Ladies of Paranormal's Past: Rose Mackenberg

29th December 2019. General, Ladies of paranormal past, Harry Houdini. 784 page views. 0 comments.

Rose Mackenberg worked for Harry Houdini as an undercover plant to help Houdini in his quest to expose fake psychics. In two years, she investigated 300 psychics and did a lot of significant work for Houdini as his right hand woman in his fight against the spiritualists.

I have previously written about the Ladies of Paranormal's Past to put some very special ladies in the spotlight for their work within the paranormal field.  I am not talking about the amazing amount of women who are now at the forefront of the paranormal field.  I am talking about the women who over a century ago made their mark in the paranormal field yet are not mentioned in a lot literature about paranormal research at the time.  Well it is time they got the credit they deserve!  Today we are going to look at the story of Rose Mackenberg - Houdini's right hand woman in the fight against the spiritualists.

Who was Rose Mackenberg?

Rose Mackenberg was born July 10th 1892 in Brooklyn, New York City.  She went onto work as a stenographer in a law office.  and eventually a private investigator.  Like many people during the early years of the spiritualist movement in the early 20th century, Rose Mackenberg believed in spiritualism.  In the early 1920's however, she found herself presented with a case where a client had lost significant money in investments based on advice he had received from a psychic.  Given his reputation at the time, Mackenberg contact Houdini for help with the case.  Impressed by her work on the case, Houdini invited her to become one of his undercover psychic investigators.  It was a paid role within a team of around 20 secret operatives labeled 'undercover psychic investigators'.

Image Source: NY Times

Debunking the frauds

In her time working for Houdini, it is thought that Mackenberg was involved in investigating over 300 psychics in a period span of 2 years.  Much like Houdini, Mackenberg would disguise herself in a costume when attending sessions with a psychic.  Houdini taught her and his team all of the tricks of deception he knew so that they could identify the frauds and pass the information onto Houdini.  He would then go onto expose them during his tours.  Always the showman, Houdini effectively took credit for the hard work of his team.  Mackenberg however, would publish her findings in what is described as an hilarious and lurid reports in local newspapers and magazines.

Image Source: atlas obscura

Of course there was another important reason for the art of disguise.  Houdini and Mackenberg were considered to be bitter enemies of the spiritualist and religious movements.  They put a lot of people out of work.  Some people have even speculated that Harry Houdini was 'murdered' with a punch to the stomach where he later died.  They believe the spiritualists organised a 'hit' although this has never been proven, it is a conspiracy theory.  When arriving to a new town, Mackenberg would take note of the type of clothing local ladies were wearing and dress accordingly so she would 'blend in' with the locals.  She would observe their characteristics, the way they spoke, they mannerisms and created a character based on these observations (as seen above).  As a single lady, she not only had to worry about her safety from spiritualists, but also from the unwanted advancements of men.  Houdini insisted she carry a gun with her to such events, which she refused.  She was groped and propositioned on many occasion, but never married.  

I never married, but I have received messages from 1,000 husbands and twice as many children in the world to come. Invariably they told me they were happy where they were, which was not entirely flattering to me.

Rose Mackenberg  St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1937

Life after Houdini

Houdini tragically died in 1926 quite unexpectedly and while Mackenberg was said to have written a manuscript, it was never published.  She did however publish many newspaper and magazine articles which some believe were part of this original manuscript which was called 'So you want to attend a seance?'. By 1929, she went into retirement, however like many involved with the paranormal, this retirement didn't last long.  In 1932, she came out of retirement to assist insurance companies and law firms etc throughout the great depression.  It was estimated at the time by paranormal debunker Julien Proskauer that 30 million people per year were seeing spiritualists at a cost of around $125 million dollars.  She acknowledged that not all psychics had intentions of deceiving people, but did not agree with people grieving being 'hoaxed' out of their money by those with bad intentions.  In 1945, she worked for the Chicago Tribune Newspaper publishing a series of expose articles for E.W. Williamson’s guide to the Spiritualist underworld of the Windy City.  She also did public lectures and demonstrations (in a much less showman way compared to Houdini) revealing the ways in which the psychics were deceiving the public.

Image Source: atlas obscura

Forever living in her New York apartment, she said she liked to keep the place 'well lit' as she was tired of sitting in dark rooms.  Mackenberg died in 1968 after spending 3 decades dedicated to the field of psychic investigation.  In 1949, a Hearst syndicate article called her "perhaps the only woman ‘ghost-buster’ in the world."  I think she would be pretty proud to see how far women have come in the field!

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