Spiritualism Scam- FOX SISTERS

In the Joints of Their Toes

By 

 

THE LIVES OF OTHERS

The ruse that gave rise to the spiritualist movement.

THE FOX SISTERS.

Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

On July 13, 1930, Arthur Conan Doyle made an appearance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the middle of his own memorial service, six days after his death. Nobody saw him, but the spirit medium Estelle Roberts assured those present that Doyle had kept his deathbed promise: he’d returned to deliver proof that talking to the dead really is possible. In life the creator of the arch logician Sherlock Holmes had been as suggestible as those ten thousand paying guests in South Kensington: he was the world’s best-known proponent of spiritualism—the discipline of talking to the dead—and an adherent of just about any wad of mambo-jumbo going. Doyle believed not only in clairvoyance, but telepathy, telekinesis, and, quite literally, fairies at the bottom of the garden.  

Throughout the 1910s and ’20s Doyle’s books, articles, and talks on these subjects helped to furnish spiritualism with mainstream credibility. But the roots of the movement were planted decades earlier in a tiny one-bedroom cottage in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York, the family home of Margaret and John Fox and their daughters Maggie, fourteen, and Kate, eleven. 

March 1848 was a troubling time for the Foxes. All month long they’d been plagued by thuds and cracks loud enough to awaken them in the predawn silence. By the evening of March 31, John and Margaret were at the end of their tethers. The girls were sent to bed early at six o’clock to catch up on lost sleep and allow their parents an evening of quiet to still their nerves. No sooner had Maggie and Kate slid beneath the sheets than the noises started reverberating through the cottage. From floorboards, ceilings, bedsteads, and door frames came louder and more frenetic knocking than ever before. It seemed that wherever in the cottage the girls went these mysterious sounds followed, as though they were being pursued by some invisible force. Margaret was convinced that something demonic was afoot and sent her husband to rouse the neighbors for help. 

That evening the Foxes’ bedroom was crowded with people who stood awestruck in the candlelight as the cracking sounds echoed around them. William Duesler, a neighbor, spoke aloud into thin air, asking questions and receiving in reply knocking sounds, “raps,” as he termed them. Slowly, it emerged that this disembodied spirit had an earthly identity: a thirty-one-year-old peddler who had been murdered for the sum of five hundred dollars and then buried beneath the Foxes’ house by a previous tenant. At the time, nobody in the room had any idea who the victim might have been, and even though the Foxes’ adult son David had hit upon the idea of running through the letters of the alphabet to allow the spirit to spell out words, nobody seems to have asked the spirit to give its name. In later weeks, locals began to recall that perhaps a young peddler had indeed passed through one day some years earlier. Exactly when, they couldn’t say. Others would later swear that David, digging beneath the house one summer, had discovered bones and a set of human teeth. Very quickly fabulous tales and half-remembered anecdotes congealed into a dense tissue of myth that made for an alluring alternative to empirical truth. 

In many parts of the world, the spring and summer of that year was a momentous time. There were revolutions across western Europe; the Mexican-American War came to an end; the gold rush was underway in California. In rural New York, things were evidently a little slower. Within a few weeks, the story of the Hydesville haunting scrabbled its way across the state. Leah Fish—the Foxes’ eldest daughter, a music teacher in nearby Rochester—first heard about it when an excited pupil read aloud from a newspaper report about the case. By the time a perplexed Leah arrived at the family home, the Foxes had all decamped to David’s house in a neighboring village to escape the crowds of locals hoping to meet the little girls who had made contact with the dead. 

The precise run of proceeding events is contested, but it’s clear that Leah, whose worldliness was in direct proportion to her parents’ naivety, quickly sussed that her siblings were pulling a fast one. Maggie and Kate admitted to her that they had perfected the art of cracking their toes with no perceptible movement. When performed in contact with wooden surfaces to amplify the noise, the raps sounded as if from the ether. Leah should have been furious at their deception; perhaps she was. But she also realized that Maggie and Kate had, in the joints of their toes, the potential to change the fortunes of the Fox family forever.  

