PHYSICAL PHENOMENA AND THE FOX SISTERS
The question as to the reality of so called “physical phenomena”, that is the movement of objects without any recognisable agent ranging to the materialisation of objects or even limbs and complete figures, popularly attributed to spirits of the dead, may at first glance appear absurd. However, the records of psychical research demonstrate the difficulty of either denying or establishing the range of phenomena in question. Even amongst researchers optimistic with regard to the very facts of physical mediumship, there is much discussion about the relevance to the question of survival of death.
Although it is by the rapping which occurred in their presence, that the Fox SISTERS are well-known, they also produced a wide range of physical phenomena.
LEAH, the eldest of the three, was married at the age of fourteen, but was deserted by her much older husband. She supported herself and her young daughter by giving piano lessons. Her mediumship was the last to blossom, the rappings being particularly strong in the presence of KATE and MAGGIE.
After the death of her second husband, CALVIN BROWN, LEAH sat every Wednesday night for a period of two years with a small group who wished to make every possible sort of test. The circle was composed of a small group who met at the house of Dr. JOHN F. GRAY in Lafayette Place, New York.
One of the circle, Major GEORGE WASHINGTON RAINS, was an educated chemist and electrician. He arranged a swing, which was fastened to iron or steel chains, sustained by tackles and pulleys attached to the ceiling. LEAH sat in the swing and over her head was a large piece of circular glass about two and a half feet in diameter, while beneath her feet (which were about four feet from the floor) was a circular glass disc about three feet in diameter. The whole arrangement was suspended by tackles.
Major RAINS brought his electrometer, and made every experiment that their ingenuity could invent or suggest. They suspended the table; each person in the room standing on horseshoe magnets provided for the occasion.
The physicians were provided with stethoscopes and placed them on different parts of her body. They all declared that the sounds had nothing whatever to do with the physical body and that the medium had no more power over the sounds than the investigators had.
That was the verdict whenever an honest attempt was made to discover the source of the rappings.
On Monday evening of each week she sat with Professor JAMES J. MAPES’ circle plus a few specially invited guests. The group had pledged themselves to sit for development, waiving all private communications. It was also agreed that “no fanatic in Spiritualism, nor any disinterested or selfish individual was to be admitted”.
Anyone suspected of being in conflict with the harmony of the group was to be dismissed and this occasionally had to be done. Many amazing demonstrations came to this circle principally physical phenomena, such as levitation of heavy furniture, and occasionally of the medium herself.
There were great numbers of phosphorescent lights, large and sufficient in number to light the room clearly. Very often the raps seemed to be produced by the action of a globe of yellow light, which struck against the floor, ceiling, or the table before them; the sounds coinciding with the movement.
Meanwhile, as KATE’s mediumistic powers developed, which led her to becoming possibly the greatest physical medium of her time, her nervousness and fear of the manifestations also increased and often resulted in an interruption of the séance. She could never overcome her own fears and never fully understood the phenomena which came through her.
As always the highest type of demonstrations were produced in small groups of completely harmonious individuals. LEAH found her greatest satisfaction in sitting with honest and sincere inquirers. LEAH’s mediumship had become highly individual and from time to time there was an unusual display of phenomena, some outstanding manifestations which was never repeated.
One experience which was never repeated, nor equaled, happened one Sunday evening at the close of a sultry day. LEAH was alone with her mother, MARGARET. Two physicians, Drs. WILSON and KIRBY, who were in their circle of close friends, called unexpectedly.
As a thunderstorm was gathering, Dr. WILSON instructed his driver to return for them after the storm had passed. As they settled themselves in the parlour the familiar five raps, calling for the alphabet, were strongly sounded on the wall. (Three raps signalled ‘Yes’, one rap ‘No’, two raps ‘Don‘t Know’ etc. and five raps meant ‘Use the alphabet’).
The four seated themselves round the centre table after turning out the lamp. The raps tapped out ‘Sing’. As they sang, the storm burst. The raps echoed the heavy roll of thunder. There was a great flash of lightning followed by a crash of thunder as the room became illuminated.
Suddenly Dr. WILSON jumped up from his chair, his voice raised excitedly, “Oh my God, there’s my mother!” quickly followed by “And there, Dr. Kirby, is your mother, close beside you!” Flash after flash showed the amazing assemblage of loved ones, radiant figures, glowing with life and love.
It had all happened in a few short moments. As the first violence of the storm subsided the beautiful sight became invisible. Try as they might to obtain the same conditions they were never able to repeat the phenomenon. For a few brief moments the veil between the spheres of life had been lifted for them.
After LEAH’S marriage to DANIEL UNDERHILL and her retirement from all public séance work the burden fell on KATE, now 23 years of age. MAGGIE was recovering after long months of mental illness following the death of her husband, ELISHA KANE.
KATE had a growing belief the best results came to small groups of truth seekers, when no payment was accepted, so she insisted upon giving freely of her amazing power whenever it was possible. She was always overworked, nervous and frequently exhausted after some unusual displays of phenomena.
