Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox

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Charles James Fox, the son of the Henry Fox, a leading politician in the House of Commons, was born on 24th January, 1749. After being educated at Eton and Oxford University, Fox was elected to represent Midhurst in the Commons when he was only nineteen.

At the age of twenty-one, Fox was appointed by Frederick North, the prime minister, as the Junior Lord of the Admiralty. In December 1772 Fox became Lord of the Treasury but was dismissed by in February 1774 after criticising the influential artist and journalist, Henry Woodfall.

Out of office, Charles Fox opposed North's policy towards America. He denounced the taxation of the Americans without their consent. When war broke out Fox called for a negotiated peace.

In April 1780 John Cartwright helped establish the Society for Constitutional Information. Other members included John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Granville Sharp, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Gales and William Smith. It was an organisation of social reformers, many of whom were drawn from the rational dissenting community, dedicated to publishing political tracts aimed at educating fellow citizens on their lost ancient liberties. It promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform.

Charles Fox became convinced by Cartwright's arguments. He advocated the disfranchisement of rotten and pocket boroughs and the redistribution of these seats to the fast growing industrial towns. When Lord Frederick North's government fell in March 1782, Fox became Foreign Secretary in Rockingham's Whig government. Fox left the government in July 1782, on the death of the Marquis of Rockingham as he was unwilling to serve under the new prime minister, Lord Sherburne. Sherburne appointed the twenty-three year old William Pitt as his Chanchellor of the Exchequer. Pitt had been a close political friend of Fox and after this the two men became bitter enemies.

In 1787 Thomas Clarkson, William Dillwyn and Granville Sharp formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Although Sharp and Clarkson were both Anglicans, nine out of the twelve members on the committee, were Quakers. This included John Barton (1755-1789); George Harrison (1747-1827); Samuel Hoare Jr. (1751-1825); Joseph Hooper (1732-1789); John Lloyd (1750-1811); Joseph Woods (1738-1812); James Phillips (1745-1799) and Richard Phillips (1756-1836). Influential figures such as Charles Fox, John Wesley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Ramsay, and William Smith gave their support to the campaign. Clarkson was appointed secretary, Sharp as chairman and Hoare as treasurer.

Clarkson approached another sympathiser, Charles Middleton, the MP for Rochester, to represent the group in the House of Commons. He rejected the idea and instead suggested the name of William Wilberforce, who "not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue." Lady Middleton wrote to Wilberforce who replied: "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it." Wilberforce's nephew, George Stephen, was surprised by this choice as he considered him a lazy man: "He worked out nothing for himself; he was destitute of system, and desultory in his habits; he depended on others for information, and he required an intellectual walking stick."

Fox was unsure of Wilberforce's commitment to the anti-slavery campaign. He wrote to Thomas Walker: "There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. Nothing, I think but such a disposition, or a want of judgment scarcely credible, could induce him to throw cold water upon petitions. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success."

In May 1788, Fox precipitated the first parliamentary debate on the issue. He denounced the "disgraceful traffic" which ought not to be regulated but destroyed. He was supported by Edmund Burke who warned MPs not to let committees of the privy council do their work for them. William Dolben described shipboard horrors of slaves chained hand and foot, stowed like "herrings in a barrel" and stricken with "putrid and fatal disorders" which infected crews as well. With the support of William Pitt, Samuel Whitbread, William Wilberforce, Charles Middleton and William Smith, Dolben put forward a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships. The bill passed 56 to 5 and received royal assent on 11th July.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Charles Fox was initially enthusiastic describing it as the "greatest event that has happened in the history of the world". He expected the creation of a liberal, constitutional monarchy and was horrified when King Louis XVI was executed. When war broke out between Britain and France in February 1793, Fox criticised the government and called for a negotiated end to the dispute. Although Fox's views were supported by the Radicals, many people regarded him as defeatist and unpatriotic.

In April 1792, Charles Grey joined with a group of Whigs who supported parliamentary reform to form the Friends of the People. Three peers (Lord Porchester, Lord Lauderdale and Lord Buchan) and twenty-eight Whig MPs joined the group. Other leading members included Richard Sheridan, John Cartwright, John Russell, George Tierney, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread. The main objective of the the society was to obtain "a more equal representation of the people in Parliament" and "to secure to the people a more frequent exercise of their right of electing their representatives". Charles Fox was opposed to the formation of this group as he feared it would lead to a split in the Whig Party. However, by November eighty-seven branches of the Society of Friends had been established in Britain.