With entrepreneurial sharpness, Leah moved herself, Maggie, and Kate into a house in Rochester where, for a dollar each, visitors could attend a séance with them. It was an instant hit. The Fox sisters’ fame as spirit mediums spread so quickly that they soon performed to packed theaters in New York, New England, and beyond. It marked a shift in popular attitudes toward the paranormal. Two hundred years earlier, a couple of adolescent females who claimed to be in conversation with the dead may well have been burned alive as witches; in the mid-nineteenth century they became show-business celebrities. Most who came to see them were happy to believe the Fox girls were the real deal, though Maggie in particular was subject to some terrifying abuse from those who thought her either a fraud or a heretic. In Troy, New York, she was even the victim of an attempted kidnapping by a group of men who seemed offended by the sisters’ show. For Maggie and Kate, children who had started this as a prank to enliven the dullness of their daily routine, it was too much. As early as November 1849 they tried to bring the circus to an end, spelling out “we will now bid you farewell” with their toe joints during a séance. For two weeks the spirits remained silent; their reappearance was testament to Leah’s unshakable belief that the show must go on, and her formidable skill at ensuring that it would. 

Even had they stopped, it wouldn’t have slowed the juggernaut they had set in motion. By 1850, “rapping” had become a nationwide craze. That October, the New Haven Journal reported that there were forty families in upstate New York who claimed to have the same gifts as the Foxes, and hundreds more ranging from Virginia to Ohio. In 1851, a writer at the Spiritual World tallied more than one hundred spirit mediums in New York City alone. From the Fox sisters, the phenomenon of spiritualism emerged not as some shadowy occult practice or roadside attraction but as an exciting way of reconciling the ineffable mysteries of the soul with the complex realities of a modern, rapidly industrializing nation; newly respectable, it could count among its proponents Thomas Edison, the antislavery leader William Lloyd Garrison, and many prominent women’s rights advocates based in Rochester, the Foxes’ adopted hometown. A conspicuous number of the new adherents were from scientific backgrounds. A physician from New England named Dr. Phelps reported that his windows had shattered spontaneously, his clothes had been torn without human interference, inanimate objects had danced together on his floor, and, weirdest of all, turnips inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphs had surged forth from the living room carpet. 

That men and women of science should have been so captivated by spiritualism isn’t as incongruous as it first appears. In the 1840s and ’50s, advances in science and technology seemed to be eradicating the America of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson in which many of the older generation had grown up. The railroads and the telegraph had opened up the country, mass production and mass immigration were transforming the character of its cities, and Darwin’s theories were questioning the most basic assumptions about life and death. As science challenged all the old sureties, spiritualism offered a way of clinging to the past; far from rejecting science and rational thinking, spiritualists believed they were on the cutting edge, using scientific methods to prove the existence of God and the afterlife. Many ordinary Americans struggled to see that there was anything more outlandish in spiritualism than in the other scientific marvels that were transforming their world. The very sound of rapping echoed the sound of the new telegraph machines that, seemingly by magic, allowed people in New York to instantaneously communicate with people in Boston, Los Angeles, or even on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  

In the first four years of the Foxes’ fame there was ample evidence that their rapping was a fraud. Some wryly pointed out the frequency with which the ghosts of famous figures such as Benjamin Franklin appeared at the Foxes’ séances; one observer couldn’t help noting that the great man’s command of spelling and grammar had diminished terribly since passing over. Then there were times when Franklin and the other stiffs refused to turn up at all: conditions weren’t to their liking. At a performance in Buffalo, cushions were placed between the girls’ feet and the wooden floorboards. Nothing but the sound of strained silence filled the air that night. Leah wheeled out her stock defense: the negative energy of cynics polluted the channel between the girls and the spirits; only those of pure heart who believed without question would be able to witness definitive proof of the girls’ powers. It was the circular logic of magical thinking, and it worked beautifully.  

