In 1857, Maggie became engaged to the famous Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kane. She was deeply in love with him. Unfortunately, he was afraid to announce his intention to marry her for fear of his wealthy parents who did not approve of the match. Neither Kane nor his parents believed in Spiritualism, and his parents were violently opposed to anyone connected with it. As a result, Maggie converted to Catholicism and gave up mediumship, becoming entirely dependent on Kane for her upkeep. She began to loathe spirits, Spiritualism, and anything connected with it.
Unfortunately, Kane died just before their planned wedding within a year of their engagement. His death was a devastating blow. Now, without the love of her life and without any financial support, Maggie was emotionally and financially devastated and began to drink heavily. Kane had hated everything to do with spiritualism, and now, so did she. Maggie had given up mediumship and no longer wanted to practice, but was eventually forced back into the profession for financial reasons. She never married but she considered herself to be a widow for the rest of her life, during which she relied more and more on alcohol.
In December, 1872, Maggie’s sister Kate was married to an English attorney and had two children by him. During their marriage, she lived in England with her husband and her children. While in Britain, Kate was investigated by Sir William Crooks, a renowned chemist and physicist. He was the inventor of the vacuum tube, the precursor of the modern transistor. He investigated Kate in his own laboratory which provided some control against fraud, but opened him up to charges of sexual misconduct by critics and skeptics. Even though her drinking was more under control during these years, Kate was not an especially reliable test subject, but even when tipsy, she was able to produce spiritual phenomena. Crookes was never able to catch her cheating, and he could not attribute the phenomena to any natural cause. Unfortunately, Kate’s husband died in 1885 leaving her emotionally broken. After this, she too descended into outright alcoholism.
Meanwhile, in 1857, the same year as the death of Maggie’s explorer fiancé, their sister Leah, who had been acting as Kate and Maggie’s business manager got married herself and retired from mediumship and managing her sisters’ affairs. She had been a steadying hand in both of her sisters’ lives, but tension had been growing between the older sister and her siblings. Furthermore, the Spiritualist community was becoming critical of the two younger sisters because of their drinking. They also began to believe that the sisters were engaging in some fraudulent activity in order to supplement their stage activities. Spiritual phenomena, after all, depend on spirits, and many of the sister’s spirits were not especially dependable.
In 1888, Katie’s lifestyle had become so destructive that she was arrested and held for three hundred dollars at the Harlem Police court. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children then assumed custody of her two children. By this time, Maggie and Kate were both fed up with spirits and Spiritualists, and they believed that the move against Kate’s children was the work of their sister Leah and their enemies in the spiritualist camp. After this angry break with their sister and Spiritualism, and suffering from acute alcoholism and poverty, a reporter offered Kate and Maggie $1500 if they would confess that their entire career had been a fraud, giving him an exclusive on the story.
Subsequently, Margaret appeared publicly (with an approving Kate sitting in the audience) at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, forty years and seven months after their psychic adventure had begun. There, Maggie blamed their sister Leah for corrupting them when they were children and stated that the entire thing had been a hoax. She gave detailed accounts of how the sisters produced the famous raps and other poltergeist phenomena that had so enthralled the world. These accounts involved clumsy trickery, such as tying strings to apples to make them appear to levitate, or rolling apples down a flight of stairs to simulate ghostly footsteps. Maggie confessed that she had produced the loud raps by cracking her toes and other joints. A full accounting of the event was printed in a book; The Death blow to Spiritualism. It was from this skeptical masterpiece that modern skeptics draw much of their ammunition against spiritual phenomena.
In retrospect, the confessions were rather questionable since hordes of people, including many skeptics had witnessed the original events in Hydesville, and had spent considerable time trying to find evidence of trickery. The Corinthian Hall demonstrations and the three skeptical committee examinations ruled out trickery in the earliest stages of the girls’ notoriety. In addition, Leah, who Maggie blamed for corrupting them and luring them into trickery, did not even live in Hydesville during the time of the haunting.
Since none of the skeptics had any luck in these arenas, one needs to ask how a pair of adolescent sisters, one eleven years old and another fourteen could outwit thousands of educated adults all trying to debunk them, or how two adolescent girls could produce disembodied noises with their toes, or indeed, with any part of their bodies while standing on pillows, their feet bound, felt and observed by a virtual hoard of skeptical adults. This begs the question of whether anyone can produce noises that loud using only their toe knuckles while making the sounds appear to be coming from across a huge hall, or even from a remote rock in an outdoor setting. Kate and Maggie had been giving séances and public appearances for forty years, and in all that time any evidence that they had been using fraudulent techniques was equivocal and promoted only by virulent critics.