During the Roaring Twenties, America was crawling with phony mediums. Rose Mackenberg, a PI, exposed fraud and manipulation within the Spiritualist movement.
After his falling out with the Spiritualist resurgence of the 1920s, Harry Houdini was on the warpath. He spent years going to seances, exposing fraudulent mediums, and battling advocates for Spiritualism in the newspapers. While working to expose Spiritualist fraud, he built a team of around 20 different informants, whom he called his secret service. These men and women would seek out Spiritualists who were suspected of being fraudulent, gather information on them, and expose their tricks to the public.
One of the most talented and prolific of Houdini’s spies was a New York woman named Rose Mackenberg. Like Houdini himself, Mackenberg hadn’t planned on becoming a professional ghostbuster, and she wasn’t sure she believed in ghosts. However, that didn’t stop her from exposing roughly 300 mediums between 1924 and 1926.
Mackenberg’s Early Life
Rose Mackenberg was born in 1892 in Brooklyn. Her parents were Lewis and Anna Mackenberg, both immigrants from Russia. Her early life seems to have been uneventful, and there is no record of her having siblings. According to Mackenberg, she believed in ghosts when she was a teenager.
As a young woman, she was a stenographer in a law office before becoming a private eye. During one case in 1924, she was contacted by a businessman who had lost a great deal of money after making investments based on advice from a psychic. Mackenberg was asked to investigate the psychic for signs of fraud. This was the case that changed her life.
While she was investigating the phony psychic, Mackenberg contacted Houdini, who was already known as a fraud-buster in the world of Spiritualism. He was so impressed with her work on the case that he offered her a job on his team of undercover paranormal investigators. Mackenberg decided she’d rather take Houdini’s offer than stay with her old job – after all, the work was more consistent, the pay was better, and she got to travel across the country. Best of all, it soon turned out that she had a gift for it.
Miss Raud and Mrs. Bunck
Throughout the early Twenties, Houdini’s team moved from town to town across America looking for ghosts. The spies worked alone and undercover, usually posing as credulous clients in order to observe the psychic’s methods, their preferred clients, and any threads they might have dropped during their performance. Later, they would report back to Houdini, who would publicly expose the fraud at one of his stage shows. Mackenberg also publicized her work through writing, exposing her marks through witty, often lurid articles in local newspapers.
“I smell a rat before I smell the incense!”Rose Mackenberg
Not long after joining the team, Mackenberg developed a process. When she arrived at a new town, she would begin by observing the locals and identifying the “types” of local women who were likely to attend a seance. One of these “types” would serve as a template for her newest alias and backstory. With the right clothes and a few well-placed lies, Mackenberg could become a demure, grief-stricken widow, an invalid with a passion for the paranormal, or a gullible young lady wandering in from the rain. In one article for the New York Times, she displayed a full array of her disguises; from one photo to the next, she was barely recognizable.
During her time in the city, she would usually assume a fake name. Some of her favorites were “Frances Raud” (F. Raud) and “Alicia Bunck” (All-is-a-bunk). Almost all of these identities came with fictitious dead husbands. Sometimes her character was an orphan or had lost a brother in the first World War. When a psychic succeeded in summoning the ghost of someone who had never actually existed, it was easy to prove that they were a fraud.
The Case of Charles Gunsolas
One of Mackenberg’s many targets was Charles Gunsolas, a medium from Indianapolis. Like many members of the Spiritualist movement, he was angered by Houdini and his team for exposing mediums across the country. In one angry letter to the magician, he had described himself as, “one of the leaders of Spiritualism in America.” In reality, it doesn’t seem that Gunsolas had garnered much fame for himself outside the city of Indianapolis. Like many Spiritualists, though, he had a talent for talking himself up. He claimed that his spirit guide was an ancient Hindi spirit and that he had a “spirit-wife” named Ella.
Mackenberg went to Indianapolis in 1925. This time around, she was posing as a young mother who had just lost her baby. Gunsolas smelled warm blood. Not only did he offer to channel her child, but he offered to teach her how to make contact with the spirit world for $25—about $371 in 1925 money. At one point, he suggested that connecting with the spirit world would be easier if Mackenberg took her clothes off. This sleazy manipulation wasn’t uncommon among Spiritualist con men; during her time as a ghostbuster, men harassed Mackenberg so often that Houdini suggested that she should carry a gun.
Houdini arrived in Indianapolis six weeks later to host a stage show and invited Gunsolas to attend. Using the information Mackenberg had sent him, he exposed Gunsolas’s fraudulent methods and humiliated him in front of the crowd. Gunsolas weakly protested that he, too, hated phony psychics, but nobody was willing to believe him at this point. He ended up leaving the show early, to the booing of the audience.
Jane Coates and the Congressional Hearing
In 1926, the efforts of Houdini, Mackenberg, and the secret spies finally paid off. In the spring of that year, Congress held hearings on House Resolution 8989, which would ban mediums from practicing in the District of Columbia. Considering the sway that many mediums held over the lives of ordinary people, Houdini was concerned that a medium in the nation’s capital could influence the government through lies and trickery. This fear wasn’t totally unfounded. The First Ladies Edith Wilson and Florence Harding had both taken advice from the medium Madame Marcia Champney. It was hard to tell exactly how far Spiritualist influence went in the capital, but Mackenberg was about to find out.
Before the hearings were scheduled to take place, Mackenberg was sent to DC to scour the place for mediums who might make a scene at the hearing. She attended a seance with Jane Coates, a popular medium in the city. During the visit, Mackenberg struck up a conversation about the upcoming hearings. Coates was confident that the measure would never pass. She had four regular clients who were Senators. Besides, President Coolidge himself was holding table-tipping seances at the White House for his family.
Not long after the visit, Mackenberg testified that Jane Coates had named four different United States Senators as her regular customers. She had also said that the President’s family was holding seances in the White House. The House floor was in an uproar as Coates denied these allegations. As a New York Times article on the hearings said, that evening “came near winding up in a free-for-all fistfight.” While HR 8989 ultimately did not pass, the press coverage from the hearings had damaged Coates’s reputation, along with that of several other mediums in the area.
The End of the Ghost Hunt
Mackenberg’s time in Houdini’s secret service ended in October 1926, when Houdini unexpectedly died from a stunt gone wrong. However, Mackenberg kept ghost hunting. As a private investigator, she sought clients who wanted to expose fraud or people who’d been suckered by mediums. Mackenberg was unsure if ghosts were real – she said she’d never seen real proof of one – and didn’t mind Spiritualism as an idea, but she never let a fraud get away with using the idea to manipulate people.
In addition to her detective work, Mackenberg did her best to educate people on the dangers of Spiritualism. She was known to give lectures that demonstrated how to spot a phony psychic as well as the tricks she’d seen performed in the dark so many times. While her memoir, “So You Want to Attend a Seance,” never got published, she was mentioned in several articles in Popular Science and the Chicago Tribune.
While she’d traveled around the country as a member of Houdini’s secret service, Mackenberg spent most of her later life in the city where she was born. Her apartment on West 24th Street was always well-lit; after years of attending seances, Mackenberg was tired of hanging around dark rooms. She never married, although she often joked that she had been widowed a thousand times through her various alibis. Passing in 1968, Rose Mackenberg was 75 when she died and has shown no sign of returning since then.