It all started with a woman and an apple.
In the spring of 1848, Maggie and Kate Fox were fourteen and eleven, respectively. They were mischievous girls, prone to boredom and bad headaches, and lived with their parents in the tiny hamlet of Hydesville, New York. In those days, young women were urged to cultivate virtues like calmness and prudence, so they’d grow up not only placid, but healthy: heightened emotions, it was said, could cause hysterical fits and destroy the complexion. And so Maggie and Kate invented games to entertain themselves quietly, and indoors.
One night, the sisters discovered that if they dropped an apple from several feet in the air, or tied a string around it and dragged it along the floor, the fruit produced a strange sound. A sort of fleshy clunk. A bump in the night. The type of unidentifiable noise that creeped their mother out. “A silly woman,” Maggie said decades later. “She was a fanatic. I call her that because she was honest. She believed in these things.”
Come nighttime, the girls would play with the apple, reveling in their mother’s confusion. When the trick became too obvious, they started rapping on their bedposts, then loudly cracking their joints. It was silly stuff, but their parents grew more and more concerned by these mysterious noises, and by the spirit’s—for it must have been a spirit, they thought—communion with their young daughters. Before long, Maggie and Kate were conversing with the presence: they would ask questions, and the spirit would rap a certain number of times for yes or no, or they would arduously spell out sentences by reciting the alphabet and waiting for the spirit to rap when they named certain letters. Neighbors poured into the house to listen, and were shocked when the spirit seemed to know their personal details; they were even more shocked when it told them its own story. I am the spirit of a murdered peddler, said the spirit, who claimed to be named Charles, killed years ago by a local man and buried in this very basement! A few brave men went down to the basement to look for evidence, and came back horrified—and persuaded—after their shovels turned up bone fragments and strands of hair.
Forty years later, Maggie and Kate cracked. Their childish pranks had become a religion that boasted eight million followers. They were celebrities—and alcoholics, plagued by skeptics, and mentally exhausted after decades of laboring under the great weight of their con. Why hadn’t anyone exposed them at the beginning, when they were just girls? They had found the perfect marks; that’s why: their mother, who already believed in the supernatural, and their neighbors, nineteenth-century Americans caught between the material progress of the present and the folklore of the past. This was an audience that yearned to retain its connection with deceased relatives—and that wanted to be entertained.
Of course, it also helped that the girls were preternaturally clever. Neighbors searched the house high and low, in those early days, to discover where the mysterious noises were coming from. They found nothing, not even an apple.
In the book of Genesis, Eve is walking through a beautiful garden when she runs into a trickster in the guise of a snake, who convinces her to eat an apple and thus ruins the rest of her life. As time passed, however, Eve and the snake blurred together, and we now remember Eve as the tricky one. Woman with snake became woman as snake. Other myths helped calcify the idea. Circe, the Sirens, Salome, Medusa: devious women slither through history, their names hissing on our tongues.
Granted, humanity has always adored a trickster. We need the bracing presence of clever deities—from Anansi to Loki to Mercury—to undercut traditional power and make us laugh in the process. Down here on earth, we admire, if grudgingly, the dexterous beauty of legerdemain, or the charisma of the carnival hawker who deftly parts us from our lunch money. Con artistry is oddly primal, too; a trickster taps into our deep-seated need to believe in order and truth and runs away with it. It stings, yes. But on a purely aesthetic level, we’ve always been able to appreciate it—so much so that when a stranger with a frank, honest face manages to bilk us out of a paycheck, chances are we’ll put him in a movie as soon as we finish licking our wounds.
The idea of a “con” comes from the very thing it shatters: confidence, which in the fifteenth century was a cheerily communal word (“The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary), but developed a sinister undertone around 1600 (“Assurance based on insufficient or improper grounds,” also from the OED). In 1849, the year after the Fox sisters began their trickery, a journalist coined the term confidence man when writing about William Thompson, a bold soul from New York City who would put on a nice suit, walk up to a wealthy gentleman as though he knew him, chat for a while, and then ask to borrow his watch while applying a genius bit of social pressure: “Have you the confidence,” Thompson would coo, “to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Suddenly, on the spot, with his social graces called into question, the gentleman would often acquiesce, and Thompson (plus watch) would vanish into the sunset.
