A century before intelligent design’s claims to science status wilted under close scrutiny, a Penn commission debunked another popular—and fraudulent—religious movement.
By Dennis Drabelle
On November 6, 1884, Horace Howard Furness came within millimeters of exposing one of the biggest frauds in American religious history. The near-miss occurred in the Shakespeare scholar’s own house on Philadelphia’s Washington Square, at a meeting of the University of Pennsylvania’s Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism, of which Furness was acting chairman.
Appearing before the commission that night was none other than Maggie Fox, who with her sister Katy had launched the spiritualist movement more than three decades earlier, by producing raps that allegedly spelled out messages from the dead. In the interim, a whole industry had grown out of the girls’ performances. And with it had come a new profession: the medium, who held séances in dark rooms; evoked raps (which sounded like thumps on wood) out of thin air; handed over slates covered with new writing, even though these had supposedly been out of reach throughout the séance; levitated tables; caused remote musical instruments to play of their own accord; and, above all, relayed comforting words from deceased loved ones.
Long before the battle over intelligent design, the Seybert Commission applied rigorous, dispassionate scrutiny to supernatural claims. Although the mediums it examined said they were treated fairly, none of them managed to cause a miraculous effect. Yet if Furness had been less of a proper Victorian gentleman, he and his fellow investigators might have accomplished even more. They might have brought the whole edifice of spiritualism crashing down around Maggie Fox’s supple feet.
The commission’s progenitor was Henry Seybert, born to money and the sole survivor of his parents at the age of 24. After studying mineralogy in Paris, Seybert came home to Philadelphia, where he contented himself with being a dilettante and philanthropist; city directories listed his occupation as “gentleman.” He donated the money for the bell and clock tower added to Independence Hall for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1876. And he spent freely on his favorite avocation, spiritualism, which he hoped to place on a solid empirical footing. To that end, he left the university $20,000 to investigate “all systems of Morals, Religion or Philosophy which assume to represent the Truth; and particularly of Modern Spiritualism.” A second bequest to Penn, of $60,000, funded a chair in philosophy, the Adam Seybert Professorship in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy honoring his father, which exists to this day. (For some of these details, I am indebted to Mary Ann Meyers’s article on the commission in the May 1973 issue of this magazine.)
Seybert died in 1881; the Commission on Spiritualism was up and running by 1883. Its 10 members, many of them drawn from the Penn faculty, were a mix of humanists and scientists. Besides Furness, they included William Pepper C1862 M1864, the provost and a cousin of Seybert’s; George S. Fullerton, the first Seybert Professor, who held the position from 1883 until 1904; and Coleman Sellers, an electrical engineer whose achievements included designing the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls. (All busy men, they had to squeeze in Commission work as best they could.) Among the criteria for membership was a receptive mind, and Furness, for one, went further. “I do not hesitate to acknowledge,” he wrote when the commission’s work was done, “that I have been throughout sincerely and extremely anxious to become converted to Spiritualism.”
The commissioners read everything they could on the subject, including volumes from Seybert’s personal library (the material they used survives as a special collection in the Van Pelt Library’s rare-book room), and they encouraged mediums to come forward, promising to pay their expenses and a modest fee. Some mediums demanded whopping sums and limits on what could be asked of them, all of which were turned down. But others, including some of the biggest names in the business, cooperated. The commissioners sat through scores of séances and demonstrations, watching and listening, writing down their impressions afterward, ever on the lookout for a manifestation of occult power.
