Western New York’s history with the paranormal extends beyond hauntings and murders. The area has a long history of interaction with the Spiritualism movement, including being the home of Lily Dale (to be discussed in a future entry).
Spiritualism has been on the wane for decades, but at the turn of the century it had huge influences on popular culture. Mediumship and contact with the dead was exceptionally intriguing to the American popular thought. Proponents of Spiritualism, which emphasized contact with ghosts through various means, divination, and other pursuits that may or may not be linked with the paranormal, was practiced as both a religious pursuit and entertainment by large numbers of people.
Spiritualism had a particular appeal to the middle and upper classes. Major followers included Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mary Todd Lincoln. The roots of the religion (or movement, depending on stance) are traced back directly to western New York- including the activities of the Fox sisters.
The Fox sisters (Leah, Maggie, and Kate) gained notority as teenagers for claiming that they could contact spirits through a series of rappings. They first contacted spirits in their bedroom, where the ghosts were able to identify them by age and other features. The sisters claimed that the spirits ranged from the devil (Mr. Splitfoot) to a murder victim buried in the cellar.
Originally from Wayne county, the girls were sent to Rochester to avoid the attention the rapping was attracting. However, their ties to the paranormal increased and the girls gained a reputation for mediumship. The activities continued, attention increased, and the supposed interactions began to include automatic writing and other paranormal acts.
As the sisters grew older, their ties to the movement weakened. Criticism mounted against the sisters’ claims. In 1888, Maggie admitted to the press that the sisters’ actions had been a hoax and had always been a hoax. The rappings were the result of dropping apples and other objects, or popping their joints on cue. The rest of their activities, such as summoning spirits that supposedly made physical contact, Maggie explained away as environment influencing the guests at the seances.
In the end, both Kate and Maggie completely rejected Spiritualism- going so far as to public attack the movement in the press.