An extract from Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice by Emily Midorikawa, which is published by Counterpoint Press in the USA and UK in May 2021.
Seen and Not Heard
One warm spring evening in 1853, Queen Victoria was staying at Osborne House, her opulent holiday residence on the Isle of Wight, just off Britain’s southern shore. She had arrived three weeks earlier, the era of rail travel allowing her party to journey from Buckingham Palace by royal train and yacht in a single day. Tonight, May 18, the thirty-three-year-old British mon- arch and her companions were in a relaxed mood. While the distant song of nightingales in the surrounding woodland drifted in on the breeze through the open windows, the group decided to have a go at a “wild” craze imported from the United States of America and now sweeping London’s high-society drawing rooms.
The queen would record in her diary that her husband, Prince Albert, was the first of the group to place his hands at the rounded edges of an empty-topped table. One by one, the others—including senior courtiers and ladies-in-waiting—joined in, forming a circle, resting their hands in a similar fashion. As they did so, a strange thing happened. The table began to rotate, apparently of its own accord. Faster and faster it spun, seemingly rising off the floor. When the queen’s close friend Lady Ely joined them, the table picked up speed still further, causing its surface to fairly slip away beneath their fingers, leaving the excited group chasing after it as it slid around the room. In Victoria’s words, it really was a “very peculiar” sensation. She took issue with the skepticism of two military men present, who claimed that the movement must be caused by nothing more mysterious than the pressure of so many hands. In the queen’s view, the explanation was much more likely to be electricity or magnetism. She could not believe that “so many hundreds, if not thousands,—high & low” could simply have “performed a trick!”
The hundreds, if not thousands, referred to by Queen Victoria hailed, indeed, from rich and poor backgrounds. They lived in major cities and tiny villages on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Some were highly educated. Others had known next to no schooling. They included people in lasting positions of power and celebrity, and those whose lives would leave only the lightest traces on written histories of the nineteenth century. Some individuals, like Her Majesty, seem to have regarded “table turning” and its associated practices, such as “spirit rapping” and “spirit writing,” as intriguing yet harmless amusements. Others considered these activities frightening, even the work of the devil. To others still, they could be harnessed for profit, or serve as opportunities to wield otherwise unthinkable levels of political and cultural clout.
Five years earlier, and three thousand miles from the Italianate splendor of Osborne House, commotion gripped the hamlet of Hydesville—a rural community in Wayne County, New York. On March 31, 1848, Mary Redfield, a no-nonsense woman in her thirties, heard a knock on the door. Peering into the frosty evening darkness, she saw her neighbor John D. Fox, an older man aged about sixty, standing outside. John asked Mary to accompany him back to the small wood-frame house nearest to hers, where he’d recently moved with his wife, Margaret, and two young daughters, Margaretta and Catherine. According to John, strange noises had been troubling the family. His visible nervousness caused Mary some amusement.
This wasn’t the first she had heard of these sounds. Some days before, Margaretta and Catherine—known as Maggie and Kate— had told her a similar tale. Mary had not taken the girls seriously then, and she did not take their father seriously now. Before setting off with him, she declared that if there was, as the family suspected, a ghost next door, she would “have a spree with it.”
When the two arrived, they were met by Margaret and the girls, who all looked uncommonly pale. Maggie, a pretty, dark-haired fourteen-year-old, had none of her normal vivaciousness. The eyes of sprite-like eleven-year-old Kate seemed even more intense than usual.
Margaret was around fifty, and given to emotional outbursts. Over the three and a half months that the family had been living in Hydesville, she had come to respect her younger neighbor’s usually unflappable nature. And so, thinking that Mary would surely have something sensible to say, Margaret asked, “Mrs. Redfield, what shall we do?” They had all been hearing this mysterious knocking for some time, and now it seemed that the ghost was attempting to converse with them. It had started answering “all of our questions, and we cannot account for it.”
Leading Mary into the room where the whole family slept, Margaret invited her neighbor to sit down beside her on one of the beds. While Kate and Maggie hovered close by, Margaret asked the un- seen presence to count to five, and then fifteen, both of which it did with the correct number of raps. More urgently, she implored it, “If you are an injured spirit manifest it by three raps.”
Three raps answered in reply.