Thompson was betting on the ironclad strength of social mores—he was predicting, correctly, that people usually behave how they think they’re supposed to behave. A businessman would consider it impolite to admit that he didn’t recognize an acquaintance, would think it rude to cut conversation short, and would feel awkward admitting that he did not, in fact, trust a peer of seemingly equal stature with his belongings. Thompson didn’t need a mask in order to steal, because he operated behind a veneer of masculine power: important-looking papers, a thick wallet, a fashionable hat, and casual references to classified business opportunities.
Con women work by the same rules, but they exploit a different set of expectations. A con woman might not ask to borrow our watch—or try to sell us the Eiffel Tower, as Victor Lustig did (twice!) to scrap-metal industrialists in the 1920s, or sweet-talk her way into the navy as a surgeon, as Ferdinand Waldo Demara did during the Korean War. The con woman knows she probably wouldn’t be trusted with such high-stakes professional gambits. But she might convince a man to propose, provoke him into breaking off the engagement, then sue him. She might clutch her child and sob, My baby, he’s sick! She might stop us on the street to intimate that she’s just had a vision, and lead us inside her shop to consult her crystal ball. Whatever the specific formulation of her con, chances are she’s exploiting social assumptions about what women are good for, then reaping a profit.
The Fox sisters took advantage of an ancient belief: that women—emotional, intuitive, irrational, inward looking—are innately in touch with the spiritual world. The sisters aren’t the only ones who’ve exploited this assumption throughout the centuries: we see versions of the same scam in fake psychics and fraudulent wellness bloggers. And compared with impostor socialites and sobbing mothers, a con woman who uses spirituality as her guise is particularly ambitious. This is because her ask is enormous. The stranger with the frank, honest face who wants your watch asks nothing compared with what the spiritual con woman demands from you. Her game is much bigger: she asks you to believe.
The Fox sisters started their tricks with the apple as an idle diversion from domestic boredom, but the unexpected attention they received soon led to a career. Within weeks, their older sister, Leah, apparently realizing there was money to be made, moved her sisters into a house in Rochester and began charging for séances. Within two years, all three were legitimate celebrities, living in New York City and corset deep in the exhausting work of communing with the dead. When they weren’t conducting séances in auditoriums before audiences of hundreds, Maggie and Kate were working eleven- or twelve-hour days packed with group sessions and private meetings. The movement was termed Spiritualism—essentially, the belief that the dead can and do communicate with the living, often through mediums—and as its popularity spread, hundreds of other mediums popped up across the country, their sessions accompanied by similar rapping sounds.
On its surface, the séance room was a feminine space: intimate, private, filled with soft lighting and mystical airs. Spiritualists asked after their dead children or spouses; politics—like the growing tensions between the North and the South—mostly stayed outside. This didn’t mean, however, that these spaces were free from men. As the Fox sisters grew into beauties, men flocked into their rooms, eager to sit near them in the darkness, to hold hands around the table, and to wait for the jolt of a spirit visitation—or the electricity of a wink from Kate.
For Maggie and Kate, the whole thing was hell. Not only had their childhood disappeared into the drudgery of performance, but they now had to endure physically invasive tests from skeptics. These skeptics—often groups of men—sought to prove that the sisters’ voluminous dresses weren’t hiding any noise-making props, so they’d give them specific clothes to wear, or bind the girls’ ankles, or hold on to their hands and feet to make sure they weren’t moving during the sessions. Many times, the girls were taken into another room, stripped down to their underwear, and inspected by women while the men waited just outside the door. News of the strip search would be printed in the next day’s paper.
Skeptics weren’t the only ones concerned with the girls’ bodies. Everyone stared at them. Believers loved to point to the Fox sisters’ luminous good looks as proof of their guilelessness: one editor called Maggie’s expression “artless and innocent” and spoke of Kate’s “earnest simplicity,” while another writer rhapsodized about Kate’s “pure spiritual face.” Their wide eyes and girlish bodies made the spirit world seem graspable and nonthreatening in a way it hadn’t before. “[Maggie] was neither a philosopher of the divine as Emanuel Swedenborg had been nor a mystic like Andrew Jackson Davis, who spoke from his own private visions,” writes Barbara Weisberg in Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. “Instead… the sounds that followed her—puzzling and stimulating—were as accessible in their way as she was approachable in hers.”
