Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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1865 / Bridgeport, CT

Rapper’s Delight



The “spirit-rapping” humbug was started in Hydesville, New York, about seventeen years ago, by several daughters of a Mr. Fox, living in that place. These girls discovered that certain exercises of their anatomy would produce mysterious sounds—mysterious to those who heard them, simply because the means of their production were not apparent. Reports of this wonder soon went abroad, and the Fox family were daily visited by people from different sections of the country—all having a greed for the marvelous. Not long after the strange sounds were first heard, someone suggested that they were perhaps produced by spirits, and a request was made for a certain number of raps, if that suggestion was correct. The specified number were immediately heard. A plan was then proposed by means of which communications might be received from “the spirits.” An investigator would repeat the alphabet, writing down whatever letters were designated by the “raps.” Sentences were thus formed—the orthography, however, being decidedly bad.

What purported to be the spirit of a murdered peddler gave an account of his “taking off.” He said that his body was buried beneath that very house in a corner of the cellar, that he had been killed by a former occupant of the premises. A peddler really had disappeared, somewhat mysteriously, from that part of the country some time before, and ready credence was given the statements thus spelled out through the “raps.” Digging to the depth of eight feet in the cellar did not disclose any “dead corpus,” or even the remains of one. Soon after that, the missing peddler reappeared in Hydesville, still “clothed with mortality,” and having a new assortment of wares to sell.

That the “raps” were produced by disembodied spirits many firmly believed. False communications were attributed to evil spirits. The answers to questions were as often wrong as right—and only right when the answer could be easily guessed or inferred from the nature of the question itself.

The Fox family moved to Rochester, New York, soon after the rapping humbug was started, and it was there that their first public effort was made. A committee was appointed to investigate the matter, most of whom reported adversely to the claims of the “mediums,” though all of them were puzzled to know how the thing was done. In Buffalo, where the Foxes subsequently let their spirits flow, a committee of doctors reported that these loosely constructed girls produced the raps by snapping their toe and knee joints. That theory, though very much ridiculed by the spiritualists then and since, was correct, as further developments proved.

Mrs. Culver, a relative of the Fox girls, made a solemn deposition before a magistrate to the effect that one of the girls had instructed her how to produce the raps, on condition that she (Mrs. C.) should not communicate a knowledge of the matter to any one. Mrs. Culver was a good Christian woman, and she felt it her duty—as the deception had been carried so far—to expose the matter. She actually produced the raps, in presence of the magistrate and explained the manner of making them.

The Fox family found that the rapping business would be made to pay, and so they continued it, with varying success, for a number of years, making New York City their place of residence and principal field of operation. I believe that none of them are now in the “spiritual line.” Margaret Fox, the youngest of the rappers, has for some time been a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

From the very commencement of spiritualism, there has been a constantly increasing demand for “spiritual” wonders, to meet which numerous “mediums” have been “developed.”

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About the Author

P. T. Barnum, from The Humbugs of the World. Having started a fruit-and-confectionary store andfounded the weekly Herald of Freedom, Barnum at the age of twenty-five in 1835 purchased for $1,000 a slave named Joice Heth, whom he advertised for exhibition as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Between 1842 and 1868, he ran the American Museum, attracting 38 million visitors to his various marvels, among them the twenty-five-inch-tall Gen. Tom Thumb and the “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng.

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, is a soothsayer, an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, consults ghosts or spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Book of Deuteronomy, c. 620 BC
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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