I made good progress this week on a project — THE DETAILS OF WHICH THE WORLD IS NOT YET PREPARED! Along the way, I was prompted to take a closer look at a report that human bones were unearthed at the crumbling home once belonging to the Fox Sisters in upstate New York. The bones were found in 1904, but back in 1848, the family had claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a murdered man. It was a big claim. Very big. It made headlines and sparked the international Spiritualism movement.
The 1848 Bones
Let’s begin with the original claim. In a statement dated April 11, 1848, Margaret Fox — the mother of the soon to be famous Fox Sisters — explains how, after hearing curious knocking in their house, the daughters began to ask the “knocker” to respond to their prompts. It did! The spirit could hear them, but it could only telegraph replies by rapping. Nonetheless, the Foxes began to discover who was sharing their house:
Subsequent interrogation, conducted with the help of neighbors, revealed the spirit “was murdered by having his throat cut with a butcher knife.” The mother says that digging in the cellar, presumably to find the bones, was attempted, but “they dug until they came to water, and then gave it up.” Ann Leah Underhill, the married name of the oldest Fox sister, then says the digging resumed during dry season. Eventually, the work party reached some charcoal and lime — then found “some hair of a reddish or sandy hue, and some teeth….” The next day, a number of “bones where found which doctors pronounced human bones…. One, I remember, was said to be from the ankle, two from the hands, and some from the skull, etc.” Please note that, in this account, at least parts of the skull (including those teeth) were found.
The 1904 Bones
Over the decades, the story had changed, as stories do. By 1904, the murder victim was remembered as having been fully beheaded. Again, skeletal remains were reportedly unearthed in the house’s cellar and, in fact, the discovery included most of the “important bones of the body except the skull.”
One curious thing about this is that it probably wasn’t considered very important news. I really had to struggle to find the handful of articles I did, checking the digital archives at both Chronicling America and the NYS Historic Newspapers. Even those few articles were placed well after the front page. One article published (on page 5) in the Monroe County Mail suggests folks were taking a “maybe so, maybe not” attitude in response to the news. It ends by saying:
The question as to whose spirit once rattled around in these bones will probably never be answered satisfactorily to all. The peddler may have been murdered and buried there as claimed, or the bones may have been disinterred from some cemetery and placed there for effect.
Moving from newspapers to magazines, I found a couple of articles about a follow-up investigation conducted by a physician named M.A. Veeder. He lived in the area of the Fox home, and Ralph Shirley, the editor of The Occult Review, asked the doctor to evaluate the bones. Accepting the assignment, Veeder concluded that, to borrow from the Monroe County Mail, the bones had been “placed there for effect.” And a shoddy job it was!
Veeder’s short report was published in The Occult Review:
One might wonder why having the advantage of three arms hadn’t helped defend against the murderer. Sorry. I do find it interesting, though, that Veeder describes himself as “unfortunate” for never finding anything to support “spiritualistic phenomena.” Unless he’s being gently snarky, it seems like he really did want to find such evidence, and perhaps his earlier efforts were how Shirley had become acquainted with the doctor in the first place.
The Controversy Continues
Of course, not everyone would have subscribed to The Occult Review, which was a British publication. However, in 1909, Veeder’s findings were again mentioned in The Journal of American Society for Psychical Research with the added information that the doctor had since heard a confession from the prankster. Some defenders of Spiritualism had either missed or dismissed these two articles, continuing to suggest the bones confirmed the Fox Sisters’ 1848 claim. They did this by reprinting an article from the Boston Journal printed on November 23, 1904, when the news was still very fresh and unconfirmed. Franklin A. Thomas does it in Philosophy and Phenomena of Spiritualism (1922), and the same goes for Arthur Conan Doyle in Chapter 4 of The History of Spiritualism (1926).
Presumably, this has something to do with why some websites today treat the 1904 bones as validation of the Fox Sisters’ claim while others treat them as a hoax.