In 1848, two girls in the Fox family living in Hydesville, New York, reported strange knocking sounds in their bedroom at night. On
March 31, some time after the family began hearing the strange noises throughout the house, Katherine - then twelve - spoke aloud to
the unseen noisemaker, challenging him (it?) to a game - she would snap her fingers a number of times, then the invisible visitor would
repeat with the same number of knocks. The neighbors were called over to witness the proceedings, and over the next couple of days,
the spirits (for such they were presumed to be) communicated with them as much as possible - a code was worked out for yes or no
answers, for example, and over time it was established that the beings knew much about the Fox family.
Thus began the Spiritualist movement of the latter half of the 19th century, a quasi-mystical belief system whose basic tenets included
survival beyond death, and the ability of the living to communicate with those who have passed on. This was the period of American
history when many families would gather in their parlors for seances, Tarot card readings, or sessions with a Ouija board. The
movement would become especially popular with families who were grieving over sons, brothers, or fathers lost in war; and, of course,
there were those who would prey upon these people's suffering and extract cash while offering empty, vague platitudes about the
pleasant world awaiting those beyond the grave (a practice which continues to this day, with little change in methods).
In any case, however, it began with the Fox sisters' strange knocking spirits. Katherine (12) and Margaret (15) were sent to stay
with relative in Rochester during the ensuing public tumult, but mysteriously, the spirits followed them there. Over time the girls
became celebrities, with members of high society entreating them for a chance to communicate with the spirit world. They were studied
and their mysterious messengers probed, and over time the sisters turned their unique situation into a career, touring music halls and
giving 'performances' both in the U.S. and overseas.
By the late 1880's, however, the sisters were beginning to quarrel, both with their older sibling Leah - who herself claimed to be a
medium - and the proponents in Spiritualism in general. The two younger Fox sisters had become alcoholics over the past several years
and, perhaps tired of their situation, publicly confessed to the true source of the mysterious knocks: their toe joints, which the
girls were able to crack loudly at will.They even did so before an audience - in 1888 at the New York Academy of Music, with over 2,000 people watching, the Fox sisters showed
how they were able to make their toe joints produce the sounds which reverberated around the theater.
The jig was up, as it were, but - as with the exposure of many phenomena of humble origins, there were those who refused to believe
that it was all made up. Prominent Spiritualists claimed the women had been coerced into confessing, many of them claiming that they
had heard the knockings coming from several different directions during personal sittings. Katherine and Margaret continued to tour, only this time
audiences came to hear about how the young ladies had earlier defrauded them; and on the side the sisters continued to give seances to those who still
Their alcoholism reaching alarming levels, both sisters eventually became unable to tour, and both died penniless and unmourned,
their old friends and comrades having turned their backs on them long before.