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Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  549 ratings  ·  67 reviews
A fascinating story of spirits and conjurors, skeptics and converts in the second half of nineteenth century America viewed through the lives of Kate and Maggie Fox, the sisters whose purported communication with the dead gave rise to the Spiritualism movement—and whose recanting forty years later is still shrouded in mystery.

In March of 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox—sisters a
Paperback, 324 pages
Published March 29th 2005 by HharperSanFrancisco (first published 2004)
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Average rating 3.58  · 
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Sep 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sue by: Kris
This is an excellent biography of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, as well as the Spiritualist movement they headlined in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. In addition to providing the story of the girls' arrival on what would be their stage, the author uses a wide variety of sources to follow their lives into their active teen age years and on into their more controversial adult years. Along the way, we meet the other members of their family, including fellow medium Leah, va ...more
Kaethe Douglas
This is a marvelous example of what good history can do: putting bits of things one might (or might not) already know into a useful context.

I've known about the Fox sisters and the rapping they introduced from whence seances and Spiritualism both developed. I knew they were young, that the rapping sound started at night while they were in bed, and that the sounds were eventually credited to knuckle-popping of the toes. Now because of when I first read about them, I pictured them as Laura and Mar
This book was at intervals thought provoking, and dull. The rise of Spiritualism is a fascinating topic, as it seems like it was cushioned between very structured Calvinist dogma and then the evangelical outbreak. Humanity was standing on the precipice of modernity, and when we looked to the future we could hardly tell the difference between science and magic. Both Tesla and Edison tried to create scientific means of contact the dead, believing that “piercing the veil” could hardly be different ...more
"There are some frauds so well conducted that it would be stupidity not to be deceived by them."- Charles Caleb Colton

The spiritualist movement began in upstate New York in a small house, that was forty miles outside of Rochester. When the Fox family moved in, they had heard about the “haunted” history of the house from their neighbors. The people who lived there before had possibly murdered a traveling salesman and buried him under the house. The story keeps getting stranger and what happens t
Oct 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
Interesting subject, utterly dull execution. I was so excited to read this and it took me over two months to slog through it. Far too many stories about people the Fox sisters encountered that didn't serve to enhance the narrative. Hopefully someone soon will write a better book on these fascinating women. ...more
♥ Ibrahim ♥
Such an excellent study of history of the America of that time period, the 1800s. It also goes to show that the realm of the spirit is real, and if anything the flesh just an outer shell and man is essentially a spiritual being. This is a book I enjoyed reading and I could read again and again for fun. My utmost respect and deepest appreciation for these two sisters, Kate and Maggie.
Oct 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

“In western New York, the time was always right for a new philosophy, theory, controversy, or utopia.”—page 45

Of course, it's bunkum. But, it's engagingly interesting, informative, table-knocking, spirit-rapping, toe-popping, entertaining bunkum—appropriate to the Halloween season.

Coming from a most interesting time and place—close to the peak of the Second Great Awakening, in the heart of the Burned-over District of western New York state, and with an exciting cast
Bernadette Loeffel-Atkins
Nov 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Whether they were real or a hoax, this book is a fascinating read. Spiritualism was popular during the 1800s and many famous people such as Mary Lincoln followed the movement. I was amazed to read how many followers they had.
Tam May
I'm not giving this a star rating because I only got about 1/3 of the way through. It's not that it's not a good book but that it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I picked up the book initially to learn about spiritualism because I have a character in a historical mystery novel that is a sort of spiritualist so I wanted to learn a bit about spiritualism in America. But from my reading of the book so far, it was mainly focused on the experiences of Kate and Maggie Fox which didn't quite fit w ...more
Nov 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
I had read about the Fox sisters in other books, including Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon (which the author mentioned herein). What I really liked about this book is the way the author described the social, political, and religious environment of the times that provided a perfect growing medium for the spiritualist movement, for which the Fox girls were almost single-handedly responsible. The sisters were so young when they started duping people with their toe-join-snapping rap (they were the first “ ...more
Joseph DeBrine
Nov 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
ugh the tragedy of the fox sisters. you girls are misunderstood but i see you!!!!
Jeff Jellets
Nov 22, 2016 rated it really liked it

I asked these spirit figures if I was seeing them or if I was seeing what was in my own brain. They answered, "both." - Ellen Garrett, twentieth-century medium

Since one of my last reads was Richard Matheson’s Hell House (where mental and physical mediums were leading characters), it seemed like a really good time to dive into Barbara Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead, a biography of two of America’s most famous psychic mediums Kate and Maggie Fox. The two girls, who began manifesting “spirit raps”
Still probably the best biography of the Fox Sisters out there. This scrupulously researched book presents a sceptical but deeply sympathetic view of these two controversial figures. While the girls have been variously painted as stone cold frauds by some and martyrs to a cause by others, Weisberg's book is refreshing in that it treats its subjects simply as people.

This book paints a vivid picture of the early spiritualist movement, with its roots in the women's movement, abolition and non-confo
Sep 20, 2016 rated it it was ok
I don't consider myself a hard-and-fast sceptic, but that's the role I played reading this. In the afterword, author Barbara Weisberg admits she wants spirit communication to exist, and the book shows it. Hoping to leave room for the possibility Kate and Maggie Fox were indeed mediums, Weisberg performed mental acrobatics that instead set off my bullshit detector. Perhaps the most frustrating example I found is in the final chapter, which mentions a 1904 newspaper article about physical evidence ...more
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
No, I'm sorry. I can't take any more.
I've read about two thirds of this book, and it just doesn't get any easier. What could have been a rather interesting read is bogged down in asides, tangents, unnecessarily detailed biographies of historical figures of the time, etc. Boy, did I get sick of Horace Greeley! He broods over the text like some bizarre Svengali figure.

