Because I loved Dianne K. Salerni's We Hear the Dead so much, I wanted to dig into her brain a little deeper about the whys of this book. Why Spiritualism? Why the route she decided to take? And thankfully, she's agreed to ramble a bit about that! So thank you very much, Dianne, for stopping by!
When I started researching the rise of the spiritualist movement as part of Maggie Fox’s story, I assumed that it was all about the dead people. After all, that’s what a séance is: People sitting around a table in a darkened room, holding hands and trying to contact their departed kin. They want to say good-bye. They seek forgiveness. Maybe they even want to find out where Uncle Ernie hid the will.
What I didn’t expect was politics.
And yet, as I discovered in my research, spiritualism gained popularity while riding a wave of political reform in the mid-nineteenth century. An astonishing number of the spirits who communed with the living at the Fox séance table had a very determined political agenda!
When Leah Fox Fish brought her younger sisters, Maggie and Kate, to Rochester and set them up as spirit mediums in 1848, her first clients came from a select set of Quakers and social reformers. The Fox family was surprisingly progressive for a working class family, probably because they had roomed for years in the boarding house of Isaac and Amy Post, Quakers who had long worked for abolition and supported the Underground Railroad. The Posts were among the first of the Fox sisters’ clients, and they soon brought along some of their famous associates—including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Fredrick Douglass. Shortly after these initial meetings, the abolitionists and suffragettes endorsed the Fox sisters as genuine, and the spirits at the Fox sisters’ séance table began promoting those same “twin causes.” To me, it seemed to me that an arrangement for the mutual benefit of both groups must have occurred.
This revelation brought a certain historical depth to my novel. At first glance, the Fox sisters might appear to be nothing but opportunistic frauds. A schoolgirl prank became a profitable enterprise that lifted the Fox family out of poverty. Although readers might empathize with Leah Fish’s desire to improve her family’s financial situation, I did worry that if the girls were primarily con artists, they would not engage the sympathy of readers for long. However, the fact was that spiritualism was entwined with social reform all through the nineteenth century. It was a vehicle for spreading a message. The three Fox sisters may have come from humble origins, but through their role as spirit mediums, they had the voice to reach a lot of people, and they took advantage of this to promote the causes they believed in. Spiritualism was not just a scam; it played a part in American history as a means of political and social expression for women.
And therefore my main character, Maggie Fox, believes she is lying in a good cause—bringing solace to the grief-stricken and promoting human rights—at least until she meets a man who pricks her conscience, precipitating a crisis of loyalty and forcing her to choose between love and her family.
Thank you for hosting me!