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

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  507 ratings  ·  60 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.
♥ 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.
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
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
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
Shelves: non-fiction, spooky
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
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 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
Interesting topic, not interestingly-written. Maybe it would have been better as a long article instead of a whole book.
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.... ...more
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
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
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.
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.
Megan Hex
Jan 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfic-2018
Rather dry in parts, especially nearer the beginning. The sisters and their spirits were much more interesting later in life with adult drama!
nisie draws
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting biography that presented a history of the sisters without passing judgement on them or Spiritualism
Oct 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: occult-esque
Not as insightful as I'd hoped.
Lance Grabmiller
A fascinating story but I am getting a bit burned out on popular history (and popular science). Everything is reading as formulaic.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: did-not-finish
I only got 70 pages in, but way too detailed! I think I'll just read the Wikipedia page!
Jul 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
I've read over 100 books in 2014 so far, and it has only taken me a few days (at most) to finish any of them, even some of the longer and more difficult ones. Talking to the Dead, however, took me about 3 weeks to finish.

I should start off with a disclaimer, for anyone who is reading my review: I am very interested in Victorian Spiritualism, but I am a skeptic. I don't believe that Kate and Maggie Fox, or any 19th century medium for that matter, ever communicated with any spirits. I could go far
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“Death was a constant fact of life. The reaper struck with fire and drowning; typhus, malaria, yellow fever, and a host of other diseases; accidents that ranged from the swift shock of a horse’s kick to a slow-spreading infection from a cut finger; and suicide and murder. More than one-fifth of the children born died before their first birthday; at birth the average life expectancy for an adult was little more than forty.6 Medicine at best could offer a patient little help and at worst was lethal, an excruciating matter of bleeding, blistering, and purging with potions such as laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol.” 0 likes
“Last evening the Bayard family met at our house for spiritual manifestations,” Kate said. “The piano was sweetly played upon by spirit fingers, the guitar was played, then taken up and carried above our heads, each person in the circle was touched. The room was perfectly dark and all hands held. Dr. Bayard and family said that they had never passed a happier evening in all their lives.” Kate cheerfully confided that her headaches had been cured by a healing medium and that she was planning to attend the opera with Mrs. Walter that night.” 0 likes
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