A wide-ranging account that persuasively demonstrates that the Fox sisters’ role in the founding of modern spiritualism was more a reflection of mid-19th-century culture than an occult phenomenon.
Setting the story firmly in the context of their times, former TV producer Weisberg gives an informative history of a turbulent and fast-changing era. She begins in 1848, when the Maggie and Kate Fox, 14 and 11, respectively, still living with their parents in Hytheville, New York, claimed that they were able to speak to the dead. These claims resonated with thousands of people, and spiritualism became increasingly popular. Arguing that the Fox sisters’ influence was a product of a society in transition, the author offers numerous examples of such ongoing changes: the effects of the invention of the telegraph, evolving attitudes toward women, an expanding frontier, scientific discoveries that were calling into question aspects of conventional faith, and a growing belief in an afterlife without eternal damnation. More somberly, the mortality rate, especially for children, was still very high, and spiritualism appealed to grieving parents. Weisberg also relates how the sisters, soon famous, befriended reformers and abolitionists and began holding meeting in New York City, where they were taken up by luminaries like Horace Greeley. But by their 30s, they began to find the work onerous and, in the case of Maggie, shameful. Courted briefly by the noted Arctic explorer Elisha Kane, who disapproved of her work, Maggie admitted publicly in1888 that communication with the dead was impossible, though she later recanted. By then the movement was in decline, as better health care extended life and new technology changed thinking. The sisters both became alcoholics and died in poverty. Weisberg admits to being ambivalent about them, but suggests that they offered comfort in uncertain times.
Well-grounded social history.