This forthcoming book is an anthology of articles originally published as a series in several North American newspapers during 1929. The author was a woman named Rose Mackenberg, who was among the most prolific real-life “ghost busters” of the early-mid 20th century.
Rose was part of Harry Houdini’s team of skeptical “spook spies” who investigated fraudulent spiritualist activity, gathering evidence for Houdini’s crusade against the 1920s “ghost racket”. She was already an experienced private investigator when she started working with Houdini, who then taught her the many tricks of the ghost racketeers.
Rose would travel from town to town, infiltrating the local phony seance subculture in disguise and using false names, including “the Reverend Frances Raud” (“F.Raud”) and “Allicia Bunck” (“all is a bunk”, “bunk” being ’20s slang for a con game). Once she had gathered enough evidence of “spirit fraud”, Rose would pass the proof on to Houdini, who would proceed to expose the con-artists when he arrived in that town.
It was sometimes dangerous work, as Rose and her colleagues were caught up several times in violent clashes between pro- and anti-Spiritualist groups. In February of 1926 she presented evidence, alongside Houdini himself, before a Congressional committee investigating the ghost racket.
After Houdini’s untimely death eight months later, Rose continued his work, exposing all manner of phony spirit mediums, the purveyors of “love and luck charms” and other fraudsters throughout the Great Depression and then the 1940s and ’50s. She also began performing lectures and demonstrations warning people away from being suckered by this cruel type of con game.
Stay tuned for a publication announcement for Houdini’s Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg!
The new TV series Houdini and Doyle teams these two very famous figures, together with pioneering female police constable Adelaide Stratton, investigating apparently supernatural mysteries in early Edwardian London.
Obviously, the series is a work of fiction inspired by some historically real characters and situations, with a lot of creative license applied. For example, whereas the real Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were, in fact, friends for a few years, that friendship actually occurred during the early 1920s rather than circa 1901, and of course the premise of their working together to solve “supernatural” crimes is entirely fictional.
It’s true, however, that Houdini and Doyle did investigate paranormal claims, individually and from very different perspectives. Both men had a long-standing interest in the nascent religion of Spiritualism – the purported practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead.
Doyle’s interest was that of a devout believer in the supernatural who was concerned about the widespread practice of “spirit fraud” or “playing the ghost racket” – the con-game of using magic tricks and psychological manipulation to hoax “suckers” into paying for fake psychic communication with the dearly departed. From Doyle’s point of view, this represented an intolerable perversion of a noble spiritual practice, and he conducted a number of investigations into the practices of spirit mediums to try to determine if they were being honest about their abilities.
Doyle was not, however, experienced in the techniques of deception, relying instead upon his powers of observation and deduction – which were rather less than those of Sherlock Holmes – and his sense of an individual’s character. Although he believed in the scientific method, he wanted and expected it to prove that paranormal events did, in fact, take place. As such, he was frequently deceived by ghost racketeers and even by much simpler and more innocent hoaxes, such as the famous Cottingley fairy incident.
In 1922 Doyle led a defection of members from the Society for Psychical Research, on the grounds that the Society had become too skeptical. His enthusiastic endorsement of a number of people and events later proved to have been fraudulent did no lasting good to his reputation. His biographers point out, however, that – although Doyle himself denied it – his passion for the subject of Spiritualism may well have been fired by the fact that he lost seven family members shortly after the end of the First World War.
Harry Houdini, for his part, professed a willingness and even an eagerness to believe in spirit communication, but also possessed a lifetime’s training in methods of artful misdirection, concealment and other forms of trickery. He attended numerous seances, but in each case he quickly saw through the magic tricks being employed.
Like Doyle, Houdini became very angry when he saw the naive trust of seance attendees – many of whom were recently bereaved – being taken advantage of by ghost racketeers, particularly after his mother died in 1913. Unlike Doyle, he saw evidence of spirit fraud everywhere, and so he began a crusade against the fraudsters. Houdini quickly gained notoriety among the subculture of ghost racketeers and took to attending their seances in disguise before loudly exposing their tricks.
