THEOSOPHY, Vol. 31, No. 9, July, 1943
(Pages 396-399; Size: 13K)
(Number 4 of a 10-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 10 articles have the same name.]



We turn, now, to the origins of modern spiritualism in the nineteenth century.

In December, 1847, John D. Fox and his family moved into a small house in the little village of Hydesville, in Wayne County, New York. Almost at once "knocks" or rappings began to occur during the night. The sounds could not be explained as the result of any natural cause and seemed to proceed from a bedroom or the cellar beneath. The three girls, the youngest of whom was twelve-year-old Kate, complained of being touched by cold hands. On the night of March 31, 1848, the family retired early, being exhausted from these increasing disturbances which interfered with their rest. The rappings, however, came louder than ever. Kate Fox, sitting up in bed, was amused by the sounds, and snapping her fingers cried out:

"Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do!"

This led to the startling discovery that the invisible agency which caused the rappings would respond to intelligent direction. Raps accompanied her movements. "Only look," cried Kate; "look, it can see as well as hear!" The sounds corresponded to her noiseless motions. It was soon discovered that it was possible to communicate with this agency, questions being answered by raps which numbered the letters of the alphabet. Neighbors were called and excitement swept the community of Hydesville. Messages purporting to come from the "spirit" of a murdered pedler were obtained in this way. From information thus received investigators discovered the remains of a man who had been buried in the cellar. By this strange event, and by the correct guessing of the ages of persons, a measure of veracity was established for the "spirits." Interest in the phenomena spread and soon the Fox children were made the subject of an unending series of experiments and public exhibitions, for it had been observed that the manifestations seemed to require their presence. It became evident that the communications were not limited to those from the deceased pedler, but included messages from a host of "spirits," one of them claiming to be Benjamin Franklin. In order to escape the throng of curious wonder-seekers who gave the family no peace, and to avoid the persecutions of the sceptical and unbelieving, the Fox family moved to Rochester. Mrs. Fox, a sincere Methodist, was much disturbed by the abnormal manifestations which everywhere followed Kate and her older sister, Margaretta. The distracted mother prayed continually that the torment might cease, and during the early days of the "rappings" her hair turned white in a single week. Both she and the children strove in vain against the "spirits," which kept demanding public exhibitions. The oldest of the girls, Leah, who was then a music teacher living in Rochester, wrote many years later:

The general feeling of our family ... was strongly adverse to all this.... We regarded it as a great misfortune which had fallen upon us; how, whence or why we knew not. We resisted it, struggled against it, and constantly and earnestly prayed for deliverance from it.... If our will, earnest desires and prayers could have prevailed or availed, the whole thing would have ended then and there, and the world outside of our little neighborhood would never have heard more of the Rochester Rappings, or of the unfortunate Fox family.(1)
Nevertheless, the return of the rappings after a cessation of two weeks is said to have been greeted with joy by the family. Reluctantly, they undertook to follow the demands of the "spirits" and become public mediums. To this occupation they devoted the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, following the publicity given to the Fox children, it became known that similar manifestations were taking place elsewhere. In the words of Alfred Russel Wallace, " the same time other mediums were discovered in different parts of the country, as if a special development of this abnormal power were then occurring."(2) This seemed, in effect, a confirmation of the assurance given by the "spirits" to the Fox sisters that the manifestations were not to be confined to them, but would go "all over the world." Rappings occurred as far west as St. Louis and Cincinnati, and in Maine, Massachusetts and New York. By 1850 séances arranged according to the direction of the "spirits" were being held in California, Oregon, Texas, and in several southern states. Religious-minded men and women formed Spiritualist sects, claiming messages from the apostles and the Hebrew prophets of old. Thomas Lake Harris, writer and preacher, joined with Spiritualists to found the "Apostolic Brotherhood," which culminated in a spiritualist community known as the Mountain Cove Movement. Many clergymen developed psychic capacities and became leaders of small bands of spiritualists.

Despite vicious attacks on the new "revelation" by sceptics and orthodox Christians, interest in Spiritualism spread rapidly. Here and there men of cultivation and learning were attracted to séances. A few well-known scientists began to investigate the alleged phenomena. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, sat with the Fox sisters in New York, saying in a sympathetic article,

Whatever may be the origin or cause of the "rappings," the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly, and to our entire satisfaction. Their conduct and bearing is as unlike that of deceivers as possible; and we think no one acquainted with them could believe them at all capable of engaging in so daring, impious, and shameful a juggle as this would be if they caused the sounds. And it is not possible that such a juggle should have been so long perpetrated in public.(3)
Among the eminent men who became convinced of the reality of spiritualistic phenomena was Judge J. W. Edmonds, a justice of the Supreme Court of New York, known for his honesty and fearlessness. He publicly defended the mediums in letters to the press. N. P. Tallmadge, a former governor of Wisconsin, was another who supported the claims of the mediums after attending a séance given in Washington by the Fox sisters. In the years 1851 and 1852 several spiritualistic journals were established, in which all manner of supernatural communications were recorded. While the original phenomena of Kate and Margaretta Fox had been limited to "rappings," other phases of the phenomena developed with the multiplication of mediums. Automatic writing became common; messages alleged to be from the illustrious dead were given by entranced sensitives, and "spirit lights" and the movement of heavy bodies were repeatedly reported.

From these beginnings modern Spiritualism spread all over the world. Few scientists were willing to jeopardize their reputations by deigning to recognize even the possibility that the phenomena were not fraudulent. Notable exceptions, however, included the celebrated Dr. Robert Hare, professor of chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania, who in 1854 published Spiritualism Scientifically Demonstrated, an account of the elaborate experiments which convinced him that the manifestations were genuine. He had originally undertaken the task of investigation in order to destroy scientifically "the gross delusion called Spiritualism," but was soon overwhelmed by evidences of the supernormal. However, even so eminent a man as he was unable to persuade the American Association for the Promotion of Science to consider the subject of psychic phenomena.

That body at one of its annual conventions turned down all the proposals for investigation which he presented. No more successful in gaining a hearing from the scientific world was Prof. James J. Mapes, president of the Mechanics Institute, a distinguished chemist who had been honored by numerous scientific bodies here and abroad. Beginning his study of spiritualistic phenomena in order to redeem respected friends who, he declared, were "fast running to mental seed and imbecility," he ended as an advocate of spiritualism.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


We are, as yet, only preparers, much as we may exalt our plainly crude American development. Herein lies the very gist of the cycle's meaning. It is a preparatory cycle with much of necessary destruction in it; for, before construction, we must have some disintegration. We are preparing here in America a new race which will exhibit the perfection of the glories that I said were being slowly brought to the surface from the long forgotten past. This is why the Americas are seen to be in a perpetual ferment. It is the seething and bubbling of the older races in the refining-pot, and the slow coming up of the material for the new race. Here, and nowhere else, are to be found men and women of every race living together, being governed together, attacking nature and the problems of life together, and bringing forth children who combine, each one, two races. This process will go on until in the course of many generations there will be produced on the American continents an entirely new race; new bodies; new orders of intellect; new powers of the mind; curious and unheard-of psychic powers, as well as extraordinary physical ones; with new senses and extensions of present senses now unforeseen. When this new sort of body and mind are generated -- then other monads, or our own again, will animate them and paint upon the screen of time the pictures of 100,000 years ago. 


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(1) Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism (London: Cassell & Co., 1926) I, 111.
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(2) Chamber's Encyclopedia, "Spiritualism" (1902 edition).
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(3) Quoted by Emma Hardinge (later Mrs. Britten) in Modern American Spiritualism, New York, 1872.
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