All three sisters had been examined for their entire careers by committee after committee, undressed, tied up, placed in cages and humiliated beyond endurance, and the results in their later years always depended on the intentions (and honesty) of the investigators. One group of critics had even prepared a barrel of tar for use on the girls after they were debunked and were extremely disappointed when they were unable to prove their case to the audience so they could use it.
It is assumed by most people with personal experience of psychic phenomena that the confession itself was a hoax coordinated by the skeptics who rented and rigged the hall. One of the event organizers was a dentist who was an amateur magician. He tried, without much success, to warm up the audience for an hour by revealing the tricks of the trade, but was booed off the stage by a rowdy crowd who really wanted to see the main event.
It is also interesting to note that $1500 in 1888 would be worth $56,355 in 2022 dollars. It was a sum which would be very enticing to a pair of impoverished, chronic alcoholics. Accounts of the event at the New York Academy of Music suggest some serious cheating on the part of the skeptics that sponsored it. Maggie confessed onstage that the girls had produced all the raps by “cracking their toes.” She proved this at the Academy by “producing” loud rapping noises which emanated from various remote locations all over the huge hall.
Today, only committed skeptics would be willing to believe that this was not done with stooges stationed under the stage and around the walls of the hall, but in 1888, the public was awash in the mythology that vaudeville ventriloquists could “throw their voices” to remote locations. If they could do this with their voices, why couldn’t the girls do it with the cracking noises from their toes? This mythology actually persisted through the 1950’s before it became common knowledge that ventriloquists, like modern magicians, use distraction techniques to produce the illusion that their voices emanate from the dummy on their laps.
In any case, Margaret recanted her confession in writing in November, 1889, about a year after her toe-cracking exhibition at the New York Academy of Music. She asserted that she had been under the sway of the movement’s enemies and under extreme financial pressure when she falsely confessed, and she adamantly reaffirmed her faith in the spirits.
“Would to God that I could undo the injustice I did the cause of Spiritualism under the strong psychological influence of persons who were opposed to it.”
The recantation caused barely a whisper and the newspapers, by and large, buried the story. Within five years, both sisters had died of alcohol related illnesses. They were buried side by side at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
It must be remembered that there have always been false prophets and crooked psychics out to make a buck. The fact that many of the nineteenth century mediums were proven to be fakes does not mean that there are no real psychics! To put it in William James’ words:
“If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you must not seek to show that all crows are. It is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”
James, one of the founders of the American Society for Psychic Research debunked large numbers of fake mediums in his day, but he felt that he had found his “white crow” in a famous medium named Leonora Piper who was never shown to cheat and who was an astonishing medium. After his death, James was also one of the spirits who participated in the cross correspondences (chapter 23).
Spiritualism did not die with the Fox sisters. It still thrives in smaller and more intimate settings today because psychic facilities and mediumship never die. As old mediums and psychics die off, new ones are born. There are always thousands of legitimate mediums all over the world that can demonstrate astonishing feats of mental mediumship, and who can be tremendously helpful allowing people to come to terms with the death of a loved one. There are thousands of honest psychics working with paranormal investigation groups who can be very helpful in ridding homes of unwanted ghosts. Unfortunately, there are still many fakes!
There will always be naïve people willing to believe in anything leaving them susceptible to fraudulent claims. And fraudulent claims of paranormal phenomena still turn people against spiritual beliefs. But a growing number of intelligent and literate persons continue, right up to the present, to self-convert to a belief in the endurance of the spirit after death either because of the extensive literature on the subject, their own personal experiences, or because of the experiences of someone close to them.