It’s very convenient to look artless and innocent, should you happen to be a con woman. The con man benefits from an expensive suit and a jovial expression; the con woman benefits from a pretty dress and a face of earnest simplicity. None of it is accidental. Whether her clothes are cheap and disheveled or beautifully tailored, you can bet your watch that the con woman has planned the effects of her outfit ahead of time.
Bebe Patten was no stranger to the power of a beautiful dress. Her signature look was angelic: white silk robes and a cross around her neck. She needed to shine when she was sermonizing onstage.
Bebe’s husband, C. Thomas Patten, didn’t look quite as godly in front of an audience. He joked that the C in his name stood for cash, and favored cowboy boots, pistachio-colored suits, and ties printed with dollar signs. In 1944, the two of them crawled into Oakland, California, with three dollars between them; six years later they had amassed a fortune of over one million, plus multiple real-estate investments, a rabidly devoted religious following, and charges of fraud and embezzlement. The charges, though, were against C. Thomas only. Bebe remained blameless to the end, her silks spotless, her hands clean, and her pockets full.
Bebe had grown up in the evangelical world. As a girl, she’d worked revival campaigns, and she graduated from a Pentecostal bible college in Los Angeles. She wouldn’t let C. Thomas sleep with her until they were married, and she wouldn’t marry him unless he converted to Pentecostal Christianity (or at least that’s the story they told onstage). It turned out that C. Thomas’s bombastic nature fit perfectly with the more performative elements of Pentecostalism. The newlyweds drifted around the South for a while, preaching here and there, but in Oakland they found the fertile soil they’d been looking for: “poor people with money,” as Bernard Taper wrote in The New Yorker in 1959. Their congregants were mostly folks from the Bible Belt who’d come to Oakland to work at the shipyards and defense factories, and who found themselves with cash and an aching desire for community.
The Pattens poured thousands of dollars into advertising, and began throwing revivals the way Gatsby threw parties. Their ads, placed in every local paper, promised “Green Palms! Choir Girls in White! Music! Miracles! Blessings! Healings!” The revivals would start with prayer and song, led by Bebe, but the highlight—at least for the Pattens—was the fund-raising. C. Thomas was a natural showman with no shame whatsoever, and his methods were as abrasive as they were effective. He would declare that God had just whispered a specific number in his ear—say, three thousand dollars—which he and Bebe were now tasked with raising that night. He’d wait a moment, as though receiving a new transmission from Jehovah, then roar that two people were supposed to start off the donations by giving one thousand dollars each. Two people, one thousand dollars each! Who would it be? He’d badger his audience until two people stepped forward, and the fund-raising would blaze on. If wallets weren’t opening that night, C. Thomas would call out names and demand that these people donate, say, two hundred dollars then and there. As he vacillated between raging and cajoling, Bebe sat onstage behind him, waiting to give her sermon, with her eyes on the floor—the picture of a devoted wife.
Their congregants gave and gave, sometimes ruining themselves in the process. It wasn’t unusual for the Pattens to raise thousands of dollars in a single night. The money was for a radio station, they said (they never got an FCC license), or for an orphanage (they bought a ranch but never brought in orphans), or for a rest home for “broken-down” ministers (legitimate churches found their methods appalling), or for Bebe herself (she brought in about four thousand dollars per month in pure spending money), or for a “super-auditorium,” which would feature escalators designed to whisk ailing members of the congregation right up to the altar, where they could be blessed by the Pattens as they put out their trembling, liver-spotted hands to… donate more money! On the roof of the super-auditorium, the couple promised to build a flaming torch, visible for miles around, as a sign of God’s something-or-other. “COME HOME QUICK,” one of the choir girls telegraphed her mother. “DAD’S GONE CRAZY AND IS GIVING ALL HIS MONEY TO THE PATTENS.”
