Daniel Gorman Jr. (UR 2013)
The Man Behind the Curtain: E.W. Capron and the Early Days of Spiritualism
(A Transcription Analysis)
December 18, 2011
One night in March 1848, a rather unusual event (supposedly) occurred at the Fox residence in Hydesville, New York. To the alarm of the house’s residents, “[A] series of mysterious raps [….] showered from the walls and floor and even thin air, seemingly without source.”[i] The inexplicable rapping continued for several nights, until, on March 31st, sisters Kate and Maggie Fox proposed a system of clapping and asking questions, “by which they could communicate with this disincarnate spirit that was haunting their home.”[ii] Their method worked, leading to their first, tentative séance with spirits. In the weeks to come, word of the Fox sisters’ gift of mediumship spread through Monroe County, as people sought to communicate with “the shades of departed relatives and intimate friends.”[iii] Before long, the Fox sisters – Kate, Maggie, and their elder married sister, Leah Fish – would become national celebrities and the central figures of a burgeoning religious movement, which newspaperman (and Fox patron) Horace Greeley dubbed “modern Spiritualism.”[iv]
Spiritualism came on the scene shortly after the Second Great Awakening, an era characterized by roving Protestant ministers and evangelical revivalists in search of converts. Upstate New York, a frequent revival site, became popularly known as the burned-over district, due to the number of firebrand speakers that passed through the region.[v] Despite the prevalence of Protestantism, though, American religious thought was anything but homogenous. Revivalists came from numerous denominations, and a number of unorthodox movements (Mormonism, Spiritualism, Christian Science, and occultism, to name a few) simultaneously vied with mainstream Christianity for attention. This proliferation of new sects mirrored recent developments in science and technology (e.g., the steam engine, electrical research, and the telegraph)[vi]: just as scientists pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, people of faith challenged the older dogmatic religions, proposing bold new interpretations of religious truth to counter the evangelical fervor. Spiritualists took this thematic link between scientific and religious innovation so seriously that they described their faith as not only a religion, but also a science, designed “to investigate, analyze, and classify proof of spirit-communication and physical phenomenon.”[vii] Andrew Jackson Davis, the lecturer whose proto-Spiritualist teachings about the cosmos predated the Rochester raps by four years, even “urged seekers to become spiritual empiricists, trying out the spirits against the rigors of scientific logic.”[viii]
Of course, neither religions nor schools of scientific thought form overnight. Rather, they develop slowly, thanks to the work of both great thinkers and great proselytizers. Accordingly, Kate and Maggie Fox developed and relied upon a circle of devoted followers in the greater Rochester area. The most famous members of this circle were Amy and Isaac Post, married abolitionists and members of a Quaker splinter sect, which broke off from the main church due to doctrinal disputes.[ix] The Posts’ religious questioning reflected the greater trend of dissatisfaction with hard-line Protestantism, which inspired so many new sects in that era. Another lapsed Protestant that fell into the Fox camp was an Auburn resident and newspaperman named Eliab Capron.[x] Like the Posts, Capron became a public defender of Maggie and Kate, but his involvement with the Fox family soon extended into managing the sisters’ business affairs, organizing lectures, and generating press coverage. In effect, Capron was the first road manager for the Fox sisters. After organizing the Foxes’ first series of major public séances in Rochester (October-November, 1849), Capron began planning to introduce the girls to a national audience.[xi]
A February 10th, 1850 letter from Mr. Capron to the Fox sisters’ mother conveys his fervent desire to get the young mediums to New York City. Now stored in the Department of Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of Rochester, this two-page letter provides superb insight into the early days of modern Spiritualism – and into the complex motives of Mr. Capron. Addressed to Mrs. Fox’s home in Auburn, New York, the letter lacks a sender address for Capron, but since he too lived in Auburn, it can be assumed that the letter was intended for a speedy delivery. Written in cursive, the letter remains fairly easy to read, save for a few words made illegible by cross-outs or ink stains. The text also sports pencil notes added years ago by a reference librarian, listing Mrs. Fox’s full name as “Margaret Rutan Fox,” and Capron’s full name as “Eliab Wilkinson Capron.”[xii] Within the letter, Capron calls Kate “Cathy,” and Maggie “Margaretta,” pet names that convey his familiarity with the Fox family.
