Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Spirited Hoax -- Part 2


With little more than a clever prank, two adolescent girls hornswoggled scores of adults into believing they had a special power to communicate with the dead. It is tempting to think of these people as ridiculously gullible, but in fact, they lived in an age where the impossible was rapidly becoming not only possible, but commonplace.

Michael Faraday was, at this time, experimenting with electromagnetism. Fossilized bones of giant monsters—later called “dinosaurs”—were discovered in New Jersey. The steamboat had been invented; the Erie Canal had been excavated. And then there was the telegraph! Messages spelled out in one place flew through the air and magically tapped themselves into existence somewhere else. Was it beyond the realm of possibility that, in a world where such things could happen, men could find a way to communicate with the dead? Inventor Nikola Tesla didn’t think it so strange. Before the end of the century, he began work on a radio transmitter he hoped would be able to receive broadcasts from Heaven—or at least from outer space.

Nevertheless, scientific gullibility aside, it is doubtful that the Fox girls’ notoriety would have lasted if it had not been for the intervention of their oldest sister, Mrs. Leah Fish. This woman shrewdly recognized the money-making potential in the scam and relocated the family to Rochester, New York. There, she set up a profitable business conducting “spirit circles” at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took additional steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who then introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. The ghost of Benjamin Franklin promised “great changes,” and pro-slavery Senator John Calhoun stopped by the spirit table shortly after his death to announce that he had been converted to the abolitionist cause in the afterlife!

Although there were critics who condemned the Fox sisters as frauds, and many who believed they were witches, several churches accepted spiritual communication as a religious experience. One Protestant minister stated that “God’s telegraph” had completely overshadowed the more mundane version invented by Samuel Morse. Leah Fish’s connection to abolitionists, suffragettes, and religious leaders became a social stepping stone for the sisters, who consorted with people high above their station. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous eventually brought them into the social circle of Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and Arctic explorer. Kane immediately saw through the pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her sister.

Elisha Kane’s pursuit of Maggie Fox soon caused a crisis of conscience for the young girl. She was being asked to choose between her family and the man she loved. Soon, Elisha Kane and Leah Fish, both charismatic and influential in their own ways, were engaged in a battle for control of Maggie’s future. The Fox-Kane romance and the ethics of spirit rapping is the heart and soul of my novel, We Hear the Dead, but by the time this conflict erupted, spiritualism was already a movement which had taken on a life of its own. What had begun as a prank perpetrated by two mischievous girls had become a political vehicle, a new religion, and a source of entertainment for the popular media into the next century … and beyond.

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