The phenomenon they were probing went back to 1848 and upstate New York, a part of the world that once been fertile religious ground. The Mormon faith had originated there, along with Seventh-Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so many preachers of all kinds had passed through that it came to be known as the burnt-over district—that is, exhausted like a forest after a wildfire. Perhaps because spiritualism relied more on showing than urging, it thrived even in that worn-out soil. Maggie and Katy Fox started out by playing tricks on their gullible mother. They had a trait in common: extraordinary flexibility in their toes, which may have been double-jointed. By snapping the big and second toes against each other, they could imitate a knock on wood. These and other sound effects persuaded Mrs. Fox that the girls were in touch with spirits, and Maggie and Katy obligingly worked out a code: one rap for no, two for maybe, three for yes. Later came a sequence pegged to the letters of the alphabet.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox were so wowed that they invited the neighbors over. Given the choice of prolonging the ruse or humiliating their parents, the girls stayed in character. As their antics drew wider attention—their breakthrough was the publication of a pamphlet, “A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County”—their older sister Leah Fox Fish saw dollar signs in their future. She became their manager and eventually their nemesis.
Borrowing from mesmerism and transcendentalism, Leah fashioned a simple creed. After death, souls linger in a kind of mezzanine, doing penance to qualify for heaven but in the meantime free to chat with their loved ones via selected intermediaries. Leah charged $1 a head for the girls’ at-home sessions, and soon they were raking in $100 a day. Then Leah had a better idea. Why not rent a hall in nearby Rochester and play to hundreds of people at a time? These mass séances brought out skeptics, who demanded that the girls submit to a committee of prominent local citizens. But Maggie and Katy had been honing their skills, and they fooled the investigators. Other critics, however, seized upon the silly factor. “How then,” asked the Rochester Courier and Enquirer, “can any rational man suppose that [God] would undertake to convey intelligence on his creatures by unintelligible thumping on a table?”
At Leah’s insistence, the girls thumped on. After the family moved to New York City, where newspaper editor Horace Greeley got on the bandwagon, spiritualism became respectable, almost fashionable. Outsiders took notice and reckoned they, too, could rap—or at least make horns toot on their own, etc. By early 1850 a “spirit circle” had formed in Philadelphia—the Foxes had lost their spiritualist monopoly. The practice spread to the Midwest, leapfrogged to San Francisco. What had begun inside the stockings of two country girls was now a national fad.
Despite being kept on a short leash by the mercenary Leah, Maggie became acquainted with and then engaged to a prominent Philadelphian, Elisha Kent Kane. An 1842 graduate of the Penn medical school, Kane was overcoming physical weakness—he had a rheumatic heart—to make a name for himself as an Arctic explorer. Lively Maggie was a refreshing contrast to the stiff upper-class girls he’d grown up with, but he frowned on her involvement in spiritualism, which still bore a whiff of chicanery. Both Mrs. Fox and Leah disapproved of the engagement, and the lovers had to meet on the sly. Upon Kane’s return from an Arctic voyage, they entered into a common-law marriage that may or may not have been consummated. Soon afterward, in 1857, Kane was dead at age 37.
Having renounced spiritualism in deference to Kane and converted to Roman Catholicism, which takes a dim view of séances, Maggie bailed out of the family enterprise at the age of 23. But she made the mistake of rooming with Katy, who liked to drink, and the sisters became alcoholics together. Maggie eventually dried out and, with no other way to support herself, re-emerged as a medium in 1871.
A few years later, she accepted an unusual offer: to be medium-in-residence at Henry Seybert’s Philadelphia house, also known as the Spiritualist Mansion. The salary was good, the trappings were elegant, and at first the attention was flattering. But Maggie came to resent Seybert and his hangers-on, who pressed her to contact a long list of historical figures, including, as she put it in her authorized biography, “nearly every martyr and saint in the Protestant calendar, and … the famous sages and rulers of old.” Maggie quit and went back to New York, complaining that Seybert was in the grip of “pure religious insanity.” After Seybert’s death, Horace Furness invited Maggie to return to Philadelphia so that the commission could take her measure. She ignored the letter. Furness wrote again. She agreed to come but kept her ulterior motive to herself: a desire to hoodwink the commission, thereby striking back at her late patron.
At first, on that fall evening in 1884, the commissioners heard raps aplenty. With her legs out of sight under a table, Maggie toe-popped away, crediting the noise to the spirit of Henry Seybert, who approved of the commission’s work so far. But the commissioners called for proof. Who was really making these sounds, they wanted to know, a spirit or the medium herself? Coleman Sellers asked Maggie if she could think of a test by which her agency could be ruled out. Yes, she said, one in which the medium stands on glass while raps resonate through the floor below.
