Conjuring Rose: Joe Nickell’s Annual Houdini Séance (Halloween Extra)

October 31, 2015

Most people know Harry Houdini as the world famous magician and illusionist, but in addition to his life as a performer, Houdini was also known to have a deep fascination with the afterlife. So much so he spent the later part of his career investigating spiritualists and mediums. With the help of his undercover assistant Rose Mackenberg, he was able to investigate spiritual claims and assess if they were in fact actual paranormal occurrences or mere illusions, much like the ones he preformed as a magician.

In this special Halloween extra, Point of Inquiry’s producer Nora Hurley chats with Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Together, they conduct the Center for Inquiry’s Annual Houdini Séance. While summoning the dead, Nickell explains precisely how Houdini worked closely with his assistant Rose to expose fraudulent mediums and spiritualists, who were using illusions and trickery to profit off the grief of innocent people.

Having poor luck contacting Houdini in previous years, Joe and Nora have decided to try something different this year by opening up the séance to Rose as well. She was a vital component of Houdini’s investigations and did much of the difficult legwork in exposing spiritual frauds. Perhaps they’ll have better luck getting in touch with the afterlife by reaching out to her along with Houdini.

This is point of inquiry for Saturday, October thirty, first 2015. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Nora Hurley producer and editor, point of Inquiry, and I’m filling in for Josh Ron Lindsay this week because we have a special Halloween episode. Today marks the Committee for Skeptical Inquiries, annual Whodini Science. My guest is Joe Dekel. And much like Houdini himself. Joe is a professional magician and paranormal investigator. He has investigated hundreds of paranormal occurrences over the course of his career, including haunted houses, psychics, historical legends, ghosts, you name it. Joe is also a senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. And today he’s going to help us conduct The Science Show. Welcome to the program. 

It’s good to be here. 

Now, most of us know Whodini as a great magician, but he also regularly investigated. Science is much like the one we’re about to have right now, right? 

Yes. The difference being that there is work done in dark rooms where lots of shenanigans were going on. And we’re not we promise not to do any kind and genuine science. 

And is there a reason why we do the fans on Halloween? Is that just a good day for travel? I mean, do the dead of a holiday weekend or something? 

Well, the dead don’t talk to me very often, but the reason for Halloween and the reason that’s also among magicians National Magic Day is because that’s the day Houdini died. It was it was Halloween, 1926. Houdini was, I think, 52 years old. And he died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. OK. 

And can you tell me a little bit about what role his wife played in all this? 

And in his death, Houdini and his wife, Bess, had a pact that whoever died first would try to communicate with the other. 

And they had a sort of code and they had a way that one would know if it was if it was the real the real spouse. But basically, although there were a couple of a little fraudulent incidents in which people got information and tried to pretend they were really Whodini this after a few years, she had an eternal light on his painting and a painting portrait of him. And she finally just turned it off and said, I. I do not think Houdini will come. 

So and I know that obviously plays a role in his investigating that him and his wife were genuinely curious if there was a real afterlife to be found. But I’ve also read that his assistant, Rose, was a big part of his investigations in the paranormal. Can you tell me a little bit about their dynamic? 

Rosemann Kinberg is kind of an untold story. You don’t hear really enough about her. She was in the shadows and she was absolutely crucial to much of Houdini’s work. What Rose did was to go in advance of Houdini’s tour and she would go all disguised and go undercover among these spiritualists and pretend to be some scenario that she’d worked out. And they would they would do a reading for. And of course, she would know instantly it was all false. And then she would report back to Houdini and Houdini would publicly expose many of these mediums. 

All right. Well, I guess we should probably start the science. We want to keep Houdini waiting, right? 

Well, he’s waited a long time. 

Certainly we’re more hopeful this time than than we have in the past. 

So we’ll see. What do you got here? 

I brought a few things to make Houdini feel at home. I brought an authentic playbill that has his brother Hardeen on it. I brought a picture of Houdini and an authentic key from his collection. I’ve bought brought a I brought a pair of handcuffs that were not Houdinis. These are simply handcuffs that that one might have put on Whodini and I brought a padlock of the period and a key to work it. So I’m hoping if if Whodini is able to come, maybe he’ll turn the key and open the lock. Maybe he’ll spring the handcuffs. I brought a chalkboard what’s called a spirit slate and Whodini might actually scribble something on the slate. It might go like this. So we’ll listen for that. Right now, I’m going to light a candle which is traditional and some say ANSYS not as central courses were never lit in the dark, rooms were trickery was going on. 

