Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
VI: Fox and Kane: The Love-Life of a Hero
Margaret Fox lived a guarded and mysterious life. Born in Canada sometime around October 7, 1833, she moved to Hydesville, New York in December of 1847 with her parents, John and Margaret, and her younger sister, Catherine.* Soon after their arrival, Maggie's parents began to hear knocking sounds in their small dwelling. As they tried in vain to find the source of these sounds, Maggie and Kate began to "play" with what their parents decided must be spirits from beyond. According to a Tribune article written more than a year after the fact, in March of 1848 Maggie merrily exclaimed one night, "Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do!" She then snapped her fingers in a distinct rhythm which the rappings immediately imitated. Maggie then raised two fingers and instantly two raps were heard to which she exclaimed, "Only look, Mother, it can see as well as hear!" (64)
By July members of the community were flocking to the Fox cabin to hear Maggie and Kate communicate via this spiritual telegraph. Being a good Methodist, Mrs. Fox prayed earnestly that the rappings would stop and sought the aid of clergymen, but to no avail. Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Fox packed up Maggie and Kate and sent them to live with their older sister, Mrs. Ann Leah Fish, who ran a music studio in Rochester. (65) For a short time the rappings stopped, but when public interest grew again, Maggie soon found herself once more at the center of attention.
At the prompting of several believers who wished to exhibit the rappings, a public display was organized on November 14, 1848. Prominent citizens from Rochester, including clergy, doctors and scientists, were asked to come and observe. Unable to find any source of trickery the first night, they called for a second performance as well as several private demonstrations in the presence of doctors. Still the source of the rappings eluded them and so a third public forum was scheduled. As citizens of the religiously volatile burned-over district, Rochester's public was both intrigued and terrified by the "spirit rappings." At the end of the third public display, the crowd, angry and indignant, completely stripped Maggie inspecting both her clothing and her body for the source of the rappings. Terrified, Maggie wept bitterly and cried out for help. Finally, Mrs. Amy Post, a Quaker woman from Rochester, came to her aid and put an end to the ordeal.
Many members of the Rochester community demanded a fourth public examination. If they were being duped, they wanted to know how the young girl was fooling them. And if the rapping was supernatural, many were sure that it was coming from evil sources and should thus be banished. Without protest from the local clergy, several members of the Rochester community announced that if Maggie did not reveal the source of the rapping, they were going to lynch her and anyone else connected with the rappings. Before the demonstration began, Quaker George Willets, (in a strikingly un-Quaker-like statement), announced that anyone who attempted to lynch Maggie would have to do so over his dead body. As the demonstration ended, chaos erupted as boys began lighting fireworks and several men marched up on stage to remove Maggie's dress and check it for hidden weights. Fortunately for Maggie the police quickly intervened, dispersing the crowd and escorting her home. (66)
In June of 1849, P. T. Barnum came to observe the Fox sisters and quickly arranged for them to exhibit at the Barnum Museum in New York at an admission charge of two dollars.(67) Fish quickly recognized the earning potential of her younger sisters and thus appointed herself their manager, and in many ways slave-driver, for the next decade. As 16 and 15 year-olds, Maggie and Kate began a life of public display as Leah took them from city to city where they were questioned, examined, believed, and scorned by some of the most prominent citizens of the nation. At one sitting George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, George Ripley and Nathaniel Parker Willis were all present.(68) Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, and Bayard Taylor also attended sittings during this period.
New-York Daily Tribune editor Horace Greeley took an interest in the Fox sisters and in April of 1850 had them come visit him at his home in Turtle Bay. Like many of the people of the time, Greeley was both amazed and confused by the rappings. He recognized that Maggie was truly clairvoyant. She was capable of noticing and interpreting the smallest details in her listeners' questions and appearances and of using those clues to formulate remarkably perceptive answers to their questions. Greeley was fairly sure that "some persons not so dead are doing the rapping," but he was never willing to state certainly that these messages were not coming from beyond. He became a supporter and mentor to Maggie and Kate and encouraged them to give up the trickery and showmanship that Leah, under Barnum's tutelage, was implementing into their "act," and to instead further develop their remarkable talents of clairvoyance. (69)
Maggie and Kate spent most of 1851 and 1852 on the road. Spiritualism and its professed ability to communicate with the dead became not just a topic of conversation, but a religious movement as explosive as many of the other religions that came out of New York's burned-over district. Other spiritual mediums began to spring up across the country and spiritualist organizations began to flourish in metropolitan areas. Greeley was annoyed by the dancing furniture, floating heads, and other trickery many spiritualists were using, but he still believed that the Fox sisters could truly be a source of some great human discovery. To this end, he offered to educate the sisters at his expense, hoping that school would get them away from the chicanery of the spiritualists and in touch with the broader ideas of the world.
