Thursday, September 13, 2012

Foxy Ladies: The Weird, Kinda Sad Story of Fox Sisters

One of the things I find embarrassing to admit to myself is the fact that, well, I was not always the staunch skeptic that I am today. For some reason this bothers me way more than the fact that I liked New Kids On The Block, desperately wanted a spiral perm, and had an altogether humiliating childhood.

When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my mom bought me a Parker Brother's Ouija Board from Child World or Toys R Us or something and told me that one could use it to contact ghosts at slumber parties. At that time, I don't think I'd really decided one way or another if there was a life after death at that point- I was young so it seemed like it might be a thing. At the very least, I was way into ghost stories and Greek Mythology. My mom did the "Let's talk about ALL of the religions, and when you are an adult, you can pick one or none and that is your choice" thing. Which, you know, is exactly how you raise an atheist.

So, one night, my sister and I were playing with the Ouija Board in my bedroom, and we did the whole "IS THERE A SPIRIT HERE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TALK TO US" thing, and the pointy thing pointed to yes... and, oh, fuck it, long story short, my sister is a jerk who was moving it the whole time and completely, 100%  convinced me that I was definitely being contacted by the spirit of Fanny Brice. Which was very exciting, given that I watched "Funny Girl" practically every day after school.

I was so thrilled you would not even believe it. I told EVERYONE. Obviously this meant I was destined to totally take over vaudeville and dazzle the pants off of Flo Ziegfeld. My sister, however, did not tell me she was moving it the whole time until like, years later when I had pretty much forgotten about the whole incident and also given up on headlining the Orpheum Circuit.

This is pretty much a normal thing that young girls do, because we're horrible people. I mean, do you really think that kids would still be playing "Light as a feather, Stiff as a Board" if there weren't shit tons of 12 year old girls lying about the fact that it TOTALLY WORKED at the last slumber party they attended? Probably not. Teenage girls are way into both fucking with people and pretending they have magical powers. The Fox Sisters were kind of like that.

Kate and Margaret Fox were raised in a small town that no longer exists in what is now Arcadia, NY, not too far from my hometown of Rochester- in Wayne County, where I could never go without getting lost because there are like, zero landmarks of any kind other than farm things which all look alike to me. Kate and Margaret, being 11 and 15, respectively, were, I guess, bored one day and decided to mess with their mom by dropping apples tied to strings on the stairs to sound like ghostly footsteps. Their trick worked, and their mother became convinced that the house was indeed haunted. Some time after that, the girls realized that they had the ability to crack their toes, the idea of which makes me feel gross all over. They convinced their mother that they were in contact with "the spirit" and decided that they would attempt to contact him some night after dinner. The plan was to do it and then tell their mother it was all a joke... but Mrs. Fox was super excited and, I don't know, maybe they didn't want to disappoint her. So she was like "OMG, spirit (which by that time was revealed to be a peddler who had 5 kids and had been dead for 2 years and was buried in their basement...), would you talk to us in front of our neighbors???" And the girls cracked their toes in agreement, not wanting to let the old bat down.

Soon, everyone in town was coming to the Fox house every night after dinner to hear some toe cracking and talk to some imaginary dead people. The girls became minor celebrities in town, prompting a prominent local attorney to write a pamphlet about the whole sitch. Crazily enough, one of the people this pamphlet reached was their older sister Leah, a 33 year old divorcee living in Rochester (HEY-O). Leah was amazed to find that this whole thing was going on back at the old homestead, especially since she had just read a book about how the dead were TOTALLY in contact with the living, and soon, an era would come where we were just all talking to the dead all of the time and the wall between this world and the spirit world would come a tumblin' down. Thus, she convinced her parents to let her take the girls back to Rochester with her.

So, Leah was all "Ok, ladies, how exactly are you making this happen?" And the girls showed her how they cracked their toes. She tried to do it herself, but to no avail. Thus, Leah became the official "interpreter" of the cracking noises. And, like, the Mama Rose/Svengali of Spiritualism. The weird thing is, even though she was aware of what the girls were doing, she still totally believed in it. Cognitive dissonance was big back then. In fact, she convinced 12 year old Katy that it was real as well. Margaret, on the other hand, felt pretty gross about it and tried to run away a few times. The sisters started hosting seances at Leah's house, and, predictably, they become a sensation.

SORT OF. They had their detractors too- some who thought they were frauds, some who thought they were witches. So, for some reason, they decided to "prove" their abilities to the whole city and rented out a concert hall where they performed their whole schtick. Despite the fact that the people were unable to figure out exactly how they were being tricked, they were still pretty sure something was off, and at some someone even came equipped with a bucket of tar, because apparently tarring and feathering was still kind of a thing back then.

The girls then took their act on the road around the rest of NY state and eventually to New York City. As word of their "abilities" spread, a whole religious movement rose up around them. The Spiritualist Movement! Which is still a thing that exists. People started magazines, and mediums started popping up everywhere. The movement attracted a lot of women and radical Quakers in particular. Due to their belief that all "spirits" were equal, the Spiritualists were especially active in the abolition and women's rights movements, which I suppose is the best thing you can say about any of them. Also, pretending to be a medium was a pretty sweet gig for a lady looking to strike out on her own.

Lots of fancy schmancy people actually joined up. Sarah Helen Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe's fiancee whom he wrote "To Helen" about, claimed to write poems whilst in a trance. Probably the most hardcore convert, however, was mystery writer and noted believer in fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle. As in Rochester, however, they had their detractors as well- most notoriously Harry Houdini, who was not about to have any of their shit and devoted half his life to debunking Spiritualists and other charlatans.

As Spiritualism became more popular, lots of mediums tried for fancier effects and ended up getting caught. The Fox Sisters got themselves some rich husbands as demand for their services started to dwindle. Kate and Margaret developed drinking problems (because Behind The Music, duh), and Leah got a bunch of other mediums together and tried to have Kate's kids taken away.

THUS.... Kate and Margaret were like, fuck this shit, and they went to New York City and announced that they were total frauds. For $1500, Margaret demonstrated how they made the rapping noises by cracking her toes, and also wrote a missive denouncing Spiritualism as a massive hoax. Kate then pretended that none of that happened and still tried to be a medium for a while. After a few years, when she ran out of money, Margaret tried to follow suit, but to no avail. Both later denounced Spiritualism again, and then they died penniless and buried in pauper's graves.

Despite the fact that they literally confessed to being frauds and even showed the world their toe cracking talents, people STILL believed they had magic powers. Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced that they just lied for the money- but of course, he was also convinced that Harry Houdini really did have magical powers and was just saying it was trickery to fuck with Arthur Conan Doyle's head.

Oh, and Spiritualism is STILL TOTALLY A THING. Dan Aykroyd considers himself one, I've heard. Not to mention hideous frauds like Sylvia Browne and Jonathan Edwards running around claiming they can talk to the dead. In fact, there's a whole "Spiritualist Community" town over by where the girls lived in Rochester called "Lilydale" and pretty much everyone who lives there thinks they can talk to dead people. I think most of them accept that the sisters were frauds, but they still think that they, personally, can totally talk to dead people.

So that's the not so magical story of the Fox Sisters. They were pretty weird ladies and you can talk about them at cocktail parties.