Monument to the Fox Sisters

~ By Jim DeVinney

The Spiritualist Obelisk on Troup Street is one of the great attractions in Corn Hill. It once stood next to a Spiritualist church but there is some confusion about where that church was because the obelisk isn’t where it used to be. The story begins with a homicide.

On March 31, 1848, two sisters Maggie and Katie Fox, ages 14 and 11, insisted that the strange knocking sounds filling their home were messages from a peddler who had been murdered in the house where the family had just moved. His body lay buried in the basement.

This incident took place in a small hamlet called Hydesville (it no longer exists) in Wayne County, New York. Although no body was found, their claim produced so much hysteria in the community that the girls were moved for safety’s sake to the home of an older sister, Anna Leah Fish, in Rochester. The noises traveled with them.

Leah, as she was known, encouraged the young girls in their communications with the spirit world, hosting séances in her home. City directories show that she lived in two different Third Ward homes during this period prior to the family’s relocation to New York City. In 1849, Mrs. Ann L. Fish is listed as a Music Teacher living at 31 Troup Street. In 1884, many Rochester addresses were changed and #31 became #111, most likely the same house that stands at the southeast corner of Troup and Greenwood streets today. By 1851 Leah changed both her occupation and address. Mrs. Anna L. Fish was now a “mysterious knocker” who lived at 59 South Sophia Street, today known as Plymouth Avenue. The house stood on the northwest corner at Troup Street.

In 1854, after the Foxes had moved away, a lovely church with a tall thin spire, Plymouth Congregational Church, was built across the street from their last address, on the northeast corner of the intersection. Among its various pastors, Myron Adams Jr. was the most beloved. He served from 1875 until he died in 1895. Following his death, the parish declined. The Third Ward had, by then, lost much of its social status to East Avenue and residents were relocating east of the Genesee River and joining other churches. The Plymouth Church went into debt and, early in the Twentieth Century, the building was sold to Spiritualists who claimed the Fox Sisters as their inspiration. Services at the Plymouth Spiritual Church began in 1906.

Spiritualist Obelisk
The brass plate on the front of the Obelisk cites the Spiritualist philosophy: “There is no Death. There are no Dead.”

The first hint that a monument would be placed on the church’s grounds came out of Paris on September 11, 1925. As reported in Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle: “The Internationalist Congress today accepted the plan of Mrs. M. D. Cadwallader, of Chicago, to erect a monument at Rochester, N. Y. to the Fox Sisters, founders of spiritualism…. Mrs. Cadwallader reported that $2,500 and a site worth $20,000 already had been contributed for this purpose….” The proposed site was on the Troup Street side of the Plymouth Spiritual Church and the “congress plans to raise a memorial fund of about $25,000.”

By June of 1926, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes novels and an ardent believer in spiritualism (he once visited our city and attended Plymouth church), had contributed $5,000. Plans were announced for an obelisk designed by attorney William H. Burr of South Fitzhugh Street, also described as a Spiritualism authority. He turned his sketch over to an architect for more accurate drawings and an artist’s rendering demonstrated how the 100-foot tall monument would complement the church’s spire. The final version, at a more conservative twenty-five feet, was dedicated on December 4, 1927.

In 1954, the Plymouth Spiritualist Church stood in the path of the eastbound lane of the proposed 490 Expressway. In June 1955, after the church had been razed, a moving company placed rollers under the 14-ton monument and carefully moved it fifty feet south to its present position.

The last Rochester home of the Fox Sisters, on the west side of Plymouth Avenue, suffered the same fate as the church. The Plymouth Spiritual Church still exists on Vick Park A. However it is not as architecturally inspiring as their previous home in the Third Ward.

And that “murdered peddler”…? More than a decade after the Fox Sisters died, his remains were found hidden behind a false wall in the basement, exactly as he told them.

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