Fish agreed to let Kate go to school, but Maggie, the bigger source of her income, she refused to let go. By this time Fish had established herself as a spiritual medium as well. Her plan was to stay in New York to keep the movement growing there while sending Maggie on a tour of Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Thus, in the autumn of 1852 Kate left for school and Margaret, in the company of her mother, traveled to Philadelphia and set up shop in the bridal suite of Webb's Union Hotel. (70) It was there that the young and handsome Elisha Kent Kane, still grieving from the recent death of his youngest brother, Willie, came one November morning to investigate the "Spiritual Manifestations" that enthralled the nation.
Whether it was love at first sight as Margaret later claimed is an issue of speculation only. (71) What is certain is that from their first meeting the lives of Margaret Fox and Elisha Kent Kane became increasingly entangled and intertwined. As Fox wrote early in their relationship, "Now, Doctor-be candid!-am I not correct when I say you are an enigma past finding out? You know I am." (72) Unraveling the knot of their relationship is a task as fascinating as it is complex.
When Kane and Fox met they were in many ways engaged in the same occupation. Both had spent much of the last year traveling across the nation trying to sell belief in a mysterious and unknown land in which those long since past resided. For Kane it was Sir John Franklin in the Open Polar Sea; for Fox it was lost loved ones in the spirit world. Both were romantic adventurers who were deeply committed to their quests. Kane knew there was an Open Polar Sea and he knew the way to it was through Smith Sound. In his speech before the American Geographical Society of New York on December 14, 1852 he publicly announced his plans to lead the Second Grinnell Expedition. In this speech Corner notes that he confidently "set forth his reasons for supposing-nay, believing-that beyond [the Arctic] barrier lies an open sea teeming with birds and fishes under milder skies and warmer air than are to be found on its icy margins." (73)
Fox too was on a quest but hers was a spiritual journey. She knew and admitted to Kane that the rappings were a fraud. As she revealed publicly years later, the rapping noises came not from the spirits of the dead, but from the skillful manipulation of the joints in her feet. But knowing that the rapping noises were a fraud did not mean that she was certain the spiritual world did not exist. For much of her life people had flocked to her looking for answers to eternal questions and for solace for their grieving hearts. Though she knew she was a fraud, she also knew that in many cases she had provided what they sought.
By 1852, when she and Kane first met, she was the most respected prophet of one of the most rapidly growing religions in the nation. According to modern estimates, one million of the United States 25 million residents believed in the "authenticity of séance communications." (74) Prestigious and learned people sought her advice, for though their minds told them she was false, their hearts needed so badly to believe, to understand why loved ones died and why tragedy struck, that they put their faith in her despite themselves. This was the life Maggie Fox had led since the time she was thirteen years old. It seems it would have been difficult for her not to believe, at least in some way, that she was indeed a prophet with some special gift of insight. In an interview much later in her life, Fox provided a glimpse into what she went through as a young woman thrust to the forefront of a movement she did not fully understand. She reflected:
I have explored the unknown as far as human will can. I have gone to the dead so that I might get from them some little token. Nothing ever came of it-nothing, nothing. I have been in graveyards at dead of night... I have sat alone on a gravestone, that the spirits of those who slept underneath might come to me. I have tried to obtain some sign. Not a thing! No, no, the dead shall not return, nor shall any that go down into hell.... The spirits will not come back. God has not ordered it. (75)
The fact that she was driven to listen to corpses, to sit alone in graveyards, and to desperately seek signs from the spirits shows that Margaret Fox struggled to obtain her unknown world with as much passion as Kane sought his. Both knew they were leading expeditions that they did not fully understand and for which they were not fully prepared. But both also seem to have felt that they were in some way the chosen ones who must go forward. Kane expressed this in an undated letter saying, "just as you have your wearisome round of daily money-making, I have my own sad vanities to pursue. I am as devoted to my calling as you, poor child, can be to yours." (76)
In a letter from Boston where he was lecturing in February of 1853, Kane again addressed the similarities of their occupations but also pointed out the critical differences.