C. Thomas was the archetype of the con man: flashy, charismatic, supremely confident, and oddly likable despite his appalling behavior. He was prone to yelling absurdities like “You fossil faces and stony hearts, you better melt before the Lord if you know what’s good for you!” Bebe seemed… godlier. She wore a cross around her neck, after all, not a tie printed with dollar signs. When C. Thomas was eventually thrown into prison for five counts of grand theft, charges were never leveled against his partner in crime.
But it was Bebe’s aesthetic that enabled the whole charade. Without her gloss of spirituality, C. Thomas would have been nothing more than a loudmouthed sideshow huckster, a joke. With Bebe onstage—the angel, the woman in white, the one who invited conversion, the one who embodied transformative spirituality—C. Thomas gained legitimacy in the eyes of their congregation. He even used her as leverage: if the congregation wasn’t coughing up enough money, C. Thomas threatened to cancel Bebe’s sermon.
The Bebe who sat demurely behind her husband was not, of course, the true Bebe. Bebe the con woman wore silver fox furs and once hired Greta Garbo’s costume designer to make her a slinky white satin gown. While C. Thomas stood trial, she preached a cruel sermon about how anyone who disbelieved them would be damned, all while holding a pink rose taken from the coffin of a former follower who was “praying in Hell tonight.” (Like her husband, Bebe enjoyed a good prop.) She prayed aloud that someone involved in the trial would drop dead: “Lord, smite just one, to encourage us—just anyone to show us You are on our side.”
In the courtroom, the prosecution was unmoved by Bebe’s golden cross. “It was she who made the emotional appeal, she who set the stage upon which he operated,” said the assistant district attorney Cecil Mosbacher. “They conspired together to defraud and deceive this community.” But Bebe, cloaked in innocence and godliness, was never charged with any crime.
It’s one thing to take someone’s money. It’s another thing to take someone’s search for truth and use it to buy yourself Cadillacs and couture. That’s why it’s amusing to read about diamond heists, get-rich-quick scams, and swindled aristocrats, but it’s hard to keep laughing when a young boy gets sucked into a cult, or a bereaved mother is duped by a psychic, or an impoverished family stakes everything they have on a fake revival. The Pattens’ cleaning lady sobbed on the witness stand as she explained that she had given up her life’s savings of $2,800 after C. Thomas called her “the meanest woman in Oakland” in front of the entire congregation.
The Fox sisters, too, manipulated the vulnerable. For months, Kate held private sessions with a thirty-one-year-old widower named Charles Livermore, who was so distraught after the death of his wife, Estelle, that a doctor recommended séances to relieve his suffering.
Kate met with the heartbroken husband every other day. At first she claimed that Estelle was communicating through her, and wrote down the spirit’s loving messages for Charles. At their twenty-fourth sitting, Charles watched in awe as the luminous outline of a woman appeared in the darkened room. At their forty-third sitting, a glowing, gauzelike substance rose from the floor, congealed into the shape of a woman, and walked toward him, closer and closer, until he could see that it was Estelle herself, visiting him from the afterlife, unable to speak but reaching out her hand for him to touch it. Charles wrote rapturously of their meetings in his diary, saying that the spirit was exactly like his wife and describing how he held her hand, stroked her long hair, and kissed her on her incandescent mouth.
Was “Estelle” actually Kate, dressed in gauze that had been dipped in phosphorescent paint? Was the specter played by an accomplice? Mediums had plenty of ways to make ghosts appear: by having a naked woman draped in transparent fabric slip out from behind a curtain, by ducking into a cabinet and reappearing as the ghost, or by making figures from papier-mâché and bedsheets. In any case, Charles—desperate, susceptible, and looking for answers—was an easy mark. He was not there to flip on a light, or yank on Estelle’s garments, or insist on some more corporeal proof of her presence.
Not everyone was as unguarded as Charles. Spiritualism was studded with fraudsters like raisins in a fruitcake, and before long a strange counter-industry emerged to prove that mediums were fakes. Even the great Houdini joined the anti-Spiritualism movement, writing a book that debunked famous mediums. As more and more charlatans were unmasked, the debunking took on a slapstick quality. During one séance run by a medium named Elsie, a spirit began moving around the darkened room—until someone flipped on the lights to reveal that the spirit was actually Elsie herself, dancing under a sheet. In protest, mediums began hiring bodyguards, called sluggers, who were ordered to beat up anyone who tried to turn on the lights, yank off the sheets, or otherwise subvert their magic-making.