Fox disapproved of the ideas of Tom Paine and criticised Rights of Man, however, he consistently opposed measures that attempted to curtail traditional freedoms. He attacked plans to suspend habeas corpus in May 1794 and denounced the trials of Thomas Muir, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke. Fox also promoted Catholic Emancipation and opposed the slave trade. Fox continued to support parliamentary reform but he rejected the idea of universal suffrage and instead argued for the vote to be given to all male householders.

When Lord Grenville became prime minister in 1806 he appointed Charles Fox as his Foreign Secretary. Fox began negotiating with the French but was unable to bring an end to the war. After making a passionate speech in favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill in the House of Commons on 10th June 1806, Fox was taken ill. His health deteriorated rapidly and he died three months later on 13th September, 1806.

There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success.

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Charles James Fox - History

The Foxborough Historical Society and Foxborough Historical Commission

The Foxborough Historical Society (FHS)

The Foxborough Historical Society was originally formed in 1898 and is an all volunteer, not for profit organization, that strives to promote the history of Foxborough Massachusetts. The Foxborough Historical Society normally meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday of each month except during the summer months of June thru August. Regular meetings are held at 7:30 pm in the Fuller Room lower level, Boyden Library.

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Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox has been presented as the prototype of the nineteenth-century Liberal. Certainly his gifts were extraordinary. But did he put them to a worthy use? Ian R. Christie critically re-examines his record of public service.

Charles James Fox entered the House of Commons in 1768, while still under age. He made his mark at once as a debater by his early thirties he was one of the leading personalities in the House, and he remained a member of it for over thirty-seven years, till his death in 1806. Yet his ministerial career is counted in months only, rather than in years: setting aside his early apprenticeship in junior posts, he held high Cabinet office for three months in 1782, eight months in 1783, and seven months in 1806—a year and a half in all.

It seems at first sight extraordinary that a man of so much vitality, who commanded so much admiration from almost all who knew him, even from his opponents, possessed of dazzling Parliamentary talents, and with other abilities of no mean order, should have failed to achieve positions of place and power and, through them, to leave a greater mark upon his country’s history.

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Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox, 1749 – 1806, seems to have been a larger than life character. His father, who eloped with Lady Caroline Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond was addicted to gambling but in spite of this amassed a large fortune as Paymaster General to the forces. He spoilt his son, Charles, and actively encouraged him in gambling and debauchery.

Young Charles became a ‘figure’ in society. It was said of him that he had three interests, gambling, women and politics in that order. Aged nineteen he was bought the parliamentary seat of Midhurst and within two years he was a junior Lord of the Admiralty. At the same age he also became High Steward for Malmesbury. This may be because his family owned Foxley Manor.

His political career was erratic and varied. He supported the American Declaration of Independence, wanted to reform the governance of India, supported the French Revolution and catholic emancipation, was violently against the slave trade and hated King George III. His last post was Secretary of State for Foriegn Affairs in Grenville’s ‘Ministry of all the talents’.

His politics were sufficiently vehement to be the cause of a duel he fought with William Adam, another politician, in which he was wounded.

In 1774 while still High Steward he became M.P. for Malmesbury. Malmesbury was a ‘rotten borough’. Two M.P.s and thirteen electors and £30 each was enough to secure their votes. He was only M.P. for Malmesbury until 1780 but remained in parliament being M.P. for the Orkney and Shetland Islands and then, after much scrutiny of the votes, he represented Westminster from 1784.

Athelstan Museum has a bust and several medals and plaques commemorating him.

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George Fox, 1624-91

Itinerant preacher who founded the Quaker movement and ensured its survival into the modern world.

T he son of a prosperous Puritan weaver of Leicestershire, George Fox was apprenticed to a shoemaker around 1635. During his youth, he was plagued by periods of melancholy and religious torment, which led him to adopt an itinerant life as a travelling shoemaker. He travelled around Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire seeking out clergymen and others for spiritual guidance, but broke away from the established church when he found it unable to meet his needs.

