“Rappings” reported by the Fox sisters in New York in 1848 led to a new profession. Mediums made good money. Spiritualism continued into the 20th Century.
Superstition ran deep in mid-19th-Century America. An astonishing number of people believed the living could communicate with the dead. There came into being the popular concept of a “spirit land” on earth, between heaven and hell, roamed by undesignated ghosts. Séances became popular, staged at homes and public places. Mediums claimed they could contact not just dead relatives and friends (for a fee), but famous historical figures.
Knocks in the Night
Its origins were abroad, but the “spiritualist” movement became popular in the United States during the mid-1800s. In the Western Reserve area of northern Ohio during the 1850s, for example, spiritual communication was the talk of the day “at every gathering among neighbors,” wrote Chiles T. Blakeslee, a school friend of future president James A. Garfield. Séances were lively events where “tables were tipped, chairs thrown about the room, and bedlam let loose generally. The only condition necessary to get these demonstrations, being a dark room and a man to play the fiddle.”
Near Rochester, New York, in 1848, “knocking” events were chronicled by the farm family of John Fox. Fox’ daughters reportedly heard knocks in their room at night. The girls claimed to have developed a system of communicating with the knocker—a local murder victim, they determined. The mysterious knocker allegedly could reveal the ages of witnesses who asked, and the number of children in local families. Later occupants of the house also chronicled knockings and ghostly experiences.
The Fox sisters took their show on the road, demonstrating their strange powers. Some audiences were skeptical, but they enjoyed a spell of profitable popularity. Ultimately, though, they died as paupers.
Spirit Rapping Becomes Vogue
Since the spirits weren’t in the flesh and couldn’t carry on intelligent conversations with the living, means of communication had to be devised. Spiritualists used several methods. There were “table turners,” “automatic writers” and simple “spirit rappers.”
Generally, audiences accepted a spirit’s single knock as “yes” and double knock as “no” in response to a medium’s questions (never wondering why a ghost might possess the muscle and bone needed to rap, but not the vocal cords needed to speak).
A New Profession: Spiritual Medium
Spreading like wildfire, this new obsession became a means of livelihood for self-styled spiritualists. Séances became commonplace. They continued into the 20th Century. Mediums developed other schemes to trick clients into believing they could communicate with the deceased.
Charles Dickens discussed spirit rappers in A Tale of Two Cities and in his Household Words magazine during the mid-1800s—satirically. He himself mockingly penned an article he titled “The Spirit Business” in 1853.
The oldest of the Fox sisters, Margaret, eventually exposed their rappings as a ruse—but later withdrew her statement.
- Opeil, Caitlin E. Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Spirit Rappers in Great Britain (2005).
- Peskin, Allan. James Abram Garfield. Kent State University Press (1978).
- Stanford University Web site.
- The World Almanac of the Strange. The New American Library Signet (1977).