m a twenty-something writer & blogger with an interest in spirituality, revolution, music and the transformative creative force known as love. I run Openhearted Rebel, a daily news blog dedicated to igniting a revolution of love by raising social and spiritual awareness.

I also have a personal blog, Wes Annac’s Personal Blog, in which I share writings related to spiritual philosophy, creativity, heart consciousness and revolution (among other topics).

I write from the heart and try to share informative and enlightening reading material with the rest of the conscious community. When I’m not writing or exploring nature, I’m usually making music.

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