My lectures here have been most successful, drawing around me all the wealth and beauty of this great city; but I speak for humanity, and not for money. When I think of you, dear darling, wasting your time and youth and conscience for a few paltry dollars, and think of the crowds who come nightly to hear of the wild stories of the frozen north, I sometimes feel that we are not so far removed after all. My brain and your body are each the sources of attraction, and I confess that there is not so much difference. (77)
Kane knew that his lecturing and her rapping were for the same purpose, money. But this letter shows that he justified his actions by telling himself he was speaking "for humanity," not for personal gain. Though Kane originally tolerated Fox's occupation and even participated in seances, when he began to seriously court her, his attitude changed. Kane was a proper, aristocratic man keenly aware of class differences and proper roles for men and women. He thus began to work at transforming Fox into a proper woman worthy of his hand. This process often involved harsh reprimands that sound vicious to modern ears. Despairing at her resistance to change, he wrote, "You are refined and loveable [sic]; and, with a different education, would have been innocent and artless; but you are not worthy of a permanent regard from me. You could never lift yourself up to my thoughts and my objects; I could never bring myself down to yours." (78)
In many ways their relationship mirrored those of the popular literature of the time. Susan Warner's hugely successful novel, The Wide, Wide World (1850) which Jane Tompkins describes as "the Ur-text of the nineteenth-century United States" because it "embodies, uncompromisingly, the values of the Victorian era," is about an innocent but misguided girl, Ellen Montgomery, who was educated by, and eventually wedded to, the much older John Humphreys, who taught her how to be a proper Victorian woman. (79) Though there is no evidence that Kane had Fox read this book, he did have her read many works for her betterment, including Undine by De La Motte, which tells of a wayward water nymph who loved a far-traveling knight and through marriage to him gained an immortal soul. (80)
Kane also wrote his own instructional literature for Fox. In a poem entitled, "The Prophecy" he wrote, "Weary! weary is the life / By cold deceit oppressed" and concluded noting that if she did not change her ways, "Thou shalt live and die forlorn." He also wrote a longer poem on the same theme entitled "A Story: Thoughts which ought to be those of Maggie Fox." (81) This second work was signed "Preacher," Fox's telling nick-name for Kane.
Kane first proposed to Fox in January of 1853, and for the next four months their relationship swung back and forth between statements of everlasting unions and tragic farewells. Fortunately for us, much of this drama was played out via letters as Kane was busy traveling giving lectures and preparing for his voyage while Fox moved from Philadelphia, to Washington, to New York setting up seances in each location. According to Karen Lystra's book Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (1989), Fox and Kane's on-again off-again relationship was typical of the times. Lystra notes that arranged marriages gave way to marriages of romance during the early nineteenth-century. One of the consequences of a young woman being able to chose her own mate was that she needed to make very sure that her suitor was serious, for if she lost her reputation without gaining a husband, she was destined to a life of poverty. Lystra notes that this reality "resulted in the dominant motif of nineteenth-century American courtship: women setting and men passing tests of love." (82)
For Fox and Kane this process was a lively series of letters in which Kane pleaded for Fox's love while Fox, often under the instruction of her mother, alternated between accepting his advances and pulling away for the sake of her reputation. This made for a strange dance, for though Kane was trying to teach Fox to be a demure and proper woman-scolding her for such offenses as leading him through a room where a bed was present or for placing her hand on the back of his chair-he was also constantly begging her for more affectionate words in her letters and for small tokens of her love such as locks of her hair.
His letters often began with frantic reassertions of his love and desperate requests for her affection. "Dear, Dear Maggie:-Have you ceased to care for me? me whose devotion you now can see, and of whose true, steadfast love every fibre of your heart assures you!" They often ended equally dramatically. "I am very sick, and it was only last night that I made the discovery of not possessing your love. I will never hold up my hand again.... I shall always be your friend, and perhaps you are glad to get rid of me in the other relation! God bless you." (83)
Kane's dual desires for a demure, proper woman but a more expressive lover are an excellent example of what Lystra calls the "public-private division" which she says was a "basic organizing principle of nineteenth-century middle-class culture." (84) Raised in very proper society, Kane understood that gestures and words of affection were perfectly acceptable in private spheres such as love-letters or stolen moments out of the public eye. However, if other people were present, such gestures were strictly taboo. As etiquette books of the times warned, "Make no public exhibition of your endearments," and, "above everything... avoid being personal" in society. (85) Even when they were in the same city at the same time, Kane would often send a messenger to deliver his letters "for fear of talk." When they were apart he insisted that they use the code names "Cousin Peter" and "F. Webster" for telegraph messages. (86)
Fox was not nearly so concerned about such issues. This makes sense considering that it was to her advantage for them to be seen in public as it would make him more accountable to her. When Kane proposed an intricate plan to meet secretly at an art gallery in New York, Fox responded, "The idea seems to me so unbecoming. I do not care half as much for strangers, or the opinion of others, as I do for myself. But if you will call here I will go." (87) Kane's family was dismayed by his attention to Fox as they felt she was a low-class social climber. Kane too feared at times that he was being led on as he saw how she led her clients "by the nose" and wondered if she was "only cheating me in a different way." (88) Kane's biggest fear, however, was the press.
It is important here to note that the difference between public and private spheres extended into the press. Kane worked to keep his public life-his Open Polar Sea theory, his expedition plans, his thoughts on Sir John Franklin's whereabouts-in the press. However, if the press ever began to shift from covering his work to covering his life, he became indignant. When an article about one of his lectures spent more time describing (positively) his appearance and demeanor than his speech, he wrote Fox saying, "How disgusting is this life, to be discussed by the papers!" (89) The fact that he shunned even positive personal press shows the extent to which privacy was essential to him and why he so greatly feared his love-life becoming public.
