Spirit Rapping in New York and Poughkeepsie
The most famous spirit rappers of all times are the Fox Sisters. These three sisters from upstate New York resided in a farm house up near Rochester, just off Lake Erie.
In 1842, for some reason, all of a sudden Rochester had a new visitor unusual to its prior local history. These three sisters, Katie, Leah and Maggie, came in contact with a “visiting spirit.” They knew the spirit was there due to the “knocking sound” it produced when they were all seated at the dinner table.
Each time the parents or visitors heard the ‘tap, tap, tap’, they knew they were being visited once again. At first such a claim about visits with the three Fox daughters did not go over well with members of the local community. Many though the girls were just trying to have fun, But as the news of this talent they had was spread by local newspapers, their skills with the spirits became popular. This and a few other local history events helped set the stage for Andrew Jackson Davis of Poughkeepsie, New York.
The Fox sisters weren’t the first to claim a presence of ghostly manifestations within a house. Such a claim is in fact a very ancient belief that has been out there for quite some time. The idea that a spirit from the past could come to the present world and terrify you by way of rapping, was more recent rendering of this ideology which also had its origins perhaps from tales already out there.
It ends up a remarkable similar event took place in Fishkill, New York, just a couple of generations earlier, involving the Thorne family. The Thorne family of Dutchess County had a lineage of physicians, and a daughter who at the supper table wasn’t alway in the mood to eat everything served to her. The story claims that forks would fly about the room at times, leaving the table at opportune moments every now and then, more often than not perhaps when visitors were sitting at the table as well. When this daughter was evaluated by physicians to see if she was possessed, misbehaving, or simply vying for more attention, final conclusions could not be drawn. With time, the movement of silverware about the home became more commonplace, and eventually led to the movement of stones inside and outside the house, the most famous stone of which resided up in an attic waiting for its next predator to walk by below, at just the right moment. The original story of the forks and rock event was perhaps published in the Dutchess County area in the 1790s, but never retold that much in the other local newspapers.
Fifty years later, the same events recurred for the Fox family. But this time through, due to a reprinting of the Fox Sisters story and its investigation by numerous doctors, who published their findings in the medical journals, numerous people came to learn about the Fox sisters. Some then began made their journey to the Fox’s home, hoping to witness these events for themselves. In just a few years, this enabled the Fox sisters to make a substantial profit with their new business.
The doctors in the end came up with a reason for the Fox Sister’s unique table rapping events. On writer claimed it was a deformity of the knee joint that enabled one or more of these sisters to pop their knees in and out of place in a fairly controllable, repeatable fashion. In a few years, as the sensation about the Fox sisters slowly faded away, this set the background for the next gifted communicator to enter the scenes of everyday life. Seancer and Seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who was sick and tired of working as a cobbler in Poughkeepsie, took the legendary Boehmian route in life, and became a teacher of philosophy and experiencing unknown possibilities, by communicating with your past ancestors and allowing your mind and body to enter another dimension known as the metaphysical world.
Andrew Jackson Davis
Andrew Jackson Davis added this new touch to his spirit rapping craze as he continued it in service of the general public. Raised in Poughkeepsie, he would have been familiar with the famous local Dutch mystic Jakob Bohme, an important philosopher of times past. Andrew first began to realize that he too had such a special gift when Phineas Quimby from Maine made his way through Poughkeepsie. Quimby was a new form of mesmerist with a new theory on how and why this interesting method of communication worked. Unlike Mesmer, whose practice required a third individual to assist in the communication process between the gifted channeler and the person under his or her direction, Quimby said that if he and that individual sat within a certain distance of each other that he could directly communicate with them person directly due to the orb that surrounded both of their bodies.
Quimby was illustrating this to an audience in Poughkeepsie one afternoon and Andrew Jackson Davis liked it, along with the attention that came by demonstrating such a skill. A short while later, Davis came out with his own teachings and claims for the same, providing reasons which differed from those demonstrated previously by Quimby. Davis’s unique claim, or skill, was that he he could do this in other settings. By engaging in this new form of communication, David said that he could communicate with some of the best philosophers, scholars and artisans from the past, people like Plato, Emanuel Swedenborg, only space and imagination limited him as a Seer from making these highly valued connections.
