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News from NS:Jump into Old Weird America-- Meet Rose Mackenberg, the “Spook Spy”

September 20, 2021 at 11:40 AM by Brandi Cummings


The papers dubbed her “Houdini’s Mysterious Girl Detective” when 34-year-old Rose Mackenberg  stepped forward to testify before Congress on behalf of a bill to outlaw fortune-telling for pay in Washington D.C. in 1926. She was the most high-profile member of the private investigative team the great magician had hired for his campaign to debunk the practice of psychic readings.

After the devastation of the Great War and the influenza pandemic, the 1920s brought a revival of the home-grown religion of spiritualism, in which believers sought to communicate with the dead through a clairvoyant seer called a medium. It was a lucrative business for a convincing medium. Harry Houdini had even dabbled in the practice until a crisis of conscience compelled him to reveal that the tricks of the trade were just that--tricks designed to give false comfort and to cheat the unwary public. As he told one reporter, “Whenever any of these alleged spiritual mediums tell you they have supernatural aid, you may safely set them down as frauds.”

He devoted the last years of his career to outing fraudulent mediums in entertaining stage presentations and in privately held seances all over the country. 

Rose Mackenberg had worked for a detective agency in New York City before Houdini approached her to join his “secret service” team after he heard that she had once uncovered a phony medium there. Visiting over 300 psychics during her two years with Houdini, Rose created audacious disguises characterizing herself  as “the rustic schoolteacher” or “the credulous servant girl”—and used pseudonyms like “Allicia Bunk” (all is bunk) or “Frances Raud” (F.Raud). She once remarked, “I have received messages from 100 husbands and twice as many children in the world to come—invariably they tell me they are happy where they are, which is not entirely flattering to me.” 

Mackenberg dropped a bomb before Congress when she told them that a medium she had visited boasted that she had performed seances for the President and Mrs. Coolidge at the White House. Despite such revelations and much colorful testimony, the bill to ban fortune-telling in the capital did not pass.

Rose Mackenberg continued her work as “Spook Spy” long after Houdini’s untimely death on Halloween  in 1926. She attended over 1500 more seances, gave lectures, and wrote articles for the Hearst newspaper syndicate advising how to spot phony psychics well into the 1950s.   Like her mentor, Houdini, she insisted that she was willing to believe in the afterlife, she just had never seen any evidence she could not dismiss. “I can smell a rat before I even smell the incense”, she quipped.