Spirits in St. Louis

31, October 2017

“The Misses Fox, the original and genuine Spirit Rappers, or Rochester Knockers are in St. Louis.” That was the headline in Glasgow, Missouri, in June 1852. Obviously eager to witness the phenomenon firsthand, the editor of the town’s Weekly Times newspaper finished the notice with a plea: “Send them up this way, gentlemen of the press.”

The “Misses Fox” to whom the article referred were sisters Kate and Maggie Fox, the unlikely founders of an obsession that swept the nation in the 1850s.

Bumps in the Night

Color photo of the former site of home where the Fox sisters first communicated with spiritsFormer site of Fox Cottage in Lily Dale, New York, October 2013. Photo by Plazak. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Approximately four years before, the young sisters and their parents heard unusual sounds in their home in western New York. The increasing bumps, thuds, and loud rapping emanating from the little cottage’s ceiling and walls seemed to lend credence to stories about the home being haunted.

Eleven-year-old Kate was the first to try to test whether the family was dealing with some form of intelligent entity. She called for whoever was making the sounds to follow her actions. She then snapped her fingers, and the raps followed in succession. Kate and Maggie’s mother, Margaret Fox, proceeded to ask a series of questions, hoping to determine what or who they were communicating with. Through a series of knocks for yes and no, she determined that the sounds were coming from the spirit of a man who had been murdered in the house many years before.

News of the family’s experiences quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. After eyewitnesses professed their amazement, newspapers began to print accounts of the sisters’ ability to talk to the deceased. Soon other individuals, almost all women, were declaring that they too had the power to speak with spirits. Spiritualism and its practitioners seized the American public’s fascination quickly thereafter.

A Spiritualist Stronghold

By 1852 spiritualism had reached the banks of the Mississippi River. No fewer than eight declared spirit mediums had set up shop in St. Louis. That January, a medium identified only as Miss Anderson advertised a spirit parlor in her room at the Virginia Hotel. Many St. Louisans visited her in the hopes of communicating with the great beyond. Some were thoroughly convinced by what they witnessed, others not so much.

Two reporters from the Daily Missouri Republican paid Anderson a call and later wrote of the ghostly conversation that appeared to take place. “Time enough was allowed to exchange the ordinary compliments of the day when a faint ticking under the table proclaimed the presence of a spirit,” they wrote. A series of questions regarding the identity of the spirit followed.

Color photo of planchette belonging to Matthew WilsonPlanchettes, like this one given to Matthew Wilson by Robert Dale Owen (ca. 1865), were used by mediums prior to the invention of the Ouija board. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A sheet of paper with the names of several individuals was provided, and one by one Anderson narrowed the list until it was determined that the spirit contacting them was Mr. Beriah Cleland. By rapping responses to written questions, he told the group that he was killed at the age of 21 in Kamchatka (a peninsula on the Pacific coast of Siberia) in an explosion of a “machine for the manufacture of popular odes.” The fact that the reporters had never heard of such an odd piece of machinery and that Beriah Cleland was a 60-year-old, very-much-alive local poet must have amused them. A second round of questioning took place with another supposed spirit, but he too turned out to be another individual who was firmly among the city’s living residents.

The reporters concluded their tale of the encounter with Anderson by observing that spiritualists made for good entertainment but little else. The resulting published admonishments for declaring spiritualists frauds show that the movement had plenty of followers in St. Louis.

The Fox Sisters’ Local Legacy

Daguerreotype of the Fox sistersSpirit mediums Kate and Maggie Fox, 1852. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

In the summer of 1852, the Fox sisters arrived in St. Louis and received visitors at the Planter's House Hotel. Apparently intrigued, local daguerreotypist Thomas Easterly had them sit for a studio portrait. Maggie, who was 19 at the time, and Kate, who was 16, appear not as flamboyant, mysterious young women but as two normal teenage girls with an air of boredom and weariness. No doubt they were tired from the strain of constant travel.

Soon after the revelation of the girls’ extraordinary abilities, their older, married sister and her husband became their guardians and dragged them around the country on a national tour. It was a lifestyle that eventually led the sisters down a sad path of alcoholism, lost love, and financial hardship.

Watercolor portrait of Dr. Joseph Nash McDowellDr. Joseph Nash McDowell, founder of McDowell Medical College, was one of many who tested the Fox sisters and declared them fakes. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

But spiritualism didn’t need the Fox sisters. It gained a firm following in the years surrounding the Civil War as the parents, friends, and relatives of war casualties sought comfort in knowing that their sons and comrades were resting peacefully. By the 1870s, St. Louis had become a regional center for spiritualism, complete with a thriving community of believers. One of the strongest adherents was Thomas Gale Foster, editor of the St. Louis Herald, who eventually left the city for Boston in order to take over the Banner of Light, the most prestigious and influential spiritualist newspaper in the United States. Referring to the spiritualist community in St. Louis in 1878, J. A. Dacus and James Beul noted in their book A Tour of St. Louis that “spiritualistic circles exist in considerable numbers in St. Louis, and one might be present at a séance any evening, if he so desired.”

For some believers, spiritualism was more than a mysterious parlor act of communicating with the beyond: It was a religious experience and, in turn, they came to practice it as a religion. Spiritualist churches formed in both the United States and Great Britain. A Spiritualist church still exists in St. Louis today and has a small congregation of followers dedicated to the belief that true ties to the dearly departed can last beyond death.

Although the St. Louis church is far removed from that tiny New York cottage or that 1852 visit to the Planter's House Hotel, it continues to echo, like spirits from beyond, the presence of the Fox sisters.

—Christopher Gordon, Director, Library and Collections

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