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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Talking to the Dead

Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism.

The Fox sisters gained fame in 1848 when eleven-year-old Kate and fourteen-year-old Maggie began communicating with the dead by means of mysterious rappings and knocks that were heard throughout the Fox home. Instant celebrity followed: first locally, among friends and neighbors who came to the Fox home to be amazed and who attempted to uncover the source of the noises. Later, as word spread, the girls gained national and international acclaim.

Attempts to discover how the strange noises were manifested and to discredit the sisters were never completely successful, although many mediums who followed in their footsteps were easily exposed as frauds. The sisters, including older sister Leah, who knew an opportunity when it appeared, underwent many humiliating attempts to debunk their abilities, but the attempts had little effect. The young girls, guided by Leah, initiated a phenomenon that surprised almost everyone with its rapid spread, and soon the number of individuals who could talk to the dead multiplied.

Weisberg does a fine job of examining the Spiritualist movement, the cultural underpinnings of the era, and the lives of Kate and Maggie. What is amazing is the number of intelligent and well-known individuals who believed, who attended seances, and/or who attempted to expose them. Among those who attended their seances were Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and James Fennimore Cooper.

Weisberg's research is extensive and includes many primary documents from the time period, including books, letters, newspaper articles, and pages of secondary sources. Unfortunately, none of the Fox sisters left much in writing, and what there is (mostly in letters to devoted followers) never reveals evidence that is conclusive about their belief in their chosen profession. Maggie gave a lecture much later in life that decried their abilities as fake, but she later recanted.

I was originally drawn to the book by the "prophetic dreams" Captain Crozier experienced in Dan Simmon's novel, The Terror. His dreams included, but did not name, the Fox sisters and Elisha Kent Kane, one of the arctic explorers who searched for the lost Franklin Expedition. Elisha Kent Kane evidently fell for Maggie and pursued her with determination. The book did little to bolster Kane's reputation on a personal level, and his letters to Maggie are a combination of longing and contempt, as he felt Maggie to be beneath him.

Kane was 3o and Maggie was 19 when they met. He tended to be quite controlling, and believing the seances to be fraudulent, Kane attempted to separate Maggie from Leah (he saw the older sister as manipulative) and to persuade Maggie to give up her activities.

Shortly after "marrying" Maggie--this was not a formally legal marriage--Kane became seriously ill and died. His family denied that he had made any provision for Maggie, and a feud simmered between the evidently heart-broken Maggie and the Kane family for years.

Although their careers as mediums increased their financial status and their celebrity for a time, a serious down-side was that as they were entertained by the rich and famous, both Kate and Maggie developed a taste for alcohol that certainly aided in their fall from grace. Serious alcoholics by the end of their lives, both women died in impoverished circumstances.

Talking to the Dead tells the engrossing story of the rise and influence of Spiritualism, the Fox sisters, and the fears and uncertainties of the age in which they lived.

Update: The Stay At Home Bookworm has posted her review here.

Nonfiction. Biography/History. 2004. 273 pages.


  1. After reading this review I think the procrastination is nothing to worry about as I immediately added this to my wish list!

    I have always been fascinated by this subject. I can't wait to read this book.

  2. J.C.--I find the subject fascinating as well, and the book was informative about the sisters and the movement. It also provided more trails to follow!

  3. Such a fascinating subject. I wonder what it must have been like to sit in on a seance. I'm adding this one to my radar!

  4. iliana - Now it would be so difficult to take it seriously, but even the debunkers in the 1800's did not all totally disbelieve. Many wanted to have communication with the dead, but just didn't want to be fooled.

  5. I've always been interested in this as well and have a few similar books sitting on my shelf. This one's been added to the 'must have' list, thanks!

  6. This sounds fascinating. I have a couple of ghost/supernatural books on my shelves. I should move them up.

  7. joanna - It is such an interesting subject! I'd like to read something about Madame Blavatsky whose influence has been so long-lasting. Strange to think about W.B. Yeats being so drawn in...

    Lisa - I tend to enjoy the idea of the supernatural in novels, and it is even more fun when you realize something of the background of the Spiritualists and mediums of the 1800's.

  8. I'm adding this one to the list - I have always been fascinated by the Fox sisters and spiritualism in general.

  9. Lesley - It really is interesting!