27 January 2011


Having now joined the two Johns [Harney and Rimmer] in the great ranks of the retired, I hope to have more time to devote to Northern Echoes, and perhaps even an article or two.

My review of Robert McLuhan's Randi's Prize has brought a response from the author on his website, which sadly descended to the now usual SPR-type argument from snobbery, i.e. that it is quite impossible for 'those sort of people', (in this case problem children) to fool their betters. People who think like that are setting themselves up for a fall.
More interestingly McLuhan reminds us of the origins of Spiritualism in the tale of the Fox sisters. I might well come back to this story in more detail later one, but for the meantime there are some interesting sidelights rarely commented on. The story starts with two girls, Margaritta (about 14 going on 15) and Catharina (about 12 going on 13) Fox living with their ageing parents (58 and 50) in a small property in the hamlet of Hydesville New York. Though one cannot be certain of the fact, it is probable that the place had acquired the reputation of being haunted, at least in the minds of local teenagers. Some time toward the end of March 1848 the family started to hear things that went bump in the night.

"On Friday night" (presumably the 24th) the girls start to play a game with the noises, calling out "Here Mr Splitfoot" and the raps seem to answer questions, or so the memory goes.

Of course to really understand what is going on here, we would have to possess much more knowledge about this property, just who was in it, what the sleeping arrangements were, where the neighbours were. In fact using a vast range of historical documents a historian would virtually have to simulate Hydesville in a computer. Maybe some New York based historian will one day do just that.

Mr Splitfoot turned out to be a ghost, and Mr Splitfoot actually was quite an apposite name, for Mr S had one foot in the past and another in the future. On the one hand he was a traditional ghost, not your SPR approved drifting wraith, but a traditional ghost with a purpose, such as leading you to hidden treasure, warning of the fearful fate of your soul if you did not mend your sinful ways, or, as in this case, outing murder. On the other hand this was a ghost which looked to the future, to the world of the new sciences, the telegraph, above all the world of show business fame and celebrity culture.

This would, at least first rescue the two young Fox sisters from the life fate had mapped out for them as tail-end daughters. Many teenagers complain about being bored, but I suspect compared with lives of these two girls and many like them few modern western teenagers know what boredom is. A young woman's lament from this period complained their lives were "always controlled, always confined, controlled by your parents until you're a wife, controlled by your husband the rest of your life". Tail-end daughters would be lucky to get the husband, because often they were the ones who had to stay at home and look after their aged parents.

Instead the Fox girls pioneer mediumship as a way that working class girls can gain celebrity without lying on their backs all the time. Their lives would prefigure the lives of modern celebrities to a remarkable degree, the exploitative, manipulative manager (their eldest sister), the celebrity romances (Margaret gets involved with an arctic explorer) which go publicly wrong, the celebrity addictions, the celebrity rehab, the celebrity custody disputes, the celebrity confessions and retractions, the renunciation of the celebrity lifestyle and then the return, the general total car crash lives.

Right from the beginning Mr Splitfoot brings excitement to their dull lives. We may never know whether the girls were themselves responsible for all the bumps and bangs which set the thing off, or whether they jumped on the bandwagon, it gave them a good time. From their behaviour it is difficult not to conclude that even if the girls didn't make all the noises themselves, they knew who or what did.

Jim Schnabel's Heretical Notions blog contains some ideas on re-branding ufology. He's got it pretty wrong of course, talking about exotechnology, because that just links into the ETH, which presumes an answer before asking the questions, and has no chance. 'The Institute for the Study of Uncatalogued Atmospheric Phenomena' might just get somewhere. Please compare and contrast his suggestions with some of the ones made by yours truly as a naive teenager nearly 40 years ago: New Directions for UFO Research Round and round in circles we go.

1 comment:

  1. Doug Harlow13.2.11

    This is an excellent point regarding the Fox Sisters...and you made a similar point some time ago regarding D.D. Home. I believe too many people looking back on the 19th/early 20th century mediums take a rather romantic view of the time period, thinking only of the upper class way of life instead of what lurked below it. Even today the immense amount of inane YouTube videos attest to the incredible lengths some people will go to break the "monotony" of day to day life...and achieve at least temporary "fame". Lower and middle class men and women in the 1800s, many of whom were forced into labor at very early age, had more than enough reason to "act the part" of another role in order to break out of this mold.