Spiritualism was a big thing during the Victorian era. Whether it stemmed from a crisis of faith or from all the new (and sometimes wrong) science emerging, there was a large audience available for anyone who claimed they could communicate with the spirit world. Not that I'm saying the Victorians were all a bunch of gullible suckers, but rather that boundaries were breaking down and people were willing to open themselves up to new and radical possibilities, no matter how crazy: "You can get ghosts to write on your chalkboard, provided we turn off all the lights so we can't see you? HERE, TAKE MY MONEY."
It was a good time to be a fraud. It was an even better time to be the real deal.
Okay, so the Fox Sisters. They are largely considered the main starting point of the spiritualist movement and its rapid spread to Great Britain.
Three modest, upstanding girls from New York with the ugliest hairdos I've ever seen. They had Quaker ties and were from a very well-respected family. Lea (on the right) was much older and living with her own family when, in 1848, Maggie and Kate (left and center) discovered that they had a talent for speaking to ghosts. They were 15 and 11, respectively. They had moved into a new house with their parents and the house already had a reputation for being haunted. Can't think of a better place to bring my young daughters. The whole family started hearing strange noises and Kate communicated with the ghost through a rapping system, getting the spirit to rap once for 'yes' and twice for 'no.'
The whole Fox family ascertained from communicating with the ghost that it was the spirit of a murdered man whose body had been hidden in the house. They got the police to dig up the cellar floor and found, five feet under ground, human remains buried in quicklime. It hit the papers and they became celebrities whether they wanted it or not.
Then older sister Lea got in on the act as their manager. She began promoting the girls and their fame proved more lasting. What really sold them was the fact that they didn't seem like attention-seekers. Maggie and Kate were honest, serious girls who didn't seem to like being celebrities.
They made vast amounts of money and were examined by all of the best disbelievers of the day. Spiritualists went through some serious Prestige-level hazing during this time. Harry Houdini was supposedly the scourge of charlatans, since he could always figure out how they did it and had no scruples about revealing them. The Fox sisters were examined, and passed. If they were faking the rapping system, no one could figure out where the noise came from.
As the years went on, Kate and Maggie eventually turned to drink and parted because of marriage. Lea desperately tried to keep the act together, but it led to Kate and Maggie having a huge falling out with her (guys, it's like 19th-century Gypsy without the creepy kiddy songs or stripping. Probably). Unable to take it anymore, Kate and Maggie held a press conference where Maggie revealed that the 'rapping' came from her cracking the joints in one of her toes. The act was over. Kate and Maggie died as impoverished alcoholics five years later.
1.) Bleak, yes, I know.
2.) Cracking a toe? Cracking a goddamned TOE? That is a hell of a long career they got out of a single toe. Take notes, new graduates.
3.) What the heck was wrong with her toe that she could crack it that many times in a row? And that is a LOUD crack if it can be mistaken for a spirit rapping on furniture.
4.) The book I found this story in (Medical Meddler, Mediums and Magicians by Keith Souter) doesn't get into it very deeply, but what I'm assuming is that it was a childhood joke that got out of hand and was then exploited by their older sister. They actually seemed like honest people who hated this life and were pressured into keeping it up. Hence the drinking.
5.) But wait–WAS it all just a childhood joke? Don't forget, they found a guy in the basement of a house that was said to be haunted before they even moved there. Pretty sure they didn't kill him for the sake of a joke. And it would also be a miraculous coincidence that there just happened to be a body in the house. Did they know something they shouldn't have? Or could they actually speak to that one particular spirit? And if it was a real ghost, when did the toe come into it all? The jury's out.