Rose Mackenberg

Rose Mackenberg (July 10, 1892 – April 10, 1968) was an American investigator specializing in fraudulent psychic mediums, known for her association with Harry Houdini. She was chief of a team of undercover investigators who investigated mediums for Houdini in the 1920s. After Houdini's death she continued to investigate spiritualist fraud for over 20 years and was known as an expert on the subject. She testified in court cases and before Congress and was interviewed in national magazines and on television.

Rose Mackenberg
Rose Mackenberg seance debunker.png
Born(1892-07-10)July 10, 1892
Brooklyn, New York
DiedApril 10, 1968(1968-04-10) (aged 75)
Suffolk, New York
OccupationInvestigator, writer
Years active1925–1955
Known forDebunking psychic fraud for Harry Houdini

Early lifeEdit

Mackenberg was born July 10, 1892,[1] and lived in Brooklyn, New York City.[2] In her early years she worked as a stenographer in a law office[3] and as an investigator in New York City. She later reported that, in her early life, she had believed that psychics and fortunetellers really were able to communicate with spirits and foretell the future.[4]

Houdini's investigatorEdit

In the early 1920s, Mackenberg was working on a case involving investment losses that had been advised by a psychic medium. She sought out Houdini's help in the case, as he was very publicly engaged in a campaign against false mediums.[5]

Houdini was impressed with the young woman, and educated her on the tricks that mediums use to manipulate their victims.[4][6] In 1925, Houdini hired her for his undercover investigator team.[7] The team included several other women besides Mackenberg, including Houdini's niece Julia Sawyer[5][8][9] and a showgirl named Alberta Chapman.[8][9] Houdini also sometimes employed men including Clifford M. Eddy, Jr.,[9] Robert H. Gysel,[2][9] and Amadeo Vacca.[10][11]

While Houdini was on tour in 1925 and 1926, Mackenberg and the other investigators would precede him by up to 10 days[12] into each city, and perform undercover investigations of the local spiritualists or psychic mediums. They would use multiple false names, sometimes containing puns like "Frances Raud" (for FRAUD)[13] and "Alicia Bunck" (for All Is A Bunk).[14] They would also wear various disguises to avoid being found out.[14][15] Mackenberg would sometimes even wear a hearing aid she didn't need.[12]

Mackenberg did investigations for Houdini and sometimes appeared on stage with him in many cities on those tours including Indianapolis,[16] Worcester, Mass.[5][17] Washington, D.C.[18] Chicago,[19] New York[20] and Montreal.[21] Her very detailed written reports for Houdini have been studied and exhibited in museums.[22] When Houdini later performed in each city, he would debunk local mediums from the stage, presenting the gathered evidence. Naturally Houdini and his investigators became the target of great anger from the spiritualists.[15] It was said he carried a Derringer and he advised Mackenberg to carry a gun as well,[7] but she refused.[23]

Mackenberg earned the respect of Houdini and his team, and was considered his chief investigator.[24][7] The other investigators sometimes called her "The Rev"[25] because of the multiple bogus spiritualist diplomas and titles she had acquired during her investigations.[6] Prior to his death, Houdini set up secret codes with more than twenty friends to attempt to communicate with them from beyond the grave.[26] Mackenberg was among those chosen, and in 1945 she reported "the message has not come through."[27]

Expert on psychic fraudEdit

Mackenberg in séance disguises

Because of her investigative work, Mackenberg became an expert on the practices of fraudulent psychics. She claimed to have investigated over 1,000 mediums and never found one who was not a fraud.[28] For example, the various mediums had claimed to communicate with over three dozen non-existent deceased husbands, despite Mackenberg being single.[6] According to William Lindsay Gresham, Julien Proskauer credited Mackenberg for "much of his material" in his book The Dead Do Not Talk.[24]

Congressional testimonyEdit

In the first session of the 69th Congress, an anti-fortunetelling law for Washington, D.C., was put forward on the urging of Houdini.[29] The Copeland-Bloom bill[30] (H.R. 8989) came before a House committee beginning February 26, 1926. Houdini was to testify in its favor.[31]

