Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
XII: Closing the Book: A Hero for the Romantic Age
With great fanfare, Childs and Peterson released Arctic Exploration at the end of September, 1856. By this time some scholars had began to doubt Kane's report of an open sea. German geographer August Petermann published a professional review of Kane's official report, declaring that even if Kane had seen open water, it could not have been part of the "great polar sea" according to the leading theories of the time. (145) Kane responded to this in Arctic Explorations in a manner both humble and sarcastic. He said of the debate, "[W]hat may be the argument in favor of one or the other hypothesis... may be questions for men skilled in scientific deductions. Mine has been the more humble duty of recording what we saw." (146)
The book was an immediate success. Besides having sold 20,000 copies before publication, Childs reported that one store that ordered only 100 copies originally sent an order back immediately afterward for an additional 5,000 copies to meet the demand. (147) Unfortunately, Kane was so ill that he could hardly enjoy his success. He had began to feel weak in May but kept working diligently at the book until its completion in August. That fall he spent several weeks in a water cure clinic in Brattleboro, Vermont. (148)
September and October, despite his illness, were golden moments for Kane and Fox. Margaret, Kate, and Mrs. Fox traveled to Canada in late August, during which time Kane apparently watched over their house. His loving, joking letters suggest that their relationship was finally peaceful. "I miss you; the third story room seems desolate without you.... Tommy [Margaret's dog] is a spoiled child.... Even now I hear him barking-I suppose at my picture.... If he could speak, he would say,- `You think yourself a great man, but she loves me more than she loves you, and she never beats me or pulls my nose.'" (149)
Kane had decided to go to England for the winter to promote his book and to talk to Lady Franklin about the future of Arctic exploration. Before he left, he lavished time and money on Fox, taking her to the opera and buying her a diamond bracelet from Tiffany's. They were obviously very intimate at this time as he commissioned an ambrotype to be taken of Fox and wrote her saying, "Don't be afraid of your neck and shoulders. I want you to look like a Circe, for you have already changed me into a wild Boar." (150)
Kane left for England on October 11, 1856, never to return again. What happened in the few days before Kane left was the cause of years of turmoil between the Kane family and Margaret Fox. According to Fox, one evening in early October while Kane was at her house, he became depressed thinking of his upcoming trip to England. He suddenly brightened and asked her if she would be willing to marry him on the spot saying, "Such a declaration, in the presence of witnesses, is sufficient to constitute a legal and binding marriage." They called Kate and Mrs. Fox, as well as two other young women in the house, up to her third story apartment. There Kane stood embracing Fox and said, "Maggie is my wife, and I am her husband. Wherever we are, she is mine, and I am hers. Do you understand this, Maggie?" She said yes and then Kane explained that they were now legally married but would keep it a secret until he returned in May at which time he would be financially secure and thus able to marry her publicly. (151)
This ceremony, if it ever occurred, is documented only in Fox's account, published a decade later. However, a more concrete piece of evidence does exist suggesting that Kane was officially committed to Fox in some way before he left. The day he left, Kane signed a will in the presence of the Grinnells naming his brothers Thomas and Robert as his executors and leaving his entire estate, namely his upcoming royalties, to such members of the family as his father might designate. He specified "the family" as his mother and siblings. However, the one other provision was a $5,000 immediate payment to his lawyer brother, Robert. When Kane died, both Fox and the Grinnells claimed that this $5,000 was intended for Fox.. (152)
What Fox did for the year and a half after Kane's death is a bit of a mystery for no letters address this period and her memoir only notes that she was ill and too depressed to "bear the light of day." (153) It was not until 1858 that Fox began seeking her supposed inheritance. In August of that same year she was baptized Roman Catholic at St. Peter's in New York. (154) Though Kane reached the height of his celebrity in the months after his death, the only mention of Fox by the media during this time was an ambiguous reference to a large wreath of flowers laid on his grave and signed "Two Ladies." (155)
After Kane's death, the family insisted that Fox give them all the letters he had written her. She refused and instead sued the family for the $5,000 mentioned in Kane's will. Furthermore, she insisted that their secret marriage was legitimate and so began presenting herself in public as Mrs. Kane, the name she went by for the rest of her life.