At some time in 1647, Fox experienced a spiritual revelation which convinced him that all earthly authority (church or state) was corrupt God's message came to individuals directly through the Inner Light of their personal inspiration. Fox proclaimed his message as he travelled around the Midlands and the North, attracting small groups of followers who called themselves Friends of the Truth, but became popularly known as Quakers.

Fox's denunciations of the established church and its ministers alarmed the authorities, leading to periods of imprisonment at Nottingham (1649) and Derby (1650-1). During his imprisonment at Derby, Fox refused a chance to gain his freedom by enlisting in the army raised against the invasion by Charles II and the Scots. His personal pacifism later became an important feature of the Quaker movement as a whole. Upon his release late in 1651, Fox resumed his ministry in Yorkshire and Lancashire. He called for the abolition of tithes, refused to bow or doff his hat to social superiors and insisted that anyone, including women and children, could speak at Quaker meetings. After experiencing a vision on Pendle Hill in June 1652, Fox travelled to Sedbergh in Westmorland where he addressed a gathering of a thousand people at Firbank Fell.

Among the many disciples convinced by Fox's preaching during this period was Margaret Fell (1614-1702), wife of Thomas Fell, a prominent magistrate. Although Thomas Fell never became a convert to the movement, he agreed to extend his protection to persecuted preachers in the regions under his jurisdiction. Margaret Fell became the chief organiser of the Society of Friends and married Fox after the death of her husband.

D uring the mid-1650s, the Quaker movement spread to Bristol, London and southern England. When Fox came to London in March 1655, he was personally interviewed by Lord Protector Cromwell, whom he impressed with his plain speaking and religious sincerity. Despite Cromwell's broadly sympathetic view, however, many Quakers were imprisoned by local magistrates for causing disturbances in their regions. Fox himself was imprisoned under harsh conditions at Launceston in Cornwall from January to September 1656 when he travelled to the West Country.

Following Parliament's prosecution and savage punishment of the charismatic James Nayler under the Blasphemy Act, Fox worked to discourage radicalism and to impose a more formal structure on the Quaker movement. After the fall of the Protectorate in 1659, he lobbied the reconvened Rump Parliament in the hope that the Society of Friends would replace the Church of England as the leading religious group in the nation. His hopes were dashed with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when Quakers were associated with other radical sects as potential enemies of the new régime and Fox himself was imprisoned at Lancaster for five months under suspicion of conspiracy. After the suppression of a violent Fifth Monarchist uprising led by Thomas Venner in January 1661, Fox issued the "Peace Testimony" which committed the Society of Friends to pacifism and non-violence under all circumstances.

During the reigns of Charles II and James II, Fox struggled to consolidate the Quaker movement in the face of persecution from the government and internal divisions within the movement itself. He travelled to the West Indies and the American colonies and visited Ireland, Holland and Germany, but his health was weakened by fourteen months' imprisonment at Worcester for refusing to take the oath required by the Test Act of 1673. While at Worcester, he began dictating his autobiography, also known as his "Journal", which was published posthumously in 1694. George Fox's Autobiography is regarded as a classic of inspirational religious literature, though it tends to downplay or ignore the controversies within the early Quaker movement.


Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1975)

H.L. Ingle, George Fox, Oxford DNB, 2004

Rosemary Anne Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain (Penn State Press, 2000)

An abstract of the life of George Fox, based on Rufus Jones, George Fox, Seeker and Friend, 1930

The Life of George Fox

Based on George Fox Seeker and Friend by Rufus Jones, 1930, Harper and Bros., New York & London. All quotes are Fox's own words.

George Fox is born at Fenny Drayton ("Drayton in the Clay"), Leicestershire, England, of humble but "honest and sufficient" parents (middle-class family with Puritan leanings). He speaks kindly of his parents and up-bringing in his journals. At some point he was apprenticed as a shoemaker.

The first crisis at age 19: ". the Lord, who said unto me: 'Thou seest how young people go together in vanity, and old people into the earth thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all. Then at the command of God, the ninth of the Seventh month, 1643, I left my relations, and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old." The thing that thew him into commotion was the discovery that professions of religion were hollow in the lives of those who composed the Church. A second probable cause was that Fox believed in a religion of life and a faith in the divine possibilities in man's nature, while the preaching in the local church tended to be focused on the depravity of mankind, the domination of Satan and harrowing accounts of eternal damnation. He began three years of wandering about looking for answers.

