The Fox-Salerni Interview
The room is dimly lit by a single candle. The author sits alone at a small round table. In the background, the thin, mournful strains of a violin can be heard -- no, wait -- that's the author's daughter practicing her viola in the other room! After a time, the music fades into silence. A curtain billows; the flame of the candle flickers wildly, scattering shadows across the room ...
Dianne: Kate Fox, are you present?
Kate: Yes ... I have been summoned from beyond the veil of life ... for an interview? Is this correct? You have disturbed the spirits of the Other World for publicity?
Dianne: Don't be snarky, Kate. It's for a good cause -- a high school student's literacy project.
Kate: Very well. I am informed that you have written a novel in which my sister Maggie and I are characters. What do you, a twenty-first century schoolmarm-turned-writer, know about the lives of two simple, ordinary girls of the mid-nineteenth century? And what gives you the right to profit from our tale?
Dianne: Kate, as near as I can tell, you were never simple or ordinary! You were a charmingly clever young trickster with a remarkable talent for wrapping people around your little finger! I first came across the story of you and your sister, Maggie, while researching séances for a completely different project. I was immediately fascinated with your story: Two girls claim that their house is haunted by the ghost of a murdered peddler, supposedly buried in their basement, and furthermore, the girls apparently have the ability to communicate with the spirit! What begins as a spooky little ghost story blossoms into something much larger when their older sister, Leah, discovers that people will pay to have the girls communicate with dead relatives. The séance is invented, and the movement of Spiritualism sweeps across America, propelling the two girls into nationwide celebrity! I found the story irresistible! And as for profit, Kate, that’s been a bit thin so far!
Kate: What is this “séance” you speak of? I do not know the word.
: You called them spirit circles. The word séance came into use many years later, after you had
made spiritualism famous. But you invented them – you and your sisters. People sit in a darkened room, holding hands and listening for ghostly raps and other signs of the presence of dead spirits. The tables tip; the candles go out, and perhaps a cold ghostly hand will touch someone’s cheek. Your sister Leah even used an early version of the Ouija board to translate messages from the spirits. Today, people still visit mediums, or psychics, to seek advice or to receive messages from beyond our world.
Kate: So belief in spirit communication lived on past my life and continues even now. I am gratified to learn this, but why, then, would young people of your own twenty-first century be interested in reading about me and my sister? Surely, they would find our lives strange and foreign to their modern world! Do you mean to belittle us?
Dianne: I think teenagers today will be surprised to find how much they have in common with you. You and Maggie began the entire enterprise out of boredom and dislike for a houseguest. It was originally just a practical joke, designed to scare your guest into leaving. Because of this prank, however, you and Maggie became celebrities – famous across the country – and along the way, you hobnobbed with the rich and famous, narrowly avoided being assaulted as witches, and invented a new religion. During your rise to fame, you sometimes behaved as badly as our teenage stars do today. Sadly, Kate, you abused alcohol and morphine, which in later years led to your downfall. Meanwhile, Maggie was tormented by the guilt of deceiving grieving people for money, but could not find a way to escape from her lies. You loved the attention, and Leah loved the money. Poor Maggie was trapped. Of course, there were different social mores in the 1850’s which restricted women in ways that modern girls will find hard to believe. You had no means of making a living besides your spirit hoax, and your profession as spirit mediums damaged the respectability you needed to attract a good husband.
Kate: You know perfectly well that the morphine was used for medicinal purposes! You needn’t cast a shadow on my reputation for that! What makes you so certain that I was a fraud? Here you are, speaking to me now – although I am undeniably dead -- and yet you consider yourself a skeptic?
Dianne: I am a skeptic, and I do believe that most psychics and mediums are mere tricksters and magicians. Besides, Maggie confessed to fraud in 1888 and demonstrated to an audience at the New York Academy of Music how she created your famous “rapping” noises. In addition, Maggie’s letters to her suitor, Dr. Kane, demonstrate her great emotional torment over the deceptions. As for you, Kate, I admit I have my doubts. You were the more mysterious of the pair, and I cannot state for certain that you did not have some paranormal abilities. In the final pages of the book, I reveal some facts which suggest that you did have some uncanny talents. I leave it to the reader to make his or her own judgment.
: If I was so mysterious and fascinating, why did you make Maggie the main character of your novel?
Dianne: I sympathized more with Maggie. She was led into a life she would not have chosen for herself by your love of skullduggery and Leah’s thirst for wealth. And besides, Maggie is the one who had a romance with a dashing and heroic celebrity explorer!
Kate: Ah, the illustrious Dr. Elisha Kent Kane! Tell me, is he still revered and respected in your time for his heroic exploits?
: Kate, somehow I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that Dr. Kane
is as obscure and forgotten today as he was famous in your own day. In the 1850’s, he was Jeff Corwin, Orlando Bloom, and Carl Sagan all rolled into one. He was an action hero before there were action movies – a war hero, a doctor, a scientist, and an Arctic explorer. Today, he’s a nobody. I have taught fifth graders about world explorers for 19 years, and even I never heard of him until I started researching Maggie Fox!
Kate: So it was all for nothing, then? All his great adventures and discoveries vanished into mist … It serves him right for the way he treated my sister.
Dianne: I thought you’d see it that way. You’re not so different from today’s girls after all, Kate!
Kate: I suppose I had better ask where your modern young readers can acquire this book which portrays me as a conniving trickster and my sister as an innocent fool.
Dianne: What a sport! High Spirits can be ordered at Amazon, your local bookstore, or a bunch of friends can swamp the desk at the local library with requests for them to order it! Thanks, Kate, for returning from “the beyond” for this interview!
Kate: There’s more to “the beyond” than you know. Skeptic or not, Dianne, you have not finished your explorations of the supernatural. We will see you on the other side … or in your next book.