Following the same pattern as during the tour, Mackenberg visited local Washington mediums in the days prior to the hearings. She targeted local mediums including Jane B. Coates and Madam Grace Marcia who were scheduled to testify against the bill.[32] Her testimony on May 18, 1926, included the revelation that Coates had told her that Senators Capper, Watson, Dill, and Fletcher "had come to her for readings" and that "table tipping seances are held at the White House" with President Coolidge and his family.[33] This was met with raucous denials in the committee room, and a "fracas" ensued.[34] The meeting was adjourned. President Coolidge did not officially respond to the accusation but unofficial denials were made known in the press.[34][35] Ultimately H.R. 8989 did not pass,[36] but the hearings received wide press coverage.[30][33][34]

Lockwood's estateEdit

After Houdini's death in October 1926, Mackenberg continued to investigate fraudulent psychics for over 20 years and serve as an expert on them in various venues.[37] One court case in Pennsylvania involved the 1939 will of Augustus T. Lockwood. He had bequeathed a large sum of money to a "Spiritualistic College to Educate Mediums" at Lily Dale, New York, a famous camp and meeting place for Spiritualists. The state of Pennsylvania sought to invalidate the will, in part on the argument that the bequest would benefit criminal behavior and thus would be "against public policy".[38] Mackenberg was called as the "star witness" and the state was successful at trial.[39] The case was appealed, however, and overturned by higher courts.[38]

Public outreachEdit

In addition to her investigations, Mackenberg attempted to educate the public on psychic fraud. She toured the country giving lectures on psychic fraud to various groups, a typical talk title was “Debunking the Ghost Racket”.[40] These talks would include demonstrations of techniques used by psychics including spirit trumpets, table tipping, billet reading and so on.[27][5]

She wrote a series of articles on the "ghost racket" which were serialized to newspapers in 1929 and posthumously anthologized and re-published in 2016. A manuscript titled So You Want to Attend a Seance? gathered these reports, but the manuscript itself has never been published.[15] She also assisted with investigations which were published in major media outlets such as Popular Science,[41] The Chicago Tribune[6] and The Saturday Evening Post.[42] She appeared on television talk shows including Mike and Buff[43] and Tonight Starring Steve Allen.[44]

Personal lifeEdit

She remained single and continued to live in the New York City area in a "well lighted" apartment ("because I get tired of dark rooms").[4] Her friends called her "Mac".[12] Mackenberg died in April 1968.[1]