On the road to Coventry: ". all Christians are believers, both Protestants and Papists" . it was made clear to Fox "that if all were believers, then would all be born of God and passed from death to life, and that none were true believers but such and though others said they were believers, yet they were not." Walking the fields it was "opened to him", that "being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to qualify men to be ministers of Christ. "

Fox's description of his moment of revelation: "When all my hopes in them [that is, in priests] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Thus when God doth work, who shall hinder it? And this I knew experimentally. My desire after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book or writing. For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew Him not, but by revelation, as He who hath the key did open, and as the Father of Life drew me to His Son by His Spirit. Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can obtain from history or books and that love let me see myself, as I was without Him." From 1645-1648 Fox continued to find his sense of direction, in conversation with Seekers and in reading the Bible. .

Salvation is for Fox complete normal spiritual health and moral power &mdash a life victorious over man's darker side. The incorruptible seed of God, he maintained, can produce, and ought to produce a full-grown, holy, and sinless life. That exalted claim which Fox made at the outset of his ministry threw all the "professors", he say "into a rage," for they all "pleaded for sin and imperfection. None of them could bear to be told that any should come to Adam's perfection, into the image of God. Then they asked me, If I had no sin? I answered 'Christ, my Saviour, has taken away my sin, and in Him is no sin." This is the break from Puritanism.

Fox described his experiences as like being born again. "Thy name is written in the Lamb's book of Life which was before the foundation of the world, and I saw in this the new birth." Another time a tender voice seemed to say in his soul, "My love was always to thee and thou art in my love." It was through such experiences that his inward man was built. Another opening: "I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I saw the infinite love of God."

He begins to preach, traveling about and working as an itinerant shoemaker. His ministry is centered in Mansfield and Nottinghamshire. Elizabeth Hooton and Amor Stoddard are two notable converts. The movement is first known as "The Children of the Light", but gradually is called the "Friends" or "Friends in the Truth" derived from John 1:9 ("the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world").

In Leicester at a meeting held in a church to discuss religious issues: A woman asked a question from the first epistle of Peter, "What that birth was &mdash a being born again of incorruptible seed, by the word of God, that liveth and abideth for ever?" The local priest said to her, "I permit not a woman to speak in the church." This brought Fox to his feet, who stepped up and asked the priest, "Dost thou call this place a church? or dost thou call this mixed multitude a church?" But instead of answering him, the priest asked what a church was? to which George replied, "The church is the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, of which Christ is the head but he is not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood." This set them all on fire the priest came down from his pulpit, the others out of their pews, and the discussion was broken up. (from Janney's Life of Penn)

He interrupts a sermon in Nottingham and is imprisoned. His stay is short and he converts the jailer. The sermon interupted was based on 2nd Peter 1:19 &mdash "We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in your hearts." This text the preacher attempted to expound by saying, that the Scriptures were the "more sure word of prophecy, by which all doctrines, religions and opinions were to be tried." George Fox felt contrained to declare to the congregation, that the Apostle did not here allude to the Scriptures, but to the Holy Spirit, which Christ has said shall lead his disciples into all truth."

He speaks after the sermon in Derby and is jailed for a year. His message was that people should stop disputing about Christ and obey him. He again converts the jailer. It is at his trial that Judge Bennett fixed upon his movement the word Quaker after Fox asked him to quake before the Lord. He goes to Yorkshire and is welcomed by the Seekers there (1651). Amongst those convinced then and in 1652 are William Dewsbury, James Nayler, Thomas Aldam, Richard Farnsworth, Thomas Killam, Edward Burrough, John Camm, Richard Hubberthorne, Miles Halhead, Thomas Taylor, Jane and Dorothy Waugh, Ann Audland, Elizabeth Fletcher, Francis Howgill, John Audland and Durant Hotham (although Seekers would need little convincing &mdash this list includes many prominent Quaker ministers). He visits and climbs Pendle Hill (1652) ". and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered." He preaches at Firbank Chapel in Westmoreland to about a thousand persons. About this meeting Francis Howgill says, 'The kingdom of God did gather us, and catch us all as in a net and His heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land." After this the Quaker movement with Fox at its head becomes a force and many of those present become ministers for the movement.