She could not overcome her fears which, in her complete ignorance of psychic laws, were to be her downfall. With hindsight it is easy to say that the FOX SISTERS overdid their public and private work but it is almost impossible to understand the pressures they were under at the time. Their lives should serve as a warning of the danger of uncontrolled sitting day after day, after day.
Perhaps the sittings which were to prove the most astonishing were the private sittings with CHARLES LIVERMORE, a well-known New York banker, who had lost his wife in the early part of the year (1850). ESTELLE’S early death had been a heartbreaking blow to LIVERMORE as he had no belief in the afterlife.
After twelve sittings he received a brief personal message to the effect that ESTELLE was present and would try to become visible to him. Many more sittings passed until one humid night in mid-April, LIVERMORE and KATE sat alone.
The room had been carefully sealed, making it close and uncomfortable. They sat in complete quiet, for nearly half an hour when all of a sudden a terrifying uproar broke out.
Tremendous raps sounded upon the centre table as the heavy piece of furniture rose and fell. The doors were violently shaken; the windows which had been so carefully sealed were opened and shut; a cold wind swept the room and was gone.
The raps called for the alphabet, spelling out “Watch closely, I am here”.
They heard a sharp, crackling sound behind them and as they looked back saw an illumined substance growing in form and deepening in quality. It took on a globular form gradually assuming the form of a woman’s head veiled in a glowing gauze.
Once again there were sharp, crackling sounds as the light increased in brilliancy showing a slowly building form. The dark hair, the brown eyes, the smooth brow were ESTELLE’S. The light which floated round about her form made every object in the room plainly visible. Then, suddenly, her entire form could be seen while behind her, in a long mirror, was her reflection.
After that first successful attempt ESTELLE came again and again although there were times when seemingly nothing happened.
On one occasion, having been previously instructed to bring a blank card with him, LIVERMORE sat holding it in his left hand, his right hand pressed closely over KATE’S — who held hers clasped together on the arm of his chair. Almost immediately a brilliant light appeared, seemingly shaded from above, glowing with a silver radiance over a radius of several feet directly in front of them.
As LIVERMORE watched, the card in his hand was gently but firmly withdrawn. It disappeared as it left his grasp. He turned to the bright cone of light before him. A dark shadow which appeared to be a narrow curtain of black passed before him. It parted and there in the indescribable brilliance stood ESTELLE in full form — every feature perfect, as she looked directly into her husband’s eyes.
Again the shadow came between them, and at that instant the card was slipped into his hand. By the light which glowed above him he read the lines inscribed on it. They were words of love, written in French — a quotation of special meaning to ESTELLE and him.
As the shadow dissolved, ESTELLE stood before him, bathed in light, smiling down into his eyes. He forced himself to examine her closely noting, in particular, “the rose-flushed ivory of her skin, the sheen of her black hair so carefully arranged; the velvet softness of the white rose which adorned it.”
The materialisation came and went, appearing six or seven times before the séance ended.
LIVERMORE sat with KATE twice weekly throughout the summer, and each time ESTELLE came it was with greater power, sometimes leaning over him so that her soft hair dropped down against his face. Often she carried flowers of great beauty, her favourite violets and white roses. It seemed as if the spirit light, which revealed her full form, enclosed in white draperies, was held by an unseen hand.
One evening in late August, another form appeared beside ESTELLE — a sturdy figure in dark clothes, the features hardly distinguishable. The raps came calling for the alphabet. They spelled out the strange and totally unexpected statement, “It is I, Benjamin Franklin. I have made Estelle’s appearance to you possible, my son.”
Taken aback at this manifestation, the very next morning, LIVERMORE consulted his friend, Dr. GRAY, who had introduced him to KATE. He confirmed that there had been messages from FRANKLIN before through both KATE and LEAH and was convinced of their genuineness. He asked to be allowed to attend a séance in the hope of seeing FRANKLIN materialise.
The tests went on, through the winter and into another year. Dr. GRAY and JACQUES GROUTE, ESTELLE’s brother, were present several times, and both witnessed materialisations of ESTELLE and FRANKLIN. GROUTE came as a confirmed sceptic, locking the doors and windows himself and thoroughly searching the room as well as the sitters.
He approached the figure of FRANKLIN as it appeared in full from; the hair behind FRANKLIN’s ears was grey and worn long, exactly as in his pictures. They could see his white cravat and his coat of some dark brown material, cut in an old style. GROUTE was given permission to touch the form. He examined the clothing with interest. LIVERMORE and Dr. GRAY had, on an evening several weeks earlier, been permitted to cut off a piece of FRANKLIN’S coat, and had examined it closely. It was of strong texture, seemingly a rough woolen material, but after a short time it had disintegrated in their hands and disappeared.
GROUTE, who had ridiculed the happening when told about their experiences, like so many others since when faced with the reality of the séance room, now humbly acknowledged the reality of the manifestations.
In one year LIVERMORE had kept careful and detailed records of over 170 sittings. Here was a man whose veracity and probity had never been questioned, so much so, that his words carried weight even among those who could not completely believe.