For the first part of this story, in theory this skill could have been discovered by anyone, anytime, in any place. What made this a Hudson Valley event was a combination of natural features unique to the value. The people of the valley were already spoonfed, generation after generation, with tales involving ghosts and spirits, natural philosophy, the skills and practices of mystics, the materialists and their culture in contrast with the metaphysicists and their stories about the local energies, magnetism, great thunderstorms, tornadoes, sounds of surviving Indian spirits atop local knolls. One such example, the conversion by Washington Irving about a Filipse spirit from Putnam County area being transformed into the Headless Horseman story set the stage for Hudson Valley’s most imaginative grandparents, great grandparents, and grandchildren. In a very short time, Davis converted this interest into something that could be demonstrated openly and publicly by him with his new skill, enabling a matching career to form in which he would place people in a trance, and make them see anything he wanted them to see, or at least according to their own imagination in later recounts of such tales.
The way Davis engaged his audience was as we see it today portrayed in many old stories, movies, and drawings. He and others would be seated around a round or oval table where they would engage in these practices. According to Davis’s drawing of this event, two cords would be attached to the top of two table legs, and then stretched out and placed in buckets filleed with water. The purpose here was to equilibrate the magnetic energies formed by this table and the people seated there with the same sort of energy contained in the floor and carpet, and ultimately the earth. The people would then remain seated around the table, and watch as the candle or kerosene lights would be extinguished,. Once it got dark enough, the spirit rapping would begin, and you would hear something in the background. Some special noises might commence, such as the rattling of past spirits coming in contact with dry twigs, leaves, the stems of some old dried up weeds, or the naturally shaking sounds made by a tree capturing the local winds. For whatever reason, such sounds were heard, and then contacts could be made with the past spirits, first by Davis, and then by others. Important questions answered could then be asked and old family stories from the past retold to the concentrated audience seated at that table.
No one could leave, to go to the water closet, to check out the other rooms, to get a drink of water, without risking the loss of this important link to the other world. This spirit rapping was very much a craze for the most successful people for the time into this kind of original thinking. Followers of this philosophy included Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, even Mark Twain.
In just a few years, the spirit rapping experience Davis duplicated wasn’t enough for him and his colleagues. He next applied this same channeling experience to new levels and dimensions. At one point in time, Davis realized that he and the others with him could communicate with the spirits in the sky. These spirits were within those glows that the clouds displayed under certain occasions. You sometimes saw these unique roundish shapes to the bullocks pointed down from beneath the clouds, and within each and every bump on the underface of these mammocumulus clouds there was a person or family from the past wishing to speak with you, send his, hers or their message. Each of these spheres or nodules Davis claimed was the spirit of some one else, who if anybody could channel with them could share their message with the rest of the world.
A number of generations prior, such an ability to channel was already proven by the same claims made by Emmanuel Swedenborg. At a cocktail part in France one day, Swedenborg told everyone that London was on fire and burning down. At first no one believed him probably. But a day or so later, when the news of the great London Fire was published in the local newspapers, Swedenborg’s skills as a mystic became well known. Andrew Jackson Davis took a similar step in his life when he learned of this skill directly from its expert, Emanuel Swedenborg told this to him one night during a seance and voyage he took to the other word to meet with Swedenborg.
One of these stories tells us about this revelation he had one day whilst hiking up a small mountain nearby. When he got to the top, he saw the three other spirits coming down to greet him. They told him what these powers entailed, and what he could do with them, and then headed back to their place in the cosmos.
Davis began sharing this experience with people in other towns and communities up in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont. Over time, this pop culture movement became quite a success for him. By the late 1850s, he was claiming that he could conjure up people who were seated in some other place in the world and communicate with you to let you know what was happening. Due to Swedenborg and then Andrew Jackson Davis, the notion of being able to communicate over long distances via the spirit world was born.
Andrew Jackson Davis wrote extensively about his discoveries and experiences. Sometimes, too much writing can in the long run become detrimental for your movement. In the United States, his peak years of popularity were perhaps from about 1855 to 1865. His second biography details his attempts to spread his word through the midwestern Bible states.
When looking at Davis’s work, one of the major characteristics of his work to pop out at times are the many incongruencies with his theories and philosophies. For the most part, Davis appears to be a material world thinking, meaning that although he promoted metaphysical concepts, he is also approaching that realm of being and existence akin to many of Nietsche’s writings. Nowhere in his writings does Davis openly state in clear terms that he is atheistic, but he is some sort of metaphysician whose more akin to the modernists of the 21st century whose notion of God is focused on self-guided universal energies. Davis is the nineteenth century version of what Astrologers were in their classic sense a century or two before, an outlier in his philosophy, and a little ahead of the time in terms of the maturing atheist profession, with members willing to use such a term to describe themselves.
