The Astonishing Adventures of Houdini’s Favorite Detective

Rose Mackenberg in disguiseRose Mackenberg in disguise 12 Mar 1939, Sun The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) Newspapers.com


“Hints of Seances at White House; Witness at Capital Asserts a Spiritualist Said Coolidge Family Attended.” –Tipton Daily Tribune, 1926  

Like other newspapers across America in May 1926, Indiana’s Tipton Daily Tribune was following news out of Washington DC about a congressional subcommittee hearing. Hearings of that variety didn’t typically get national attention, but this one featured elements sure to fascinate newspaper readers.

The famous illusionist Harry Houdini had pitted himself against psychic mediums in a spectacle that would ultimately expose the personal lives of high-ranking U.S. officials—including the president of the United States.

And the “witness” mentioned in the headlines? That was 34-year-old Rose Mackenberg, dubbed “Houdini’s Mysterious Girl Detective” by the papers.

Rose Mackenberg (right) in 1925Rose Mackenberg (right) in 1925 27 Aug 1925, Thu Daily News (New York, New York) Newspapers.com


Becoming Houdini’s Detective

Mackenberg (born 1892) had been an investigator for a New York detective agency when she landed a case involving suspected fraud by a so-called psychic medium. A mutual friend connected her with Harry Houdini, who at the time was engaged in a public campaign to debunk fake spiritualists claiming to communicate with the dead.

Mackenberg joined Houdini’s team of 20 investigators in the mid-1920s and became one of his best. She went undercover to visit spiritualists suspected of fraud, gathering evidence that Houdini then exposed publicly at his performances.

By 1926, Mackenberg had investigated more than 300 mediums and been ordained a spiritualist minister 6 times.

The 1926 Subcommittee Hearing

As part of Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent mediums, two congressmen (Senator Royal S. Copeland and Representative Sol Bloom) sponsored an amendment to a Washington DC law that would essentially ban fortune telling in DC. The proposal was met with stiff resistance from the spiritualist community, who charged that it would infringe on their right to religious freedom.

27 Feb 1926, Sat The Richmond Item (Richmond, Indiana) Newspapers.com


An initial hearing before a House subcommittee was held for the bill in February 1926, with three more days of testimony in May. And with a showman like Houdini at the helm, the hearing—unsurprisingly—was a spectacle.

According to Rose Mackenberg, the days were “filled with near riots, a welter of conflicting testimony, shouted objections, muttered oaths, [and] copious tears,” as Houdini and the spiritualists battled it out.

Like the entertainer he was, Houdini showed the fascinated committee how some of the mediums’ tricks were performed. And in an attention-grabbing stunt, he even offered $10,000 to any medium present who could demonstrate that their claims of other-worldly communication were true. The ruckus got so bad that one day’s hearing had to be adjourned to restore order.

Houdini (left) at the 1926 congressional hearingHoudini (left) at the 1926 congressional hearing 10 Mar 1929, Sun The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) Newspapers.com


Mackenberg Takes the Stand

But the biggest bombshell of the hearing—at least as far as the news media was concerned—was dropped by Mackenberg herself.

Prior to the May hearings, Houdini had sent his undercover investigators, including Mackenberg, to visit suspected phony mediums in DC and gather evidence against them. During her testimony, Mackenberg alleged that two spiritualists had independently divulged that a number of their clients were U.S. senators, and she even went so far as to reveal the names of four of those senators while on the stand.

But most shocking of all, Mackenberg testified that one of the mediums, Jane Coates, had boasted that seances had been held in the White House, with President Coolidge and his family present.

19 May 1926, Wed The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) Newspapers.com


The two spiritualists vehemently refuted Mackenberg’s account, and the Coolidge administration unofficially denied the seances. But the story was rich fodder for newspapers, which published headlines like “Washington Goes In For ‘Spook Stuff’” and “Houdini Agent Says Coolidge Held Seances.”

Life After Houdini

Ultimately, despite the theatrics, Houdini’s bill failed to garner sufficient congressional support, and the famed magician died just 5 months later.

Mackenberg, though, continued debunking fake mediums for another 30 years. She investigated cases on behalf of banks, chambers of commerce, civic groups, police, lawyers, district attorneys, insurance and trust companies, private citizens, and more.

As a widely acknowledged expert, she wrote newspaper and magazine articles exposing the trade secrets of fraudulent mediums, and even let a few journalists shadow her on the job in the 1940s. She also went on lecture tours and appeared on radio and television shows, at least through the mid-1950s.

Rose MackenbergRose Mackenberg 21 Aug 1937, Sat The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Newspapers.com


Rose Mackenberg passed away in 1968 at age 75, having investigated more than 1,500 mediums over the course of her career.

She always maintained that she had no problem with sincere believers in spiritualism; she simply wanted to expose the people who used it to con the grief stricken and desperate. In fact, Mackenberg herself was open to the possibility of communication with spirits. But as she said in a 1953 newspaper interview, “In 30 years of searching, I’ve never found solid evidence of it.”

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14 thoughts on “The Astonishing Adventures of Houdini’s Favorite Detective

  1. Very informative news, I found out lot of unknown things. Thanks for serving such beautiful informative news.

  2. Thank you for this great article. Magicians have played a wonderful role in exposing frauds over the decades, and it was fascinating to learn more about one of their detective helpers.

  3. As recently as the 1990s, Hillary Clinton was reported to have something like a seance to contact Elanor Roosevelt.

    • Makes sense considering all the protection she has for what she has done to our country and others.

  4. I’ve been researching my great-great-grandmother who was a Spiritualist and trance medium in the 1920s. She had been arrested for illegal fortune telling in 1920 and appealed to the state level, and her appeal (which she lost) was reported in newspapers across the country, because she and her lawyer tried to get the appellate judges to rule on whether Spiritualism was a religion. They dodged that point entirely, not wanting to touch it. She continued her services and ran the First National Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City until she passed in 1928.

    • Im just curious, have you ever found yourself to have some psychic talent? I’ve heard it’s genetic, especially in women.

  5. I do, but it’s not something I control, it just comes at random and hits me by surprise. I also get confused at times till it hits me in the face, therefore, I couldn’t honestly make a living at it. For instance, at one time I desired to have a marriage with a good man so when I got the message I actually thought that my most wanted desires were going to come true on a certain day. I got this message three months prior but didn’t understand the meaning until three days prior, when on Friday I received a call at work that my Father was ill and wasn’t expected to make it through the weekend. At the moment I got the call I knew that he would make it through the weekend and that he would pass away on Monday. This is only one instance of many.

  6. Read ORACLE OF THE AGES, REFLECTIONS ON THE CURIOUS LIFE OF FORTUNE TELLER MAYHAYLEY LANCASTER!

  7. There are legitimate psychics, but even then they’re not 100%. Edgar Cayce comes to mind, but I also have a friend who is a Spiritualist. She readily admits she’s only about 80%.

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