Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Haunting of Hydesville


The history of spiritualism in America began in 1848 with a house in Hydesville, New York that was supposedly haunted by the spirit of a murdered man. Instrumental in the spread of this story and the consequent spotlight of attention on two adolescent girls (Maggie and Kate Fox) was a pamphlet published by a lawyer and would-be journalist of a neighboring town.

A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County by E.E. Lewis is a curious little document consisting of nearly 20 authenticated certificates relating the events which took place in April of 1848. In a series of repetitive and nearly identical accounts, the residents of Hydesville described how some unexplained rapping sounds gradually resolved themselves into a sort of coded communication with the spirit of a dead man buried in the cellar of John Fox’s house. The “ghost” revealed his story by answering yes-and-no questions, even going so far as to identify his killer as John Bell, a former tenant of the house.

In time, focus would shift from this house and its ghostly inhabitant to the living occupants, especially the two girls Maggie and Kate, who were later identified as gifted spirit mediums. However, it is interesting to note that the girls are never named in Mr. Lewis’s pamphlet, and, in fact, they are mentioned as having only a minor role in the entire affair. It is even difficult to tell, based on the narratives in the pamphlet, exactly how many girls were present on the night the rapping began. Margaret Fox reports, “The whole family slept in that room together, and all heard the noise. There was four of our family, and sometimes five.” The four people were most definitely Margaret and John Fox and their daughters Maggie and Kate. Historians have speculated that the fifth person may have been Margaret’s granddaughter, Lizzie Fish, but it is difficult to tell from this pamphlet whether Lizzie was present on the night of the first rappings or not. In my fictional retelling of the tale, I have chosen to include Lizzie in the night’s adventures.

In any case, the girls were considered of little importance to the incident. Reading the “authenticated certificates” of the Fox family and their neighbors requires wading through some extremely repetitive narrations, but one is definitely struck by the “snowballing” nature of the affair. Each individual wants his or her own moment in the limelight, and one can almost imagine them jostling each other out of the way to tell Mr. Lewis their stories. For the most part, their accounts agree, although every person brings a unique angle to the story. For example, Mrs. Mary Redfield claims that when asked to guess her age, the ghost rapped 33 times. “This is my age,” she proudly states. Considering the method by which the Fox sisters confessed making the rapping sounds later, this seems an extremely unlikely event. Plus, I was immediately struck by the oddness of any woman volunteering her age for publication—unless she was attempting to shed a few years by encouraging Mr. Lewis to print an age that was (ahem) slightly reduced.

The pamphlet concludes, oddly enough, with a certificate circulated by the residents of Hydesville testifying that none of the signers believed John Bell guilty of any crime. This testimony to Bell’s innocence is signed by over 40 people, including many of the same ones who submitted sworn accounts of the ghostly rapping that accused Bell of the crime in the first place. What are we to infer from this? Well, my conclusion was that people in 1848 were no different from people today: everybody wants to get in on the action until it looks like they might get in trouble. Then it’s time to pedal backwards.

Mr. E. E. Lewis’s pamphlet may be read online here.

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