Let the commission’s stenographer introduce the screwball episode that followed: “At this point attention is directed to the first of a series of experiments with four glass tumblers, which are placed together, with the bottoms upward, on the carpeted floor, in the centre of a vacant space. The Medium stands directly upon these, the heels of her shoes resting upon the rear tumblers and the soles upon the front tumblers. The Committee cooperate with the Medium, and, in conformity with her suggestions, all the men clasp hands and form a semi-circle in front of the Medium, the hands of the latter being grasped by the gentlemen nearest to her on either side.”
And then, nothing. Unless you count the odd rap audible to the medium alone. She climbs down. She gets back up. She gets down, asks for pencil and paper, writes out a note purportedly from Seybert. It counsels patience. Once more the medium mounts the tumblers. This time both Sellers and Furness hear raps. With the medium’s permission, Furness places a hand on one of her feet. More raps. “This is the most wonderful thing of all, Mrs. Kane,” Furness exclaims. “I distinctly feel them in your foot. There is not a particle of motion in your foot, but there is an unusual pulsation.” Instead of following through by asking her to remove her shoes, however, he goes squishy and lets her engage him in a colloquy on footwear. A solicitous onlooker wonders if the medium isn’t “wearied.” The commission calls it a night. When Furness asks the medium to return for another round of tests, she begs off.
What makes Maggie’s close call so tantalizing is that by then she’d just about had it with spiritualism. Being caught in the act might have inspired her to confess. And her combined apprehension and confession might have dealt what she later called “the death-blow to spiritualism,” persuading all but hard-core fanatics that every séance was the fruit of a poisonous tree in upstate New York. As it happened, Maggie’s tipping point didn’t come until four years later, when a New York Herald reporter finally got her to show and tell.
“Is it all a trick?” the reporter asked.
“Absolutely,” Maggie replied.
Katy corroborated her sister’s revelation, and she and Maggie now drew crowds by displaying their once-secret technique. Shaken fellow-mediums and their outraged followers fought back, making much of the sisters’ long history with the bottle. Then, in financial straits, Maggie recanted. According to Nancy Rubin Stuart, author of The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox, this reconversion may in fact have been genuine. For some time before her death in 1893, however, the mother of all mediums was so ill that rapping was beyond her.
At least Maggie Fox was an entertaining candidate. The Seybert Commission had to put up with others who, unaccustomed to being watched by eagle eyes in surroundings they couldn’t control, essentially froze. And some were such lousy actors that they were hard to endure. After sitting through a medium’s feeble impersonations of an Indian maid and a Quaker gentleman, one commissioner switched to French for his summing-up: “Stifling atmosphere breathed for 1 1⁄2 hours, for what? Quelle bêtise [what nonsense].”
The commission also exerted a long reach. In the summer of 1886, George Fullerton happened to be in Germany. To date, the most authoritative investigation of spiritualism had been undertaken at the University of Leipzig in 1877-78, by a group of professors under the leadership of J.C.F. Zoellner. That inquiry had cheered believers everywhere. The Germans had awarded supernatural points to effects associated with American medium Henry Slade: “the bursting of [a] wooden screen, the passages of coins out of closed boxes, the abnormal actions of … solid wooden rings, the tying of knots in [an] endless cord … prints made upon smoke paper by the feet of four-dimensional beings.” Fullerton found this curious, for Slade had flopped in his appearances before the Seybert Commission. Indeed, Slade’s lack of polish had left Coleman Sellers indignant. “The methods of this Medium’s operations appear to me to be perfectly transparent,” he wrote, “and I wish to say emphatically that I am astonished beyond expression at the confidence of this man in his ability to deceive, and at the recklessness of the risks which he assumes in his deceptions, which are practiced in the most barefaced manner.” (According to a Sellers descendant, the ex-commissioner liked to entertain his family with parlor tricks he’d picked up while watching Slade.)