Right. You needed to be able to cover that up, what you call the sneaky stuff you’re trying to get. That’s right. 

They wouldn’t have been then. It wouldn’t have been done in the in the bright light of a candle. I’m going to ring this bell to signal that the science has begun and then we’re going to continue to honor Whodini and Rose while the science is while we wait nervously for one of them to appear. Oh, I forgot to mention, I also brought a bonafied spirit trumpet. That’s a pretty rare item. And these spirit trumpets would float in the dark room, say ANSYS and spirit voices would whisper. It’s pretty nifty. Oh, and Rose, this is this is something Rose knew a lot about. She knew that this was a trick of having the trumpet float in the air. And the voices whisper through it. But it’s something if if we hear spirit voices or we see this spirit trumpet fall over or begin to float, for heaven’s sakes, will up roses with us. 

OK, cool. 

All right. Well, while we wait for Whodini, you actually brought an article from 1951 and. It’s of Rose’s personal accounts working with Whodini. I’m going to read a little bit of that for our listeners in just a moment. But it seems like from what I read of it, that even though Rose was never the center of Houdinis performances, she was quite the performer extraordinaire herself. You want to sort of set the stage for us a little bit about what that’s all about? 

Right. What Rose did was to. She was a detective. She was known in the maybe terminology of the day, maybe, uh, today we wouldn’t say it quite like this. 

But she was called Who Needs Girl Detective? And she was actually one of Houdini’s best kept secrets the way she worked. Wouldn’t have worked very well if it were known that she were out there ahead of him because everything she did needed to be under cover. And Rose was absolutely great. And to wearing this or that disguise, she would pose as a airheaded schoolmarm or an elderly widow or, you know, a librarian, very stern temperament. And she would make up a story. So she was like any detective doing undercover work. She was role playing. 

OK, cool. So this is actually Rose Mac and first firsthand account of what her and Houdini, where we’re doing to go after these guys. 

I always travel 10 days ahead of the great magician posing as a widow. A jealous wife, a neurotic schoolteacher, a factory hand, the wife or mother of a soldier fighting in a foreign land. There always appeared to be a war somewhere or as some other type. In one of these capacities, I would attend seances sometimes as many as 15 or 20 a day, but usually concentrating first on the more prominent mediums who enjoyed the most outstanding reputations as a conduit to the land across the stacks. For example, one of the latter was a woman who I call Mrs. Even NARTH, which is not, of course, her real name. She was a trumpet manipulator. That is a medium who, while in an alleged trance, relays messages of the spirit world through a large tin or aluminum horn, presumably raised by spirits and floating through the air. She was better equipped for trickery than most of her kind being a ventriloquist. She could, by throwing her voice, give the impression of distance. The trumpet, which can be purchased in almost any store handling magic goods, is collapsible, sometimes telescoping out to as much as three feet. So that in a completely dark room where spirits always seem to be articulate, the startled believer can hear the voice of his departed ones right in his years, when the medium is obviously several feet away. The trumpet also, when held deep in the speaker’s mouth, produces guttural sounds. 

That is why so many of the fake mediums claim to have an Indian control or contact, since Indians are popularly supposed to speak in that manner. Incidentally, one of my friends who worked for several months on the Shawny Kickapoo and Çok and Fox reservations informed me that he never heard any Indians talk that way except in novels and movies. And Mrs. Salons. I posed as Mrs. Waters a widow. I asked to talk with my departed husband in a few moments. Me Chief Whitecloud floated into the room. The medium told him she wanted to talk with the late Mr. Waters. The chief obligingly said Me get. And almost immediately my husband was assuring me that he was happy in the spirit land and that he was watching over me daily. I asked him if it was all right for me to get married again unselfishly. He told me to do so by all means. I informed him that our dog, Spunky, had passed on. And he said yes, he knew a spunky was right there with him. I never owned a dog. I pretended to be delighted and asked him if he wouldn’t have spunky bark just once. This book quite attacks on this is Narz powers of mimicry. But she managed to get out a rather mediocre bark. I asked my imaginary husband if the novel I had just completed would sell. And he said yes, it would be a enormous success if I would only change the last chapter. This would have been exceptionally difficult as I had never written the first and never intended to. 

She just great, you know, she she would just haul off and make up stuff and ad lib as as she got into a role. And it must have been something to watch. 

