Even if you’re not a fan of the paranormal, you’ve probably heard this story (or some version of it) during your childhood. It’s a popular slumber party tale intended to scare your socks off. And Fox Searchlight is reportedly making movie based on this long-lived tale of horror.
This particular ghost story is based on the real life events of the Fox sisters- Leah, Catherine, and Margaret.
The girls lived in upstate New York with their parents in 1847, in a verified haunted house. The story goes that the girls began communicating with spirits in their home who wanted to tell them about the murder of a peddler by a local man named Bell. The murder took place in the basement of the house and a body was eventually found buried in the foundation wall when a well collapsed and exposed the house’s secret.
The Real Life Story of the Fox Sisters
In real life, the girls became famous when they went public with their ability to communicate with ghosts and spirits. At the ages of 12 and 15, Catherine and Margaret could communicate with spirits by asking questions, which would be answered by “raps” or knocking sounds of a certain number according to a preset code, like once for yes and three for no, or a certain number of raps for certain letters of the alphabet. Their older sister Leah acted as their manager once they became famous.
Many people came from neighboring states to attend seances with the girls where they would ask various questions and receive these strange knocking sounds as responses. Many people even reported being touched on the shoulder or head by spirits as the knocking sounds occurred. When they accused a look man named Bell of the murder of a peddler in the house, the community shunned him.
But not everyone believed the girls to be genuine and many began investigating the girls’ abilities. Soon after, a body was mysteriously discovered in the basement foundation of the girls’ home that was said to belong to the murdered peddler. Their fame spread and the girls began to work publicly as mediums. Their parents were unable to handle the crowds who gathered outside their home, and sent the two younger girls off to live with other relatives. Leah had recently married and was living with her new husband and Catherine was sent to live with her while Margaret was sent to the home her brother David.
Hearing that the girls were living apart, a longtime friend of the family, Issac Post, invited the girls to stay with him and his wife Amy in nearby Rochester. The Posts were radical Quakers and were convinced the girls’ abilities were genuine. The Posts are credited as one of the founders of radical Spiritualism. The girls became extremely popular and traveled to perform seances for pay.
As their fame grew, life in the public eye began to take its toll. The girls had no parental supervision and began to drink. Their public séances in New York in 1850 attracted notable people including William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison, to name a few. Many people believed wholeheartedly in their abilities and spiritualism was the trendy pastime for socialites of the day. Popular questions asked during these seances included topics like next week’s stock prices and romantic encounters yet to come.
But as they grew older, the girls’ drinking began to be a problem. Catherine traveled to England to perform private sessions for prominent people who paid to have their name publicized as attending a seance with the famous Catherine Fox (sometimes called Kate). Margaret later joined her in England after becoming a devout Roman Catholic. Margaret began to speak publicly about her sister Leah’s manipulations to keep them in the spotlight, and began to denounce Spiritualism has a hoax, some say to get even with her sister Leah for her cruelty. She recognized Catherine’s heavy drinking as a serious problem and urged her to stop and return home to the states.
The girls submitted to many investigations and the majority concluded their abilities were a hoax. They later admitted to the same, saying the first began dropping apples on the upstairs floor for their mother to hear, to imitate the first rapping noises from the spirits. They later discovered they could “pop” their toe, ankle, and knee joints by learning to control the still-flexible young muscles of their extremities without movement. These joint poppings accounted for the communication knocking heard during the seances that seemed sentient and appropriate to each question asked. They girls admitted they were frauds and had continued the hoax at the behest of their older sister.
But the story doesn’t end there, or as neat and tidy as we’d all hope. This is where it really gets weird…
A few years after Kate publicly announced her fraudulent actions, she recounted her story, saying she and Margaret only made the false confession to escape Leah and the publicity, and that they truly were spiritualists and mediums who communicated with spirits.
Leah’s first husband died of unknown causes and she married a Wall Street banker, but he left shortly thereafter and Leah became destitute. Margaret married in 1852 and her husband died in 1857 (at the age of 36). Kate married in 1872, but her husband died in 1881. Leah died in 1890, Catherine in 1892, and Margaret in 1893- all within five years of renouncing spiritualism and publicly announcing the seances were a hoax. Were their deaths punishment for speaking out against the spirits?
Curiously, the girls had no explanation for the countless reports of seance participants being touched physically by spirits during the seances. Neither could they explain the body found in the basement of their family home.
Did they simply grow weary of the fame and exploitation that had taken them away from their parents as children and want to live a quiet life without being hounded by spirits wanting to talk to the living? Did they believe their communication with spirits was affecting their spiritual health and seek any way to escape Spiritualism and live out lives as devout Roman Catholics? Were they actually tormented by the spirits they communicated with over the years as they entertained famous people, socialites, and dignitaries? Why did all three sisters die within five years of denouncing spiritualism?
If I were bombarded with spirits wanting to leave a message for the living, I’d probably drink heavily, too. And I know I’d say just about anything in an attempt to make the “voices” stop and try to live a normal life, if I were in the sisters’ tormented shoes.
We may never know the answers to these questions, but it sure does make for an interesting bedtime story. Will you watch the Fox Searchlight movie once it comes out?
Fox Searchlight Movie Based on the Fox Sisters
Here are the details available right now about the movie:
A nearly 80-year-old article in The New Yorker about the first documented haunted house has scared up a deal at Fox Searchlight. Searchlight will develop a movie from Voices Through The Trumpet, a two-part article written by Carl Carmer. JT Petty has been set to write, and Alison Greenspan is producing with Conde Nast Entertainment’s Dawn Ostroff and Jeremy Steckler. Denise DiNovi will be executive producer.