How, Fullerton asked himself, could such a blatant charlatan have duped the learned Germans? As Fullerton called upon them, one by one (except for Zoellner, who had died), he pieced together what had happened. Of the five examiners, two had wretched eyesight, and one was so “advanced in age” that “he did not even recognize the disabilities of his associates.” Herr Doktor Zoellner himself had not only been prejudiced but also, in Fullerton’s words, “of unsound mind.” An ardent believer in spiritualism, he’d hoped that the investigation of Slade would advance his pet cause: proving the existence of a fourth dimension. In his role as chairman, Fullerton noted, Zoellner had shown “a passionate dislike of contradiction, and a tendency to overlook any evidence contrary to a cherished theory.” The fifth and last member—the only one with five sharp senses and a full set of marbles—had dissented from the group’s findings. Back in the States, Fullerton informed his fellow commissioners, with wry understatement, that his interviews with the Germans had put their “famous investigation in a somewhat new light.”
The Seybert Commission paused in 1887 to submit a “Preliminary Report” to the Penn trustees. Saving their eyewitness accounts for a lengthy appendix, the commissioners noted in the brief main body that so far not a “single novel fact” had turned up, but they offered to keep trying. That, however, proved to be that. The Philadelphia house of J.B. Lippincott published the report as a book, and the commission quietly went out of existence.
The Fox sisters and the Seybert Commission had each dealt spiritualism a blow, but not the death-blow of Maggie’s desiring. The movement hung on till World War I, which gave it a sizable boost. Grieving parents found solace in messages entrusted to mediums by their slaughtered sons, and séances became more popular than ever. Among the bereaved were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle’s wife, Jean. Sir Arthur became the movement’s indefatigable defender and publicist, his wife one of its best-known practitioners: Her specialty was to go into trances and take dictation from the dead. The Doyles’ beliefs put them at loggerheads with their friend Harry Houdini, who regarded mediums as mere fellow-illusionists.
One afternoon in 1922, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lady Doyle held a séance for Houdini during which she took down a communiqué from his late, beloved mother. The result left Houdini shaking his head. Lady Doyle had drawn a cross at the top of the page, which clashed with the Houdini family’s Judaism (their surname was actually Weiss, and Harry’s father had been a rabbi). Worse for the Doyles, the message was written in perfect English, whereas Houdini’s mother had always spoken Yiddish and could write only in German. Moreover, it happened to be Houdini’s birthday, of which the message made no mention.
The Doyles were unfazed. Two years later, they quarreled with Houdini again over the authenticity of a Boston medium named Margery, whose feats were so impressive that Scientific American appointed a committee to investigate her. Despite Houdini’s watchful presence on the committee, Margery used her charm to co-opt some members, going so far as to sleep with one of them. Houdini repeatedly checkmated Margery during her séances—“Houdini, you God-damned son of a bitch,” she once said to him in the guise of a frustrated spirit—but the corrupt panel let her get away with her reputation intact.
In his 1926 History of Spiritualism, Doyle had harsh words for the University of Pennsylvania. “There is no doubt that the report of the Seybert Commission set back … the cause of psychic truth,” he wrote. “Yet the real harm fell upon the learned institution which these gentlemen represented.” Penn, in his view, had tragically missed its chance to be a pathfinder to another world.
A less credulous observer might reach a different conclusion. In its heyday, spiritualism was put to the test by organized scholars and experts three times. The first group, in Germany, was a squad of the infirm and the dotty, easily discredited. The third, operating under the auspices of Scientific American, was a disgrace. Only the second, the Seybert Commission, acquitted itself honorably and capably. During three years of dogged and often tedious inquiry, its members acted exactly as truth-seekers associated with an institution of higher learning should. Applying the best available standards of proof, they watched carefully, thought clearly, and decided fairly on claims that too many others were willing to accept on faith.
Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.