Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
IX: Celebrity and the Collision of Spheres
During all the excitement of Kane's arrival, Margaret Fox anxiously awaited her lover. The autumn before, when Kane did not return as planned, Fox had become incredibly depressed. Isolated from her family and thinking that she had lost her fiancé, Fox spent much of 1854 and early 1855 staying with different friends of the Grinnell family in an attempt to cheer up. When Fox learned of Kane's rescue in early October, she was elated. In this letter, which still exists among the Kane family papers, we can see that Fox fully expected a happy homecoming and was hoping that it would quickly culminate in marriage and acceptance into the Kane family.
Oh! my dear Ly I am so happy [with] the idea of writing you once more. I wish Ly dear that you would hurry home. As soon as you arrive at N.Y. call on Mrs. [Ellen Cochrane] Walter and bring her with you when you come after me.... I would much rather go from here to Mrs. Walter's than to Judge Kane's. You know I am not at all acquainted with your father and mother.... I often think dear Ly of your Sacred Promise that is if all things met with your expectations.... I am getting along finely with all my Studies. Are you not pleased? Now dear Ly do I pray you hurry hurry home. I will not let you go on another expedition very soon....
But what makes this letter especially interesting is that it ends with a chatty discussion of spiritualism. Fox said, "Spiritual manifestations are spreading all over the world. Some of the greatest men in the world have become believers in the Spirits.... I conversed with the spirits when Mrs. Walter was here. I asked an[y] number of questions about you." (114)
This letter shows that Fox had not given up sprit-rapping and was in fact still watching the spiritualist movement with great interest. It seems she was also questioning the spirits about Kane's safety. Why would Fox discuss such matters in her first letter to Kane when she knew that one of the conditions he insisted upon for marriage was her abandonment of spiritualism? Did she think that since the movement was growing that he would now accept it? Or did she think that, as long as she was not practicing it publicly, private rappings were acceptable?
This last question deserves further examination for Kane himself seems to have believed that he was capable of seeing into the future via a form of mysticism he often practiced in private. In several of his letters, Kane talks about "raising his hand" to see into the future. For example, with apparent seriousness, he wrote Fox in May of 1853, "I was very glad, my own dearest darling, that you contradicted the suspicions of my hand. My hand is sometimes completely wrong, and I had a great deal rather believe you than it." (115) Perhaps Fox felt that rapping privately to herself was a form of future-telling analogous to Kane's uplifted hand and thus acceptable. Whatever the case, this letter shows that in her time of dismay and longing, Fox turned to the sprits for answers. She knew she was a fraud. She does not seem to have been so sure about the spirits.
What effect this letter had on Kane is unknown. What we do know is that Fox waited for two long days before he paid her a visit. When he finally did arrive, the reunion was far from joyful. According to Fox's account, Kane, trying to remain composed, told her that their marriage must be indefinitely delayed due to violent opposition from his family. He then wrote out a letter stating that their relationship was "merely friendly and fraternal" and asked her to copy it into her own hand and sign it, for he had to present such a letter to satisfy his mother. Fox tearfully copied and signed the statement, and, over Mrs. Walter's protests, Kane left with the letter.
Fox claimed that Kane returned a few days later, giving her back the letter and apologizing that he had been "compelled by his persecutors to act a part unworthy of a gentleman." Apparently Kane's aunt, Elizabeth Leiper, found out about this affair and scolded him severely. He wrote Fox, "See, Maggie, here is my favorite aunt turning against me for your sake!" (116)
The Kane family's violent protest to this relationship needs to be examined. Certainly they were never thrilled about Fox, but before Kane left for the Arctic they had tolerated the relationship. Maybe they felt Kane would lose interest after two years in the Arctic and thus saw no reason to protest before he left. Once he returned, matters were more serious. The Spiritualist Movement was now a well established religion with its own prophets, theology, and powerful supporters.
Judge John Worth Edmonds of the Supreme Court of New York had published two volumes of a work entitled Spiritualism in 1853 and 1855. This work gave the spiritualist movement a text to rally around as it offered a direct attack on the Calvinist notion of a fearful God. Edmonds instructed, "Fear of God is a terrible fear.... Your duty will be to lead the mind away from these theological errors; they have warped the soul too long already." * In the same month that Kane arrived, New York newspapers were full of reports of free-love societies and other scandalous behavior linked to the spiritualist movement.
The Kane family did not want their now famous son to have his image tarnished by his association with this movement. When Kane returned, the family quickly intervened-a fact that suggests that Kane was still interested in Fox. Though we have only Fox's account of this incident, the defensive tone of the Kane family letters suggests that her story is true. Over the next ten years, the Kane family spent vast amounts of energy and money trying to discredit Fox and her claim to their son: an effort that would hardly have been necessary if Fox's claims were unfounded.*
The Kane family's interference resulted in exactly what they were trying to avoid and what Kane most feared-a media event. On October 19, only a week after Kane's return, the Troy Daily News ran a small but explosive article.