When Mary glanced at the two girls, the appearance they gave was one of genuine terror. Feeling unusually agitated herself by then, Mary decided to go back next door to fetch her husband, Charles. He in turn fetched several more neighbors. Soon a throng of men and women filled the Foxes’ house, some too frightened to enter the bedroom, where the raps had last been heard. Others barged straight in and began asking their own questions of the invisible visitor, so that even John and Margaret found themselves pushed aside. Amid the chaos, their daughters Kate and Maggie took on that idealized youthful quality of being seen and not heard, leaving even less of an impression than their parents on the adults gathered. Those crowding the house continued to interrogate the spirit, asking how long it had been since it was injured. About five years, apparently. Had it been murdered? More rapping affirmed this. They went through the names of various members of their little community on the banks of the Ganargua River to try, unsuccessfully, to establish a culprit. One of their group, William Duesler, thrust him- self into the role of chief interrogator. He asked about several for- mer occupants of the rented house, including John C. Bell, who had since moved away from Hydesville. At this point the spirit seemingly became animated, rapping out the loudest three knocks of the evening, making the bedstead shudder.
The spirit would go on to divulge that it had been murdered for money—for the considerable sum of $500, far more than most workingmen could hope to make in a year. Further raps would tell that while it slept someone had slashed its throat with a butcher’s knife, that it had been taken down through the buttery the following night and buried in the cellar, and that Mrs. Bell was the one other person—till now—who knew what her husband had done.
On hearing this grim tale, Mary’s husband, Charles, mustered the courage to descend to the cellar with a candle. William, continuing with his questioning from up above, had Charles stand in various spots while he asked whether this place or that was where the body was hidden. Knocking revealed that it had been buried in a specific area, ten feet below the cellar floor, and that it was the body of a man.
In a society where everyone knew each other, news traveled fast. As the evening wore on, more and more curious locals, many of whom had been braving the cold to go river fishing under a starlit sky, dropped by the Fox family’s house. Since it must have seemed obvious that the spirit could hardly have once been one of their own close-knit community, William put forward the suggestion that it was that of a wandering peddler. Rapping confirmed this, but when he and the others tried to persuade the dead man to spell his name, by knocking each time William guessed a letter correctly, the noise died away.
Through further raps in answer to dramatic scenarios suggested by William, the spirit told them that, with no witnesses to the crime, there would be no chance for justice on earth, but that the murderer would be punished in the hereafter. The rapping sounds would continue intermittently until someone discovered the victim’s bones, it said, after which the spirit would return to silence.
Having eventually exhausted all their questions, the party broke up at about midnight, with John Fox and Charles Redfield steeling their nerves to stay in the house while Margaret, Maggie, and Kate went elsewhere. In the morning, the family would find the place besieged. As the days passed, more people kept coming, including those from surrounding villages and towns, intrigued by what they had heard.
As Margaret would later tell in a sworn statement, she and her family had heard no knocking until late March 1848. But following the night some days later when so many of their neighbors descended on their house, the accepted story became more complex as others added their own twists and turns. The naming of John Bell as the murderer focused attention on Lucretia Pulver, a young woman now living a mile and a half away. She had boarded with and worked for the Bells during the winter when the killing supposedly took place. Lucretia recalled a peddler dressed in “a black frock coat, and light colored pants” who called at the house one afternoon. She had wanted to buy some things from him but had no money, and so he’d suggested that he could come again the next day. In the meantime, her mistress told the girl, then in her midteens, that she was going away for the night. Since Lucretia would not be needed for the time being, she was to go home until the Bells sent for her again. Her absence lasted only three days, but when she returned she noticed a few changes.
Mrs. Bell had acquired a couple of coats, which she wanted to cut down and refashion for her husband. She sought Lucretia’s help with the task, and the girl saw that the coats were badly ripped. A while later, Mrs. Bell gave Lucretia a thimble that she said she’d bought from the peddler. Other things would appear from time to time, including a second thimble—a source of annoyance to Mrs. Bell, since she said that the man had tricked her, presenting it as pure silver when it had turned out merely to be nickel.
According to Lucretia, the peddler was never again seen, but she soon began to regularly hear raps similar to those now afflicting the Foxes. One day she thought she’d caught the sound of footsteps in the buttery when it should have been empty. On another occasion, she tripped over a patch of uneven floor in the cellar, which caused her to fall down and scream. She had expected sympathy from her employer, but instead Mrs. Bell had laughed and told her that rats must have disturbed the earth. The incident stayed in Lucretia’s mind, perhaps especially because, a few days later, she’d seen the man of the house carrying “a lot of dirt” into the cellar. As Lucretia recalled to a journalist from the nearby town of Canandaigua, John Bell carried out this task “just at night” and had stayed down there for “some time.”