The letter, transcribed in full, appears below, with all of the original spelling and grammar retained for accuracy. Although the spelling may appear incorrect today, it simply reflects the archaisms of a bygone era:
Mrs. Fox Auburn Feb 10th 1850
Dear friend – I this morning received a letter
from my friend Kedzie stating that you had
decided not to let Cathy or Margaretta go to N.Y.
at present. I regret this very much as the persons [guess?]
who have sent for her from there stand among the
first in the nation for science and influence. It
would be of great advantage to your family to have
such men satisfied in regard to the family and
it would forever clear all who are now being ridiculed
and lied about, from all charges of fraud. They only
wish a few examinations in a private house and altho [sic]
he [guess?] did not write to me – we have been offered the
house of A.J. Davis as a home in N.Y. if we go. WE could
go and get back in 7 or 8 days if necessary [guess?] and that
would not be long for her to be away from you
I am sure. You know Mrs Capron & myself would
take good care of her. If it would stop the rapping
then it might be best not to have her go, but it was [guess?]
not and there is good demonstrations with Margaretta
– especially they might wait for the greater one a week
while the Cathy might convince some of the best
minds in the nation in that time and I will say
altho [sic] the man wishes his name kept a secret for
the present you and all the defenders of the “Spirits” would
have, at least, one of the best public defenders in the
United States. Mr Fowler the Phrenologist has been
here and has given us an invitation to his house in N.Y.
I read a letter last night on the subject
They want to know when they may look for us
Now I want you to answer and doo [sic] say that
Cathy may go sometime within a few
weeks so that I can answer them. Why, you
would hardly realize her absence, we could go
to New York and back so quick. You
want to go, dont you Cathy? It would be
a delightful trip. I think if Leah would
only say yes she might come right away
and I think she will say so for me
by [guess?] her. If she says no, it will be the first lady
that ever said so to me – on serious matters!
Seriously – I do think it would end in great advan-
tage to all of us for us to go. They offer no pay except
to pay our expenses but there are always persons
who will make presents to girls – besides money
is not always the greatest advantage to be gained
by a good-deal.
Doo [sic] write me in a day or two – so that I can
answer the N.Y. folks and say when you they
can look for us there – I know you will.
At first glance, Eliab Capron comes across as a fawning sycophant in this letter, but a closer reading reveals a sense of urgency and a forceful will behind the honeyed words. In February 1850 (the same month that he wrote this letter), Capron published Singular Revelations, a defense and explanation of Spiritualist happenings from 1848 onward.[xiv] Coming barely three months after the Fox sisters’ debut and public vetting at Corinthian Hall, Singular Revelations not only allowed Capron to profit off the growing Spiritualist movement, but also to reinforce the sisters’ growing celebrity. A trip to New York City, with access to major news outlets and larger theatrical venues, was the next logical step to keep the momentum building.[xv] Knowing that Capron had a financial stake in Spiritualism explains why he goes to considerable lengths (alluding to powerful men; claiming he can look after the girls; exaggerating certain words – “Doo write me in a day or two” – to convey a pleading tone) to pressure Mrs. Fox into approving a New York trip.[xvi] As Barbara Weisberg observes, “Eliab Capron may have been sincere in his beliefs, but he was also a newspaperman with his eye on the main chance.”[xvii]
Not surprisingly, other Spiritualists in the Foxes’ inner circle looked to exercise some level of control over the young mediums. Early in his letter, Capron mentions receiving a message from “Kedzie” that Mrs. Fox does not want her girls to visit New York.[xviii] Although further research is necessary to confirm this Kedzie’s identity, Capron most likely refers to Lemira Kedzie, a Fox family friend from Rochester who eventually served as chaperone and road manager on the girls’ Ohio tour. Like Eliab Capron, “Kedzie’s motives aren’t clear; she may have counted on a share of the tour’s income, envisioned herself as a good influence on the girls, or wished to be part of a mission to help spread the word.”[xix] Nonetheless, as tour manager, Kedzie had authority over the Foxes, though only briefly. Kedzie came into conflict with the sisters, particularly the headstrong Leah Fish, over the future of the tour and departed for Rochester, bitter and resentful.[xx] In February 1850, the Ohio tour remained a year in the future, but if Lemira Kedzie is the same “Kedzie” Capron speaks of, then she already exhibited micromanaging tendencies, such as informing Capron about Mrs. Fox’s parental decisions. Capron’s allusion to Kedzie therefore suggests that various inner circle members worked together to wield influence over the Fox sisters. Kedzie’s eventual role as tour manager, in place of Capron, in turn suggests that these cooperating profiteers privately schemed against each other.
