I met Curt Locklear at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. He’s an author, historian, teacher, education consultant, and public speaker. He also plays the banjo. Welcome, Curt!
Real Lives are Stranger than Fiction by Curt Locklear
One of the great things about research for historical fiction is coming upon a surprise and knowing immediately that you can use it in your story. In my discovery of the amazing lives of the Fox Sisters, it was not just a neat tidbit to insert to add flavor to a good story. Their lives, or should I say antics, became a driving element in the plot of all three of my Civil War novels.
The Fox Sisters were the first and most notable, or notorious, spiritualists. The phenomenon they helped engender – the “Spiritualist Movement” – swept through the nation. This movement, proclaimed by even church leaders as religious in nature, clutched the United States and Great Britain in its grubby paws. Twelve years prior to the Civil War, in upstate New York, two young sisters, Kate Fox, age12, and Maggie Fox, age13, began their elaborate hoax innocently enough. Their father was devout Methodist minister, but the girls had no qualms about their extended effort to deceive their parents and neighbors.
They began their hijinks at night, tying a string on an apple and bouncing it on the floorboards of their upstairs room to sound like footsteps. Both girls later found they had an innate ability to make the joints in their big toes pop extremely loudly. They went on to invent a story about a peddler, Mr. Split-foot, who had been murdered. In the presence of their parents and neighbors, they would “ask” Mr. Split-foot’s ghost a question, and he would always rap the floors exactly correctly. No one doubted their story or discovered their ruse.
After a while, their mother sent them to stay with their much older sister, Leah. Rather than bring a halt to their connivance, the older sister saw the makings of a good income. If snake oil salesmen could sell their wares, Leah was certain that the sisters could market their uncanny ability of “speaking to the dead” to a nation of suckers. Their first séance, or spirit rapping, was held at Corinthian Hall – Rochester, New York’s largest venue. The price was one dollar.
The show was a success as were several more soon after. In a short while, “Spirit Societies” were formed all through New York state. The young sisters, in later seances, were speaking to Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and even Shakespeare. It was not long before other entrepreneurs figured out that a naïve and easily-fooled public would pay for séance shenanigans – wholly believing the purveyors of spiritual nonsense.
With newly burgeoning “science findings” sometimes flying in the face of some religious dogmas, many people searched for proof that immortality and the afterworld existed. Of course, skeptics immediately took on the hoaxes. A number of the shysters were found out. They were caught using small drums between their legs or having an accomplice behind a curtain, and so on.
Despite the skeptics, the spiritualist societies grew in number, most notably in Ohio.
The Fox Sisters, being more than once tied to chairs and monitored closely by renowned skeptics, were never found out. When the two spiritualists cracked their toe joints inside their shoes against wooden floorboards, the sound reverberated everywhere on the stage. No one guessed their ploy.
With their overbearing older sister forcing them into compliance, both Kate and Maggie became alcoholics and ended up broke at the ends of their lives. Both later admitted their lies.
The larger story is that many of the most respected individuals in the United States and Great Britain succumbed to the belief that certain people could openly consort with the deceased. Among them were Horace Greeley, the outspoken publisher of the New York Tribune and A. Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
When the Civil War began, never had the American nation seen such loss of life. The effects of witnessing the inconceivable devastation first-hand when the battle arrived in their front yards; and the dire news delivered by newspaper almost daily, led to a sort of national insanity. Large cities had a steady stream of hearses and coffin-laden wagons, the deaths being more from disease than battlefield death. Sometimes, in a single battle, small towns lost almost every young man who had joined the army.
No wonder people sought some sort of relief from their anguish.
The panacea was a chance to speak to lost loved ones during a séance. Historians estimate that as much as one-fifth of the US population believed in Spiritualism (the ability of some people to speak to the dead.)
Perhaps the most notable person to consort with spiritualists was Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president. Mrs. Lincoln held numerous seances in the White House after the untimely death by typhoid of their young son, Willie. Even the president sometimes attended. Mary Lincoln’s favorite spiritualist was Nettie Colburn, though she had Charles Colchester lead a séance as well. President Lincoln, his wife, and Charles Colchester play prominently in my third novel – Reconciled. The Fox Sisters are in all three novels and are involved in the dramatic climax in Reconciled.
Fascinating history, Curt. It’s my understanding that the famous French author Victor Hugo was also captivated by spiritualism. Best wishes for your Civil War novels.
Asunder Trilogy by Curt Locklear ~~ Thrust into the middle of Civil War battle, with both Union and Rebel protagonists and antagonists, Curt Locklear’s Asunder trilogy are stories of love and loss and of families torn apart.
Splintered is the second in the trilogy. From its heart-wrenching opening scene of stoic grief in a Lincoln White House on the day of his son Willie’s death to the final heart-wrenching battle scene and suprising assasination plot against Lincoln, Splintered proves itself a novel of sweeping, artfully rendered proportions, and one that is at times deeply moving, while always intelligent and socially conscious.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.