Kane seems to have felt that if their relationship ever became public knowledge while Fox was still involved in spiritualism, his reputation as both a scientist and a gentleman would be destroyed. He begged her to shun the public-eye. "[N]o more Greeleys, no more wiseacre scientific asses, and pop-eyed committees of investigation!" He wrote later, "You know I am nervous about the `rappings.' I believe the only thing I ever was afraid of was, this confounded thing being found out." Kane knew that if Fox gave up rapping she would be alienated from her family and livelihood but he also knew that if he married a spiritualist he would be in jeopardy of losing the respect and fame he had worked so hard to obtain. A few weeks before his departure he wrote, "Circumstance, that tyrant of human destinies, forbids our marriage, except by a sacrifice of all that makes worldly life desirable; and to the gratification of our love we have the opposition of society, of education, and of conscience." (90)
At the beginning of May, 1853, circumstances changed. According to the narrative in Fox's ghost-written The Love-Life of Dr. Kane, Fox had from the very beginning wished to leave her sinful life as a spiritualist and to become a good Christian woman. It is hard to determine what Fox actually thought, for her life was still controlled by her mother and older sister. Despite this, it does seem that by March of 1853 she had began talking to Kane about leaving spiritualism if he would help her. In a letter dated March 19, 1853 Kane enthusiastically wrote:
Do avoid your wretched sister [Leah Fish] as much as possible.
Soon after this letter was written, Kane moved to New York to supervise preparations for his second Arctic voyage. A few days after arriving in New York he fell ill and stayed with the Grinnell's while he recovered. Fox was also in New York and they spent much time together going on carriage rides and to shows. It seems that Kane was willing to be seen in public with Fox because she had agreed to end her contact with spiritualism and to spend the years of his absence educating herself to be a proper woman. In mid-May, Mrs. Fox, Fox, and Kane went to New Haven to examine a school for Fox but decided against it. As an alternative they decided that Fox would go to live with Mrs. Sussanah Turner's family in Crooksville, Pennsylvania. The Turners were a simple but well-respected family and their location in the rural countryside just outside of Philadelphia was ideal for a woman seeking to better herself while staying out of the public eye. (92)
As May came to a close, Fox began living up to her "solemn promise" never to rap again. It appears that her last seance was done for the President's wife, Mrs. Jane Appleton Pierce, whose eleven year old son had just died in a horrible train accident. Kane scolded Fox for this last transgression but was so pleased with her promise and upcoming education that he could not help but show her off to his friends. He had her come to the Grinnells' house where he introduced her to his wealthy benefactor. He wrote Fox afterwards: "Mrs. Grinnell was much pleased with you. Every body who really knows you, is; for my Maggie is a lady; and by the time that she has had a course of Mrs. Turner's music and French, nobody will know her as the spirit-rapping original phenomenon." (93)
He hired the popular Italian portrait painter, Joseph Fagnani, to paint a portrait of Fox for him to take to the Arctic. (94) He also wrote a clever drama for Fox that portrayed him as the romantic and doting "Preacher" and her as a practical and un-sentimental woman of good-sense and plain speech. "Preacher. I've longed to make life's stream a fountain clear and bright. Maggie. How can I fix my hair, dear Ly* , if you stand in the light?" (95)
The casual, domestic banter of the final week's letters suggest that their engagement was, though still secret, truly established. In his "farewell" letter, the engagement seems sure.
And now, dear Maggie, my own dear Maggie, live a life of purity and goodness. Consecrate it to me.... Thus live, dear Maggie, until God brings me back to you; and then, meeting my eye with the proud consciousness of virtue, we will resign ourselves to a passion sanctified by love and marriage. Golden fields shall spread before us their summer harvest-silver lakes mirror your very breath. Let us live for each other.
The day before he left for his second Arctic expedition, Kane made a final trip to Mrs. Turner's house to assure Fox that all would be well. Kane had asked Grinnell's son, Cornelius Grinnell, to be Fox's guardian and to supply her with funds and information about the expedition during his absence. With these last details taken care of, Kane returned to New York and on May 31, 1853 set sail for the Arctic. In a final letter written as he left Newfoundland, Kane imagined Fox under the shade of a drooping chestnut, startling the birds with her "tokens of the spirit-world." He advised her to study German and asked that she "write naughty letters" to him in that "noble language." He promised to be true to his promises and asked her only to "exercise often, laugh when you can, grow as fat as you please; and when I return-God granting me that distant blessing-... let me have at least the rewarding consciousness of having done my duty." (97)