Friday, July 29, 2011

The Fox Sisters, Spiritualism and Long Island's William Sidney Mount

At one time Spiritualism was believed to be more of a philosophy than a religion. It is based on the concept that spirits who have passed on can communicate with the living through mediumship, proving that life does continue after death. The Modern Spiritualist Movement began in 1848. Three sisters, known as the Fox sisters, are responsible for initiating what quickly became the latest craze. By 1855, Spiritualism had over two million followers in the United States and in Europe. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Spiritualism was on the decline. Scientists tried to disprove the practice of mediumship, and many frauds were uncovered. However, as the years went on, real, gifted mediums continued to surface, causing a rebirth in Spiritualism. Today, Spiritualism and Spiritualist churches continue to grow and remain active in the United States, England and in several other countries. Besides mediuimship, the practice has expanded to include spiritual healing and energy work, amongst other things.

John and Margaret Fox, who were devout Methodists, moved into a house in Hydesville, NY, a small town located twenty miles from Rochester, in December of 1847. The Fox's had six children, four adult children who had moved away, and two younger daughters Maggie, fifteen, and Kate, twelve who lived with them. The house they moved into had a reputation of being "haunted", but the Fox's didn't believe in such things. A few months went by, and by March 1848, strange rapping sounds and bangs made their way throughout the house. It was so loud that the family awoke from sleep. Searching the house, they could not find the source from which the rappings came. Every night the noises could be heard. By March 31, Kate decided the sounds came from spirits who were trying to communicate with them. She was determined to communicate back. She and Maggie decided to clap their hands while asking questions to the spirits. If they clapped ten times, the rappings would be heard ten times. To further communicate, they set up a system by rapping for the letters of the alphabet. It was at this time that they received some amazing information. The rappings were coming from a man, a peddler, named Charles Rosa, who claimed he was murdered by the home's previous owner, John Bell. He also said that his body was buried in the cellar, although at the time, nothing was found.

The girl's became so proficient at communicating through rappings, that their skills began to elevate to a new level which included having the ability to move objects, levitate tables, and communicate with other spirits, including the spirit of Benjamin Franklin. News quickly spread of the girls' talents, and before long they were giving performances and making money. Other mediums began to emerge, and within a few years séances became the rage.

Many people, including journalists, spent time with Maggie and Kate, and could not find any fraud between them. The events that took place became known as the "Hydesville Rappings". By April of 1848, their older sister Leah, who lived in Rochester, saw the attention her siblings were getting and asked to join them so she could cash in on the act. Leah's husband had abandoned her and her young daughter, and she desperately needed money. She became Kate and Maggie's manager, and scheduled performances and séances for them.

The pressures placed upon them along with their fame, eventually became more than the girls could handle. By the late 1850's, both Kate and Maggie were alcoholics. Leah remarried a wealthy businessman and abandoned her sisters. Kate continued to perform, but Maggie grew resistant. There was little choice for her, however, and she remained working with Kate. In 1888, when Spiritualism began to die down, the girls made a shocking confession claiming they were, in fact, frauds and denounced Spiritualism. Maggie claimed that her sister Kate had started the prank out of boredom, and had wanted to play a trick on her parents. Apparently Kate had the ability to pop her toe joints, and taught the trick to Maggie. When they saw the commotion they were causing, they had decided not to divulge their secret.

Some were still convinced that the girls were legitimate mediums, and that Maggie's rantings about the fraud had more to do with being an alcoholic. Others claimed that a reporter put them up to the story, by offering them money. As it turned out, the sisters may have been true mediums after all. In 1904, a few years after each of their deaths, some school children were playing in the old Hydesville home, which became known as the "Spook House", and made the discovery of some human remains. William H. Hyde, who was a respected citizen and the new owner of the house, ordered a full investigation. An entire human skeleton was found between the old walls and the earth, just like the girls had said. Many believed that they were the remains of Charles Rosa, the peddler who was murdered.

One of the people who was inspired by the Fox sisters was Long Island's famous genre painter, William Sidney Mount, who was born in Setauket in 1807. When William was seven, his father died, and William's mother Julia decided to move her five children to nearby Stony Brook, to her parent's old farmhouse which was built in 1725. It was known as the Hawkins-Mount Homestead. William began painting scenes from everyday life, and later studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. Art wasn't his only interest. He was extremely intrigued by the paranormal, and many of his early paintings dealt with death, ghosts and the supernatural. By 1854 he was actively involved in Spiritualism, and wrote about it in his diaries.

Mount became part of the "Miracle Circle" which was comprised of a small group of friends who got together to do séances. The séances took place down the road at the home of Mount's good friend, Thomas Hadaway. The Hadaway house, as it was called, is what is today's beautiful Country House Restaurant, which is haunted by the ghost of Annette Williamson, among other spirits. Some claim that Mr. Mount's spirit comes by on occasion. The old Hawkins-Mount house is also said to be haunted, possibly by William's cousin Elizabeth, and also by Mount.

The full story of William Sidney Mount, and the interesting events which occurred while I was researching and investigating the house with paranormal investigator Joe Giaquinto, can be found in my book Ghosts of Long Island II; More Stories of the Paranormal.