It was all kind of hilarious—except for the fact that the victims believed, wholly. “Were this a mere harmless delusion, one might be inclined to laugh, or sneer at, and let it die out,” mused one writer in 1853, “but unhappily, it is producing the most disastrous effects.” After all, true belief isn’t hilarious at all. It’s private. It’s vulnerable. And since con artists can sense vulnerability like a shark senses blood, an awful lot of damage can be done before someone flips on the light.
In the 1990s, an Australian woman who called herself Jasmuheen caught the eye of the international media because she seemed to be starting a cult, though Jasmuheen herself denied the accusation vehemently—she didn’t have followers, she said, just supporters. Jasmuheen didn’t eat or drink. She was a breatharian—someone who subsists on “cosmic microfood” in the air—and if you purchased her book Living on Light: The Source of Nourishment for the New Millennium, and muscled your way through her twenty-one-day fast, you, too, could look forward to a life of increased health, energy, sex—and lower grocery bills.
The initial media coverage took a tone of amused skepticism. Here was this pretty blond woman with a soothing, spacey voice, who spouted wacky quotes about how eating was “outdated” and how her only bowel movements were “rabbit-type droppings every three weeks.” Her website boasted that “a group of dedicated, tough, well-trained, self-selected warriors (known as the Knights of Camelot) have been utilizing themselves as guinea pigs to prove that human beings do not need food to live.” One journalist wrote an irreverent account of visiting her mansion and finding that her refrigerator was stocked with food, that her shelves groaned under the weight of vitamins and supplements, and that her cutting board was clearly “well-used.” Unfazed, Jasmuheen claimed it was all for her husband.
Her followers, who numbered several thousand worldwide, weren’t in on the joke. Though Jasmuheen’s preachings sounded deranged to the average omnivore, they were intensely compelling to people in search of spiritual cleansing. If you looked past the medical unsoundness of her advice, you started hearing a message that said: Here is a way for you to be freed from the messiness of living in a human body. Here is a way to be better. To be purer. To find your “personal paradise,” as Jasmuheen would say. This way is simple: line yourself up with the universe, take one last look at the chips and fries and sodas and salads and teas and cakes and cookies, and just… stop.
Before long, the deaths began. In 1997, a thirty-one-year-old kindergarten teacher from Munich named Timo Degen survived twelve days of Jasmuheen’s fast, then fell into a coma, and soon died. (A hospital spokesperson said that he looked like “he’d been in a concentration camp.”) The next year, a fifty-three-year-old Australian woman named Lani Morris attempted the fast; after losing her ability to speak and vomiting black liquid, she died of dehydration, pneumonia, kidney failure, and severe stroke. One year later, the body of an Australian woman named Verity Linn was found half naked and curled in the fetal position in a lonely part of the Scottish Highlands. In the pitiful pile of her possessions lay a diary that spoke of her resolution to be “spiritually cleansed” before the year 2000. Next to it was a copy of Jasmuheen’s book.
This was enough to get the spotlight turned on Jasmuheen in a different way. “Blonde, thin and dangerous,” one article called her. The media now demanded that she prove she didn’t eat, and Jasmuheen calmly agreed to be tested. The plan was that the Australian TV show 60 Minutes would lock her in a hotel room, film her around the clock for seven days, and have a doctor present to monitor her progress.
“It’s not about starvation and it’s not about fasting,” Jasmuheen told a reporter before the test started. “It’s about matching frequencies with this divine force that drives every breath.”
When he responded, “Well, going without food involves starving yourself,” she didn’t miss a beat: “Depending on your experience,” she said.