Yeah. I mean, it sounds like she did most of the legwork and Whodini kind of just reaped all the rewards. 

Well, yes and no. I mean, Whodini did bring to this. Of course, not only a great name and a great personality and the ability to sort of publicly challenge people. So he brought a lot to it. And in fact, took a lot of risks. There were lots of threats against him, whereas Rose remained kind of in the shadows. But she certainly did her share and they both brought different talents to the to the equation. And Whodini was a master trickster and magician, and Rose was a master trickster and role player and secret agent. And they worked together wonderfully. I think Rose also was motivated not so much by by fame as she was by protecting people. And she she absolutely was fearless in her attempts to expose the bad guys. 

And this is actually a passage from the article that you brought in about her of the frauds that she managed to catch. 

The majority of the fakers are content with their taken offerings, but not by any means all of them. There are a considerable number use the dominance they obtain over some of their shut eyes to indulge in shameless sex orgies or attacks or to extort large sums of money from them. I have had repeated experiences of fakers of this sort, although in fairness, I want to make clear that these are the exceptions and not the rule. A typical example occurred at a sound stage by a medium in one of the cities of upstate New York. I told her that my Aunt Sarah, a mythical person like the rest of my sounds relatives had. Made me her sole heir and that I was very much disturbed because not having seen her for several years before she passed away, I didn’t know how she would want me to handle the legacy. Could I have a few words with the spirit of Aunt Sarah? Well, the medium didn’t know. But she said she would try. My experience with other mediums had given me such confidence in their ability to call up the spirits that I would have bet 100 to one she would succeed. She sank into her chair, closed her eyes, began to grunt, mumble and moan, utter snatches of incoherent words and phrases and put on the rest of the act. I had so frequently witnessed. 

Sure enough, Yogi Ram sigh her East Indian control came through with the kind spirit be obliging enough to summon up Ansara. Of course he would with jet plane speed. He came back with her. I am watching over you, darling. She told me you are in trouble. Yes, I said, and went on to tell her about my predicament concerning the spending of the money she had bequeathed me. Spend it any way you like, darling. She advised me. Except that I want you to give five hundred dollars to the medium for her church. The voices faded away. The medium and the memorably approved fashion of trance mediums grunted, groaned, and struggled to come out of it. What happened? She asked in the bill Willdan manner. One suddenly aroused from sound sleep. Did the spirit appear? Yes. What did she say? I told her that Ansara said that I was to give five hundred dollars to her church with haste. She shoved a blank check towards me and told me I could make it out right there. I replied that I couldn’t as I had the cash in a safe deposit box, but that I would return with it the next day. I trust she hasn’t become impatient in the years which have elapsed since. 

So we really can see how she could handle herself. Just on the spur of the moment and know what to say and get out of a of a dilemma. You really, really great. 

Yeah. Then along comes Whodini several days later. 

Certainly they worked together as a great team and Whodini was able to use what she did as a sort of advance person so that he could then make Expo’s a right. 

I mean, it’s really an Mirabal. I mean, I myself am a performer. I dabble in improv and standup. 

And for someone who is as good at a craft as she is, someone who is really good at throwing herself into these characters. You’d think that it would really weigh on her to never get the applause for it. But I mean, reading the article, it really paints a picture of how incredibly serious these investigations were. 

Exactly. They were they were really investigations rather than performances, Rose wasn’t doing drama on stage. But it would have been very interesting if we could have watched her, because I’m sure they were that good. They had to be very, very believable. And she was an undercover spy, a private eye. Daddy’s girl, detective, and willing to do whatever it took to get the information that Whodini then could parlay into. Maybe he was he would actually sometimes go himself then to the science and catch the person red handed. And sometimes with a reporter or even one case, a district that I know of, a district attorney, and they actually would he would try to bring charges against them. 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, she was definitely not doing this for attention or admiration. She’s catching the bad guys. 

And now I totally get that she wasn’t in it for the fame, but she had to watch a lot of frauds do some very corrupt and evil things to innocent people. 

Did she at least get the gratification of letting them know she wasn’t fooled? I mean, did she ever expose who she was with Whodini or was her work always secretive? 

I know you mentioned that she had to keep a lot of things on the DL earlier, but how often did she get to be a part of the famous exposing of the tricks? 

