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.
The articles themselves are interesting and informative. Mackenberg writes well, with verve and wit. She goes into some detail about her adventures as an undercover agent for Houdini and how she carried out her missions. Unfortunately, the articles are presented verbatim and without any annotations—a problem since modern readers will not have the same common knowledge that readers had in 1929. In other places, Mackenberg’s writing isn’t clear. Both these problems would have been easily fixed had Wolf provided annotations to the text where needed. A few examples will suffice.
On page 28, the medium Laura Pruden of Cincinnati is discussed. She was said to be able to produce voices from beyond the grave. At the end of the section, Mackenberg writes, “So, when the hidden mechanics of the ‘voice-from-the-grave’ were advanced theoretically, there was much rejoicing among the materialistic anti-spiritualists….” But she never says what these “hidden mechanisms” were. It would be nice to know!
Making photographs of spirits was, as is well known, very popular among spiritualists. On page 31, we read about “the new Teutonic method of photographing any given set of characters against any background, even though miles away. An astonishing invention—and how the mediums are going to eat it up!” Sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what those clever German photographers were up to in 1929.
Several pages are devoted to a fake photograph said to show a multitude of ghosts of soldiers killed in WWI surrounding the cenotaph in London during an Armistice Day event. Mackenberg knew that her 1929 readers would know that the cenotaph was, and is, a major London memorial to the dead of WWI. But most modern readers won’t know that.
I got the impression that at least some text that originally appeared in the articles was not included in the material reprinted here. For example, on page 74 Mackenberg promises to “tell you about the only spiritualist phenomenon for which Houdini could never find an explanation.” But nothing of the sort is contained in the next article, which is the last in the book. Was this an error on Mackenberg’s part? Or did Wolf somehow omit the section thus referred to? In another location, page 92, Mackenberg refers to material she will write about “next week,” specifically, “one of the earliest and most dramatic trials which took place in London in 1881.” But page 92 is the very last page of text, and no discussion of any such trial appears anywhere in the book.
In addition to the problems noted above, it is especially troubling that the book is, to a degree, poorly sourced. For example, there is no date or publisher information to be found on the title page or anywhere else. Thus, citing the book will be a problem for anyone wishing to do so. Nor is there any indication of who Tony Wolf is and what, if any, expertise he has in examining psychic claims.
Making Mackenberg’s writings widely available is an excellent idea. Thus, the shortcomings of this book are especially unfortunate since, with only a little extra effort, it could have been a tribute to Ms. Mackenberg and a welcome addition to the literature on early investigations of spiritualism. I only hope that Wolf will produce a second edition in which the problems noted here will be corrected. Rose Mackenberg deserves a much better book than this.
On a more general note, this book is obviously self-published and print-on-demand. This type of publication is becoming more and more common due to its ease and affordability. And it is not the only such skeptical book so published. Christopher Owen’s An Encyclopedia of Paranormal Hoaxes is also undated and has no publisher indicated. Such self-publication is fine (I published my 2016 History of Postal Service in Hanover, New Hampshire Since 1761 that way), but authors who go that route should be sure to include the standard bibliographic information: date and place of publication, a publisher—even if it is the author—as well as a short biography so the reader will be able to evaluate the author’s credentials.