Powered by the turbines of self-delusion, spiritualism quickly spread to Great Britain, arguably the first American cultural export to conquer the old motherland. Kate played a significant part in that, staging shows where ghosts appeared not just through rapping but in physical form. Quite how she achieved that is unclear, but apparitions were said to appear in a strange “psychic light” during her seances. The British were as enthralled by the myth of the Fox sisters as Americans had been, and Leah, in particular, capitalized on the transatlantic fame. Before the Hydesville rapping she had been a single mother, hampered by the ubiquitous social restrictions that came with being born female. In the field of spirit medium ship—a branch of the entertainment industry that she more than anyone else had helped to invent—women dominated. She acquired wealth, social clout, and opportunities that would never usually have been afforded someone of her background. Over the next decades, she became a venerable society lady and the wife of a Wall Street banker. Spiritualism had become so mainstream that she felt no need to distance herself from the movement despite her social elevation. 

But for Maggie—the sister on whom the greatest burden of performing had been placed, and who had been troubled from the beginning by her deceit—the rapping phenomenon brought heartache and misery. In 1852, at seventeen, she met Elisha Kane, a famous Arctic explorer with whom she entered into a strangely fraught long-distance romance. Kane balanced genuine love with embarrassment that his beloved devoted her life to sideshow quackery. He promised Maggie that they would be married one day; for years she clung to the prospect of becoming Mrs. Elisha Kane and jettisoning her role as prophet of the spiritualist movement. But the Kane family, in the snootiest echelons of Philadelphia society, considered Maggie a backwoods purveyor of profane heresy. Fearful of the consequences of a proper marriage, Elisha compromised on a ring-exchanging ceremony before his latest foreign expedition. On his return, he promised, would follow a full wedding recognized by God and the law. That day never came: Elisha fell gravely ill during his travels and died in Cuba, aged just thirty-six. Maggie’s despair was compounded by insult when Elisha’s parents forbade her from attending the funeral and refused to acknowledge her as their son’s betrothed and common-law wife, thereby rejecting her claim to a share of his estate.  

She retaliated by publishing The Love-Life of Dr. Kane, a book of his letters to her. Her savior and soulmate ripped away, Maggie’s life veered onto the wrong side of the road. She turned to drink to dampen the pain of her loss and to submerge the shame and self-loathing that spiritualism caused her. Yet the more she drank, the more unfit she became for dealing with life, and the farther she drifted from sense of purpose. 

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.

 In 1888, forty years after the childhood prank that changed her life, Maggie collected herself sufficiently to make a public confession. There were now millions of confirmed spiritualists across the planet, including Doyle, who published the first Sherlock Holmes book that same year. It was hard for Maggie to believe that the cotton reel, once dropped, could have spun so far from her grasp. Her confession at New York’s Academy of Music was fulsome and emotional, incorporating a full demonstration of how she and her sister had performed their trick. Kate, now also a widow with a drink problem, sat in the audience and dourly confirmed everything Maggie said; Leah rolled her eyes from afar, dismissing her sisters as wanton attention seekers who put their grubby material desires before truth and righteousness. The fact that Maggie had been paid $1,500 for the performance has always been cited by defenders of spiritualism as definitive, damning proof that she was lying through her teeth that evening, thinking only of the check that would pay for her next snifter. They’re half right about that. No sooner had Maggie made the confession than she retracted it, realizing that her disavowal would do nothing other than deprive her of her only source of income.  

Maggie died in 1895, a bitter and broken women relying on the kindness of friends and acquaintances to keep a roof over her head. She had, in a curious way, been an accidental pioneer. Twenty years before vaudeville began to give female entertainers a new standing in American popular culture, she and her sisters had trod out a path along which dozens of other female spiritualists followed, many gaining financial independence, social standing, and an outlet for their talents, personalities, and ambitions. It’s unlikely that Maggie could ever have taken any pride in that. To her last day she felt tarnished by her involvement in spiritualism and shamed by her dependence on it. Her death made little impact upon the spiritualist community; there was no memorial séance for her as there would be for Doyle, and no spirit medium to receive her message from the other side. If it is possible for the dead to reach us from beyond the grave, Maggie has chosen to withhold her touch. 

Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.

