by Barbara Weisberg
Last summer, I spent a week in Rochester, New York, and attended my 55th high school reunion. I grew up on a street which runs near the west bank of the Genesee River. From the back windows of our house, we could look across the river to Mt. Hope Cemetery, a massive place set in the rolling hills along the east side of the Genesee.
Two of my high school pals and I decided to spend a day together, and visited the cemetery since none of us had ever been inside it. Mt. Hope is an impressive Victorian gothic cemetery. Among others, we visited the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. The suffragists and the abolitionists were but two of the groups influential in Rochester and western New York in the middle of the 19th century.
On a map of New York State, if you draw a line from near the eastern end of Lake Ontario south to the Pennsylvania border, everything west of the line is what became known as the Burned-over District because of the area's passion for religious revivals during the Second Great Awakening. There were revivalists, like Charles Finney, and people who invented religions, like Joseph Smith of the Mormons and William Miller whose beliefs eventually led to the Seventh Day Adventists.
In addition to the religious movements there were "phrenologists, mesmerists, inspirational speakers, social and political reformers, healers, doctors, and quacks hawking their cures."
Influenced by this mixture of social and political reform, hucksterism, religious fervor and invention, the Fox sisters, Maggie (15) and Kate (11) began hearing rappings that they interpreted as messages from beyond the grave. First, the word circulated around Hydesville, their village just east of Rochester. Soon, their fame spread beyond their village, and a new movement began in the United States -- Modern Spiritualism.
These two young women, whose stories are told in "Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism" by Barbara Weisberg, were not dismissed as charlatans by many famous people of their time, including the abolitionist Fredrick Douglass who was a great friend of theirs. Others close to them were Amy and Isaac Post, radical reformers of the day, who met regularly with Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, William Garrison, and Sojourner Truth. When visiting New York City, Maggie and Kate stayed with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune who famously wrote, "Go West, Young Man," and his family.
Many famous people of their day attended their seances, including Jane Pierce, First Lady of the United States; James Fenimore Cooper, "The Last of the Mohicans"; Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; George Bancroft, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, minister to England, historian; Nathaniel Tallmadge, territorial governor of Wisconsin; General Waddy Thompson, U.S. Army, congressman, minister to Mexico.
Barbara Weisberg tells Kate's and Maggie's stories as objectively as possible and leaves the reader wondering just how real or unreal the rappings and other manifestations were. The sisters were repeatedly investigated throughout their lives and, at times, asked to strip down to their nether garments. No one ever figured out or proved where the source of the rappings was or how the sisters knew the things they knew.