About 10 years ago, I was helping friends downsize; they were moving out of a house filled with decades of memories and my job was to fill my car with stuff to be donated and cart it over to the St. James’ Thrift Shop. In the course of emptying closets and sorting, the man of the house came over to me and held up his dog-tags. I knew he had served in World War II, as a Marine, and had seen combat on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.
“Do you know why these are taped together?” he said.
“So they wouldn’t make noise,” I replied.
“That’s right,” he said. And he told me he’d been a Forward Artillery Observer. From my reading (but certainly not from my own experience), I knew this was a formal title for someone who crawled as close to enemy lines as possible, watched when the artillery opened up, and then radioed back directions and yardage to the artillery men to help them zero in on the target.
“You had to get pretty close to their lines,” I said.
“Oh, I could hear them talking.”
“That must have been pretty scary.”
“Yes, it was.” He paused, and then his eyes kind of lit up, and he added, “but when those rounds came in, it was pretty darned exciting.”
The handwriting is that of Clara Specht. She lived in Hazelhurst, today’s Athenaeum, when its backyard went all the way to the lake. And she loved to send postcards.
Over the years, those in Skaneateles who wish to see into the future have had options. First, there were gypsies. As early as 1860, before the the Civil War, gypsies were passing through or close to the village. Florence Hall, who grew up here in the 1870s and ‘80s, recalled a gypsy caravan making camp in Austin’s woods (on the site of the current middle school on State Street), and the gypsy women going door-to-door the next morning on Onondaga Street, offering to tell fortunes.
On October 15, 1874, the Skaneateles Democrat reported, “A band of gipsies were encamped near the ‘twenty-eight swamp’ last Sunday, and did a thriving business in fortune telling. They broke up camp on Monday and moved westward.”
To give you an idea of what a “thriving business in fortune telling” might net, the Buffalo Evening News (October 24, 1882) reported, “A band of gipsies recently encamped near Brighton scooped in nearly $4,000 from love-sick maidens and credulous swains, each of whose ‘fortune’ was predicted to marry rich.”
This method of looking into the future, however, had an unsavory side. In May of 1913, the Skaneateles Free Press reported, “Nine wagon loads of Italian gypsies drove into town yesterday afternoon holding forth for nearly an hour on Jordan Street between the Shear and Eckett blocks. They were an unkempt and dirty lot, every wagon swarming with children, most of whom were slightly clad, and some practically naked. After they had supplied some of their wants, the band moved off, up the west lake road.”
Indeed, at the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, villages and cities were being served by more neatly (fully) dressed palmists, clairvoyants and seers. And there were so many.
In 1892, in Gloversville, N.Y., the public was invited to “Come and consult these wonderful mediums and learn your future. The Madam has had 25 years in the business and cannot be surpassed. Her son, who was formerly the renowned boy medium, gives startling revelations from your spirit friends… Reads your life like an open book.”
In 1896, “A Trance Medium, Dr. Bertram” promised his clients in New York City that “there is no need for anyone to creep in the dark.” In 1897, Professor Bert Reese, “the pride of Chicago and better known as Moses the Prophet,” could be consulted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it was noted, “There is no necessity for anyone to be unhappy or creep in the dark when he is in your midst.”
In 1901, those in Rochester, N.Y., could consult La Presta, who “reads your life like an open book,” and Professor La Delta, who could reveal “lost treasures.” In 1902, Buffalo, N.Y., hosted the Great Loretta, who “reads your life like an open book.” Also that year, those in Syracuse were urged to consult Verona, who “reads your life like an open book.” In 1904, Madame Taprello, Canada’s celebrated palmist, was visiting Syracuse “for a short time.” In 1906, Madame Reeta from Florida, palmist and clairvoyant, appeared in nearby Auburn, N.Y., “for two days only.”
In 1907, Buffalonians could consult Madame Spang, the “Old Famous Medium,” Mademoiselle St. Jean, “Clairvoyant and mystic adept,” and Zuroha, “America’s youngest and greatest scientific palmist.” By 1910, the Queen City’s options had grown to include The Veiled Prophetess, Mrs. King, and Professor Wondroll, with the newspaper carrying mailing addresses for Professor Davenport (“They call me the Wonder Worker”) and the Mysterious Raymond, both in Peoria, Illinois, M. Mispah in Albuquerque, N.M., and Madame LaRue in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
In 1908, Professor Ellis, “the world’s greatest clairvoyant and palmist,” was working in Glens Falls, N.Y., and the city of Albany had two active psychics: Madame Zeno and Houdon, “the famous psychic wonder,” who “reads your life like an open book.”
In 1910, Syracuse welcomed Madame Millett, Scientific Palmist of New York, who “reads your life like an open book,” and Madame Estrella, Egyptian Star Astrologer of New York, “for one week only.” In 1914, Vincent Markell, Palmist and Clairvoyant, did readings in Little Falls, N.Y.; his ad began, “Think of a man who can read your life like an open book.” In 1915, the Catskill Recorder carried the advertisement for “Mr. J. Joseph, the world’s renowned, celebrated spirit medium and astrologist from Buffalo, now in Catskill.”
In April of 1916, the Buffalo-based spirit medium Zebara was said to “read your life like an open book.” In April and May of 1916, the Bath, N.Y., newspapers carried an ad for Professor Bert Huff, “the noted Clairvoyant and Astrologer from Boston, now in Bath, reads your life like an open book without asking any questions. He gives names, dates, facts and figures of anyone’s life.”