He meets and convinces Margaret Fell of Swarthmore Hall, who after the death of her husband, Judge Fell in 1658 will marry Fox. Margaret Fell becomes the chief organizer of the Society of Friends.

The movement spreads rapidly from the North country to Bristol and London, carried by numerous Quaker ministers.

Fox meets with Cromwell. The meeting goes well and they part respectful of one another. However, a persecution of Friends soon begins. At a second meeting in 1656 Fox advises Cromwell not to take the crown and pleads for the sufferings of Friends in prison. Cromwell dies 3 September, 1658.

IMPRISONMENTS. After visiting Cromwell, Fox goes north and is imprisoned in Carlisle on blasphemy charges. After he is freed by Justice Anthony Pearson (before being hung) he is imprisoned again in Launceston Castle as a vagrant trouble-maker. They were thrown there into the lowest dungeon, called Doomsdale, from which few return alive (usually reserved for witches and murderers). Fox had offended the judge mightily by not removing his hat. On the wall of the dungeon Fox wrote, "I was never in prison that it was not the means of bringing multitudes out of their prisons." Fox was freed in September 1656. Next he was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, June-September 1660 on charges of stirring up an insurrection against newly restored King Charles II. Charges were dropped after he appeared in London in October 1660. He was imprisoned 1 month in Leicester in September 1662 for refusing to take an oath of Allegience. The longest imprisonment was in Lancaster, beginning in early 1664 and ending in Scarborough, September 1666. Margaret Fell and many other Quakers shared this imprisonment with him. An act for suppressing the Quakers had been passed May 1662. Margaret was sentence to life in prison (the King pardoned her after 4 1/2 years and eventually she was returned her forfeited property). His final, eighth imprisonment began in Worcester, 17 December 1673 and ended in London 12 February, 1675, when Sir Matthew Hale quashed the indictment. During this last imprisonment he wrote his journals.

Fox preaches in Wales, then Scotland. Scots converts include Alexander Jaffray, George Keith and Col. David Barclay (father of Robert Barclay).

Charles Stuart implicated for staged murder of his wife

Matthew Stuart meets with Boston prosecutors and tells them that his brother, Charles, was actually the person responsible for murdering Charles’s wife, Carol. The killing of Carol Stuart, who was pregnant at the time, on October 23, 1989, had touched off a national outrage when Charles Stuart told authorities that the couple had been robbed and shot by an African American man while driving through a poor Boston neighborhood.

In the summer and fall of 1989, both Boston daily newspapers had been trumpeting a so-called crime explosion. Actually, the screaming headlines had more to do with a desire to sell papers than any actual crime wave, but the public was on edge. Charles Stuart, a fur salesman, used the public mood to his advantage when he planned the murder of his wife.

“My wife’s been shot! I’ve been shot!” screamed Stuart into his cell phone as he drove through the Mission Hill area of Boston. Paramedics responding to the call for help found that both Charles and his wife had been shot. Carol was barely hanging on to her life and Charles had a fairly serious wound to the stomach. Immediately, Charles identified an African American male in a black running suit as the perpetrator.

The crime was the biggest story in Boston that day and even led some national newscasts. Across the country, the story was portrayed as an example of what could happen to affluent people traveling through bad neighborhoods. In many papers, liberal policies were attacked and held responsible for the tragedy. Carol Stuart died, and although doctors were able to save her baby temporarily, the child also died days later. Charles Stuart underwent intestinal surgery for 10 hours, but his life was not endangered.

The Boston police began to comb the housing projects in Mission Hill. African American men were strip-searched on the streets on any pretense. Meanwhile, Stuart was showing unusual interest in a young female co-worker, asking that she phone him at the hospital where he was recovering. Detectives, fixated on finding the Black perpetrator Stuart had described, didn’t bother to find the ample evidence that Stuart was unhappy in his marriage and particularly upset with his wife for not having an abortion. Stuart had discussed both his obsession with the co-worker, and his desire to see his wife dead, with several friends and family members in the months before the murder.

