Robert James Lees - Hydesville Rappings

Robert James Lees


 

The Hydesville Rappings

Lees’ Spiritualist activities in context.



The revival of Spiritualism in Victorian England took place in the wake of alleged events that took place in Hydesville, New York, in March 1848. Lees was born in the following year, and by the time he was old enough to take an interest in the world about him, table-turning and séances were growing in popularity in Victorian parlours.

The claims of the Fox family in Hydesville attracted attention from the outset, drawing in the family’s neighbours, and then the small town’s leaders. Those involved, principally the girls - Kate and Margaretta - became early media celebrities. Margaretta was possibly the first person to turn mediumship from being a private experience into a public event performed on a theatre stage

 
   
On 11 December 1847, John and Margaret Fox and their two daughters, Kate and Margaretta, moved to a new home in Hydesville, a small town about twenty miles from Rochester, New York. The house had a reputation for being haunted and several incidents of noises described as rappings or tappings had prompted the previous tenant to leave.. In March, 1848, the family began to be disturbed by similar sounds and activities. The children were so frightened that they refused to sleep on their own, and moved into their parents’ bedroom. Attempts were made to find the cause of the noises, and 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 travelling merchant - and he also named the previous occupant of the house whom he accused of murdering him. Initial 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.

The following is the personal testimony of Margaret Fox, signed and dated 4 April 1848:

"On the night of the first disturbance we all got up, lighted a candle and searched the entire house, the noises continuing during the time, and being heard near the same place. Although not very loud, it produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs that could be felt when we were in bed. It was a tremendous motion, more than a sudden jar. We could feel the jar when standing on the floor. It continued on this night until we slept. I did not sleep until about twelve o'clock. On March 30th we were disturbed all night. The noises were heard in all parts of the house. My husband stationed himself outside of the door while I stood inside, and the knocks came on the door between us. We heard footsteps in the pantry, and walking downstairs; we could not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I could not account for before.

"On Friday night, March 31st, 1848, we concluded to go to bed early and not permit ourselves to be disturbed by the noises, but try and get a night’s rest. My husband was here on all occasions, heard the noises, and helped search. It was very early when we went to bed on this night; hardly dark. I had been so broken of my rest I was almost sick. My husband had not gone to bed when we first heard the noises on this evening. I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all other noises I had ever heard before. The children, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the rapping, and tried to make similar sounds by snapping their fingers.

"My youngest child, Cathie, said: 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,' clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped, the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, 'Now, do just as I do. Count one, two, three, four,' striking one hand against the other at the same time; and the raps came as before. She was afraid to repeat them. Then Cathie said in her childish simplicity, 'Oh, mother, I know what it is. Tomorrow is April-fool day, and it's somebody trying to fool us.'

"I then thought I could put a test that no one in the place could answer. I asked the noise to rap my different children's ages, successively. Instantly, each one of my children’s ages was given correctly, pausing between them sufficiently long to individualize them until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child.

"I then asked: 'Is this a human being that answers my questions so correctly?' There was no rap. I asked: 'Is it a spirit? If it is, make two raps.' Two sounds were given as soon as the request was made. I then said: 'If it was an injured spirit, make two raps,' which were instantly made, causing the house to tremble. I asked: 'Were you injured in this house?' The answer was given as before. 'Is the person living that injured you?' Answered by raps in the same manner. I ascertained by the same method that it was a man, aged thirty-one years, that he had been murdered in this house, and his remains were buried in the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children, two sons and three daughters, all living at the time of his death, but that his wife had since died. I asked: 'Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbors that they may hear it too?' The raps were loud in the affirmative.

"My husband went and called in Mrs. Redfield, our nearest neighbor. She is a very candid woman. The girls were sitting up in bed clinging to each other and trembling with terror. I think I was as calm as I am now. Mrs. Redfield came immediately (this was about half-past seven), thinking she would have a laugh at the children. But when she saw them pale with fright, and nearly speechless, she was amazed, and believed there was something more serious than she had supposed. I asked a few questions for her, and was answered as before. He told her age exactly. She then called her husband, and the same questions were asked and answered.

"Then Mr. Redfield called in Mr. Duesler and wife, and several others. Mr. Duesler then called in Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, also Mr. and Mrs. Jewell. Mr. Duesler asked many questions, and received answers. I then named all the neighbors I could think of, and asked if any of them had injured him, and received no answer. Mr. Duesler then asked questions and received answers. He asked: 'Were you murdered?' Raps affirmative. 'Can your murderer be brought to justice?' No sound. 'Can he be punished by the law?' No answer. He then said: 'If your murderer cannot be punished by the law, manifest it by raps,' and the raps were made clearly and distinctly. In the same way, Mr. Duesler ascertained that he was murdered in the east bedroom about five years ago and that the murder was committed by a Mr. _______ on a Tuesday night at twelve o’clock; that he was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher knife; that the body was taken down to the cellar; that it was not buried until the next night; that it was taken through the buttery, down the stairway, and that it was buried ten feet below the surface of the ground. It was also ascertained that he was murdered for his money, by raps affirmative.

"'How much was it - one hundred?' No rap. 'Was it two hundred?' etc., and when he mentioned five hundred the raps replied in the affirmative.

"Many called in who were fishing in the creek, and all heard the same questions and answers. Many remained in the house all night. I and my children left the house. My husband remained in the house with Mr. Redfield all night. On the next Saturday the house was filled to overflowing. There were no sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the evening. It was said that there were over three hundred persons present at the time. On Sunday morning the noises were heard throughout the day by all who came to the house.

"On Saturday night, April 1st, they commenced digging in the cellar; they dug until they came to water, and then gave it up. The noise was not heard on Sunday evening nor during the night. Stephen B. Smith and wife (my daughter Marie), and my son David S. Fox and wife, slept in the room this night.

"I heard nothing since that time until yesterday. In the forenoon of yesterday there were several questions answered in the usual way by rapping. I have heard the noises several times to-day.

"I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I am very sorry that there has been so much excitement about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known, and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I know is that they have been heard repeatedly, as I have stated. I have heard this rapping again this (Tuesday) morning, April 4. My children also heard it.

"I certify that the foregoing statement has been read to me, and that the same is true; and that I should be willing to take my oath that it is so, if necessary."

(Signed) MARGARET FOX, April 11, 1848.



As a postscript to Margaret Fox’s testimony, the following article was published in the Boston Journal on 23 November 1904:

"Rochester, N.Y., Nov. 22nd, 1904: 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."


As adults, the Fox women sisters travelled the world to tell of their experiences to enthralled audiences. Later, all three women confessed that the story of the rappings was fraudulent, but even later still, Margareta withdrew her confession.

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 precise date of the Hydesville contact.
     

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© 2003 Stephen Butt