Another séance which must surely be unique in the history of Spiritualism took place in 1871 in the home of Dr. GEORGE TAYLOR and his wife, SARAH. They had lost two children in an epidemic, FRANKLIN, aged two, and their only daughter, LEILA, less than a year old. SARAH’S brother, OLIN, was also on the Other Side having been killed in an accident. Over the years, through KATE they received evidence of their children’s survival including portraits painted by spirit hands and apported into the séance room.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, again, claimed to be the motivating force behind the phenomena. He had promised that one day they would hear LEILA playing the harp which she had learnt in the spirit world.
One afternoon, almost as soon as they were seated, the raps spelled out, “We are all here. We have devoted all our power to this subject. B. F.”
As the last word was spelt a new sound echoed in the room — the resonance of a harp string, firmly touched.
SARAH, who had kept a meticulous record of all her séances takes up the story: “…Then we kept perfectly still, held both of Kate‘s hands and listened in rapture for about three-quarters of an hour to music performed in our room by an angel, on a harp brought from Paradise, from Heaven. The notes were clear, full, strong and penetrating. The music sweeter than anything I had ever heard. Ten pieces were played and one was long, and none were familiar.
“At an interval between the tunes, Dr. Franklin said, ‘I am proud of my pupil’.
“Then she struck the strings again, and again with full power played and played.
“…Then the harp was brought so near to me that when the first note was touched it hurt my head, and again she played stronger, sweeter, purer than before…
“The music from the harp was so loud and clear that the people in the next house must have heard it. The ladies on the floor above us went to their windows, opened them and listened, but did not know what the instrument was.”
As the music faded away the raps spelled out the closing message:
“We have all been here. Our efforts have been great to play upon the harp so that you could hear its heavenly strains. Leila is guarded by Dr. Franklin, and I assure you that we are more than pleased, for we are awed by our own power in thus being permitted to come.
“Few on earth have ever been so blessed, and oh, few there are who will ever be permitted to listen to those strains. Be thankful and happy. We are happy! Leila is perfectly wild with delight, and so is Frankie, and we feel awed with gratitude, Olin.”
On October 7th 1871, KATE left New York for London, accompanied by BLANCHE OGDEN, a relative of CHARLES LIVERMORE, who had financed the trip.
To finish this article, I cannot do better than to quote a letter LIVERMORE wrote to his friend BENJAMIN COLEMAN in London:
“Miss Fox, taken all in all, is no doubt the most wonderful living medium. Her character is irreproachable and sound. I have received so much through her powers of mediumship during the past ten years which is solacing, instructive, and astounding, that I feel greatly indebted to her and desire to have her taken good care of while absent from home and friends.
“That you may the more thoroughly understand her idiosyncrasies, permit me to explain that she is of a sensitive nature of the highest order, and of child-like simplicity; she feels keenly the atmosphere of everyone with whom she is brought in contact, and to that degree that at times she becomes exceedingly nervous and apparently capricious.
“For this reason, I have advised her not to sit in dark séances, that she may avoid the irritation arising from the suspicion of strangers, mere curiosity-mongers and lovers of the marvellous.
“The perfection of the manifestations through her depends upon her surroundings and in proportion as she is in rapport or sympathy with you, does she seem receptive of spiritual power.
“The communications through her are very remarkable and have come to me frequently from my wife Estelle, in perfect, idiomatic French, and sometimes in Spanish and Italian, whilst she, herself is not acquainted with any of these languages. You will understand all this but these explanations may be necessary for others. As I have said, she will not give séances as a professional medium, but I hope she will do all the good she can in furtherance of the great truth in a quiet way while she remains in England.”
ROBERT DALE OWEN also wrote: “I have known Kate Fox for years. She is one of the most simple-minded and strictly impulsive persons I have ever met; as incapable of framing or carrying on any deliberate scheme of imposition as a ten-year- old child is of administering a government.”
BUCKNER POND, MARIAM: The Unwilling Martyrs. Volume I. Psychic Book Club, London 1947.
TAYLOR, SARAH L. (ED.): The Fox-Taylor Record (1869-1892). W. G. Langworthy Taylor, Lincoln, Nebraska 1932.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Only the latter is one of those rare finds. SARAH TAYLOR kept a meticulous record of her sittings including copies of the automatic writing she received from her children in the Spirit World via the FOX SISTERS.
Good show on this article, Z. Few Spiritualists and less than few others know that the Fox Sisters rapping sounds were as large as thunderclaps. Hard to crack your toes that magnanimously, eh?
Hi! I’m trying to catch up on all of your posts. This one about the Fox sisters is excellent! I did not realize that the Fox sisters produced more than raps. These materializations are impressive. It is no wonder they received so much notoriety. The Sarah Taylor reference source is invaluable, if accurate. Good job Zerdini. – Your friend, Amos Oliver Doyle
Thank you for your kind remarks.
The Fox-Taylor Record is a meticulous record by Sarah Taylor of her sittings with Kate Fox.
It is an excellent book.