The Burned Over District is a term we borrowed for the title of this blog from Charles Grandison Finney when he used it to describe much of the Revivalism movements of the early 19th century in Western and Central New York. The region was a flurry of new beliefs with a number of new movements being birthed in our own backyards that would later spread to every corner of the Earth. Almost perfectly in the center of what Finney referred to as the Burned Over District, a few different religious movements were getting their beginning at nearly the same exact time, just a few miles from one another. One of those movements was Spiritualism, and the entire story of Spiritualism today exists because of two young girls and their discovery that they could interact with the afterworld. Luke and I have explored the story of the Fox Sisters before on this blog, but we have never actually been to the exact location where the Fox Sisters themselves first discovered their abilities…until now.
The Hydesville Memorial Park is located on Hydesville Road just a couple miles Northwest of the center of the canaltown today known as Newark, NY. Today there exists only a stone base that the house once existed on, and that base is surrounded by a protective building. It’s rare that visitors are allowed to enter the protective building itself, but that didn’t stop us from going to the site itself and peering through windows, and wondering what had truly transpired at this very location.
Despite the house having a reputation for unexplained disturbances that caused a previous tenant to move out, John and Margaret Fox moved in on December 11, 1847 with two of their three daughters, Kate and Margaretta (Maggie). Almost immediately the family began to experience odd disturbances like knocks and taps around the home. On the evening of March 31, 1848 the two youngest daughters, Kate (11 yrs old) and Maggie (15 yrs old), challenged their ghostly housemate to respond to them. While the entire family sat in awe, the girls would snap their fingers and the residing spirit, Mr. Slipfoot, would respond with the same number of raps. The girls continued to interact by asking the spirit for a certain number of knocks to indicate a yes or no for a series of questions. Neighbors began to assemble as the girls would continue day in and day out to interact with Mr. Slipfoot, who would later go on to tell them that while visiting the house on a sales call, he had been murdered at the house and buried in their very basement.
It was only early April when local newspapers began to report on the rappings in the Fox house, and curious onlookers made their way in droves to watch and listen as the young Fox Sisters interacted with afterworld spirits. It didn’t take long at all for the news of their discovery to spread like wild fire up and down the Erie Canal. Supporters came regularly, and then some visitors were just curiously skeptical, and then there were countless doubters and naysayers that visited for the sole purpose of demystifying what they claimed could only be a teenage prank. Regardless of what others’ beliefs were about the authenticity of the spiritual telegraphing, there was no mistaking the quickly building fame of the sisters’ talents.
The March 31st birth of Spiritualism came at a time when the Second Great Awakening was just wrapping up. The fervor of itinerant riders and lay preachers who had begun new faiths and converted thousands by the week was now approaching capacity, and everyone who could had already found a religion to associate with. Many leaders in their faiths found the Fox Sisters’ talents to interact with spirits to be not only bunk, but also found the very concept to be malicious and in direct opposition to their own. The girls began to find themselves under constant scrutiny of perfect strangers who often went so far as to run tests and experiments on the girls during their seances. At one point, the girls were even brought to Buffalo, NY and placed in shackles in front of a panel of university ‘experts’. Despite countless efforts to hold the girls hands steady and tie their feet to the ground to ensure they weren’t making the noises themselves, no one was ever able to prove their interactions to be false. The girls’ statuses went almost over night from being two girls in a simple family to being spiritual leaders with an innate ability to bring messages from the afterlife here to the Earth plane.
It wasn’t long before the oldest daughter, Leah, who was living in Rochester in what is now the Corn Hill neighborhood, brought the girls along the Erie Canal all the way in to the big city of Rochester to live with her. Even in Rochester the rappings continued, and it became clear that the Fox Sister’s ability to interact with spirits wasn’t specific to the Hydesville locale, but indeed was an inborn talent to each of the spiritually gifted girls. It was here that the first Spiritualist church would be founded and numerous written accounts from the girls and other onlookers would begin to be published–and book sales achieved numbers that any published author would be happy to obtain.
