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 open inside a traveling tent-show where faith healer Elias Downey is explaining the origin of his miraculous powers to an enraptured audience. God, we are told, used Elias as a conduit in healing his desperately ill younger sister, Jane, when the Downeys were both children. A skeptic scoffingly interrupts and, shortly thereafter, falls to the floor, coughing blood and insensible. His wife desperately pleads with Elias to save him, but it’s too late – the man is dead.
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton attend the dead man’s funeral, hoping to gather enough evidence to prove that a crime has actually been committed, in order to be able to order an autopsy. Elias Downey arrives to pay his respects and Houdini (sacrificing all decorum for expedience) baits him into a loud science vs. faith confrontation, distracting the mourners while his colleagues examine the corpse. Doyle deduces that the man may have been suffering from dengue fever, and may therefore have died of natural causes after all.
Constable Stratton, however, discovers that several other people have died shortly after disparaging Reverend Downey and the team then attends another of his faith healing services. Houdini performs an impromptu demonstration of “psychic surgery” on a member of Downey’s audience, to illustrate the power of the placebo effect; the man is deceived by the trick and believes himself to be cured, and so he feels better. Ironically, Houdini himself then falls violently ill; meanwhile, Doyle is convinced of Reverend Downey’s powers and asks him to try to heal his comatose wife, Touie, who does, in fact, rally shortly after Downey prays over her.
Doyle, doubting his earlier diagnosis of dengue fever, conducts an illicit autopsy on the dead skeptic and is overcome by a toxic miasma rising from the man’s incised abdomen; coming to, he realises that the man was poisoned, suggesting foul play in the other deaths that have befallen people who scoffed at Downey. While Doyle and Stratton interview the wife of the dead skeptic, Houdini performs his matinee magic show, but is again overcome by illness and fails to escape the Water Torture Cell, requiring a dramatic glass-smashing rescue.
Eventually it transpires that the Reverend’s sister, Jane, has been bumping off “disbelievers” in order to bolster her innocent brother’s reputation, and thus his ability to do some actual good, even if only via the placebo effect.
The main emotional through-line in this episode lies in Arthur’s relationship with his newly-revived wife Touie. As the story began, he was losing hope that she would recover and was packing her clothes away in storage. After she regains consciousness (as it turns out, she was actually healed by an experimental medical treatment rather than by the Reverend’s prayers), the two of them share some tender moments … but tragically, by episode’s end she has relapsed into the coma. The distraught Doyle is comforted by his young daughter, and then, together, they unpack Touie’s clothing and re-hang it in her closet.
We’re asked to accept a lot of coincidences in this episode, especially regarding the timing of various illnesses and recoveries, which fit so neatly and dramatically into the storyline as to severely strain credibility.
Episode 3 is basically an examination of both the limited and erratic benefits and significant dangers of faith healing – here identified as nothing, more nor less, then the placebo effect, bolstered by the above-mentioned heavy dose of dramatic license. The ever-skeptical Houdini offers some trenchant and accurate observations along these lines, and while the more credulous Doyle is always ready to accept a supernatural explanation, his practical skills as a physician are crucial to solving the case.
Constable Stratton doesn’t have a great deal to do this time, other than to glance sternly at the two “boys” while they banter; hopefully she’ll have more of an active role in the rest of the season, aside from being Houdini’s burgeoning love interest.
‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _ _ _ _
Only six ibangs this week, but we’re looking forward to Episode 4, when Houdini and Doyle take on the legendary “leaping ghost”, Spring Heeled Jack!
Written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast and the author of the Skeptoid book series, Here Be Dragons is a great primer on critical thinking in evaluating pseudoscientific claims.