It also helps to realize that there is all of this background knowledge and history driving the followers of Davis’s teachings in the Hudson Valley, but less so in New York City area, or even elsewhere in New York State. The Highlands (of which there were many local small scale versions of these places) existed all along the valley. These were places where Scots and others became in tune with God and nature, and their mystical powers as descendants of Highlander, Gaelic and even primitive Celtic traditions could be used to their fullest extent. Masonics and the like also came about in these settings during the earlier 19th century decades of growing up in the mid-valley region. So Davis had his neighbors whose heritage made them competitors, but also the descendents of these competitors in search of a new way of looking at these aspects of life, in their more modern frame of mind.
According to Davis, you could use a plant one way for one sort of purpose, and a totally different way for another kind of purpose. He does not openly state this too you, but in his book, the way it is compiled at times, opposing concepts can appear in the text just a page or two apart. Either he didn’t proofread, or such a book served as the domestic guide some homes needed by occupants willing to be open to varying concepts and theories, even if they promote metaphysics very heavily one time, against all the rest, and materialism and just the physical world another time, without any respect for the universal energies out there. It was possibly these discrepancies in his philosophy that did him in within the United States settings.
Davis’s movement never fully collapsed once interest in him died out in the United States. His greatest followers, who still exist today, are in England. His books are reprinted there regularly, and like Swedenborg, Carl Jung, and others, have major followers in England, complementing the lack of the same in the U.S. today. Here we still have followers of the immigrant mystic Madame Blavatsky (the American Theosophical Society), more so than we have many Boehmites, as well as Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science) and her followers (the Fillmores started Unity Church), or any number of other enthusiastic idealists promoting their utopian idea of life and health.
Perhaps one of the more important lessons we have from Andrew Jackson Davis relates to his behavior, his philosophy and the same for the many others in the Hudson Valley who turned such a movement into a movement of faith in the supernatural, not the normal. Christian god-defined natural. Being a follower of Davis meant you could believe in the Indian Goddess residing in the woods overlooking the Hudson River just south of Fishkill, or that Indian Princess for whom we named the waterfalls after, or the spirit of Filipse still riding on horseback from building to building, church to church down in Sleepy Hollow. Around 1800 there was the praying mystic who spoke in tongues Rachel Baker , diagnosed and then reviewed so eloquently as a unique “divine somnambulant” (religiophilic sleep walker with seizures) by Physician and Congressman Samuel Mitchell.
Being a follower of Davis also meant that you were a spiritualist, not just a natural philosopher or church bound theologian. In a modern sense this means you can channel with the gems and minerals beneath your feet, hike to the top of a cliff just to overlook the river in the presence of a past Chieftain of the Wappingi, or walk deep into a Catskill forest setting in order to commune with nature where Rip Van Winkle once fell asleep. Add to them the many amateur physiognomists and phrenology followers read in Fowler, followers of preacher and electric psychologist Rev. John Bovee Dods, the early vegetarians and Brahamists read in the books published on this topic coming out of Hudson, NY, the Shakers and the Quakers, the believers in the Philosopher’s stone taught to us by Georg Starkey and subsequent German-Dutch readers and writers, and finally the local believers in “Vital Spark” of life and Medical Electricity, and you have a mish mash of philosophies that even if many become extinct in subsequent decades, it is highly unlikely that all or most of this knowledge will be lost in the future.
Like Swedenborg, Davis was hypergraphic. Unlike Swedenborg, Davis was more in tune with the local physical world and its connection to the supernatural world. Whereas Swedenborg spoke with angels residing about this home and within his body, Davis spoke with nature’s powers. Davis’s traditions left doors open for us later followers to interpret these beings in whatever way we wanted to. Like the Bible, there were words in Davis’s writings that we could find to support whatever it is we wished to claim. David’s work led to the development of the theological movement. His understanding and attempts to explain the supernatural gave those who followed him a better defined route of discovery and belief to follow. His later followers believed in such things as worldly spirits, ghosts, imps, elves, fairies, magnetic powers, geologically induced pedologic galvanics, electromagnetic vibes, orb clouds, ectoplasm, auras, what have you. The still thriving communities of Shakerism and Sufiists in New Lebanon, the local Omega Institute, and even Outdoor Enthusiasts and Woodstockians are good examples of this.
Davis’s Spiritual Audiences
The Univercoelum and Spritual Philosopher publication about Swedenborg and Davis
James Lowell Moore. Introduction to the Writings of Andrew Jackson Davis (only partial view).
Andrew Jackson Davis. The Principles of Nature (eBook for download).