Checkout our post about our visit to the Plymouth Spiritualist Church, previously located in the Corn Hill Region and founded in 1856.
The pressure built on the girls, especially as other Spiritualists came forward to share that they too had the same abilities. There are a number of beliefs about why they would admit it, but one of the books included an account from the girls that the rappings and interactions were created on their own accord, and done so by cracking the bones in their feet in a certain manner. As the situation grew more and more famous, they had been forced to come up with even more reliable means of creating the noises, and even a desk was manufactured that with the help of some sliding parts, allowed them to make the noises. That desk is now on display in the Rundel Library in Rochester, NY, just a couple blocks from the Corn Hill neighborhood. The girls’ reputations as spiritual leaders were ruined by their own admission, but somehow the concept of Spiritualism, and the ability of mediums to interact with the dead continued to thrive. What’s interesting about the story of the Fox Sisters, is that by the time the admission was made public, countless individuals across the country and other parts of the world had begun to experience their own ability to interact with the afterlife. Spiritualist churches began to form, and even full communities like Lily Dale became safe havens for mediums and Spiritualists to embrace the ever blossoming religion.
Checkout our post about our visit to Lily Dale, an entire gated community where mediums and Spiritualists live.
The house at Hydesville was ultimately abandoned as the family moved out, and lay vacant for years until a medium at Lily Dale purchased the house and moved it in its entirety to the community by way of the New York State Barge Canal (The Erie Canal’s new name after being rerouted and widened in 1905). The home remained for decades as a mecca for Spiritualists but unfortunately, that house later fell victim to a fire on September 21, 1955. There now exists only a plaque in its place. The fire ruined every splinter of the home, so all that remains is the stone base on Hydesville Road.
The Hydesville Memorial Park typically is only open on the anniversary of the celebration of Spiritualism. It’s owned and looked after by a group of Spiritualists, and of course, we managed to track down the ONLY person in all of New York state with a key to the building. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to meet us the day we visited, but that didn’t stop us from going on our own and peering through windows and checking things out.
Tracy Lee Murphy has lived all of her life in the Newark area, and began helping with the property when she was a teenager, and since the beginning has felt a connection to the land. Though the park is owned by a group, Tracy is the only one who has access to the inside of the building. She writes, “I would say that by far my most memorable incident was many years ago. I was sitting inside and asked Spirit for a sign if this was the path that I was suppose to be on. I didn’t hear anything and left. I returned a few days later and was walking around the foundation when I noticed the letter K spelled with tiny rocks. I called my husband and asked him if he had done it and he said no and since I am the only one with the key…needless to say, I’m on the path.”
Another local Spiritualist, Natalie Scribner, shared with us how she too often visits the property, as she has for years, because of a special connection she feels while there and described it as a “peaceful, healing type energy”. She also shared with us, that at some point after the house was moved to Lily Dale, another home was built on the same spot and she would often visit. Later when the homeowner, Mr Drummond, and his wife had both passed away, the house was removed with a controlled fire, and Mr. and Mrs. Drummond were buried in an unmarked grave on the property. Apparently only a few people know of the precise location of their burial and Natalie happens to be one of them.
Regardless of one’s beliefs about the human ability to interact with the afterworld, there’s no denying that Spiritualism is a culture and system of beliefs that has grown exponentially since Kate and Maggie Fox officially set the ball rolling on March 31, 1848. There are numerous details to the story that remain puzzling, but that could easily be said of many religions. Faith and that connection to an energy that gives people peace appears to the be the element that answers the grey areas in between the scientific facts. Neither Luke nor myself are particularly sensitive to positive or negative energies so we didn’t pick up on that, but the experience we had at Hydesville Memorial Park was one of connecting in person with a small piece of religious history that has gone on to change the world of spirituality and the history of Upstate NY forever.