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Talking to the Dead
Talking to the Dead
Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
Submitted by Susan Gerbic
16th August 2007
Talking to the Dead

The author does her best to balance her narrative. Even though what the sisters did was wrong (by standards of then and now) you can't help feeling sympathy towards these young women. Their opportunities were extremely limited, the best they could hope for was to marry well. Their lives were indeed harsh, when they finally made money with their seances they had little time to spend it. Their lives were filled with constant visitors and sittings. Both girls turned to alcohol in their 20's, haunted with headaches and stress they lived a miserable life.

These women were tested, and the accounts show over and over when a skeptic was testing them they felt that the sisters were cracking their toes or knees to produce the raps. When cornered, the sisters cried and the testers often stopped the tests. When the tester was a believer then the Fox sisters soared through the tests. At one time a sworn statement was given that Kate had confessed her tricks to a close family in-law, yet the sittings continued. Believers continued to believe.

When Maggie renounced spiritualism in 1888, the author says she did so not only because of rage at her older sister Leah, but because, "from her own profound disappointment at the spirits' failure to respond." Maggie had been engaged to the Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane. He hated spiritualism and convinced her to get an education, become a Catholic and renounce her old life. Would they have married isn't really known, his family wanted nothing to do with her, and he had a habit of leaving women. He died before they could marry. Maggie never heard from Kane after his death and this probably frustrated her to no end as she was able to give satisfaction to many of her clients.

I wish the author could have included more portraits (she only included two photos). She does a terrific job of setting the story in events before, during and after the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass and Harriett Beecher Stowe are even in this book. The background on spiritualism was refreshing, I didn't know that mediums were on the same level as prostitutes in many peoples eyes. I also learned that you had to be careful who taught your children how to play the piano as, "music could be used by the devil to incite carnal excitement as well as by angels to invite heavenly thoughts."

The author believes that Spiritualism declined in America by the late 1880's. Her reasons for this was because life expectancy was rising, women were given more job and education opportunities, Spiritualists were not likely to organize, the excitement at the beginning of the movement wained as technology increased, and lastly religion took on some aspects of spiritualism (downplaying hell).

All in all pretty readable. There are a lot of names (famous and otherwise) that can overwhelm a reader at times. I challenge the reader not to feel sympathy for these young women.

Barbara Weisverg
By kittynh on 25th August 2007, 10:56 AM
I think the author tried to be balanced. What I found was real sympathy as it seemed that everyone else made money off of these women, and they were treated often as a product rather than human beings. What they went through being "tested" was rather horrific, yet they did cheat.

There is a woo sort of thinking to explain why many supposed psychics end up as alcoholics. Practical thinking after reading this books leads me to think that it was simply being used, and trapped by their own cheating.
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