Big Knockers, Fringe Festival, and Local Characters

When my friends Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young first told me about their show “Big Knockers: Debunking The Fox Sisters”, which would be performed at the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival, I did a little dance of joy.

The show is a spoof on the Fox Sisters, often credited with founding the American Spiritualist movement thanks to their claims that they could communicate with the spirit world via a system of rappings or knockings.

If you read my blog or follow me on social media, you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been researching and writing a book about…well, it started as a book about Mt. Hope Cemetery, but it’s now rabbit trailed all over the place as I’ve encountered fascinating stories about Rochester’s history and the unknown residents who lay buried, often in unmarked graves, not only in Mt. Hope but other local cemeteries.

I’ve got piles of research notes, chapter drafts, and half-written blog posts on everyone from Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody to American aviatrix Blanche Stuart Scott, from clairvoyant physician Mrs. Dr. Jennie C Dutton to murder victim Emma Moore.

So when I offered to provide Kerry and Abby with some research that might help them put the Fox sisters in context with local history, they told me to send along anything I wanted. I went through my files and then inundated them with stories about local inventors, mediums, and clairvoyant physicians. I sent newspaper clippings and wrote rambling paragraphs outlining crazy stories that have fascinated me for years. I spouted facts and dates. I sent links to stories I’d already written.

And then I apologized a hundred times for overloading them with information.

And then they thanked me, and told me that they used what I’d sent them to help form the characters and stories in the show.

By that time, I’d already auditioned for and gotten a part in “Big Knockers”, so I was over the moon that these people who have lived for years in my head and in file folders would have their stories heard. But even better? I got to bring one of my favorite women to life: I play a notorious local madam named Matilda Dean.

While the “Big Knockers” writers obviously had to take liberties with dates and story lines in order to make it all work for the show (and add the humor), the characters actually are based on real people, and much of details they share about themselves are true. [update: here’s the review in City Newspaper] So for those of you want to know more, here is the “Big Knockers” backstory. Keep in mind that these are just small snippets of information; much more lies in folders piled up on my desk, waiting to find a home in blog posts and book chapters. Or who knows? Maybe on another stage?

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The Fox sisters, in later years

THE FOX SISTERS

In 1848 in Hydesville, NY, 12-year-old Kate Fox and her sister, 15-year-old Maggie Fox, made the claim that, via a system of rappings and knocks, they were able to communicate with the spirit of a murdered peddler whose body had been buried beneath their house. To escape the excitement brewing in their village, Kate and Maggie were sent to Rochester to live with other siblings, including older, married sister Leah Fox Fish, who was living in Corn Hill. Over the next several decades, with Leah managing their careers, Kate and Maggie gained worldwide notoriety as mediums, often conducting seances at the home of noted abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post on Sophia Street in Rochester; the Posts were avid supporters of Spiritualism.

But in 1888 Kate and Maggie confessed that the rappings had been a hoax. Soon after, the two women recanted the confession but the damage was done. The two sisters eventually succumbed to alcoholism and died in poverty, buried in pauper’s graves. Sister Leah married a successful Wall Street banker. All three sisters are buried in Brooklyn, NY. A monument to them stands in Corn Hill, commemorating the birth of the Plymouth Spiritualist Church, where the sisters were parishioners, as well as the birth of the American Spiritualist movement.

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Elisha Kent Kane, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

ELISHA KANE

Elisha Kane was an Arctic explorer and medical officer in the Navy in the 19th century. He reportedly met Maggie in Philadelphia, where he lived, when the Fox sisters came to the city to display their spirit rappings. By all accounts, Kane was enamored with the 19-year-old but embarrassed by her profession, refusing to even introduce her to his parents. At his request, Maggie left speaking to spirits, but returned to her former career after Kane’s death in 1857. Doubts persist about whether or not the marriage actually took place. There is no marriage license or record of the ceremony, although Maggie claimed they were married in 1856 and did change her surname to Kane. Perhaps, as Maggie often said, “Only the spirits know.”

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Headline from the December 12, 1873 Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

ELEANOR BONNEY

Eleanor Bonney was a clairvoyant medium who, in November 1873, claimed she would “go out” of body for a period of time and then return, thus proving the ability of the soul to separate from the body. Before her “going out”, she left specific instructions that she was to lie unmoved in a bed in the house in Canawaugus, NY, just outside of Avon, and that the room was to be kept at a specific temperature, the body always under the watchful eye of only a few trusted people, including clairvoyant physician Mrs. Dr. Jennie C. Dutton.

Bonney also made predictions about what would happen to her body during her “going out”, and said bells would ring and the house would shake; these predictions allegedly came to pass. Once word got out about Bonney’s spiritual journey, local newspapers clamored for information and citizens debated the veracity of her claims. Authorities were not allowed entry to assess the situation, but several reporters were granted access. Alas, Bonney never returned, and in January 1874, coroners were finally admitted to the home to remove the corpse for burial.

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Newspaper advertisement from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, May 1875.

MRS. DR. JENNIE C. DUTTON

Mrs. Dr. Jennie C. Dutton was a clairvoyant physician and partner in the medical practice of Dutton and Sprague. In 1869 she had offices on both the east and west sides of Cleveland, OH, where she examined patients via a clairvoyant trance and specialized in homeopathic, botanical, and electromagnetic treatments. She gave special attention to womens ailments. She also offered her Mrs. D’s Ague Specific tonic, which treated fever and ague, via the mail for just $1. Her magnetized paper was also available for just 50 cents.