The act of revealing a con artist might seem satisfyingly cinematic, but the moment of revelation is often deflating. Spiritual cons thrive in low-visibility conditions: candles, half-closed eyes, an atmosphere conducive to a sense of being transported. But in the cold, hard light of day, it’s all terribly banal. The Wizard of Oz knew what he was talking about when he told us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
On the air, Jasmuheen’s vague proselytizing was suddenly confronted by the impassive test of modern medicine. By day four, her claims that she was feeling fantastic were debunked by a list of statistics to the contrary: her heart rate had doubled, her blood pressure was down, she’d lost about thirteen pounds, and her speech was slurred. If she continued, the doctor said, she risked kidney failure. Afraid that she’d die on its watch, 60 Minutes stopped filming. Jasmuheen quickly sent out a press release: “What appears to be delusion to some is simply a preferable reality to others, for without our dreams and visions, humanity has no hope.”
Miraculously, the Fox sisters had long avoided precisely the sort of embarrassment that Jasmuheen was dealing with, despite constant attempts to disprove their connection to the dead. And then something changed. After decades of dodging skeptics, Maggie and Kate suddenly chose to reveal themselves.
By the time they reached their fifties, the sisters were sick of Spiritualism. Despite their fame, professional success, and mobs of adoring believers, life had not been kind to either of them. They were both widows and heavy drinkers, furious at their overbearing sister, Leah, for the way she’d pushed them into the spotlight—and plagued by guilt. Before each séance, Maggie would mutter, “You are driving me into Hell.”
In the fall of 1888, Maggie appeared at the New York Academy of Music to give a speech. Kate sat in the audience, nodding along. Maggie began: “I do this because I consider it my duty, a sacred thing, a holy mission, to expose it. I want to see the day when it is entirely done away with. After I expose it I hope Spiritualism will be given a death blow. I was the first in the field and I have a right to expose it.”
She told the audience about the apple trick and her gullible mother. She said that when her mother called in the neighbors to listen to the sounds, she and Kate realized they could produce an even spookier effect by discreetly cracking their toes.
“Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done,” said Maggie. “The rappings are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when a child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles which grow stiff in later years.”
Maggie lifted up her skirts, took off her shoes, and allowed three doctors to join her onstage and hold on to her big toes. “Everybody in the great audience knew that they were looking upon the woman who is principally responsible for Spiritualism, its founder, high priestess, and demonstrator,” The New York Herald reported. “As she remained motionless, loud, distinct rappings were heard, now in the flies, now behind the scenes, now in the gallery.”
The absurdity of the scene wasn’t lost on journalists, who called it “ludicrous,” and the sight of three men touching a woman’s foot would have been vaguely suggestive for the audience. Still, there was a somber power to the bizarre tableau. There stood a woman who had weathered attempts at exposure for decades, hiking up her skirts and doing it herself.
Bebe Patten was spared all such humiliations. After C. Thomas’s death, in 1958, she scrubbed her reputation until it gleamed, and she never looked back. Her obituary, which doesn’t mention C. Thomas, speaks of her “76 years of Christian ministry as evangelist, pastor, teacher, broadcaster, editor, and founder and leader of institutions.” In a photo taken when she was an old woman, Bebe holds a Bible open over a lush bouquet of red roses, with a cross around her neck. Light hits her hair from above.
“What I find very, very difficult, is whether you believe this gibberish, and are therefore in need of some help, or whether you don’t believe it, and you just put it forward, and it makes you a fraudster,” the reporter from 60 Minutes said to Jasmuheen.
She responded, “Don’t you think you should leave it to the audience to decide?”
It’s a safe answer: the con woman knows that her audience will never reveal her. They’re already in too deep. Each one is a perfect mark, full of contradictions, questions, and doubts. And each one has already played their hand simply by showing up—all the con woman needs to do is wait for the impressionable believer to walk through her door.
Still, the con woman herself is not invulnerable to belief. A month before denouncing Spiritualism from the stage, Maggie Fox told a journalist that she’d tried hard to believe in spirits—and failed. “Why, I have explored the unknown as far as human will can,” she said. “I have gone to the dead so that I might get from them some little token. Nothing came of it—nothing, nothing.”
It’s tempting to see the con woman as pure, slick surface—a fantasy of feminine swagger. A fearless woman, seemingly innocent but deliciously amoral. Troubled by no gods. Haunted by no ghosts. Of course that, too, is just a trick.