E.E. Lewis, the enterprising lawyer turned reporter who interviewed Lucretia, had seen financial potential in the rumors from Hydesville and decided to produce a booklet of statements by local people. Lucretia’s stories of her former employers naturally caught his attention, as did those of another trio who’d occupied the house between the departure of the Bells and the arrival of the Foxes. A couple named Weekman and their live-in help had tales of unexplained encounters of their own. The couple spoke of rappings and mysterious footsteps. Jane Lape, the hired help, recalled coming face-to-face with a strange male figure in the bedroom. Her account, notably given six days after Lucretia Pulver’s statement, dwelled on the man’s “grey pants, black frock coat and black cap.” Jane would muse that she “knew of no person in that vicinity who wore a similar dress.”
Many individuals seemed keen to air their views, and Lewis would include a total of twenty-one statements in his report. One of the shortest but possibly most damningly unequivocal, for those seeking hard evidence of murder, was made by two men who’d lived near the house in the summer of 1844. They recalled that “during that summer the water in that well was very offensive and bad.”
On the other hand, the report also included a copy of a certificate circulated in the town of Arcadia, a mere two miles away, another place where John Bell had previously lived. The certificate, produced about a week after attention was first drawn to the Foxes’ home, had been signed by forty-four people. They said they wanted to counteract the “foolish and superstitious reports” against this man, who—though he’d departed the immediate area—remained a resident of Wayne County. Those who signed the certificate wished to let it be known that they still thought him “a man of honest and upright character, incapable of committing crime.”
Lewis clearly felt it important to acknowledge both sides of the argument, even though it risked widening the acrimonious gulf that had opened up between dwellers of two neighboring rural communities. He had gone to the trouble of interviewing not just those who seemed to have the most intimate knowledge of the noises but others whose involvement was less direct. Frustratingly, however, this early journalist on the scene managed to miss the real story. His decision not to formally interview Kate and Maggie leaves them voiceless at this stage. All we have are Mary Redfield’s recollections that they were the first to speak openly of the noises.
It’s possible that John and Margaret Fox had felt wary about allowing their daughters to talk with a journalist, although what would happen over the following months does not appear to bear this out. More likely, Lewis reasoned that, having interviewed the parents and neighbors, he had learned all he needed to know about the views of two young people, and girls at that, who could not be expected to know their own minds. Whatever his reasoning, it is certainly a pity, since, over the next four decades, it would be Maggie and Kate’s personal narratives that became the most significantly entwined with the strange occurrences at Hydesville.
Lewis may have regarded Kate and Maggie as only minor players in the strange drama, but during the following weeks and months their parts would gradually transform into starring roles. That such a shift should have happened is due in large part to another member of their family—the girls’ older sister, Ann Leah Fish.
Leah, who went by her second name, was a single parent, deserted by her husband years earlier. Now in her midthirties, old enough to be Maggie and Kate’s mother, she was one of John and Margaret’s four surviving adult children, after whom there’d been a significant gap before Kate and Maggie were born.
For largely self-serving reasons, Leah would later emphasize that, as her family had sent no word, she’d had no knowledge of the goings- on at her parents’ home until more than a month after they had begun. Given the flinging of recriminations to come in the future, it’s difficult to know whether Leah’s claim can be true. The rumors from Hydesville had found their way into two papers, The Western Argus, based in Lyons, and The Newark Herald—both printed in towns in the immediate vicinity. (The Argus was printed in the town in which the accused, John Bell, now lived.) Still, it seems just about possible that the sense of excitement generated by the local press had not yet reached Leah forty miles away in Rochester, then an industrialized mill city and hub of radical ideas.
In the absence of a husband, Leah, an attractive, proudly independent woman, supported herself and her daughter, Elizabeth, by giving piano lessons. Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, was then in her late teens.
According to Leah’s account, one day in May, when she was teaching at the home of the Little family, her students’ mother, Jane, burst into the room. Jane Little was accompanied by a local printer, who had a proof sheet of a new pamphlet with him.
Jane, who knew that Leah’s maiden name was Fox, hastily introduced the two strangers.
“Is your mother’s name Margaret? Have you a brother David?” the printer asked Leah.
Leah, startled, stared at the man and cried out, “For mercy’s sake, what has happened?”
He placed the early copy of E. E. Lewis’s Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox into her hands. Leah began to read and then burst into tears.
