Rose Mackenberg: How the first female Ghostbuster went from believer to skeptic

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Jul 13, 2016, 5:16 PM EDT

Without having seen the new Ghostbusters movie yet, it might be safe to say that, after seeing more than their fair share of spooky phenomena, our heroines become believers in the paranormal by the end of the movie, if they aren't already at the beginning. Over a century before they took on the noble mission of busting ghosts, though, another woman launched a similar mission that became her life's work. Rose Mackenberg, self-described "Spook Spy" and Harry Houdini's "Girl Detective," investigated the growing "ghost racket" in the early 20th century and traveled to places where Houdini was scheduled to perform and bust frauds -- fake ghosts, fake mediums and their ilk. Mackenberg, once a devout believer in spiritualism, became disillusioned throughout her fascinating but sobering career and ended up an even stronger skeptic.

There is not a wealth of information about Rose Mackenberg out there, which is pretty tragic, if I may be hyperbolic. She was from a young age a fascinating, outspoken and accomplished woman who employed her curiosity in the name of truth. In short, she didn't want to see vulnerable people swindled. Her career as a private investigator began in the 1920s, when the Spanish flu pandemic and World War I were causing many grieving people to turn to Spiritualism to have one last moment with their lost loved ones. While many followers of Spiritualism were sincere, many knew they could easily capitalize on desperate people and, from that, the "ghost racket" was born. Mackenberg made it her mission to expose them, and she was willing to sacrifice her own faith in spiritualism to do it.

I spoke with Tony Wolf, the author of the upcoming Houdini's Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghostbusting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg, who has done a lot of research on Mackenberg's career as a "Spook Spy." He told me that much of what he learned about Mackenberg was through her own writings; after working for Harry Houdini, she continued to write columns, exposes, and other articles about her findings on paranormal fraud.

"By her own account," Wolf says, "Rose believed in Spiritualism as a teenager." Her work as a P.I. began in her 20s, so that apparently didn't last long. He continues:

"...[I]t's pretty clear that this first P.I. case [investigating Spiritualist fraud] and then her training with Houdini disabused her of any real belief in Spiritualism, though, like her mentor, she was always careful to present herself as an agnostic in that area."

In a 1951 article for the Saturday Evening Post, entitled "I've Unmasked a Thousand Frauds," she explained that she wasn't really anti-Spiritualism as much as she was anti-charlatan:

"I do not impugn spiritualism as a sect or as a sincere religious belief. There are many intellectually honest persons, some mediums included, who get solace from a belief in contacts with the afterworld. My work and this article concern only those mediums who deceive trusting persons.

"Is there any medium who can actually call up the spirits of the dead and put them into verbal communication with the living? I don’t know. There may be. All I can testify to is that I have never met any."


You could almost say that she was the Peter Venkman of her time. In my previous piece on Spiritualism, I posited that Venkman was not a full skeptic in Ghostbusters, but another agnostic Spiritualist who kept an open mind when it came to proving the existence or nonexistence of paranormal phenomena. In his (fictional) case, the proof of that existence was hard to ignore. But for Mackenberg, case after case of con-artists pretending to have supernatural abilities sent her faith in the exact opposite direction. After starting out as a curious believer, she became a hard-line skeptic with a mission, though it sounds like she'd be willing to be convinced otherwise should she see real evidence.

Wolf says that, in her work for Houdini, she would travel to various towns and attend "as many seances as she could" in the guise of a devout believer - using clever names like Frances Raud ("F. Raud") or Allicia Bunck ("All is a bunk"). She would then report back with everything she learned about the tricks used by the so-called medium. Houdini would then expose the medium as a fraud when he arrived in the same town a week later for his show. This was the routine until Houdini died on Halloween in 1926.

Ghost racketeering became a very profitable career for the people participating, and Mackenberg focused the rest of her career on fighting it. The same year Houdini died, Mackenberg testified to Congress to support anti-fortune telling laws and using the same methods that she did with her mentor, she exposed not just frauds in Washington, D.C., but a number of U.S. Senators who had visited mediums for seances. Years later, a resurgence of popularity for Spiritualism occurred when World War II created more grieving families, and Mackenberg worked with Chicago Tribune reporter E.W. Williamson on a series of articles about the ghost racket. Mackenberg never stopped trying to debunk frauds, but realized that, no matter how many articles she wrote or lectures she gave, people would not give up on trying to communicate with their lost loved ones. Says Wolf: "She seems to have been very comfortable with her devoutly skeptical point of view, though she fatalistically came to accept that, no matter how many times fake spiritualists were exposed, shut-eyes would always pay good money to be fooled."

Mackenberg clearly kept her eyes open throughout her life for any evidence that would convince her that Spiritualism was real, but she was met with chicanery across the board.

After learning about a woman who spent decades learning every trick of the trade, designed characters to play in order to infiltrate seances around the country, and confronted members of the U.S. Congress over their patronage of fake psychics, it is fascinating to wonder what this ardent seeker of truth would have done if she'd even seen a hint that the supernatural was possible. And yeah, she'd be an outright antagonist to my beloved Ghostbusters, but there's no doubt that she'd be a really formidable one.


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