Later, he would engage a team of private detectives, referred to as his “secret service”, whose job was to travel the USA gathering evidence of spirit fraud, which would be passed on to Houdini for his exposés. One of his most trusted and experienced detectives was Rose Mackenberg, who went on to become among the most prominent “ghost breakers” of the 20th century.
Although Houdini and Doyle liked and admired each other, exchanging frequent letters and even vacationing together, they never agreed on the “spiritualist question”. Doyle was actually convinced that Houdini was among the greatest “physical mediums” in the world, mistaking Houdini’s skill at magic illusions for evidence of actual psychic powers. Houdini, adhering to the magician’s code, was unable to explain to his friend exactly how the tricks were really done, though he assured Sir Arthur that they were performed by strictly natural means.
Matters came to a head when Lady Doyle – herself a “psychographic medium”, meaning that she produced “automatic writing” believed to be dictated by a spirit guide – conducted a seance in which she attempted to channel the words of Houdini’s much-beloved mother. Houdini maintained a polite facade, but inwardly he was unconvinced; Lady Doyle’s automatic writings were in English, a language his late mother had barely spoken, and were headed with a cross, a symbol unlikely to have been used by the devoutly Jewish Cecelia Weiss. Also, the day of the seance happened to have been his mother’s birthday, but that fact was not mentioned in the writing.
Although it’s sometimes assumed that Lady Doyle was deliberately attempting to con Houdini, that’s not necessarily the case; given the right circumstances of belief and emotional investment, it’s entirely possible that she genuinely believed that her automatic writing was being dictated by a discarnate spirit. Houdini did not believe, and exited the situation as gracefully as he could, not wishing to offend his friends.
After Sir Arthur publicly (and, probably, sincerely) proclaimed that Houdini had been converted to Spiritualism by this seance, however, Houdini had no choice but to vehemently dispute that claim. Their former friendship quickly turned to bitter rancour and they waged a public relations feud via their newspaper articles, lectures and investigations, each man becoming, in effect, the champion of his own side. Sir Arthur argued vehemently in favour of spiritualism, while Houdini countered with exposé after exposé of prominent mediums, right up until his untimely death in October of 1926.
Doyle, who passed away four years later, never lost his belief in Spiritualism and also continued to believe that Houdini had been a master medium in denial.
We were recently fortunate enough to be able to attend the Houdiniana auction orchestrated by Potter and Potter in Chicago (the entire catalog is available here in PDF form).
Among the thousands of Houdini-related antique books, posters, photographs, props and other items was one piece of particular interest to ghost racket aficionados; Harry Houdini’s personal scrapbook of his ongoing battle with fake spiritualists.
The large, 125-page leather-bound scrapbook was unknown to Houdini buffs until it was discovered in California during 2013. It contains many hundreds of clippings from American, British and other newspapers and magazines, most of them dating from 1925 and the great majority concerning the exploits of (mostly then-) famous spiritualists. Other clippings detailing Houdini’s own exposés of psychic fakery; Houdini also wrote numerous notes in the margins.
To learn much more about this amazing artefact from the annals of the ghost racket, check out this post by John Cox – the editor of the fabulous Wild About Houdini blog – detailing how he was able to help authenticate the scrapbook shortly after it was first discovered by a California antique dealer.
Here’s a fascinating piece of ghostbuster history; a Movietone newsreel interview with Harry Price, who investigated numerous purportedly psychic phenomena during the early-mid 20th century. With his seemingly affected “upper class” accent and abrupt, awkward movements, HP is clearly not a natural presenter. Still, he does a good job showing off the London Council for Psychical Research’s facilities, including their impressive library, several interesting museum artefacts, a lab full of cutting-edge 1930s technology and a seance room equipped with apparatus to test claims of clairvoyance and telekinesis.
This 2015 ITV telemovie is very loosely based on Neil Spring’s HP-inspired novel, The Ghost Hunters(2013).In effect, being filtered through two different fictional media, the detail of the movie’s plot admits only a little historical accuracy; but of course, as a work of fiction it makes no claim of documentary realism and can only be fairly judged on its own merits.