Representations in popular cultureEdit

In 2017, Mackenberg was featured alongside Houdini in re-enactment sequences during season 14, episode 13 of the Travel Channel's documentary series Mysteries at the Museum. The re-enactments included Mackenberg's investigations of spiritualist seances and her 1926 congressional testimony.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Rose Mackenberg". Social Security Death Index via Family Search. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Polidoro 2001, p. 180.
  3. ^ Edwards 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Battelle, Phyllis (November 21, 1949). "Ghost-Busting Is Job of Rose Mackenberg". St. Petersburg Times. p. 12. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d Pankratz 1995, p. 29.
  6. ^ a b c d Williamson, E.W. (August 9, 1945). "A Lady with 36 Spirit Hubbies Says It's Fraud". Chicago Tribune. p. 11. Archived from the original on August 28, 2019. Retrieved August 28, 2019 – via
  7. ^ a b c Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 460.
  8. ^ a b Polidoro 2001, p. 181.
  9. ^ a b c d Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 461.
  10. ^ Polidoro 2001, p. 175.
  11. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 501.
  12. ^ a b c Loxton 2013, p. 74.
  13. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 478.
  14. ^ a b Scott, Ed (September 29, 1941). "How to Fool a Ghost ... By Alicia Bunck". PM Daily. p. 15.
  15. ^ a b c Wolf 2016.
  16. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 466.
  17. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, pp. 478–480.
  18. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 483.
  19. ^ Mackenberg & Fishman 1951, p. 27.
  20. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 488.
  21. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 506.
  22. ^ Ranger, Joshua; Edward T. Linenthal (December 2000). "Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits". Journal of American History. 87 (3): 967–969. doi:10.2307/2675284. JSTOR 2675284. Although not technically artifacts, the wonderfully reproduced manuscript letters from Rose Mackenberg offer a fantastic opportunity for very interested visitors to learn more about how séances were conducted. Certainly wordy, the affidavits describe in detail how Ms. Mackenberg was manipulated by the medium. Eerily similar to today's "psychic hot lines," the mediums took clues from Ms. Mackenberg to report on what the spirits were saying. The affidavits, more than anything in the exhibit, place the visitor in the séance and stand as a great example of how archival manuscript materials can add rich detail to museum exhibits.
  23. ^ Mackenberg & Fishman 1951, p. 104.
  24. ^ a b Gresham, William Lindsay (1959). Houdini, the man who walked through walls. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 305. OCLC 529502. For much of his material the author gives credit to Miss Rose Mackenberg, Houdini's chief investigator of psychic frauds.
  25. ^ "Some Recollections of Houdini". Mystifier. 3 (3): 2–4. 1993.
  26. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 532.
  27. ^ a b "Seance Tricks Exposed To Jr. Assembly". The Herald Statesman. Yonkers, NY. November 7, 1945. p. 11. Members of the Junior Assembly of Yonkers learned the truth and fallacies of seances and other "ghost rackets" from Miss Rose Mackenberg, former detective for the late Houdini, at the November meeting at the Y.W.C.A. Miss Mackenberg, who has conducted investigations of mediums for various newspapers, gave a demonstration of a seance showing "phenomena" used to fool the public. She revealed tricks of spirit photography, cabinet hoaxes and phosphorus wraiths. She also showed how ballot reading is done by soaking the envelope, in which the ballot is enclosed, with alcohol. She said that before his death 19 years ago, Houdini gave written messages to members of his family and a few friends which he said would be delivered personally by him if a message could be sent from the spirit world. Miss Mackenberg was one of those chosen and the message has not come through.
  28. ^ Mackenberg & Fishman 1951, p. 26.
  29. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 481.
  30. ^ a b "SAY LAWMAKERS CONSULT MEDIUMS; Washington Spiritualists Fight Bill to Forbid Fortune Telling for Fees". The New York Times. February 27, 1926. p. 17.
  31. ^ USCongress 1926.
  32. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 482.
  33. ^ a b "HINTS OF SEANCES AT WHITE HOUSE; Witness at Capital Asserts a Spiritualist Said Coolidge Family Attended Them. STORY OFFICIALLY DENIED Row Between Houdini and Mediums Breaks Up Hearing on Bill to Regulate Clairvoyants". The New York Times. May 19, 1926. p. 26.
  34. ^ a b c Stokes, Thomas L. (May 19, 1926). "Woman Was Told Seances Given At White House – Also Informed Number of Senators are Patrons of Clairvoyants". The Evening Independent. Vol. XIX, no. 168. p. 1. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
  35. ^ Kalush & Sloman 2006, p. 487.
  36. ^ Polidoro 2001, p. 189.
  37. ^ Pankratz 1995, p. 28.
  38. ^ a b Lockwood's Estate, 344 Pa. 293, 25 A.2d 168 (1942)
  39. ^ "Spiritualism Not Involved, Writer Says". The Jamestown Evening Journal. Vol. LXXII, no. 31. February 5, 1941. pp. 1, 6.
  40. ^ "Houdini Ex-Aide 'Debunks' Ghosts". Brooklyn Eagle. June 18, 1946. p. 18. There just isn't such a thing as a ghost, Rose Mackenberg, former aide to the late Houdini, world famed, magician, last night told the Flatbush Republican Club of 2431 Church Ave. In a lecture on "Debunking the Ghost Racket," Miss Mackenberg displayed the tricks used by mediums when she presented a "genuine" old-fashioned seance.
  41. ^ Worden, Helen (November 1944). "Exposing Tricks of the Fake Mediums". Popular Science. Vol. 145, no. 5. pp. 67–71, 213–214. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
  42. ^ Mackenberg & Fishman 1951.
  43. ^ "Free service offers bizarre personalities for radio and TV". Sponsor Magazine. February 25, 1952. p. 54. Rose Mackenberg, a "ghost detective" who debunks phony spiritualists, who appeared on Mike and Buff, CBS-TV
  44. ^ "Television Programs for Today". The Philadelphia Inquirer. October 31, 1955. p. 22. 11:30 TONIGHT. Steve Allen. Rose Mackenberg, Houdini colleague, is guest.

Bibliography and further readingEdit

External linksEdit

  • Nilsson, Jeff (April 2, 2011). "The Art and Crime of Illusion". The Saturday Evening Post. Retrieved May 11, 2016. has photos of Mackenberg demonstrating seance techniques in 1951
  • Carnegie, Dean (January 22, 2012). "Houdini's Mysterious Girl Detective". The Magic Detective blog. Retrieved May 12, 2016. has photos of Mackenberg in her disguises