Maggie (L) and Kate (C) Fox (pictured with their older sister Leah) claimed to be mediums, but later revealed it was all a hoax. Library of Congress
Maggie (L) and Kate (C) Fox (pictured with their older sister Leah) claimed to be mediums, but later revealed it was all a hoax. AS THEY GET PAID FOR SHOWS ALL ALONG.  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

On the night of March 31, 1848 — April Fool’s Eve — 14-year-old Maggie Fox and her 11-year-old sister Kate reported a recurring mysterious phenomenon in their bedroom. Every night, as the two went to sleep in their clapboard farmhouse, they would hear a strange knocking sound coming from the walls. Even stranger, the knocking seemed to respond to their questions.

“If you are an injured spirit, manifest it by three raps,” inquired the girls’ mother [source: Abbott]. Knock, knock, knock. The veil dividing the spirit world and the living had been breached!

The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Boston Public Library // Public Domain
BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY // PUBLIC DOMAIN

In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People were looking for answers and comfort after the Civil War, so they turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Despite its popularity, many debunkers argued that it had little legitimacy—alleged mediums were con artists who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable and drained them of all their funds. Perhaps most surprising of all is that what turned into an enormous religious following started out as a simple prank pulled by two preteen girls.

1. THE FOX SISTERS

The Fox Sisters

EMMA HARDINGE BRITTEN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. These knocking sounds, she decided, could not have been human and certainly were not produced by her children. The mysterious banging became so maddening that she invited her neighbor in to hear for herself. Although skeptical, the neighbor humored the woman and huddled into a small room with Margaret and her two young girls, Maggie and Kate. The mother would ask questions that would be answered with a series of knocks, or as they would later be called, “rappings.” By the end of the night, both the mother and neighbor were convinced that Maggie and Kate were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side.

Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. Their act took off, and soon the girls were touring the country. Maggie eventually found love while on the road, and settled down with an adventurer named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane convinced her to give up spiritualism, which she did until his untimely death in 1857. Meanwhile, Kate married a fellow spiritualist and fine-tuned her act. She was so successful in her deception that respected chemist William Crookes wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874 that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were true occurrences and not a form of trickery.

The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery prior to a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music. “I have seen so much miserable deception! Every morning of my life I have it before me. When I wake up I brood over it. That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” she wrote.

She then explained that the mysterious thumping was the result of an apple tied to a string that the sisters would drop to torment their mother. At the New York Academy of Music, with her sister Kate in the audience, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a raucous crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the stool with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise. The Spiritualist world took a hit, but continued to persist. The same could not be said for the Fox sisters’ careers. Although Maggie recanted her confession a year later—likely due to her poverty—the sisters were never trusted again and they both died penniless.

2. THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS

Photograph of the Davenport Brothers in front of their spirit cabinet

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Fox sisters may have burned out by the end of their career, but that didn’t stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, were inspired by the rappings of the Fox sisters and decided to try a session of their own with their father. Their session was so chilling (they would later claim their sister actually levitated) that they decided to make a show. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their professional careers. After William passed away in 1877, Ira gave up the medium business for a quieter life.

He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks, including one called “The Tie Around the Neck” that not even Ira’s children knew. The surviving Davenport told Houdini all about the tricks and trouble that went into keeping their secret, including reserving the front row for their friends and hiring numerous accomplices. Interestingly, some of their greatest tricks didn’t involve any work. Reports of flying instruments and mysterious sensations were purely delusions of the audience members. “Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads,” Davenport told Houdini.

3. EVA CARRIÈRE

A photo of Eva Carrière regurgitating ectoplasm

BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY // PUBLIC DOMAIN

Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. He had initially believed that although it was all fake, it didn’t harm anyone. The death of his mother made him realize the harm these fraudsters were really doing, and so Houdini set out to reveal their tricks. One such huckster was Eva Carrière.

As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. Carrière, with the help of her assistant and alleged lover Juliette Bisson, would be stripped down and searched to prove there was nothing on her person. She would then let Bisson put her in a trance, where Houdini said he was certain she was truly asleep. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth that looked “like a colored cartoon and seemed to have been unrolled.” Houdini left feeling underwhelmed and unconvinced.

