Hydesville Memorial Park in Newark is the birthplace of modern day Spiritualism. At this site on March 31, 1848 the Fox Sisters first displayed their abilities to communicate with the dead. That night in the Fox family home began a series of events impacting religion in America.
by Chris Clemens
Hydesville Memorial Park is located on Hydesville Road just a couple miles Northwest of the center of Newark, NY.
Today there exists only a stone base where a house once sat. That stone base is protected by a modern building intended to preserve what’s left of the historical site. Most of the time the building is locked, but on occasion it’s opened for visitors. I’ve been out a few times to see the park, but this time I was finally able to get inside.
I was real excited to stand in the perfect center of the very birthplace of modern day Spiritualism.
The Fox Sisters In Hydesville
The small rural house in Hydesville is reported to have always had a reputation for unexplained disturbances. Some reports say that’s caused a previous tenant to move out. Despite the house’s reputation, 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. It was that night that Spiritualists consider the official founding of their religion.
The girls continued to interact by asking the spirit for a certain number of taps. They would ask the spirit simple close-ended questions. A certain number of taps from the spirit would would offer either a yes or a no in response.
Neighbors began to assemble as the girls would continue day in and day out to interact with Mr. Splitfoot. That spirit would later tell the sisters that while visiting the house on a sales call, he had been murdered. Through various communications, Mr Splitfood told the Fox Sisters he had been buried in the basement of their house.
It should be noted that many years later, there was indeed a body discovered buried in the home’s basement in what is now Hydesville Memorial Park.
Spiritualism Is Born
It was merely the first few days of April when local newspapers began to report on the rappings. Right away curious onlookers made their way in droves. It seemed that everyone wanted to watch and listen as the young sisters interacted with the afterworld spirit.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread like wild fire up and down the Erie Canal. News of the Fox Sisters and their abilities drove hordes of both supporters and skeptics 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 Fox Sisters and their talents.
The girls began to find themselves under constant scrutiny of perfect strangers. In some cases they were put through tests and experiments during the seances.
At one point, the Fox Sisters were brought to Buffalo 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.
More Scrutiny For The Fox Sisters
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. Many thought that the sisters were somehow colluding on a scheme. They felt that separating the sisters would cause their plan to fall apart. But even with the sisters living more than 30 miles apart they each continued to receive messages from another realm.
Indeed, the effort just allowed Spiritualism to spread. So many followers gathered in Rochester that they banded together to form the first official Spiritualist church. The Plymouth Spiritualist Church 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. In her admission, she shared the sisters had developed a method for creating the noises. Using this system they could make it appear to onlookers that spirits had been creating the wrapping noises.
For some, the confession was proof the Fox Sisters and their communications were a hoax. Supporters though, point out that the confession was made in exchange for a $1,500 payment. That payment is one that Spiritualist supporters believe makes the admission a thing of coercion from a dissenter. At the time, both sisters had fallen on difficult times. It was easy for supporters to believe they would’ve said anything for even the temporary reprieve that money could have offered.
Regardless, the admission ruined the girls’ reputations as spiritual leaders. Despite their sullied public reputation, the concepts and practice of Spiritualism continued to thrive.
What’s interesting about the story of the Fox Sisters, is that the admission didn’t really matter. By that time countless individuals across the country and other parts of the world had begun to experience their own ability to interact with the afterlife. Whether the Fox Sisters were a hoax or not didn’t matter. Spiritualism was thriving.
Spiritualist churches continued to form. Even full communities like Lily Dale have become safe havens for mediums and Spiritualists to embrace the ever blossoming religion.
Hydesville Memorial Park
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. The house remained there before falling victim to a fire on September 21, 1955.
That fire destroyed every splinter of the original Fox Family home. That means the only physical connection to the original house is the base located in Hydesville Memorial Park.
A man named Mr. Drummond later purchased the property with the stone base. He built a replica of the home in honor of the founding of Spiritualism, of which he was a member.
After passing, both Drummond and his wife were both interred on the property. Sadly, the town razed the replica home with a controlled fire in the late 1980’s. Once again, the only thing left the original 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 various resources about the Fox Sisters and the property.
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