Talking To The Dead: Kate And Maggie Fox And The Rise Of Spiritualism

  • Publish Date: 2005-03-29
  • Binding: Paperback
  • Author: Barbara Weisberg
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A fascinating story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts in the second half of nineteenth century America viewed through the lives of Kate and Maggie Fox, the sisters whose purported communication with the dead gave rise to the Spiritualism movement - and whose recanting forty years later is still shrouded in mystery.

In March of 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox - sisters aged 11 and 14 - anxiously reported to a neighbor that they had been hearing strange, unidentified sounds in their house. From a sequence of knocks and rattles translated by the young girls as a "voice from beyond," the Modern Spiritualism movement was born.

Talking to the Dead follows the fascinating story of the two girls who were catapulted into an odd limelight after communicating with spirits that March night. Within a few years, tens of thousands of Americans were flocking to seances. An international movement followed. Yet thirty years after those first knocks, the sisters shocked the country by denying they had ever contacted spirits. Shortly after, the sisters once again changed their story and reaffirmed their belief in the spirit world. Weisberg traces not only the lives of the Fox sisters and their family (including their mysterious Svengali-like sister Leah) but also the social, religious, economic and political climates that provided the breeding ground for the movement. While this is a thorough, compelling overview of a potent time in US history, it is also an incredible ghost story.

An entertaining read - a story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts - Talking to the Dead is full of emotion and surprise. Yet it will also provoke questions that were being asked in the 19th century, and are still being asked today - how do we know what we know, and how secure are we in our knowledge?

Is it really possible to talk with the dead? As much as modern America is familiar with mediums--think bestselling authors John Edwards and Sylvia Browne--this question still generates passionate opinions from believers and skeptics alike. So one can only imagine the stir that the Fox sisters created in 1848 when they claimed to hear a ghost rapping on the wall of their Hydesville, New York rental house bedroom. The sisters soon discovered that the ghost would tap answers to specific questions. Within days neighbors and travelers were showing up at the house, wanting to converse with the dead rapper. The Fox sisters--Maggie and Kate--went onto become a national phenomenon, holding sances and making their livings as celebrity mediums. They were also the leaders of a new movement called the spiritualists. New York-based filmmaker Barbara Weisberg assembled this fascinating and expertly recounted biography. Beyond trying to prove whether the Fox girls were legitimate, Weisberg wrote a study of how two young girls could shape a new spiritual movement in mid-1800s America. "The more I thought about the Fox sisters, the more it seemed to me not only that Kate and Maggie sparked a movement, but that their lives epitomized the conflicts and urges that helped fuel its blaze. The question of the other world aside, the girls' appeal surely stemmed in part from the ways they embodiedand intuitedtheir culture's anxieties and ambitions." Ironically, in not trying to prove whether these two were frauds, Weisberg has created a more satisfying human story within a rich historical context, not unlike the tactics used for the bestseller Seabiscuit. And likewise, this could and should easily translate into a dynamite major motion picture. --Gail Hudson

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