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The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox

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* Nominated for a New York Historical Society Book Prize in American History * Honorable Mention in General Nonfiction from the American Society of Journalists and Authors Here is the first authoritative biography of Margaret Fox, the world-famous medium and cofounder of the Spiritualism movement that swept America in the mid-1800s. In 1848, fifteen-year-old Maggie and her sister Katy created rapping sounds by manipulating their toe joints, practicing until they convinced their parents that their farmhouse was haunted. What started as a prank soon transformed into a movement: By 1853 more than thirty thousand mediums were at work, with Maggie among the most famous. But when she denounced the faith in 1888-appearing before a packed auditorium in her stocking feet to demonstrate-Spiritualism withered almost as quickly as it had bloomed.

Through the memoirs of the Fox sisters, the letters of Maggie's Arctic explorer husband, contemporary newspaper accounts, and other primary sources, Nancy Rubin Stuart creates a vibrant portrait of a Victorian-era woman at the heart of the tumults of her time.


393 pages, Hardcover

First published February 15, 2005

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About the author

Nancy Rubin Stuart

11 books36 followers
Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author and journalist whose many traditionally published books specialize in women, biography and social history.

Her most recently published book is the acclaimed DEFIANT BRIDES; The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women Who Married Radical Men, a double biography of the wives of Benedict Arnold and General Henry Knox.This work was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club 2 and the History and Military Book Clubs.

She is currently completing a book about Benjamin Franklin’s Women for Beacon Press.

A former journalist, Nancy’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post,The New England Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times,The Stamford Advocate, American History , Family Circle , Ladies Home Journal, Parents magazine and other national publications.

She currently serves as Executive Director of the Cape Cod Writers Center in Osterville, Massachusetts.

Earlier books include Nancy’s 2008THE MUSE OF THE REVOLUTION: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nationfor which she received the Historic Winslow House Book Award. That was preceded by the 2005 publication ofTHE RELUCTANT SPIRITUALIST:The Life of Maggie Foxwhich won the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Outstanding Book Award in Nonfiction.

Under her previous byline, Nancy Rubin, she published the best-selling AMERICAN EMPRESS; The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Postnow in paperback and available as an audio book on Amazon. Earlier books under that byline were ISABELLA OF CASTILE: The First Renaissance Queen, THE MOTHER MIRROR: How a Generation of Women Is Changing Motherhood in America and THE NEW SUBURBAN WOMAN: Beyond Myth and Motherhood .

Honors include a William Randolph Hearst Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society; three Telly Awards from the cable television industry, the 1992 Author of the Year Award from the American Society of Authors and Journalists, the Washington Irving Award from the Westchester Library System, a Time, Inc. scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony.

Nancy has spoken to hundreds of live audiences as well as on national radio and television. In 2019 she appeared in the History Channel’s “The Food That Built America” in connection withAMERICAN EMPRESS.Among her national media appearances are C-Span's BookTV, the A & E Series “Mansions, Monuments and Masterpieces” and “America’s Castles,” Oprah, CBS Morning News and National Public Radio.

She enjoys speaking to book clubs and colleges because it brings her closer to readers in audiences ranging from the Palm Beach Society of the Four Arts to Manhattan's National Arts Club. During the pandemic Nancy continues to reach readers through Zoom and other internet sites.

Nancy is a graduate of Tufts University and Brown University Graduate School, and holds a Doctorate in Humane Letters from Mount Vernon College, now part of Georgetown University.

Born in Boston, she and her husband Bill returned to Massachusetts from Manhattan in 2008 where she enjoys, dancing, gardening, music, and the cultural life of Boston and New York.

Nancy began writing as a child. Her first book was about the family dog. “It’s not published,” she admits, “ but I still have a frayed foolscap copy of that work.”

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews502 followers
October 13, 2013
We know about dance moms, or stage moms, helicopter parents. Before all of that there were the Fox sisters, Leah, Maggie, and Kate. The youngest two, Maggie and Kate, performed "rappings" as children, explaining to their oldest sister that they were communicating with spirits. Leah, possibly the original stage mom, took over from there, essentially taking their act on the road and making them continue this exercise for the public for years. And now we have people like John Edward and Sylvia Browne.

If you're looking for information about how the Fox sisters communicated with the dead, you might be disappointed. This is still an interesting look at Spiritualism, but focuses primarily on the lives of the Fox sisters, specifically Maggie herself. Her life was fairly interesting on its own - she met and secretly married the explorer Elisha Kent Kane who died very early on in their relationship. It was during the grief Maggie suffered that she went public with her mediumship being a big ol' hoax. She, of course, later recanted, but some things cannot be unsaid. She and her sister Kate also became raging alcoholics, so, y'know, grain of salt and all.