Still, Carrière seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Entrench-Notzing spent several years—1909 to 1913—working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialization. Ironically, this book ended up being Carrière’s undoing: A skeptic named Harry Price wrote that the pictures proved that the faces seen in the medium’s ectoplasm were actually regurgitated cut-outs from the French magazine Le Miroir.

4. ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini [PDF], she started as Editha Salomen, born in Kentucky in 1849 (others claim she was named Delia Ann Sullivan and born in 1851). She left home at 18 and somehow convinced the high society of Baltimore that she was of European aristocracy. “Where the Kentucky girl with her peculiar temperament and characteristics could possibly have secured the education and knowledge which she displayed through all her exploits I am at a loss to understand,” Houdini wrote. Regardless, Salomon was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollars. Claiming that funds were tied up in foreign banks, it was easy to drain potential suitors out of money and luxury.

After a quick stint at an insane asylum for trying to kill a doctor, Salomen took up hypnotism and married a man of slow wit named General Diss Debar. As Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and a general’s wife (although modern scholarship says that he wasn’t a general and they weren’t ever actually married), she found that people were eager to trust her. She took advantage of this trust when she met a successful lawyer named Luther R. Marsh, who had just lost his wife. After convincing him that she was a skilled medium, Diss Debar persuaded him to turn over his home on Madison Avenue, which she then turned into a spiritualistic temple and successful business. The swindler created spirit paintings, which, through sleight of hand, seemed to appear out of nowhere on blank canvases, as if the spirits painted them.

These paintings eventually landed Diss Debar in legal trouble when Marsh invited the press to come and see them. In 1888, the so-called medium was hauled into court for deceiving Marsh and swindling him out of house and home. Many testified against Diss Debar, including her own brother, but the most convincing participant was professional Carl Hertz, who was called in to disprove her trickery. With ease, he replicated each of Diss Debar’s tricks, and performed some that not even she could do. Satisfied that the woman was a fraud, the state incarcerated her for six months at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Despite all this, Marsh continued to believe in spiritualism. Unfortunately for Diss Debar, he seemed like the only one—she attempted to resurrect her career, but was unsuccessful, later being hauled back into court for charges of debt a year after her release. She traveled between London and America for years, going in and out of prison, before finally disappearing for good in 1909.

As Houdini put it harshly:

“Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s reputation was such that she will go down in history as one of the great criminals. She was no credit to Spiritualism; she was no credit to any people, she was no credit to any country—she was one of these moral misfits which every once in awhile seem to find their way into the world. Better for had she died at birth than to have lived and spread the evil she did.”

5. MINA CRANDON

Mina Crandon in 1924

MALCOLM BIRD, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Born in Canada to a farmer, Margery moved to Boston and took up a number of careers, working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a surgeon who studied at Harvard. It was the doctor who introduced her to spiritualism and eventually led her down the path to becoming a medium.

Margery was a friendly, pretty woman, but the ghost of her brother Walter was much less charming. The medium would conjure his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. The mysterious substance sometimes took the form of a hand and supposedly rang bells or touched the participants. Her performance was so convincing that it attracted the Boston elite and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As her popularity soared, her prayers were even read by the U.S. Army.

In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston.

When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Despite his confidence, the rest of the panel remained uncertain, putting off the decision. By October, The Scientific American published an article explaining the panel was hopelessly divided. The hesitation angered both Houdini and Margery’s spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter screamed. “Get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don’t, I will.”

By November, Houdini circulated a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium “Margery.” He then put on performances recreating Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Humiliated and without prize money, Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31 from peritonitis.

Margery and her prickly ghost brother may have gotten the last laugh, but by 1941, her reputation was in ruins from Houdini’s mockery. Still, she never confessed to her trickery, even on her deathbed.

Additional sources: Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno, 1972.

This story originally ran in 2015.

25 Fascinating Facts About John F. Kennedy

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
PHOTO BY KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

More than 55 years after his tragic assassination cut his presidency short, John F. Kennedy remains one of history’s most intriguing figures—and, according to Gallup, America’s favorite president. Here are 25 things you might not have known about JFK.

