As soon as I read about them, I was drawn to the real-life rags-to-riches story of the Fox sisters. Two ordinary farm girls from Western New York, Maggie and Kate Fox gripped their community by claiming to be able to communicate with the dead. They became celebrities in the bargain, sowing the seeds of an international religious movement that would eventually claim a million followers.
I’m not sure why Maggie stood out for me. There were three Fox sisters, after all (older sister Leah assumed the role of manager), each with her own vivid traits. Any one of them would have made a great protagonist. But there was something about Maggie’s expression in the handful of famous archival images that populate her biographies: a dreamy, withholding quality. Unlike forceful Leah or otherworldly Kate, Maggie seemed at once guileless and childlike, secretive and knowing, intent and sad. She was, she looked, a contradiction, and I found I had to unpuzzle her.
I’m a photographer, too, so images often point me to or nourish a story. I’ve always been intrigued by the historical phenomenon of spirit photography, and the year I started mulling Maggie, I happened across a very cool exhibit at the Met called The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, which kept her and her family in my thoughts.
But it was a few months later, when I visited Lily Dale for a nonfiction book I was also researching, that Captivity really began to take shape.
Founded more than 120 years ago, Lily Dale is a quaint Victorian hamlet on a lake in Western New York. One of the first area communities to score electricity, it was nicknamed “The City of Light,” but it’s best known today as “the town that talks to the dead.” Every year, thousands of guests crowd through its gates to sit with resident mediums. In the busy summer season, there are dozens on hand, and each has passed a rigorous test before hanging out her or his shingle.
In the lobby of the Maplewood hotel, tourists testify over morning coffee, trade tales of spirits and furniture on the move, of knocks and noises in the night. They collect out by “the stump” at the Forest Temple, where mediums spot eager visitors from the Beyond and “serve spirit” by delivering messages to loved ones in the audience.
Lily Dale boasts a long, colorful history. Movie star Mae West was a regular, and Houdini came in disguise to expose deception. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony stopped in now and then—though she wasn’t a spiritualist herself—and when a medium relayed a message from her aunt, fired back (in legend anyway) with, “I didn’t like her when she was alive, and I don’t want to hear from her now.”
Early spiritualists were advocates of progressive political causes, but today Lily Dale leans more toward sweat lodge ceremonies, New Age workshops such as “Dreams and Astral Travel,” and other recreational fare.
This fascinating slice of Americana can be traced, at least peripherally, back to Maggie and her family. My visit to Lily Dale helped me understand her playful side, her sense of showmanship—though other aspects of Maggie’s character wouldn’t reveal themselves until I enlisted the book’s second protagonist, the skeptical Clara Gill, as foil.
While drafting the book, I did a couple of stints at the Gell Center of the Finger Lakes, an intimate writer’s retreat in a remote mountain valley. I live in a city now, and sadly, silence is far from my daily experience; so the utter quiet and isolation at the retreat really fed whatever haunted fantasies I came in with! The first night or so, I was scared out of my wits, almost too spooked to write. But you have no business being complacent when you’re writing about the dead as much as the living, so I’m sure my unease served the story. Long walks by day—among deer and foxes and tangled wild grapes—gave me insight into the wild world Maggie would have known and that Clara, a naturalist, immigrant, and artist, would cherish.
Another dedicated research trip involved detective work and an afternoon driving around Arcadia County in search the Fox family homestead. The farmhouse itself was gone (the cottage had been relocated to Lily Dale, I later learned, where it burned down) with only a simple cornerstone memorial marking the site where, in 1848, Maggie and Kate Fox first demonstrated their spectral “rappings.” But the landscape of that part of rural New York still looks as it must have in the sisters’ day, and it was easy to imagine Maggie and Kate riding back and forth on the canal packet or traipsing through brother David’s peppermint fields, bent on wearing big bell sleeves and crashing progressive tea parties in Rochester.
(See Deb’s blog stop, “Talking Back to Things That Go Bump in the Night” on So Many Precious Books, So Little Time for more about the Fox sisters and spiritualism. Also Deb’s website: www.deborahnoyes.com, and Deb’s blog: hauntedplaylist.blogspot.com.)