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November 04, 2015

Novel details rise and fall of Rochester’s infamous mediums

"Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters" provides glimpse into region’s religious history

Rochester KnockingsThrough the experiments—or hijinks—of two young girls from western New York grew one of the most popular religious and social movements of the early 19th century: Spiritualism.  

Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters details the rise and fall of the infamous 12- and 15-year-old mediums who convinced the world they could communicate with the dead.

Available now from Open Letter Books, the University’s press dedicated to translated literature, the book was written by author Hubert Haddad and translated from French to English by Jennifer Grotz, professor of English.

“When I asked Haddad, who was born in Tunisia and now lives in Paris, why he felt compelled to tell the story of the Fox sisters, he exclaimed: ‘But how could one not? It’s one of the most fascinating and important stories of our time!’” says Grotz, who met and corresponded with Haddad several times while translating his work. “In addition to telling the life story of the sisters, it remembers and imagines a not-so-distant past where abolitionists, spiritualists, feminists, and people like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were working singly and together right here in Rochester and then beyond.”

Jennifer Grotz
Jennifer Grotz

In the novel, 12-year-old Kate first makes contact with the ghost of a man the girls later learn had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the family’s small farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. With the assistance of the ghost, “Mister Splitfoot,” Kate and Maggie Fox undertake a journey into the supernatural world. As their fame begins to develop, the girls move to Rochester before performing séances in major cities like New York and Philadelphia with the help of their much older—and entrepreneurially-minded sister, Leah.

“One of the real contributions this novel makes is the way it succeeds in humanizing—and empathizing with—the Fox sisters,” Grotz says. “The sisters are more ‘real’ here than in any of the several existing nonfiction accounts of the sisters and their story.”

Despite much speculation and an admission from one of the sisters that their talents were, in fact, a hoax, the real-life Fox sisters are considered the founders of Modern Spiritualism, a movement that spread rapidly throughout the United States and Europe.

stylized painting from tintype of three Victorian-era sisters

“Initially, Spiritualism centered on communicating with the dead through the practice of mediums,” says Margarita Simon Guillory, assistant professor of religion, whose research and teaching includes American Spiritualism. “And while that practice is still central, Spiritualism has changed in many ways by integrating Christianity into its philosophy and through the creation of such groups as the African-American Spiritual Churches.” According to Guillory, that is why, despite Maggie Fox’s denouncement of the religion in 1888, Spiritualism remained in its heyday. “At this time there was a critical mass of testimony from people who experienced first-hand the manifestation of spirits, particularly loved ones, from the spirit world. Spiritualism seeks to help individuals answer the existential question, ‘what happens when I die?’ and to provide an assurance that the human personality lives on after death. I really believe it is this provision of certainty that makes Spiritualism attractive to many people.”

The book also provides a glimpse into the Rochester region’s rich, and somewhat unknown, religious history. The area was a hotbed for reform and religious activity in the late 19th century, as well as the birthplace of Spiritualism, Mormonism, and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism.

“One of the reasons we wanted to publish this book was to further connect people to the area’s history and as a city with great world literature,” says Kaija Straumanis, editorial director of Open Letter Books. “If people in Rochester are able to see the work a writer in France put into getting to know and understand our city, then maybe it will motivate them to learn more about the area’s history and to be more open to exploring literature from other countries.”

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