1. JOHN F. KENNEDY RECEIVED LAST RITES A TOTAL OF FOUR TIMES.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy battled a range of health problems, some of which appeared to be life-threatening—so much so that he received the sacramental last rites a total of four times: first in 1947, when he became sick while traveling in England and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease; a second time in 1951, when he was suffering from an extremely high fever while in Japan; the third time in 1954, when he slipped into a coma following back surgery; and a final time on the day of his assassination, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

2. JFK FAKED HIS WAY INTO THE NAVY.

BY PHOTOGRAPH IN THE JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON. PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Kennedy’s ongoing health problems became an issue when he attempted to enlist in the military in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II. Because of his various medical conditions, Kennedy could not pass a proper physical examination. Instead, according to JFK historian Richard Reeves, Kennedy “used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor.”

3. JFK BECAME A WAR HERO.

Regardless of how he found his way into the navy, Kennedy certainly proved his chops as an officer once he was there. In 1943, he was made commander of a PT-109 patrol boat that came under attack near the Solomon Islands. After the boat sank, Kennedy and his crew swam approximately 3.5 miles to a nearby island, where they were stranded for seven days until a pair of PT boats came to their rescue.

4. A MEMENTO FROM JFK’S NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE WAS AN OVAL OFFICE FIXTURE.

PUBLIC DOMAIN, JFK LIBRARY

In an attempt to get help for himself and his marooned crew of fellow officers, Kennedy etched an SOS message into a coconut shell, which he gave to two natives to deliver to a nearby base in order to arrange for their rescue. As a reminder of the incident, Kennedy had the coconut encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

5. THE WRECK OF JOHN F. KENNEDY’S PT-109 WAS DISCOVERED NEARLY 60 YEARS LATER.

In 2002, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Kennedy and his crew’s PT-109 boat about 1200 feet below the water’s surface during a National Geographic expedition. “I’m very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I’ve ever had to find,” Ballard said—which was quite a testament, as Ballard also discovered the Titanic.

6. JFK IS THE ONLY PRESIDENT TO HAVE RECEIVED A PURPLE HEART.

Though recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain both received Purple Hearts for their service during wartime, Kennedy is the only president to boast the honor. He received it after being wounded in action on August 22, 1943.

7. BOBBY KENNEDY GOT A LITTLE WILD AT JFK’S WEDDING.

The Kennedy siblings celebrate John and Jackie’s wedding.

BY TONI FRISSELL, 1953, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island, his brother, Robert, served as his best man. But that best man got a little wild. According to Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life, Bobby “behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman’s hat” on his brother’s wedding day. “Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name. When Bobby tried to speak up, Joe snapped, ‘No. You keep quiet and listen to me. This is childish behavior, and I don’t want anything more like it.’”

8. JOHN F. KENNEDY WON A PULITZER PRIZE.

In 1957, Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. Though Kennedy is credited as the book’s sole author, questions have arisen in the years since about how much of the book was actually written by Kennedy, and how much was written by his ghostwriter, Ted Sorenson. In 2008, Sorenson told The Wall Street Journal that he “did a first draft of most chapters,” “helped choose the words of many of its sentences,” and likely “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.”

9. JOHN AND JACKIE KENNEDY HAD FOUR CHILDREN.

NATIONAL ARCHIVE/NEWSMAKERS

Though both Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. became celebrities in their own right, JFK and Jackie had four children: In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter who they had planned to name Arabella. On August 7, 1963, she gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy more than five weeks before her due date; he died just two days later. In 1963, the bodies of both children were moved from Massachusetts to Arlington National Cemetery, to be buried with their father.

10. JFK GOT INTO A FENDER-BENDER WITH LARRY KING.

In 1958, Larry King got into a car accident with JFK, who was then a senator, while in Palm Beach. In his autobiography, King wrote about how he had just arrived to the area from Brooklyn and was so distracted by the swanky South Florida locale that he wasn’t really paying attention to the road. And Kennedy was pretty angry about the whole incident. “How could you?” Kennedy yelled. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?”

