by Chris Clemens
Hydesville Memorial Park is located on Hydesville Road just a couple miles Northwest of the center of the canaltown today known as Newark, NY. Today there exists only a stone base where a house once sat, and that base is surrounded by a protective outbuilding. It’s rare that visitors are allowed to enter the protective shelter, but recently I received an opportunity to do just that and was able to stand in the center of the very birthplace of modern day Spiritualism.
Despite the house having a reputation for unexplained disturbances that caused a previous tenant to move out, John and Margaret Fox moved their family in on December 11, 1847. Almost immediately the family began to experience odd disturbances like knocks and unexplained noises around the home. On the evening of March 31, 1848 the two youngest daughters, Kate (11 yrs old) and Maggie (15 yrs old), challenged their ghostly housemate to respond to them. The girls would snap their fingers and the spirit, who they referred to as ‘Mr. Splitfoot’, would respond with the same number of raps. The girls continued to interact by asking the spirit for a certain number of taps during a series of yes or no questions. Neighbors began to assemble as the girls would continue day in and day out to interact with Mr. Splitfoot, who would later go on to tell them that while visiting the house on a sales call, he had been murdered at the house and buried in their basement.
It was merely the first few days of April when local newspapers began to report on the rappings in the Fox house, and curious onlookers made their way in droves to watch and listen as the young sisters interacted with the afterworld spirit. It didn’t take long at all for the news of their discovery to spread like wild fire up and down the Erie Canal which drove hordes of supporters and skeptics alike to the home. Regardless of what others’ beliefs were about the authenticity of the spiritual telegraphing, there was no mistaking the quickly growing fame of the sisters and their talents.
The girls began to find themselves under constant scrutiny of perfect strangers who often went so far as to run tests and experiments on the girls during the seances. At one point, the girls were even brought to Buffalo, NY and placed in shackles in front of a panel of university experts. Despite countless efforts to hold the girls hands steady and tie their feet to the ground to ensure they weren’t making the noises themselves, no one was ever able to prove their interactions to be false. The girls went from being a couple of Upstate NY nobodies to becoming spiritual leaders almost overnight.
The third and eldest Fox sister, Leah, was living west on the Erie Canal in downtown Rochester, in the present day Corn Hill Neighborhood. In an effort to help quiet things down a bit, Leah brought one of her sisters to Rochester to live with her. Many thought that if the sisters were separated, that the noises emanating from the spiritual telegraphs would stop, but even with the sisters living more than 30 miles apart they each continued to receive messages from another realm. Indeed, so many followers gathered in Rochester that the first church, the Plymouth Spiritualist Church was founded and still has a vibrant membership almost 200 years later.
The pressure built on the girls, especially as other Spiritualists came forward to share that they too had the same abilities. They each developed a problem with alcohol and as time went on life became more difficult on the sisters. In a written published account, one of the sisters admitted that the telecommunications with the afterworld was all a hoax. She confessed that they made up the entire story and had developed a method for creating the noises to make it appear to onlookers that spirits had been creating the wrapping noises. While that confession was evidence enough for some that Spiritualism was a hoax, it was discovered that she received $1,500.00 to publish that confession, a point that Spiritualist supporters believe make the admission a thing of coercion from a dissenter.
Regardless, the girls’ reputations as spiritual leaders had been ruined by the admission, though somehow the concept of Spiritualism, and the ability of mediums to interact with the dead continued to thrive. What’s interesting about the story of the Fox Sisters, is that by the time the admission was made public, countless individuals across the country and other parts of the world had begun to experience their own ability to interact with the afterlife. Spiritualist churches continued to form, and even full communities like Lily Dale in Western New York have become safe havens for mediums and Spiritualists to embrace the ever blossoming religion.
After the Fox family moved out of their home in Hydesville, it lay abandoned for years. A member of the Lily Dale community purchased it and had it moved to Lily Dale where it remained before falling victim to a fire on September 21, 1955. Since the fire destroyed every splinter of the home that leaves the stone base of the original home in Hydesville as the only original physical link to the home. A man named Mr. Drummond later purchased the property with the stone base and built a replica of the home in honor of the founding of Spiritualism, of which he was a member. He and his wife were both interred in a berm on the property, but the town razed the replica home with a controlled fire in the late 1980’s, leaving still just the stone base.
In the decades since the town removed the replica, the property has been under the care of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. Local volunteers care for and maintain the property, though access directly to the stone base is only provided on a limited basis. They also have a Facebook Group that shares a wealth of knowledge and various resources about the Fox Sisters and the property for you to check out.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens