1865 | Bridgeport, CT

Rapper’s Delight

P.T. Barnum exposes the tricks of the trade.

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.

The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.

—Italo Calvino, 1967

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.”

Many, who otherwise would not be in the least distinguished, have become mediums in order to obtain notoriety, if nothing more.

Communicating by raps was a slow process, so some of the mediums took to writing spasmodically; others talked in a “trance”—all under the influence of spirits! Mediumship has come to be a profession steadily pursued by quite a number of persons, who get their living by it. There are various classes of mediums, the operations of each class being confined to a particular department of spiritual humbuggery. Some call themselves “test mediums,” and by insisting upon certain formulas, they succeed in astonishing, if they don’t convince most of them who visit them. It is by this class that the public is most likely to be deceived.

There is a person by the name of J.V. Mansfield who has been called by spiritualists the “Great Spirit-Postmaster,” his specialty being the answering of sealed letters addressed to spirits. The letters are returned—some of them, at least—to the writers without appearing to have been opened, accompanied by answers purporting to be written through Mansfield by the spirits addressed. Such of these letters as are sealed with gum arabic merely, can be steamed open, and the envelopes resealed and reglazed as they were before. If sealing wax has been used, a sharp, thin blade will enable the medium to nicely cut off the seal by splitting the paper under it, and then, after a knowledge of the contents of the letter is arrived at, the seal can be replaced in its original position, and made fast with gum arabic. Not more than one out of a hundred would be likely to observe that the seal had ever been tampered with. The investigator opens the envelope when returned to him at the end, preserving the sealed part intact in order to show his friends that the letter was answered without being opened!

Another method of the medium is to slit open the envelope at the end with a sharp knife, and afterward stick it together again with gum, rubbing the edge slightly as soon as the gum is dry. If the job is nicely done, a close observer would hardly perceive it.

Mr. Mansfield does not engage to answer all letters; those unanswered being too securely sealed for him to open without detection. To secure the services of the “Great Spirit-Postmaster,” a fee of five dollars must accompany your letter to the spirits, and the money is retained whether an answer is returned or not.

Rather high postage that!

Several years since, a gentleman living in Buffalo, New York, addressed some questions to one of his spirit friends, and enclosed them together with a single hair and a grain of sand in an envelope, which he sealed so closely that no part of the contents could escape while being transmitted by mail. The questions were sent to Mr. Mansfield and answers requested through his mediumship. The envelope containing the questions was soon returned, with answers to the letter. The former did not appear to have been opened. Spreading a large sheet of blank paper on a table before him, the gentleman opened the envelope and placed its contents on the table. The hair and grain of sand were not there.

Time and again has Mansfield been convicted of imposture, yet he still prosecutes his nefarious business.

Nothing is so easy as to deceive one’s self; for what we wish, that we readily believe.

—Demosthenes, 349 BC

The “Spirit-Postmaster” fails to get answers to such questions as these:

“Where did you die?”


“Who attended you in your last illness?”

“What were your last words?”

“How many were present at your death?”

But if the questions are of such a nature as the following, answers are generally obtained:

“Are you happy?”

“Are you often near me?”

“And can you influence me?”

“Have you changed your religious notions since entering the spirit world?”

It is to be observed that the questions which the “Spirit-Postmaster” can answer require no knowledge of facts about the applicant, while those which he cannot answer, do require it. Address, for instance, your spirit father without mentioning his name, and the name will not be given in connection with the reply purporting to come from him—unless the medium knows your family.

I will write a series of questions addressed to one of my spirit friends, enclose them in an envelope, and if Mr. Mansfield or any other professed medium will answer those questions pertinently in my presence, and without touching the envelope, I will give to such party five hundred dollars, and think I have got the worth of my money.


P.T. Barnum

From The Humbugs of the World. Having started a fruit-and-confectionary store and founded 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.