1847: The "Rochester Rappers"
One day in the winter of 1847, 14-year-old Maggie Fox and her kid sister, Katy, pretended that their house was haunted by a devilish spirit called Mr. Splitfoot in order to frighten their mother, Margaret. To pull off the prank, the crafty siblings mimicked the ominous thumping of footsteps by tying apples to strings and dropping them on the stairs. They learned how to manufacture mysterious popping sounds using their own bodies. When Margaret attempted to speak to Mr. Splitfoot, Maggie and Katy snapped out answers to her questions with their toes. The awestruck Margaret asked Mr. Splitfoot if he could speak to her neighbors, and the girls made the ghost agree.
By the spring of 1848, news of the Fox sisters' "contact" with a spirit from the other side triggered curiosity across upstate New York. Their older sister, Leah, who had moved with the girls to Rochester, joined in on the excitement and conducted public séances that proved Maggie and Katy could contact the dead. One of their first gatherings centered on Amy and Isaac Post, a local Quaker couple who had lost several children to disease. Just like they'd done to their mother, the sisters rapped out responses to the couple's questions that were close enough to the truth for the couple to find relief, and the Posts became some of the girls' first public supporters.
Over the next few years, the Fox sisters became a touring act, helping loved ones connect with spirits on the other side. Leah Fox negotiated the prices of these sessions: The biggest public demonstration in Rochester sold for 25 cents per ticket, which would be about $8 a pop today.
When spiritualism sprang out of Protestant Christianity in the mid-1800s, the idea of talking to the dead wasn't universally linked to danger of demonic possession like the horror movies of today would have you believe. Death was a great equalizer, affecting all genders, races, and creeds somewhat equally, and people were eager to touch it without passing. Girls were seen as pure and capable of connecting to spirits on the other side, so American spiritualism empowered women.
After the Fox sisters made a splash in New York, the nation's first crop of mimicking mediums were young females. As in Victorian England, the trade allowed women to break societal norms and occasionally cross into a different class of living, although Great Britain was quicker to equate female mediums with the highly regarded society of spiritualists willing to investigate the other side, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories).