For me, it all began with discovering a 19th-century letter housed 3,500 miles from Senate House Library, while I was sat in the New York Public Library. It was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of the most celebrated book of the age, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to another legendary writer, the British author George Eliot.
For eleven years, these two kept up a deeply personal correspondence, in which they discussed their writing and reading, their homes and families, and their personal beliefs. In Stowe’s case, as a spiritualist, this included her deep conviction that those living have the power to communicate with the dead.
In an 1872 missive to the admittedly sceptical Eliot, Stowe mentioned her encounters with the spirit medium Kate Fox. When I was working my way through this cache of Stowe’s letters (research for my last book, on female literary friendship), Kate’s name was unfamiliar to me. But Stowe seemed to take it for granted that Eliot would know who she was, suggesting that Kate once enjoyed a level of transatlantic fame that perhaps even rivalled the authors’ own.
I was immediately attracted by Stowe’s descriptions of this woman, who came across as strange and ethereal. As I continued to read, I noticed further references to Kate Fox and her sisters, and I became increasingly intrigued.
This curiosity would ultimately bring me to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature in Senate House’s Special Collections, where I have spent many hours of late. During their lifetimes, Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox authored, or cooperated with the authors, of three texts that would come to define their legacy: The Love-Life of Dr. Kane (1866), The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885) and The Death-Blow to Spiritualism (1888).
The sisters had burst into the American consciousness in the late 1840s when Kate and Maggie, still girls at the time, apparently began communicating with the spirits of the deceased by interpreting the mysterious knocks they seemed to make when in the sisters’ presence. News of Maggie and Kate’s abilities soon spread from their hamlet of Hydesville in New York state. Before long, they and their adult sister Leah – who’d discovered that she also had mediumistic talents – would be embarking on a public tour, giving private readings to some of the era’s best-known personalities and finding themselves the subjects of theatrical shows and popular songs.
But despite their celebrity – which made its way across the Atlantic, sparking a séance craze in Britain too – all was not well. The younger Maggie and Kate struggled with the pressures of fame and eventually succumbed to alcoholism. They began to resent their older sister, Leah, for the control she exerted over the trio’s careers.
Leah’s book, The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, published in the mid-1880s under her married name Underhill, gives little hint of the seething resentment of her younger siblings. Then again, although enormously fascinating, it is far from a wholly reliable text and needs to be read with a critical eye. Quite aside from any scepticism readers may feel about the ghostly incidents she describes, Leah’s later-life recollections of dates and chronology are often hazy, and she tends to gloss over episodes when she came in for criticism, including from her own flesh and blood.
This being the case, many spiritualists were stunned when, just three years later, Maggie, with the support of Kate, announced to the world that their forty-year careers as mediums had been an elaborate hoax. From the stage of the New York Academy of Music, Maggie demonstrated how the sisters had produced the famous knocking sounds by cracking the joints in their toes. She and Kate followed this up by collaborating with Reuben Briggs Davenport on The Death-Blow to Spiritualism, in which they heaped blame on their older sister for manipulating their youthful selves for her own financial gain.
For readers who had read another book, published two decades earlier, however, Kate and Maggie’s apparently new stance would have come as less of a surprise. In The Love-Life of Dr. Kane – which collects intimate letters between the late Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane and the focus of his affections, Maggie – a sense of resentment rises from the pages of the accompanying description, presumably sanctioned by Maggie. Leah is referred to coldly as ‘a relative’ and is cast as the person often to blame for her younger sisters’ long-held unhappiness.
As with Leah’s own book, The Love-life of Dr. Kane and The Death-Blow to Spiritualism should not be read unquestioningly. In the year after The Death-Blow to Spiritualism, Maggie and Kate recanted their confessions, raising even more questions about the reliability of the sisters and what each of them truly believed. Nonetheless, when assessed together – and alongside other contemporary accounts by sceptics and believers – these books offer unique insights into a fascinating nineteenth century movement and three women who lay at its heart.