This desire for power over the most famous mediums is not surprising, since Spiritualism was a going concern in 1850:
Within months of the Rochester rappings, thousands of Americans across the northern states and eastern seaboard sat around their parlor tables to see whether they might not witness manifestations similar to those occurring in the presence of the Fox sisters. [….] Eliab Capron claimed that Auburn, New York…. housed one hundred mediums by the summer of 1850. (Braude 19)
Given the grassroots appeal of Spiritualism, it is not surprising that men “first in the nation for science and influence” would learn of the rappings and want to attend a séance with Kate and Maggie.[xxi] By stressing this point, and by observing that “money is not always the greatest advantage to be gained by a good deal,” Capron shows that he recognizes the need for influential patrons.[xxii] Famous Spiritualists would provide the movement with greater legitimacy and staying power, and if the Foxes stayed popular, Capron could continue writing about and profiting off Maggie and Kate.
There was another motive for obtaining powerful defenders of Spiritualism: charges of fraud continued to plague the Fox sisters. During the Corinthian Hall performances of 1849, Maggie and Kate were heckled by the crowd and subjected to invasive private examinations, intended to discover if the girls produced the rapping sounds.[xxiii] When the examiners proved unable to find the origin of the raps, angry Rochesterians showed up to the final Corinthian performance “prepared to create a disturbance. [….] Torpedoes were exploded upon the floor and a handful of roughnecks tried to storm the stage.”[xxiv] Having witnessed this violence firsthand, Capron knew that Spiritualism, with its communication between the living and dead, seriously disturbed some Americans, and that opponents of Spiritualism might go to any length to silence the Foxes. Besides, violent interruptions during stage performances are bad for business, something that Capron, a shrewd manager, surely recognized. It is not surprising, then, that Capron sought to gain influential apologists and “forever clear all who are now being ridiculed and lied about.”[xxv] At the same time, the violence and ridicule directed toward Kate and Maggie suggests the reason for Mrs. Fox’s resistance to Capron’s wishes: the mother feared for her daughters’ safety.
A mother’s protective instinct is a tough thing to go up against, so it is not surprising that Capron employs every rhetorical technique imaginable to make Mrs. Fox feel at ease. When Capron says that the girls could be back “in 7 or 8 days if necessary,” he is in earnest, referring to Rochester’s proximity to the Erie Canal.[xxvi] By mentioning a powerful man who will defend Kate and Maggie, but “wishes his name kept a secret for the present,” Capron attempts to pique Mrs. Fox’s interest in New York City, no doubt to inspire a follow-up conversation about going there.[xxvii] The reference to Andrew Jackson Davis is also intended to grab Mrs. Fox’s attention, because Capron implies that the famous Davis views the girls as his equals.[xxviii] Simultaneously, by name-dropping Davis, Capron puts a human face on the powerful men of New York, so that they cease to be anonymous figures in Mrs. Fox’s mind. Capron’s claim that Mr. Fowler, a Phrenologist well known in Rochester, could host the girls in New York also appears calculated to make Mrs. Fox feel comfortable about sending her daughters away.[xxix] Most importantly, the references to Davis and Fowler serve as a reminder that other pseudoscientific movements have footholds in New York. Kate and Maggie’s unorthodox Spiritualist message will not be so foreign (or likely to inspire violence) in the big city as in Rochester. Capron shows a subtle craftiness here, presenting the young mediums’ abilities as less controversial than they really were, but he is not being untrue, either: “In antebellum New York, neither spirits nor specters were a rarity: there were Ichabod Cranes enough to populate any number of sleepy hamlets.”[xxx]
An interesting question arises in this section of the letter: just what are Capron’s feelings regarding the Fox sisters? Capron spends much of the letter pleading for Kate to go to New York, never mind Maggie.[xxxi] Indeed, Capron predicts that Kate will win over the powerful men in New York. However, a troublesome passage riddled with grammar errors makes it difficult to understand which sister Capron most admired:
If it would stop the rapping
then it might be best not to have her go, but it was [guess?]