All this quite apart from the fact that the authoress repeatedly claims that the Fox sisters "invented" seances, which they did n
H. Anne Stoj
Nov 08, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An interesting look at the Spiritualist movement during the 19th century. The sisters, Leah, Maggie, and Kate, remain mysterious to me as they both validated their powers of mediumship for ages as doctors and others tried to debunk them, but also recanted their "powers" only to claim them again. The story of their life struck me as a sad one. I have to admit that I was puzzled by Leah and couldn't help but wonder if she didn't use her sisters, whether their gifts were actual or not, for her own ...more
Apr 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I was interested in this subject for quite a while before happening to notice this book on sale. As others have said, it's hard to get through at times, and I had to force myself to keep picking it up after a few dreary sittings. Of course I don't believe any spirits were contacting anyone, but for most of the book, we only have the testimony of family members and believers, as if the author is trying to convince us it was real. Only in the final chapter or two do we get descriptions of how the ...more
Incredibly detailed well researched chronicle of the rise of the spiritualist movement, particularly within the historical context of the social upheavals of America in the second half of the 19th century, which was fascinating to me- being British I don't know much about this area of history. I wish in all this detail I could have got to know Kate and Maggie better, I suppose an author can only work with what sources exist and she freely admits that writers from the time tended to mix the girls ...more
Oct 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book and very well written. The author placed the Fox sisters' story in its historical context rather than just making it a story of the paranormal. Using letters, newspaper accounts, personal reminiscences etc., she presented the details of the Fox's lives and deeds. In the end, she did what Maggie Fox advocated: she left "others to judge for themselves."

Next I'll have to explore the Grimke sisters and the Peabody sisters.
Lisa James
Dec 26, 2016 rated it liked it
Interesting biography of a time when hype was king, & 2 sisters get caught up in a brand new movement....
jay walker
Feb 01, 2018 rated it did not like it
I cannot get through this. Interesting topic but it’s written like a dry, boring book report. Really disappointing since the story has so much potential!
Tammy Jorgenson
Mar 06, 2009 rated it liked it
Interesting..... but not enough to finish to the end....
David Carniglia
Jul 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Tells a good story of a spiritualist family in mid-19th century New York state. As other commentators mention, there's a lot of background: the Great Awakening religious movement, industrialization/ scientific inventions, abolitionism, women's rights, and, of course, the Civil War. Much of that fits in to the story of the Fox sisters, particularly the conflict between spiritualism and religion (although, paradoxically, both tendencies gathered momentum at the same time.

The same is true, and more
Apr 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Non-fiction. read on Kindle. So good not sure I can begin to describe. The origins of the Spiritualism movement in the United States: Mediums, Talking to spirits, how the movement came about, its connection to the sisters Fox and possible origins. Political connection, how the times influenced the believers and so much more. I started reading this book as research for a writing project and at first felt it was too focused on just these two young women but as the story continued I found what a fa ...more
Oct 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: e-books, non-fiction
Anyone who has ever played around with a Ouija board or wanted to communicate with spirits could appreciate the rise of Spiritualism in the 1800's. The Industrial Revolution and advances in science made people believe that it could be possible to communicate with their departed loved ones. With the authority of religion suffering damaging blows, people had a another shot at immortality by haunting the living.

Sadly, this willingness to believe allowed for a proliferation of phony mediums who too
Dana Kaplan
Nov 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Yet another view of the fascinating 19th century of US history. While many admirable women were involved in the big movements of the era (emancipation, women suffrage, prohibition) a large contingent were helping us commune with the dearly departed, some honestly, others fraudulently. Not surprisingly, this movement arose in the “burned-over district” of upstate New York. Burned-over as swept by religious fervor—including Mormonism, 7th day Adventists, Shakers, the Oneida colony. Something in th ...more
Jan 14, 2021 added it
I was totally enraptured by this book. Despite whether you believe in ghosts or not, the book will definitely make you question our unwavering belief in what we see or hear as real. The lives of the Fox sisters is fascinating and also so sad because of all the trials they were put through. The author treats then all with a lot of respect and looks into their psyche and tries to look at everything from so many angles. Truly a fascinating bit of history.
Stefanie Robinson
May 29, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: us-history
This book was about Kate and Maggie Fox, two sisters who allegedly had the ability to converse with spirits from beyond the grave. I picked up this book, because I always read paranormal things and watch all of the paranormal shows. I thought their story was interesting, and I did like learning about the Spiritualism movement.
Jen Garuti
Nov 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book was so good! Their life would make a fascinating spooky movie. I had no idea. Before this book I'd maybe read a paragraph about them in my US history book and a few anecdotes here and there. But there is so much more to their story. ...more
Ione DeOllos
Nov 16, 2020 rated it liked it
This book presents a fascinating look at the rise of spiritualism. Unfortunately the book presents pages of tedium inbetween these looks into this history. The various early investigations of the sisters become, except for the names, repetitious.
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