Houdini’s Remarkable Female Detective

Terence Hines

Houdini’s ‘Girl Detective’: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenburg. Compiled and introduced by Tony Wolf. 2016. ISBN: 9-781537-143965. 93 pp. Paperback, $8.00; Kindle edition, $6.00.

Rose Mackenberg was a female private detective in the 1920s, an unusual occupation for a woman even today. She worked very closely with Harry Houdini in exposing mediums and spiritualists and continued that line of investigations and exposures after Houdini died. She was a remarkable woman, and the skeptical community knows little about her. Until the publication of this book, the only description of her was in a short piece by Loren Pankratz in the July/August 1995 Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 28–29).

Wolf’s book is described as “an illustrated anthology of Rose Mackenberg’s original 1929 newspaper article series detailing her sometimes hair-raising adventures exposing the chicanery of the ghost racket” (from the back cover). There is a thirteen-page introduction before the eight articles that Mackenberg wrote are reprinted. Wolf is too vague about the sources of these articles, saying only that they “were published as a series of weekly installments in several North American newspapers during 1929” (p. 21). The introduction describes Houdini and his interest in investigating spiritualists. However, it is totally without references to the larger literature on Houdini, which greatly limits its value. At one point, Wolf fails to follow up on a potentially important aspect of the articles. On page 17, he states that Mackenberg had “written a manuscript detailing her adventures in battling the ‘spook racket’” that she never published but that “appeared as part of an eBay estate auction during November of 2012.” And that’s all—the reader is left hanging. Ten minutes of Internet searching revealed that the lot on eBay was listed at an outrageous price—$25,000—and didn’t sell. The price did not include the right to publish the manuscript. Further, the manuscript was simply a combination of the articles Wolf has reprinted. Wolf should have included this information in his introduction.

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