In December, Willie Bennett, an African American ex-con, was arrested after his nephew jokingly bragged that he was responsible. Stuart picked Bennett out of a lineup in which the others were all clean-cut Boston police officers. This was the last straw for Matthew Stuart, who had assisted his brother in carrying out the scheme. Matthew thought he was helping Charles with an insurance scam when he carried a bag away from the murder scene. In it was the gun and the couple’s wallets and jewelry. In return for immunity, Matthew testified against his brother.

Charles Stuart found out that Matthew was going to turn him in and immediately fled. The next morning, Charles Stuart drove to the Tobin Bridge over the Mystic River, and jumped to his death. Willie Bennett was released after witnesses told a grand jury that the police had pressured them into identifying him.

The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism

The Fox sisters, from left to right: Leah, Kate and Maggie.
From “Radical Spirits.”

One of the greatest religious movements of the 19 th  century began in the bedroom of two young girls living in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. On a late March day in 1848, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate, her 11-year-old sister, waylaid a neighbor, eager to share an odd and frightening phenomenon. Every night around bedtime, they said, they heard a series of raps on the walls and furniture—raps that seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence. The neighbor, skeptical, came to see for herself, joining the girls in the small chamber they shared with their parents. While Maggie and Kate huddled together on their bed, their mother, Margaret, began the demonstration.

“Now count five,” she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.

“Count fifteen,” she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age thirty-three distinct raps followed.

“If you are an injured spirit,” she continued, “manifest it by three raps.”

Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April Fool’s Eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.

The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.

The Posts invited the girls to a gathering at their home, anxious to see if they could communicate with spirits in another locale. “I suppose I went with as much unbelief as Thomas felt when he was introduced to Jesus after he had ascended,” Isaac Post wrote, but he was swayed by “very distinct thumps under the floor… and several apparent answers.” He was further convinced when Leah Fox also proved to be a medium, communicating with the Posts’ recently deceased daughter. The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.

The Fox sisters’ home, Hydesville, New York. From “Hudson Valley Halloween Magazine.”

The idea that one could communicate with spirits was hardly new—the Bible contains hundreds of references to angels administering to man—but the movement known as Modern Spiritualism sprang from several distinct revolutionary philosophies and characters. The ideas and practices of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Australian healer, had spread to the United States and by the 1840s held the country in thrall. Mesmer proposed that everything in the universe, including the human body, was governed by a “magnetic fluid” that could become imbalanced, causing illness. By waving his hands over a patient’s body, he induced a “mesmerized” hypnotic state that allowed him to manipulate the magnetic force and restore health. Amateur mesmerists became a popular attraction at parties and in parlors, a few proving skillful enough to attract paying customers. Some who awakened from a mesmeric trance claimed to have experienced visions of spirits from another dimension.

At the same time the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, also surged in popularity. Swedenborg described an afterlife consisting of three heavens, three hells and an interim destination—the world of the spirits—where everyone went immediately upon dying, and which was more or less similar to what they were accustomed to on earth. Self love drove one toward the varying degrees of hell love for others elevated one to the heavens. “The Lord casts no one into hell,” he wrote, “but those who are there have deliberately cast themselves into it, and keep themselves there.” He claimed to have seen and talked with spirits on all of the planes.

Seventy-five years later, the 19 th -century American seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who would become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism,” combined these two ideologies, claiming that Swedenborg’s spirit spoke to him during a series of mesmeric trances. Davis recorded the content of these messages and in 1847 published them in a voluminous tome titled The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. “It is a truth,” he asserted, predicting the rise of Spiritualism, “that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres…all the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communication will be established.” Davis believed his prediction materialized a year later, on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits in their bedroom. “About daylight this morning,” he confided to his diary, “a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.’”

Andrew Jackson Davis. From

Upon hearing of the Rochester incident, Davis invited the Fox sisters to his home in New York City to witness their medium capabilities for himself. Joining his cause with the sisters’ ghostly manifestations elevated his stature from obscure prophet to recognized leader of a mass movement, one that appealed to increasing numbers of Americans inclined to reject the gloomy Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and embrace the reform-minded optimism of the mid-19 th century. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls.

Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a professional tour to spread word of the spirits, booking a suite, fittingly, at Barnum’s Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, an establishment owned by a cousin of the famed showman. An editorial in the Scientific American scoffed at their arrival, calling the girls the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” They conducted their sessions in the hotel’s parlor, inviting as many as thirty attendees to gather around a large table at the hours of 10 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., taking an occasional private meeting in between. Admission was one dollar, and visitors included preeminent members of New York Society: Horace Greeley, the iconoclastic and influential editor of the New York Tribune James Fenimore Cooper editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who witnessed a session in which the spirits rapped in time to a popular song and spelled out a message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”

Leah stayed in New York, entertaining callers in a séance room, while Kate and Maggie took the show to other cities, among them Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where one visitor, explorer Elisha Kent Kane, succumbed to Maggie’s charms even as he deemed her a fraud—although he couldn’t prove how the sounds were made. “After a whole month’s trial I could make nothing of them,” he confessed. “Therefore they are a great mystery.” He courted Maggie, thirteen years his junior, and encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.” She acquiesced, retiring to attend school at Kane’s behest and expense, and married him shortly before his untimely death in 1857. To honor his memory she converted to Catholicism, as Kane—a Presbyterian—had always encouraged. (He seemed to think the faith’s ornate iconography and sense of mystery would appeal to her.) In mourning, she began drinking heavily and vowed to keep her promise to Kane to “wholly and forever abandon Spiritualism.”

Kate, meanwhile, married a devout Spiritualist and continued to develop her medium powers, translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other transcribing messages in reverse script utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card. Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. These new practitioners, seduced by the flamboyance of the Gilded Age, expected miracles—like Kate’s summoning of full-fledged apparitions—at every séance. It was wearying, both to the movement and to Kate herself, and she, too, began to drink.

On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism. She was paid $1,500 for the exclusive. Her main motivation, however, was rage at her sister Leah and other leading Spiritualists, who had publicly chastised Kate for her drinking and accused her of being unable to care for her two young children. Kate planned to be in the audience when Maggie gave her speech, lending her tacit support.

“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”

She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The room fell silent and still, and was rewarded with a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.

The mainstream press called the incident “a death blow” to the movement, and Spiritualists quickly took sides. Shortly after Maggie’s confession the spirit of Samuel B. Brittan, former publisher of the Spiritual Telegraph, appeared during a séance to offer a sympathetic opinion. Although Maggie was an authentic medium, he acknowledged, “the band of spirits attending during the early part of her career” had been usurped by “other unseen intelligences, who are not scrupulous in their dealings with humanity.” Other (living) Spiritualists charged that Maggie’s change of heart was wholly mercenary since she had failed to make a living as a medium, she sought to profit by becoming one of Spiritualism’s fiercest critics.

Whatever her motive, Maggie recanted her confession one year later, insisting that her spirit guides had beseeched her to do so. Her reversal prompted more disgust from devoted Spiritualists, many of whom failed to recognize her at a subsequent debate at the Manhattan Liberal Club. There, under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer, Maggie revealed several tricks of the profession, including the way mediums wrote messages on blank slates by using their teeth or feet. She never reconciled with sister Leah, who died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking spree. Maggie passed away eight months later, in March 1893. That year Spiritualists formed the National Spiritualist Association, which today is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.

The séance table. From “Radical Spirits.”

In 1904, schoolchildren playing in the sisters’ childhood home in Hydesville—known locally as “the spook house”—discovered the majority of a skeleton between the earth and crumbling cedar walls. A doctor was consulted, who estimated that the bones were about fifty years old, giving credence to the sisters’ tale of spiritual messages from a murdered peddler. But not everyone was convinced. The New York Times reported that the bones had created “a stir amusingly disproportioned to any necessary significance of the discovery,” and suggested that the sisters had merely been clever enough to exploit a local mystery. Even if the bones were that of the murdered peddler, the Times concluded, “there will still remain that dreadful confession about the clicking joints, which reduces the whole case to a farce.”

Five years later, another doctor examined the skeleton and determined that it was made up of “only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones.” He also reported a rumor that a man living near the spook house had planted the bones as a practical joke, but was much too ashamed to come clean.


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