The story opens with HP (Rafe Spall) conducting a dramatic seance at a home in London during, or very shortly after, the First World War. As it then transpires, Price has gimmicked the sitting for maximum spooky effect. Clearly, he is riding high as a ghost racketeer – until, shockingly, a disturbed young soldier who has bought into Price’s line of afterlife patter commits suicide right in front of him.
(Cut to the opening titles, a nice montage of the tools of the ghost-hunter’s trade – ’20s-vintage cameras, phonographs, metronomes and other such apparatus.)
Several years later, a sadder and wiser Harry Price has changed tack and is making his living as an investigator of seemingly paranormal phenomena, with the cloud of his former charlatanry hanging heavily about him. He is hired to investigate the strange case of Grace Goodwin (Zoe Boyle), the young wife of fast-rising Liberal MP Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward); Grace has recently been discovered wandering the streets of London, naked and disoriented, and seems to be suffering from a case of ghostly possession.
Price visits the couple’s home and quickly learns that it is a former workhouse. Sarah Goodwin’s strange visions seem to revolve around the ghost of a young boy who died there many years before.
HP is assigned the couple’s maid, Sarah Grey (Cara Theobold) as an assistant and discovers her to be a natural skeptic and a shrewd detective in her own right. Sarah has her own reason to distrust psychic mediums; her mother is a seance groupie, spending money they can’t afford in a series of attempts to contact her late husband. The point is effectively made that mediums, for all their frequent chicanery, were often the closest thing to therapists available to ordinary people during the early 20th century.
In an interlude from the main action, Price disrupts and debunks one of these public seances, for all the good it does; the true believers in the audience boo him off the stage and then the angry psychic strikes a nerve in aggressively cold reading Harry backstage, provoking Harry to knock him down. Eventually, we gather that Harry’s wife was sadly lost to insanity and that Harry seems to blame himself for not being able to help her.
Harry and Sarah proceed to puzzle out clues and mysteries towards discovering the real source of Mrs. Goodwin’s bizarre behaviour, calling upon the additional help of two of HP’s associates as the case becomes ever more convoluted.
Albert Ogoro (Richie Campbell) is a chemist by day and faux-voodoo witch-doctor by night. His main function in the story, other than to provide chemical analysis, is to illustrate another perspective on the ethics of the ghost racket. From Albert’s point of view, his clients are in such desperate straits that, if his sham-shamanism offers them some comfort, what’s the harm? He applies that logic in “assisting” Harry during a late-night vigil at the Goodwin home, but in this case his trickery (in the form of a rather implausible mechanical spider device secreted inside a grand piano) does no particular good.
Vernon Wall (Lewis Reeves), a hard-nosed young reporter who clearly has some unresolved “history” with Harry, nevertheless also agrees to help and tracks down a former secret lover of Mrs. Goodwin’s, whose presence in the Goodwins’ lives seems to have sparked the current dire situation. As it transpires, the politician is insanely possessive of his wife and, upon discovering her infidelity (and that she was pregnant with another man’s baby), he began secretly dosing her with home-brewed barbiturates, causing her to miscarry and then suffer terrifying hallucinations as she withdrew from the drug.
Goodwin reacts violently when Sarah confronts him with the truth and knocks her unconscious. Very curiously, as she comes to, she seems to see the same ghostly young boy who has been haunting Grace Goodwin. Charitably, it might be assumed that Sarah is now so deeply involved with the case that her imagination conjured a spectral child; less charitably, this vision reads as an incongruous “maybe it’s all true after all” cop-out on behalf of the writer. There’s no time to worry about that, though, as Mr. Goodwin has gone berserk and is attempting to drown his wife in the bath tub – but Harry Price arrives in the nick of time and saves the day.
The story ends with Harry inviting Sarah, who is now out of a job, to become his full-time assistant. She says she’ll think about it – leaving the way open for their adventures to be continued in some form, perhaps as a regular series …
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Seven ibangs out of ten for this effective, atmospheric and well-acted ghost-hunter procedural.