Robert James Lees - Hydesville

Robert James Lees


Robert James Lees and his place in the rebirth of
British Spiritualism

The church was the dominant presence, both physically and spiritually, in the villages and settlements of medieval England before the Reformation. The church was located at the centre of the community, where the main byways of the village crossed, usually in close proximity to the manor house. Each person in the village paid his dues to the incumbent, and all the important events of life involved the church, from birth, through marriage, ‘even unto death’. The mystery and majesty of the Catholic service, the priestly robes, the incense, the use of Latin, and the mystical iconography on walls, and carved in stone and wood into the very fabric of the church building, provided a very real demonstration of spiritual power, an antidote to any ‘evil magic’ that arose in the village. Perhaps, the two elements fed off each other, the priest offering protection from those in the community who summoned evil spirits. In a ‘healthy’ community, the elements of good and evil were somehow held in a state of balance

The author Robert Louis Stevenson, a close contemporary of Robert James Lees, reintroduced this sense of goodness and evil existing side-by-side in his famous and influential novel ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. This remarkable novel sold no less than 40,000 copies in the first six months after its publication in 1886. The powerful effect of the story upon its readers cannot be over-estimated. Stevenson came from a Scottish Presbyterian background, and being a man of strong puritan convictions, admitted to having ‘a morbid preoccupation with ethics’.

The powerful themes in Jekyll and Hyde, of man having two sides to his nature, ‘the thorough and primitive duality of man’, is echoed in much of Lees’ own beliefs. When interviewed by journalists after a healing event in Devon in 1923, Lees explained that the affliction he had treated was “demoniacal possession; but by that I do not infer devils, but souls which have sunk into the baser life.” Jekyll, in Stevenson’s novel, describes making contact with his darker self:

“The spirit of hell awoke in me and raged .. at once glorying and trembling, my lust of evil gratified and stimulated, my love of live screwed to the top-most peg.”

To some, the novel was also a frightening prophecy of the Whitechapel Murders, which occurred less than two years after its publication.

The principle event that marked the revitalisation of the spiritualist movement of the 19th Century and prompted it into dramatic growth, involved, as was the case in the Cottingley Fairies, the activities and alleged experiences of two young girls. These were the Fox sisters from Arcadia in New York State, in the United States. Their story became known universally as the Hydesville ‘rappings’. The claims of Kate (or Catherine), Margarita and, later, their elder daughter Leah Fox provoked attention from the very start, drawing in the family’s neighbours, and then the small town’s leaders. The case soon drew international attention and the girls became early media celebrities. Margarita was possibly the first person to turn mediumship from being a private experience into a public event on a theatre stage. Although generally regarded as fraudulent, the story of Hydesville, even now, is a matter for debate. The latest academic research indicates that the truth behind Hydesville may still not be fully known. As adults, the sisters travelled the world to tell of her experiences to enthralled audiences. Later, all three women confessed that the story of the rappings was fraudulent, but even later still, Margarita withdrew her confession.

On 11 December 1847, John Fox, his wife Margaret and their two younger daughters, moved into a new residence in which, it had been earlier reported, some form of `haunting’ phenomena had been noticed. The previous resident, Michael Weakman, had moved out because of the disturbances. In the middle of March in the following year, when Margarita was 14 and Kate was 11, the girls told their parents that they had heard rapping noises in their home. Their parents responded by investigating their daughters’ claims, but failed to find any physical explanation for the phenomena. Then, on 31 March 1848, Kate attempted to communicate with the unseen creator of the sounds by challenging it to rap the same number of times that she clapped her hands. According to the girls, a form of intelligent communication with the unseen force was achieved, and a dialogue was developed using a different number of raps for each letter of the alphabet. The girls used this simple code to ask questions of the spirit. The girls claimed that they learned that the communicator had been murdered in the house and that his body had been buried in the cellar. He told them his name – Charles B. Rosna, a peddler - and he also named the previous occupant of the house whom he accused of murdering him.

The first attempts to dig below the cellar floor, during the following month, had to be abandoned because of rising water; but in the summer, further explorations led to the discovery of bones. The events attracted large numbers of curious visitors to Hydesville, who were welcomed by the Fox family. In the following year, the year in which Lees was born, Margaret Fox presented what is generally regarded as the first public demonstration of mediumship, in the Corinthian Hall in New York. Three years later, the first of a number of spiritualist mediums came from America to work in England.

A postscript to these events came in an article in the Boston Journal published on 23 November 1904. It read:

The skeleton of the man supposed to have caused the rappings first heard by the Fox sisters in 1848 has been found in the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication.

The Fox sisters declared they learned to communicate with the spirit of a man, and that he told them he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. Repeated excavations failed to locate the body and thus give proof positive of their story.

The discovery was made by school-children playing in the cellar of the building in Hydesville known as the "Spook House," where the Fox sisters heard the wonderful rappings. William H. Hyde, a reputable citizen of Clyde, who owns the house, made an investigation and found an almost entire human skeleton between the earth and crumbling cellar walls, undoubtedly that of the wandering peddler who, it was claimed, was murdered in the east room of the house, and whose body was hidden in the cellar.

Mr. Hyde has notified relatives of the Fox sisters, and the notice of the discovery will be sent to the National Order of Spiritualists, many of whom remember having made pilgrimage to the "Spook House," as it is commonly called. The finding of the bones practically corroborates the sworn statement made by Margaret Fox, April 11, 1848.

An indication of the significance of the Hydesville story to the Spiritualist movement is that when the Spiritualists’ National Union planned its centenary celebrations at Wembley in 1990, it chose to stage them on the final day in March, the exact date of the Hydesville event.

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© 2003 Stephen Butt