Dr. Kane, -A gentleman of this city informs us that Dr. Kane, of the Arctic Expedition is soon to be married to Miss Margaretta Fox, the second sister of the "Fox girls" at whose residence in Hydrsville, [sic] Wayne county in the State, the spirit rappings were first manifested. Dr. Kane became asquainted [sic] with the Fox family in New York. During his absence Miss Fox, his said-to-be-affianced, has been attending a young ladies' school at Philadelphia. (117)
Though this account was full of obvious factual errors, such as the Fox sisters' birth order and the location of Kane and Fox's meeting, it was quickly picked up by many of the nation's gossip-hungry newspapers. The story was rehashed and elaborated to such an extent that Horace Greeley, Fox's long time friend, felt obliged to scold his fellow editors for their indiscretion. "What right has the public to know anything about an `engagement' or non-engagement between these young people?... Whether they have been, are, may be, are not, or will not be, `engaged,' can be nobody's business but their own and that of their near relatives." (118)
The Kane family also refuted the story by planting an article in the Boston Traveller which was then reprinted in Philadelphia's Daily Pennsylvanian. Their article claimed that the "foolish story" had arisen from a misunderstanding. It stated that before Kane left on his Arctic journey, he had contributed "with a sailor's liberality" to a fund to educate one of the Fox girls. "On his return... he called to witness the improvement of his protegée; and from this simple incident has arisen the engagement story." (119)
Both Fox and Kane were traumatized by this media deluge. During it all they wrote passionately tragic letters addressing themselves as "Brother" and "Sister." Fox's family and friends were indignant that Kane did not publicly announce his intentions one way or the other and so pressed Fox to end the relationship. In late October she wrote:
Dear Doctor Kane:-I have seen you for the last time.... I must either give you up from this moment and for ever, or give up those who are very dear to me, and who hold my name and reputations as sacred.
I can never see you again; but remember that you will be ever followed by my choicest love and prayers.... If you have the least spark of love, or even friendship in your heart, you must not call again.... If after you receive this letter, you should write to me, I would burn the letter unopened. (120)
In a letter of response (which Fox apparently did not burn without opening) Kane agreed that they had to separate for both their sakes, but felt they could reunite "when the thing blows over." Though he despised being "rent asunder by these cursed meddlers," he told her that he was nervous about his letters being made public but was too much of a gentleman to ask for them back. However, he concluded, "If of your own free choice you send them to me, I will regard it as the highest proof of trust and love." Fox's narrative states that she immediately sent the letters back but Kane refused them and was "hurt at Margaret's willingness to part with them even to himself." (121)
Judging from both their letters and Fox's account, the next few months were an emotional period for them. Interpreting what the couple was going through is a difficult task, for their concerns seem to have rested on several levels. They worried about public opinion, social status, loyalty to family, loyalty to each other, and personal reputation. In her narrative, Fox defended Kane's erratic letters saying, "Let those who are disposed to condemn his conduct consider the circumstances in which he was placed: his present want of pecuniary independence, his education in erroneous ideas of social elevation, and the incessant torture to which he was subjected from the urgent remonstrances of friends and the sneers of those indifferent to him." (122)
But what the couple feared most was the ability of the press to make all their private concerns public. After the Kane family explained away their engagement in the press, many of Fox's friends, including Greeley apparently, threatened to retaliate by exposing Kane's ungentlemanly behavior. Fox wrote Kane, "I cannot tell you how unhappy it makes me to think of my affairs being in the mouths of so many strange persons, and the subject of newspaper comment. I suffer, too, on your own account... I am a simple girl and people might soon forget any idle gossip about me. But you are more widely known, and a stain on your honor would be hard to efface." Kane wrote later, "All I think of dear Maggie, is your reputation. As for myself, I'm only half a gentleman; for they make me tell so many stories." (123)
In April of 1856, this strained relationship suddenly flourished again. According to Fox, Kane appeared at her house one evening when she was alone, grabbed her in his arms, gave her a ring, and insisted that she marry him. In her narrative she commented, "He cared no longer... for the world's opinion or its sneers: his beloved was all in all to him."
Soon after, Fox, along with her mother and sister Kate, moved into a new house on 22nd street. Fox had the third story to herself and it seems Kane was a frequent visitor, staying there every time he was in New York. He wrote of this room, "There, like wounded deer, we escape from the hunters; and if we, both of us, are conscious of doing no wrong, whose business is it if we seek shelter?" (124) Evidence suggests that from this time on, Kane and Fox were formally engaged and were regarded as such by both their families.