I have no real complaints about this book. I didn't know much (if anything) about the Fox sisters prior to this, and one day while reading this on the couch I happened to flip to a channel that was at that moment discussing Maggie's career as a spiritualist. I love when that shit happens. It's like a spirit drove me to press the button on the remote control which led me to that particular channel that I don't even normally watch...

Even more interesting to me were the discussions of late nineteenth century politics and (surprise, surprise) the women's rights movement. Presidential hopeful Victoria Woodhull was into this stuff as well, and it was great seeing her name again having read The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull years ago. There was a bit of a barrier between Spiritualism and women's rights, one that would be difficult to overcome for Maggie and others for many years:
Any act that could be even vaguely construed as improper... had the potential to ruin Maggie and Katy's reputation as well-brought-up young ladies and cast them - and by association, spiritualism - into a decidedly dubious light. Proper women were supposed to be sweet, soft-spoken, passive, and passionless beings, as expressed in the recently published ladies' book of 1850... "True feminine genius," [it] instructed readers, "is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent: a perpetual childhood." And Maggie was expected to comply with that model, rather than embrace the bold clamor for equal sexual rights led by upstate suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Amy Post.

In typical Victorian fashion (cause, y'know, I was there), after Elisha's death, Maggie went through this period of phasing out anything that she felt her hubby would disapprove of - friends, activities, etc., which is the main reason she gave up her mediumship.

She rethought her daily activities: Every chore, every deed ranging from her choice of clothes to the books she read was measured by the yardstick of her former lover's opinion. "Would dear Elisha like me to do this?" became the guiding question of her life.

He was Presbyterian and wanted her to convert, and Catholocism was not a-okay with the idea of raising spirits. Being so distraught and probably feeling guilty about shit, of course after Elisha's death she jumped right into the proverbial bed with those Catholics.

I expected this to be about spiritualism - the foundation, the motivation, the experience - and was pleasantly surprised to find more about the suffrage movement than I would have expected. It makes sense - the timing it all right, but I figured it was just there while this other stuff was going on, and didn't know the author would bring the two together quite so elaborately.

Recommended for anyone interested in spiritualism or Margaret Fox herself. Rather fascinating story all around.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
72 reviews1 follower
June 22, 2009
I have to remind myself when reading certain books...that the author's didn't have a lot of surviving evidence and documentation to go off of when speculating about certain things. However, I would have liked more spoken about how the rappings were done "scientifically," "physically" if they were in fact a hoax. There seemed to be more information concentrated about the beginning of Maggie's life when I was really interested in why she exposed herself and then recanted.
Profile Image for Ken.
83 reviews7 followers
September 19, 2017
I found this book very interesting on several fronts - first and foremost, from the perspective of what life was like for women in the mid-1800s. It was also fascinating to learn more about the spiritualist movement so popular in those times - the majority of which stemmed from the pranks of three young girls - Maggie and Katy Fox being the primary instigators. Maggie's story, and that of her sister Katy, are both heartbreaking. Manipulated and controlled by an older, overbearing sister, they were basically forced into a life that they didn't want. Don't get me wrong - their lives definitely had some high points, especially when they were younger and spiritualism was at it's peak in the US and in Europe. They met some of the most famous people in the world; traveled extensively, and had the world at their feet - for a time. One thing the book did not cover - through no fault of the author - was how many of the physical manifestations were conducted. There is also no record how some of their seances brought forth things that were entirely accurate - things that they would have no way of knowing - which is what drove their amazing popularity and acceptance by society. At one point, there were tens of thousands of mediums in this country and Europe - with no way of knowing which ones were 'legit'. But for most, hoaxes were uncovered; spiritualism's popularity faded; and the public interest quickly diminished, leaving Maggie and Katy little more than sad, lonely women with few friends, occasional clients and sporadic income. Sadly, it eventually lead to a life of alcoholism and substance abuse for both, which turned into a lifetime of failed relationships - familial and romantic. Ms. Stuart is a fine author - I discovered her when I read her biographic "American Empress - The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post" - an excellent read. I did not make the correlation at the time that she'd also written this book on Maggie Fox - but glad she did! Well worth the read!
Profile Image for SoCal Heather.
45 reviews
July 14, 2012
Sympathetic portrait of one of the founders of modern spiritualism. I was kind of hoping for more of a judgmental TMZ style biography, but am happy with it's more balanced approach. It reminds me of how much I hate the Victorian eras attitudes. It was a little too long, I could have done with less of her romance with Kane but I guess that was the turning point of her life.
Very sad story of several lives that could have been lived better & happier.
Profile Image for Julia.
288 reviews6 followers
April 1, 2007
I read this for thesis research...it's a compelling story about a misunderstood young woman.
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