Revelatory: revealing something otherwise unknown | Fake: a thing that is not genuine; a forgery or sham
The Psychic Detective
Growing up in New York in the early years of the 20th century, Rose Mackenberg, like many others, had developed a belief in mystics, mediums and fortune tellers in light of the devastating impact of the First World War and the flu pandemic. However, as a private detective she became aware of how such beliefs could be manipulated by trickery when she started investigating a ‘spirit fraud’ for one of her clients. After impressing Harry Houdini with her rigorous work on the case, she was invited to become one of his undercover psychic investigators.
Mackenberg was then dispatched to towns and cities across the US to investigate cases of psychic fraud. She developed a method where she would observe the characteristics of the women most likely to attend a sitting in a particular area, and then create a character and pseudonym based on those observations. She would then attend local séances in disguise, often playing the role of the vulnerable grieving widow. By playing out these fake identities she was able to gather evidence that led to convictions of blackmail, robbery and murder. She was using deceptive techniques to reveal malign 'first-order' deceptions.
In this case study we focus on a lengthy article written in 1939 by Mackenberg about some of her adventures in the Sunday supplement The American Weekly where she details in lurid fashion some of her most famous cases. We've also produced a podcast that reflects on the revelatory nature and ethics of Mackenberg's approach.
Newspaper article Crime Poses As Spiritualism in American Weekly Inc. written by Rose Mackenberg in 1939.
Loaned by Senate House Library, University of London
Patricia Kingori talks to Professor Christine Ferguson, Dr. Matthew Tompkins and Dr. Efram Sera-Shriar about Rose Mackenberg's legacy.
Images from the 1939 newspaper article Crime Poses As Spiritualism in American Weekly Inc. written by Rose Mackenberg.
Full text from the 1939 newspaper article Crime Poses As Spiritualism in American Weekly Inc. written by Rose Mackenberg.
Order runs from left to right (top to bottom if reading on a smartphone).
This MoRF exhibit was only made possible by the generous loan of materials by Senate House Library (facilitated by Tansy Barton).