not and there is good demonstrations with Margaretta
– especially they might wait for the greater one a week
while the Cathy might convince some of the best
minds in the nation in that time…. (Capron to Fox)
In this passage, Capron appears to hedge his bets – if travel will disturb the link to the spirits, then one of the girls (only referenced as “her”) should not make the journey. But what is Capron saying in the following sentence, where phrases like “it was [guess?] not” and “there is good demonstrations with Margaretta” do not make any sense? Did Maggie travel a bit, retain her powers of mediumship, and thereby show “good demonstrations”? And who is the “greater one,” the more powerful of the two mediums – Kate, Capron’s clear favorite, or Maggie, who produces good results (whatever those results may be)? Regrettably, there appears no way to discern Capron’s meaning for certain. Most likely, he conducted a prior conversation with Mrs. Fox regarding New York, and the problem passage in the letter corresponds to that talk, which went unrecorded.
Regardless of these ambiguities in text, Capron clearly wants the Foxes to have a presence New York, and so he ramps up the pressure on Mrs. Fox near the end of the letter. As if he is the head of the family, Capron practically orders Mrs. Fox to let Kate go, though he tries to ameliorate his bluntness by reiterating that the trip would be brief.[xxxii] Abruptly, Capron switches the subject of the letter from Mrs. Fox to Kate (“You want to go, dont you Cathy?”). This shift implies that the Fox sisters monitored the correspondence between their mother and members of the inner circle, and that Capron expects the girls to read the letter. In short, Capron undercuts Mrs. Fox’s authority as a parent, because the girls will read all of the enticing details in the letter, and no doubt pressure their mother to visit New York. Capron also plays off latent sibling rivalry: were he to ask Leah to go in place of Kate and Maggie, he believes that “she might come right away.” Such a statement is designed to make the younger girls envy their older sister – what if Capron dumps Kate and Maggie, and asks Leah to go instead? – and then pressure their mother into letting them go. Clearly, Capron is a man who knows the personalities of these women, and he believes that he can play them off each other to his own advantage.
Ultimately, Eliab Capron got his wish – Maggie, Kate, and Leah finally went to New York City in June 1850.[xxxiii] Capron traveled with them, but so did Margaret Fox. It is unknown whether Capron’s forceful February 10th letter rankled Mrs. Fox, but it is telling that she accompanied her daughters, rather than let them be solely in Capron’s care. There were other signs that Capron lacked the authority he held months earlier, during the Corinthian Hall affair. A new lecturer, Reverend R.P. Ambler, replaced Capron as the Fox sisters’ opening act; a young man named Calvin Brown attached himself to the Foxes and began traveling everywhere with them; and, when journalist George Ripley met the Fox party, Ripley lumped Capron in with “‘a couple of gentlemen from Rochester whose names we did not learn.’”[xxxiv] In short, Capron was never going to be recognized as an important Spiritualist, and his influence over the Fox sisters was waning. Capron probably recognized this fact, and sometime between late 1850 and 1851, he took a job writing for the Providence Morning Mirror. Although his career managing the hottest Spiritualist ticket was over, Capron still became a fairly successful writer, chronicling Spiritualism for years to come.[xxxv] He used the Foxes as a stepping-stone to a new profession, while the sisters began feuding and struggling with the pressures of fame, ultimately falling into obscurity.[xxxvi]
Today, though, several books have been written about the Fox sisters, while E.W. Capron remains a forgotten man. Although some of Capron’s writings can be found online, most research into the Foxes’ inner circle focuses not on him, but rather on famous Spiritualists like the Posts, Frederick Douglass, and Horace Greeley.[xxxvii] Nonetheless, Capron is an intriguing figure, for he embodies the complex desires that can drive a person to become deeply involved in a religion. Based on his letter to Margaret Fox and his history of shrewd business decisions (e.g., adjusting the ticket price at Corinthian Hall as needed to attract big crowds[xxxviii]), it is clear that Capron used Spiritualism to make money and gain some measure of fame. Still, much ambiguity exists regarding Capron’s precise motivations. Did he truly believe in the message of Spiritualism, or did he only believe in its profitability? Then again, did he seek both to make money and to advance the cause? The definitive answer to that question remains a mystery, and merits further research.
Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth
Centuries. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century . 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Capron, E.W., to Margaret Fox. February 10, 1850. Isaac & Amy Post Collection, University of Rochester Library, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections.
Cox, Robert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Jackson, Herbert G. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
Leonard, Todd Jay. Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship . New York: iUniverse, 2005.
Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. San Francisco: Harper, 2004.
[i] Robert S. Cox, Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 6.
[ii] Todd Jay Leonard, Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship(New York: iUniverse, 2005), 27.
[iii] Cox, 6.
[iv] Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), 148.
[v] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 10.
[vi] Ibid, 5.
[vii] Leonard, 74.
[viii] Quoted words are from Cox, 10; biographical data comes from Leonard, 57-61.
[ix] Braude, 13-14.
[x] Ibid, 15.
[xi] Herbert G. Jackson, The Spirit Rappers (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972), 47-57.
[xii] I have omitted the pencil notes from my transcription because they are not original to Eliab Capron.
[xiii] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox, February 10, 1850, Isaac & Amy Post Collection, University of Rochester Library, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections.
[xiv] Weisberg, 91-92.
[xv] Ibid, 107: “New York was also the newspaper capital of the nation. With literacy approaching 90 percent among white adults, access to printed information was a common denominator among New Yorkers. Innovations in printing meant that more newspapers could be sold, and sold cheaply, than ever before. Publishers raced to scoop their competitors, and the man and woman on the street were deluged daily with lurid gossip, sentimental anecdotes, and vital news about the city, the nation, and the world.”
[xvi] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox.
[xvii] Weisberg, 104.
[xviii] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox.
[xix] Weisberg, 134.
[xx] Ibid, 135.
[xxi] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox.
[xxiii] Braude, 15.
[xxiv] Jackson, 51. The violence exhibited at Corinthian Hall toward the Spiritualists dispels any notion that 19th-century Americans blindly accepted superstitious or religious arguments without question.
[xxv] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox.
[xxix] We can tell that both Mrs. Fox and Capron know Fowler because Capron speaks familiarly about the phrenologist (“Mr Fowler the Phrenologist has been / here and has given us an invitation to his house in N.Y.”).
[xxx] Cox, 6.
[xxxi] E.W. Capron to Margaret Fox: “Now I want you to answer and doo [sic] say that
Cathy may go sometime within a few weeks so that I can answer them.”
[xxxiii] Braude, 16; Weisberg, 106.
[xxxiv] Ibid, 105; quote from George Ripley provided on page 110.
[xxxv] Selections of Capron’s writing are cited in: Weisberg, 127, 129. Ann Braude lists Capron’s 1855 book, Modern Spiritualism, its facts and fanaticisms, its consistencies and contradictions, in her bibliography.
[xxxvi] Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 229.
[xxxvii] Capron’s Modern Spiritualism has been uploaded to Google Books: http://bit.ly/sMPJHd.
[xxxviii] Jackson, 48, 52.