This week, Janine unravels the dark and twisting truth behind spirit photography, ectoplasm, and mediumship and welcomes guest podcaster Katie McAuly to the pod. Katie tells the tale of Mary Nohl and the Witch House in Fox Point, WI and talks a little bit about her personal experiences with the location.
This episode contains a rousing game of hide the cheesecloth, a man named Mummler, chicken bone art, and a spooky sculpture of squished children.
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Everyone loves a good ghost story. There’s something about the use of narrative to relay a spooky tale that gets the blood pumping and the fine hairs on the back of ones neck standing at attention. Every story has its own twist, its own flavor, and the tale of the Fox Sisters and the Stratford Knockings have a flavor all their own.
The Fox Sisters
Around 1850, many individuals claimed to be able to communicate with the other side. There had been a rise in Spiritualism, a system of religious practice or belief that communication with the dead is possible through a medium. Supposed mediums began popping up everywhere, all claiming that they had a direct line to the afterlife. The cause of this rise (or rather, explosion) can be traced to three sisters, Leah, Kate, and Margaret, but they are more widely known as The Fox Sisters.
Kate (age 12) and Leah (age 15) lived with their parents in a modest house in Hydesville, New York. Although Hydesville no longer exists, it was located just outside Newark. In March of 1848, the girls began to report knocking sounds. At times, it sounded like furniture being moved around. The house was rumored to be haunted, but until this point there was no verification of this.
Kate would often ask the noisemaker, an entity the girls began to call Mr. Splitfoot, a nickname for the devil, to communicate. She would snap her fingers and ask for the entity to repeat the pattern. It would. When she requested it to knock as a response and she would get it. Eventually, the girls created a code in order to communicate with Mr. Splitfoot using a series of knocks that corresponded to the letters of the alphabet. Think along the lines Stranger Things when Joyce hangs Christmas lights and draws the alphabet on the wall to communicate with Will in the Upside Down, but with only knocks. I knew I’d manage to fit a Stranger Things reference in here somewhere. ;).
After some time, the entity identified itself as one Charles B. Rosna, a peddler. According to the spirit, his remains were buried in the cellar following his murder five years prior. No peddler by that name could ever be identified, but a skeleton was found buried in one of the cellar walls in 1904. A manhunt followed and a man named Bell was eventually accused of the crime, having been the previous owner of the house, but was never convicted of murder. Bell would be ostracized from the community for the rest of his life as a suspected murderer.
During all of the excitement at home, Kate and Margaret resided in nearby Rochester. Kate with her sister Leah and Margaret with her brother David. The strange occurrences followed them. Long time friends of the Fox family (and radical Quakers), Amy and Isaac Post, invited the girls to visit them in their Rochester home and began to tell all of their radical Quaker friends about the girls and their supernatural abilities.
In the first ever public exhibition of Spiritualistic practice in 1850, the sisters, Margaret and Kate, performed seances for a large audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester. The girls asked questions of the spirits they claimed were present and received definitive answers. Onlookers were enthralled by the spectacle and the sisters became quite popular. That is until the investigations began.
Scientists and doctors at the time believed that the sounds emanated from the girls themselves, saying that clicking joints were the cause of the “rapping.” E. P. Longworthy, a physician, noted that the noises always seemed to come from under the girl’s dresses and never from an outside source. He explained that cracking toe joints, hips, and knees could produce such a sound and, in fact, the sounds the girls created were so loud that they could be heard plainly throughout a large hall.
Many more in the scientific community came forward to cast doubt upon the public seances and, in time, the crowds at the Fox Sister’s events and their popularity dwindled. Margaret attempted to return to the practice later in her life due to financial need. Although she had confessed to a major newspaper that the rappings were a farce, she tried to recant her statement but to no avail. At the time of their death, the women were penniless and were interred in pauper’s graves in Brooklyn, NY.
Margaret had this to say about their ruse.
“Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.”
She also wrote:
“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: “I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.” Of course that was pure imagination.”
Harry Houdini was devoted to debunking Spiritualist activities and had this to say about the practice of Spiritualism.
“As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland (an English mentalist-added) told me that an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person.”
Eliakim Phelps was a Congregational minister in Stratford, Connecticut in the 1850’s. He and his wife, a much younger woman who had been widowed as he had, and their blended family, lived in a beautiful home. It had been built by Matthias Nicoll for his daughter Elizah and her husband Captain George Dowdall in 1826. Dowdall worked in the China trade and the top floor of the home had been modeled to look like the deck of a ship, but when Dowdall died in China several years following the house being built, it was put up for sale. Phelps saw the property as the perfect place for his family and purchased it, using it seasonally and living the rest of the time in Philadelphia. It is at this point that things begin to get a little strange.
One day, the family, Phelps, his wife, the children (from their previous marriages), and the 3 year old daughter they shared, returned from church to find the house in a shambles. Their belongings were strewn about, clothing and trinkets lay everywhere, and the mirrors in the home had been draped in black funeral crepe. Naturally, the family was taken aback. Who would have done this? Phelps told his family to wait as he explored the house to ensure nobody was hiding inside. Upon inspection, he found no one and realized that nothing had been taken. Assuming it was the work of vandals, he gave the rest of the family the all clear and they proceeded about the task of cleaning up. When Phelps entered the master bedroom, he found a dress laid out on the bed. The arms were crossed over the chest in funeral pose. The dress had belonged to his previous wife, now deceased.
The scene made Phelps uneasy, but he simply brushed it off as a prank. In the weeks and months that followed, there were more strange occurrences. Books, tools for the fireplace, and a potato would appear in random locations in the house. Items thought to have been under lock and key appeared in plain sight. Items would fall from their places and windows would be smashed. At one point, Phelps send the remainder of the family on to Philadelphia to see if the activity would continue. Something tells me he believed it was the work of one of the children. The activity was less frequent, but continued.
When the whole family was back in the house, they found that the spirit(s) most often communicated with 11 year old Henry. He would ask questions and the spirit(s) would rap out answers. Sound familiar? Friendly spirits would help the family locate lost or misplaced items while “evil” spirits would set fires and break windows.
Newspapers had a field day with the Phelps story. There was much speculation as to the validity of the claims the family made and many wondered if they were simply telling tall tales. A few news outlets stated that they believed the rapping and lost objects were the doing of Phelps’ wife and children. Others claimed he was in on the ruse. The events would start and stop according to the time Henry spent in the house, so the sounds and damage were largely blamed on him.
Phelps eventually sold the home to the publisher of the New York Sun and the family moved away in 1852. There were no further reports of ghostly happenings on the property. The house has long since been demolished, but the story lives on in spooky Connecticut history.
What do you think of Spiritualism? Drop us an email and tell us about your tarot/star readings or experiences with psychics. We’d love to read them. =)