“All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” King replied, writing that, “Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away—though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”

11. JFK DIDN’T EXPECT LYNDON JOHNSON TO SAY “YES” TO BECOMING HIS RUNNING MATE.

BY ABBIE ROWE – JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Kennedy’s choice of running mate came down to the wire. “At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job,” according to PBS. “Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. ‘Now what do we do?’ the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because ‘he’s been out of touch and doesn’t know what’s happening.’”

12. JOHN F. KENNEDY WAS THE LAST PRESIDENT TO WEAR A TOP HAT AT HIS INAUGURATION.

For many years, going back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, it was a tradition for incoming presidents to wear a top hat as part of the Inauguration Day garb. Though JFK wasn’t a fan of hats, he went along with the tradition—but was the last POTUS to do so.

13. JFK BEGAN THE TRADITION OF HAVING AN INAUGURAL POET.

Though not every incoming president has chosen to have an inaugural poet, the tradition itself began with Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” on his Inauguration Day in 1961. But Frost had other ideas and wrote an entirely new poem for Kennedy, entitled “Dedication,” for the occasion. There was just one problem: It was a bright and sunny day, and Frost—who was 87 years old at the time—had trouble reading the copy of the poem he had brought with him, so ended up reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory.

14. WILLIAM FAULKNER REFUSED A WHITE HOUSE DINNER INVITATION.

Kennedy may have been able to convince one of the world’s most celebrated poets to attend his inauguration, but not every literary hero was so keen to make the journey to the White House. When Kennedy extended a dinner invitation to William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning author politely declined, telling LIFE Magazine: “Why that’s a hundred miles away. That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

15. JFK WAS THE SECOND WEALTHIEST PRESIDENT.

With an estimated net worth of about $1 billion (in today’s dollars) when he took office in 1961, Kennedy had long held the record for the wealthiest president in U.S. history. In 2017, he was knocked into second place when Donald Trump—whose net worth is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion—took office.

16. JFK DONATED ALL OF HIS SALARY TO CHARITY.

Given the size of Kennedy’s bank account, he certainly didn’t get into politics for the money. In fact, he donated his entire presidential salary to charity, just as he did his congressional salary.

17. JFK WAS AN ANIMAL LOVER.

STRINGER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Kennedy White House was a bit of a zoo. Among the animals that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home during JFK’s administration were five horses, two parakeets, two hamsters, a cat, a rabbit, and five dogs, including a mutt named Pushinka, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space.

18. JFK WAS A SPEED READER.

While the average reader is said to digest words at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute, JFK was far from the average reader. He could reportedly read about four times faster than that, at a speed of 1200 words per minute.

19. JFK WAS A JAMES BOND FANATIC.

In 1955, JFK was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, Casino Royale, and was immediately intrigued by the character. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House. When asked to name his 10 favorite books, he listed From Russia With Love at number nine. In a documentary included in the Bond 50th anniversary Blu-ray collection, Kennedy was quoted as saying, “I wish I had had James Bond on my staff.”

20. A DAY BEFORE SIGNING THE CUBA EMBARGO, JFK BOUGHT A LOT OF CIGARS.

PHOTO BY WALTER DARAN/GETTY IMAGES

Kennedy was a fan of fine cigars, and Cuban cigars in particular. In February of 1962, he asked press secretary Pierre Salinger to help him acquire a large supply of Cuban cigars—and quickly. When Salinger asked how many he needed, Kennedy told him, “About 1000 Petit Upmanns.” And he wanted them by the next morning. The next day, when Salinger informed the president that he had managed to get 1200 of them, he wrote that, “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”

21. JFK RECORDED MORE THAN 260 HOURS OF PRIVATE WHITE HOUSE CONVERSATIONS.

In the spring of 1962, Secret Service agent Robert Bouck installed secret recording devices in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House at the request of President Kennedy. Though the president never explained why he wanted to record his conversations, both Bouck and Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, believed that his reason for doing this was to have a personal record of his time in the White House after he had left. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made many of the 260-plus hours of recordings available to the public (you can even listen to some of them online).

22. JFK HELPED GET THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE MADE.

AFP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Kennedy ran with a pretty cool circle of friends, and Frank Sinatra was one of them. When Sinatra was having trouble getting United Artists to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, for fear that it was too controversial, Sinatra persuaded Kennedy to make a personal appeal to the studio head. “That’s the only way that film ever got made,” Condon later told Kitty Kelley, Sinatra’s biographer. “It took Frank going directly to Jack Kennedy.”

23. JFK WAS THE TARGET OF AT LEAST FOUR ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS.

Throughout his life, JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts—including once in 1960, shortly after being elected president, when a retired postal worker filled his car with dynamite and followed the president-elect from Hyannisport to Palm Beach. “Brother, they could have gotten me in Palm Beach,” Kennedy reportedly told a Secret Service agent. “There is no way to keep anyone from killing me.” In the lead-up to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, two additional plots—one in Chicago and one in Tampa—were discovered.

24. JFK’S TRUSTY BLACK ALLIGATOR BRIEFCASE SOLD FOR MORE THAN $700,000.

JON LEVY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

One of Kennedy’s most trusted companions was his black alligator Hermès briefcase, which he carried with him everywhere, including the morning of his assassination. In 1998, the briefcase was among the president’s personal possessions that were being included in a highly anticipated auction of his personal memorabilia. The item became one of a number of items that Kennedy’s children fought to have taken off the auction block, but they eventually relented. The briefcase sold for more than $700,000.

25. JFK’S LAST WORDS WERE “NO, YOU CERTAINLY CAN’T.”

Though it’s been widely reported that JFK’s final words were, “My God, I’ve been hit,” that information is incorrect. His last words were in regards to how well he had been received in Dallas. Just seconds before he was shot, Nellie Connally—wife of Governor John Connally—remarked that, “You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President,” to which he replied: “No, you certainly can’t.”

15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot

Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
IMAGE: LONDON STEREOSCOPIC COMPANY, GETTY IMAGES. BACKGROUND: ISTOCK. COMPOSITE: LUCY QUINTANILLA, MENTAL FLOSS

Novelist and poet George Eliot—who was born in England on November 22, 1819—is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author (whose real name was Mary Anne, or Marian, Evans) was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved writer.

1. GEORGE ELIOT WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

George Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate’s owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property’s coal mine.

2. GEORGE ELIOT’S RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall

Arbury Hall
ELLIOTT BROWN, FLICKR // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot’s collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury’s owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. GEORGE ELIOT EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot’s own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. GEORGE ELIOT WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”) Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. GEORGE ELIOT WASN’T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot’s essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook “vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality.” However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. HER PHYSICAL APPEARANCE WAS OFTEN THE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION.

George Eliot, circa 1868.

GEORGE ELIOT, CIRCA 1868.
HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES

Eliot’s appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.” He went on to say that the “horse-faced” writer had a “vast pendulous nose,” a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. GEORGE ELIOT’S CHOICE OF ROMANTIC PARTNER WAS A CONTROVERSIAL ONE.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her “deliciously hideous,” James explained his counterintuitive attraction toward her like this: “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot’s social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn’t obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. GEORGE ELIOT’S PEN NAME PAID TRIBUTE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that “Eliot” derives from “To L(ewes), I owe it.”

9. GEORGE ELIOT MARRIED A MAN 20 YEARS HER JUNIOR.

After Lewes’s death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London’s St. George’s Church in the spring of 1880.

10. GEORGE ELIOT AND JOHN CROSS’S HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot’s death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. In 2017, Dinitia Smith turned the mysterious incident into a novelThe Honeymoon.

11. GEORGE ELIOT INVENTED THE TERM POP.

You probably don’t associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, “We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven’s Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach’s played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much ‘Pop.’ for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give.”

12. GEORGE ELIOT CREATED A NEW MEANING FOR THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
DIAMOND GEEZER, FLICKR // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter.” Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot’s historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as “amiable browsers in the Medicean park.”

13. GEORGE ELIOT WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called “Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle.” Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” Eliot argues that improving the world during one’s lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED GEORGE ELIOT’S WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch‘s mature prose, referring to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. GEORGE ELIOT’S FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it’s now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

 

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