It was in Ohio that Mrs. Dr. Dutton met a carpenter named Otis Clark Sprague, and by the 1870s, the pair had moved to Rochester and set up offices in the Powers Building. Mrs. Dr. Dutton and the now Dr. Sprague specialized in Russian, Turkish, and Electrothermal baths. By 1877, Mrs. Dr. Dutton had left Rochester for Chicago and her trail grows, if not entirely cold, at least tepid; Dr. Sprague continued the successful medical practice with the help of his wife.

In 1873, it was Mrs. Dr. Dutton who, at the request of Eleanor Bonney, was tasked with guarding Bonney’s body while it awaited her return.

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Headline from a 1979 Democrat & Chronicle article about Matilda Dean’s House of Joy.

MATILDA DEAN

Matilda Dean was the proprietress of the renowned and financially successful House of Joy brothel, which in the mid-1800s was located at 66 Exchange Street in Rochester, approximately where the current Hall of Justice stands today. Hers was a thriving business, despite being fined repeatedly for selling liquor on Sundays and running a disorderly house (aka brothel). The House of Joy was a destination place for many men traveling to the city; they could take a room for as long as they were in town and have all of their needs attended to.

In 1884, Dean was swindled by the Van Auken Spiritualist Company, who, for a fee, promised to make her a great medium called “Big Squaw”. With the help of a young boy who was in the Van Auken’s employ, Dean exposed the troupe as frauds, but not before paying $1125 to help them stage a show at, ironically, Comedy Hall. The story made the pages of the New York Times.

In 1885, city officials cracked down on the disorderly houses and forced Dean to leave her Exchange Street establishment. She moved to Chicago and opened a new business, but never managed to recapture the success she had in Rochester. When she died in 1892, her body was returned to Rochester, accompanied by one mourner: a women dressed in black, who was likely her beloved and trusted housekeeper. Dean’s death made headlines and her past deeds were recounted with scorn in newspaper obituaries, many of which got the details of her life wrong. The names of those who had frequented her establishment, and made it such a financial success, were, of course, never mentioned.

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Martha Matilda Harper and her famous tresses. (Image courtesy of the Rochester Museum and Science Center)

MARTHA MATILDA HARPER

Martha Matilda Harper was a pioneering entrepreneur and inventor who is credited with creating the modern model of retail franchising. She built a worldwide beauty empire with her Harper Method Salons and products.

Harper came to Rochester in 1882 and began manufacturing her hair tonic in a backyard shed, likely behind the home at 717 East Main Street where she worked as a domestic servant. The tonic formula was given to her by her former employer, a doctor who had found a way to stimulate hair growth. On his deathbed, he shared his secrets with her. Harper experimented with the tonic on her own hair, which cascaded in luxurious waves to the floor and became her trademark, and then started treating the hair of society women (friends of her employer). The women were hooked.

In 1888, using her lifetime savings of $360, Harper rented space in the Powers Building to open her first beauty shop. From her beauty headquarters in Rochester and with the goal of helping women achieve business success, Harper started training poor women in her methods of beauty treatment, which included facial and scalp massages, healthy approaches to skin and hair care, and creating a calm environment for customers. She then helped them set up their own Harper Method Salons, launching the first model of modern retail franchising. At its peak in the 1920s, there were 500 Harper beauty shops worldwide and, before the business closed, Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. boasted a full line of beauty products and clients including Jacqueline Kennedy, Danny Kaye, Helen Hayes, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.

Harper actually did invent the salon sink with the neck indentation cut out as well as the reclining salon chair, both with the goal of creating a more comfortable salon experience for her clients.

While I don’t know for certain what Harper would have thought of the Fox sisters, I do know that she was a devout Christian Scientist. I’m no expert on either religion, but it appears likely that the tenets of Christian Science would have been at odds with Spiritualism.

I wrote a piece about Martha Matilda Harper for Rochester Subway, after touring her old manufacturing plant on East Main Street (now a tire warehouse). You can read more, and see lots and lots of photos of her products, the famous reclining chair, and the inside of her former manufacturing facility, here.

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Harry Houdini and his mother, reportedly taken in Rochester in 1908

HARRY HOUDINI

Yes, that Harry Houdini, the world renowned illusionist, plays a role not only in the story of Spiritualism but also has a tie to Rochester.

In the 1920s, after attempting (and failing) to contact the spirit of his dead mother, Houdini went on a public campaign to expose Spiritualists as frauds. He was able to duplicate their methods for contacting the spirit world by demonstrating his own stage tricks, and in 1923 went on a lecture tour speaking out against spiritualists; later that year, he wrote the book “A Magician Among The Spirits”. In 1925, he opened a new show bent on debunking mediums, selling out in city after city across the country.

Houdini died in 1926, and his wife Bess began holding annual seances in an attempt to reach him. The two had arranged a secret code that, should Houdini actually be able to communicate from beyond the grave, would prove once and for all if it was possible for the spirits to speak to the living. While one report says a medium brought Bess a message from Harry that included their code, she herself never did hear from him and she gave up the seances after 10 years, allegedly saying, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” The last seance was held on October 31, 1936, and was broadcast by radio around the world.

Harry Houdini has a local connection: Not only is there a photo of Houdini and his mother reportedly taken in Rochester in 1908, on May 7, 1907, Harry Houdini performed his first manacled bridge stunt by jumping off the Weighlock Bridge, near Court Street in downtown Rochester. The event was captured on film, which you can see in this post.

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