Though she apparently found the wild tales within the booklet difficult to believe, she declared defiantly, “If my father, mother, and brother David have certified to such a statement, it is true.”
Distraught, Leah left the Littles’ home to call on two friends. She told them that she needed to go to Hydesville. Each offered to accompany her and Lizzie on the night boat along the Erie Canal— that great system of waterways connecting New York City with the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, completed some twenty years earlier. The next morning, upon arrival in Newark, they took a carriage to Hydesville. But alighting at the wood-frame house by Mud Creek, as the locals referred to the Ganargua River, they found the scene deserted. Guessing that her sisters and parents must have gone to stay with David, Leah asked the driver to take them on down the lanes to her brother’s farm, two miles away.
On seeing the group draw up, Leah’s overwhelmed mother came out to greet her oldest living child with sighs and tears. The strain of the past weeks showed on Margaret’s face. Although she and John had brought the family away from their rented home to escape the ghostly noises—“spirit raps,” as they’d come to be known— the knocking had followed them to this new location. They all still frequently heard the sounds—although only, as they had begun to realize, when either Kate or Maggie was present.
Leah, Lizzie, and Leah’s friends stayed at David’s home for two weeks—a testing time for all concerned. Margaret remained, in Leah’s words, “completely broken down by the recent events.”
Even before these unexpected disturbances, the family’s hopes on arriving in Hydesville had been put on hold. The cramped wood-frame structure where they’d been living had only ever been intended as a temporary residence, but John’s plans to start work on a new house for his family had been delayed by the snowdrifts of an exceptionally harsh winter. Now that they’d had to flee the hamlet, not only had the planned building work been further delayed, but the spirit raps—apparently representing menace from beyond the grave—had followed them to David’s farm.
What’s more, a still greater terror may have lain at the root of Margaret’s exhaustion—deep fear at the thought of standing out. Like the peddler, the Foxes had been relative strangers in Hydesville. And now, within just a few months of arriving, the two daughters had disrupted the calm of this quiet community through the perplexing sounds that their presence appeared to attract. Already, the wider local area was split over the question of the supposed killer John Bell’s guilt, and now Margaret may have worried—rightly, as it would turn out—that blameful fingers might be pointed at her whole family.
In a region famous for its religious fervor, where old ideas about the supernatural continued to exist alongside new beliefs such as Shakerism and Mormonism, those who stood out could find themselves targets—especially if it seemed they were attracting malevolent spirits. And although 155 years had passed since the Salem witch trials in the bordering state of Massachusetts, those events still cast a long shadow. During that reign of hysteria, women and girls, in particular, who distinguished themselves from the crowd were the most likely to end up as victims.
Having discussed her fears with Leah, on whom she tended to lean, Margaret agreed to let her eldest daughter take the youngest, Kate, back to Rochester with her. Leah had suggested that by separating Kate from Maggie they might “put a stop to the disturbance.”
But it was not to be. At least in Leah’s telling of the story, on the canal ride raps similar to the ones they’d hoped to leave behind at David’s farm began once more. When Leah and her party took their place at the boat’s dining table, the knocking became livelier still— the spirit presences, apparently emboldened, lifting up one table end at intervals, upsetting the water in people’s glasses. Thankfully, the typical noises of a busy crossing muffled the sounds, so that only those in their own small group noticed anything suspicious. Leah’s recollections, published in a book she authored almost forty years later, do not record whether any among them asked Kate if she was somehow doing the knocking herself. Certainly, in Leah’s case, the course she may even then have mapped out for all three sisters could have discouraged her from seeking answers to these kinds of questions.
Leah’s memoirs would go on to explain how, once they’d reached Rochester, the spirit disturbances continued. On the first night back, Leah decided that they should all go to bed early, but neither Kate nor Leah’s late-adolescent daughter could fall asleep. Moments after Leah had put out the lamps, she heard screams. A terrified Lizzie had felt a cold hand moving over her face, she cried, and another running down her back. But this was only the start of the night’s activities. A Bible, which Leah had placed out of harm’s way under her pillow, dislodged itself and flew up; a box of matches began to rattle of its own accord. Not until just before dawn did the interruptions cease, and only then did the three sleep.
They rose late in the morning, the June sun bathing the garden of 11 Mechanics’ Square in bright light. As birdsong floated from the trees, Leah delighted in the colors of the newly blooming roses and decided to put aside all thought of these troublesome spirits.
But this was not the end of the matter.