Because Fox had given up spirit-rapping and been baptized Catholic to honor Kane's wishes, she was alienated from many of her Spiritualist friends and had lost her only means of financial support. For nearly a decade after Kane's death, Fox and the Kane family took turns suing each other. Fox threatened to publish the letters if they did not give her money; the Kane family threatened to leave her destitute if she did not return all of Elisha's letters.
In the summer of 1858, Fox gave the letters to Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet, * a publisher of sensational literature, and Joseph La Fumée of the Brooklyn Eagle helped Fox write up a narrative to connect the letters. (156) But Fox withdrew from the project in September of 1858, when she seems to have realized that the manuscript was more valuable as a bargaining chip than as a published work. In 1862 she again sent the letters to press and followed this action by filing a suit in the Philadelphia Orphans court for payment of a widow's dower. These two actions brought the Kanes to the bargaining table, where they agreed to pay off her debts, to give her $2,000, and to pay her the interest on the remaining $3,000 left her. In exchange, Fox agreed to drop the suit against them and to have the letters and the book plates placed in the custody of Dr. Edward Bayar of New York, who would act as trustee. Soon after the papers were in Bayar's hands, the Kane family began to rework the contract, knowing that Fox could not afford the legal expenses to take them to court again. Over the next three years the Kane family paid Fox almost nothing but her quarterly annuity, and in May of 1865 they refused to pay even that. This refusal of annuity payment allowed her to show that they were in clear default of their original agreement and she was thus able to reclaim the letters which she promptly published as The Love-Letters of Dr. Kane (1866). (157)
In this book, Fox portrayed Kane and herself as victims of their families and herself as especially wronged as she had given up all she had for a man who in the end left her destitute. The first page of the preface proclaimed that Fox had "borne the sneers of the world, and the neglect of those whose regard for the deceased should have induced them to protect, comfort, and befriend her." (158) It explained that Fox herself was willing to "go down to the grave covered with unjust obloquy, were the choice left entirely to herself," but that her friends had convinced her that the publication of the letters "would vindicate the honor of both parties to the correspondence; for both had severely suffered from the slanders spread abroad." (159) The text that surrounds the letters is very slanted in Fox's favor: a good example being that it notes her age at the time of her and Kane's meeting as thirteen when she was in fact nineteen. But even with the obvious biases in her favor, the letters and dates in the account appear to be accurate as they match the still existent letters as well as the known dates of their meetings. (160)
It seems that no one wanted Fox to complicate the image of "Dr. Kane" the hero, and so she dropped out of sight. Corner cites a letter that suggests that if Kane's relationship with Fox had been fully reported, his heroic character would have been damaged. E. Peshine Smith wrote his friend Henry C. Carey a few months after Kane's death, "I am sorry to be informed that being thoroughly in love with Miss Fox he [Kane] had not the courage to marry her against the opposition of his family. The passion and the cowardice are both strange and the latter painful as diminishing one's regard for what I had thought a heroic character." (161)
This letter provides a glimpse into what at least one American felt was and was not appropriate behavior for a hero. Note that Smith lists not only cowardice, but also passion as "strange" behavior. But though romantic passion was strange, what was painful was the denial of this passion due to outside pressure. America, it seems, expected its heroes to be above sexual passions. More importantly though, a hero was not to back down or succumb to the will of others. Kane's relationship with Fox certainly could have damaged his heroic image. This helps explain why this part of his life disappeared so completely when the press began to immortalize him after his death.
As for Margaret Fox, after years of struggling with alcoholism, depression, and financial want, she attempted to make a comeback in 1888. With great publicity, including the publication of a book, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism, Fox staged a final grand performance on October 22, 1888 in New York's Academy of Music. Standing before the large crowd, Fox sent forth a barrage of rapping noises that sounded from all corner of the hall. Laughing, she proclaimed that this "spiritual manifestation" was nothing other than the clever manipulation of the joints in her toes. (162) Though this performance gained her money and fame for a short time, soon she was again destitute. Within a year of her performance of the "death-blow" to spiritualism, she pitifully recanted her denial of spiritualism and returned to the seance table. Sick and bitter, she struggled on for another five years.
One of the last public notices of Margaret Fox appeared at the bottom of the back page of the March 5, 1893 edition of the New York Times. There ran the following:
Margaret Fox Kane Destitute.
Three days later, on March 8, 1893, Margaret Fox died-destitute, homeless, and forgotten. (163)