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Looking Backward: Something's Up on Downer Street -- Part One

Spiritualism swept across the western world in the second half of the nineteenth century. As a movement, its popularity peaked in English-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Its followers included prominent people like Mary Todd Lincoln in America and Arthur Conan Doyle across the pond. The latter was famous worldwide for his reinvention of the detective fiction genre and his creation of the most skeptical sleuth in literary history, Sherlock Holmes. But, few folks have heard of Conan Doyle's fervent belief that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living from the great beyond. Religious convictions aside, even fewer folks know that spiritualism first sprung to life right here in upstate New York.

On March 31, 1848, in Hydesville, New York, two sisters, Katie and Maggie Fox, were awakened from their slumbers by a succession of strange sounds. Their parents searched for the source of these sounds by candlelight. Suspecting that the inexplicable noises emanated from a restless spirit, they began to ask it a series of "yes" and "no" questions. The alleged spirit responded with raps and taps. According to an affidavit later signed by Mrs. Fox, "we could not rest, and I then concluded that the house must be haunted by some unhappy restless spirit. I had often heard of such things, but had never witnessed anything of the kind that I could not account for before." After a few sleepless nights, the Fox family invited friends and neighbors into their home, all of whom witnessed the same strange events.

The spirit revealed that he was once Charles Rosna, a peddler who had been murdered there five years earlier. Mrs. Fox said in her affidavit that, "On the next Saturday, the house was filled to overflowing. There were no sounds heard during the day, but they commenced again in the evening. It was said that there were over 300 persons present at the time. On Sunday morning, the noises were heard throughout the day by all who came to the house. I am not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances....It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known, and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all that I know is that they have been heard repeatedly."

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