I think in general she didn’t do it. I know from my own work where I’ve done very similar work, undercover work, and and you just can be very angry, but you must not show your anger. And of course, you don’t suddenly say, oh, I’m I’m I’ve caught you and so forth. No, you keep it all quiet until you’re ready to make your ex was a maybe in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

But sure enough, she she was able to sometimes reveal what she did. There there are instances that I know about and maybe many others where Whodini would do a public exposition. You know, a big crowd would come and the mediums, of course, would come. And Whodini, with their publicly name a particular medium and accuse them of trickery. And when they would begin to deny it, he would ask you so well, let me introduce you to this lady. Yeah. And Rose would stand up and tell what she did. So she had this satisfaction in those instances. As you as you ask to say, gotcha. 

Well, being a woman, I’m probably biased, but it seems like Rose didn’t really need Whodini. Whodini, if you’re listening, I’m I’m sorry, but it’s the 21st century and women can do all the same jobs as men. 

And we get paid almost as much, almost. Well, you know, Rose Rose was a product of her time. 

And I’m sure today we wouldn’t say girl detective, but she was a real you know, in that time there weren’t that many detectives who were women anyway. And Rose, we know, not only worked for Whodini, she did a lot of other spiritualist work for clients. You know, somebody might their mother might be being bilked and they would they would know about Rose and go to her. So she did a lot of other work on her own. And I think it was a rather unusual position. I don’t think there were very many women detectives like that at that time, and she was very good at it. I wish I knew more about her role as a private detective. 

Right. And we we also remember that Whodini didn’t just have the preferrable genitalia. He also was an incredibly famous and talented magician. So that gave his voice a ton of power. And I’m sure that Rose would agree as paranormal investigators that it was important to have someone who had that sort of power to bring attention to these issues, to prevent from hurting innocent people again. 

Whodini was fabulously famous. He was the largest box office draw in the history of vaudeville. Everybody knew who Whodini was, right. 

Were there other paranormal investigators at his time, too, or was he sort of the forefront who pioneered, you know, debunking people who were frauds? 

There were others. There were others before Whodini. So he didn’t as much invent it just as he didn’t invent escape ology. But everything he did, he did. He just became better than anyone ever, ever thought of being. He absolutely was just obsessive. He perfected the art, just worked ceaselessly. And there were all these behind the scenes people that that helped him. Rose. Rosemary Emberg was one, you know, Jim Collins was another his assistant to who made things for him and saw to it that hoodie’s you know, that the secret panel in the box worked. So. He didn’t drown that sort of. Yeah. That’s his raw intellect. Absolutely devoted. Nearly everyone that you hear about was just devoted. He was charismatic and and he was doing something big. And everybody knew it. 

Yeah, well, from reading the article you brought it, you can tell that Rose and Whodini had an incredible amount of mutual respect for each other and sounds like they really, you know, at least laid the groundwork for skeptical thinking and in general educating people that things are not always as they seem to be. 

I think that people like James Randi, for example, or I think Randi is a living embodiment of Whodini, not literally. 

Right. Like, it’s not, you know, reincarnation, but carrying all the Whodini tradition. 

Randi has been a great Escape artist. I’ve known him since I was a young, young magician, and I’ve marveled at seeing him hung upside down in a straitjacket over Center Street in Niagara Falls, Canada. So and I’ve been and I was inspired then by Randy and I. A lot of what I’ve done has carried on that kind of work as well. I’ve thought of Whodini many times, even once did an undercover job in which I used the false name Jim Collins. And no one got hired. 

Just a coincidence. Well, I believe that was a very some kind words towards Whodini. Add on if if that doesn’t bring him forth. I don’t know what would. 

Well, you know, I don’t think Whodini thought he could come back. So I guess we we have to contain our disappointment. If anyone could. If anyone could come back from the other worry, if there’s another world and someone could escape from it and come back, surely would be Houdini and Shirley also maybe Rosemary Lindbergh. Absolutely. I’m sorry we didn’t get a signal from him this time. 

Maybe next year. 

Maybe next year, because it’s a good time to think of Whodini and to remember these people who went before us and who in a very real way helped make us the skeptics we are today. OK. So make sure we bring those sands to a close. 

Then we should blow out the candle and I’ll ring the bell. 

Well, Joe, thank you for your helping us conduct our the annual science this year. It’s unfortunate that we so rarely hear about Rose. So hopefully this podcast. If she is listening, will help her reap some of that glory that she really deserves. 

I hope so. She. She’s a very deserving person in the spirit realm. 

Joe, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

Nora Hurley

Nora Hurley

Former editor of Point of Inquiry. Comedian and Media producer at Rewire News.