In April of 1917, “Mr. Joseph, the world’s renowned, celebrated spirit medium and astrologist,” appeared in Rensselaer, N.Y. The ad noted, “He gives names, dates, facts and figures of any one’s life without asking any questions. It is unnecessary to creep in the dark when he is in your midst.”
Aside from being shameless plagiarists, these clairvoyants had other similarities: With few exceptions, they assumed multiple names and/or the names of others, and sought to arrive as “world famous” but leave town without a trace.
Professor Alexander Comes to Skaneateles
And then came our turn. Late in the summer of 1917, the Skaneateles and Auburn newspapers carried an advertisement for “the world’s renowned, celebrated clairvoyant,” holding forth at a private residence in Skaneateles.
I cannot find any record of knowledge the Professor revealed, of his patrons, or of their delight or disappointment. His advertisements stopped appearing in mid-September, but the following month “Clairvoyant Reed” appeared in Fulton, N.Y., where, it was said, he “reads your life like an open book without asking any questions. He gives names, dates, facts and figures of anyone’s life. It is unnecessary to creep in the dark when he is in your midst.” Next, in December, a “Mr. Berthold” was in Canisteo, N.Y., where “he reads your life like an open book without asking any questions. He gives names, dates, facts and figures of anyone’s life. It is unnecessary to creep in the dark when he is in your midst.”
In December of 1920, “Professor Alexander” appeared again, this time in Mechanicville, N.Y., where he did readings and received large amounts of mail from out-of-town advice-seekers. Two months later, The Saratogian (February 14, 1921) reported, “The local police have been besieged with requests to learn the whereabouts of a ‘Professor Alexander,’ who came to this city as a clairvoyant, palm reader and mind reader.” One young man, after asking the Professor’s advice on investing, was persuaded to allow the clairvoyant to “magnetize” his money. After Professor Alexander’s disappearance, the lad checked his safe deposit box and his money rolls, $1,600 in all, had become rolls of plain paper. The newspaper reported, “Other parties… it is apparent to the police, had fallen into the snares of Alexander and one from Troy lost $500 while several have lost $50 and still others $100 each. It is estimated that Prof. Alexander secured a total of several thousands of dollars.”
It would appear that Skaneateles got off lightly, or was too embarrassed to complain.
Further Notes on Gypsies
Florence Hall’s memory of gypsies and life on Onondaga Street was printed in the Skaneateles Press of August 22, 1958, when she was 90 years old.
In December of 1860, the Skaneateles Democrat reported, “A tribe of Gipsies passed through our village, Christmas, from the east, and passed up the west side of the lake. The company consisted of sixteen individuals, four apologies for horses, and two dogs. A more squalid set of individuals one hardly ever sees.”
On June 30, 1864, the Skaneateles Democrat noted, “We learn that there is an encampment of Gipsies on the west part of the town.”
On May 22, 1880, the Skaneateles Press reported, “A band of gipsies are encamped in the woods near James Luckins’.”
On August 22, 1885, the Skaneateles Free Press noted, “Three wagonloads of gipsies camped Monday night about three miles west of this village, on the north road. They were going west.”
On July 27, 1909, the Skaneateles Free Press reported, “A camp of gypsies in the vicinity of the school house in District No. 7, about two miles northeast of this village, has been a nuisance to the neighbors for the past week or ten days. The nomads idle away their time, and their camp equipages on the roadside frighten horses. No one desires to incur their enmity by making complaint to the town authorities. It would be well to have some town ordinances against the encampment of gypsies within its borders.”
Our Professor Alexander was not alone. “Alexander” was an exceedingly popular name among clairvoyants. In June of 1897, Prof. William Alexander, “one of the extreme few whose natural clairvoyant power is supplemented by the secret occult lore of the Indian adepts,” was working in Salt Lake City, Utah. In December of that year, Professor Alexander Le Warde, “the world’s renowned clairvoyant” appeared in Duluth, Minnesota. In 1904, “Professor Herbert Alexander, the Famous Palmist and Clairvoyant,” was offering his $5 reading for just $1 in New York City. In 1905, Alexander Delmar was one of a dozen clairvoyants working in San Francisco (along with Professor Niblo, Princess Eugenia, Ishmar, Miss Zemdar and Mademoiselle Ravenna). And in 1910, Alexander Cunningham was working in Phoenix, Arizona.
Perhaps the most infamous was Dr. Alexander Walton, a.k.a. Herbert Walton, a.k.a. Herbert Cavitt, a.k.a. Herbert Davitt, known in Los Angeles as Professor Herbert Luzon, who in 1916 died in San Francisco from injuries suffered in an extra-judicial beating by police in Chicago, where he was nabbed for extradition after having fled Santa Rosa, California, jumping $7,000 bail, in a display of reluctance to face trial as one of the “Big 5” in a California clairvoyant ring.
The most famous “Alexander” was Alexander, “The Man Who Knows,” a.k.a. Claude Alexander Conlin, who played vaudeville between 1915 and 1924, making millions of dollars “reading minds.”
“A day or two since, feeling that a short trip to the rural districts would be about as invigorating a remedy as we could imagine for the oppressive heat of a very warm June sun, we concluded to take a trip to Skaneateles. Accordingly we embarked on one of those fine cars for which the New York Central Railroad is so famous, and after a short, but most agreeable ride, found ourselves at the Junction. Disembarking here, we took passage on a vehicle propelled by two equines, which might, by the large stretch of imagination be termed a stage, by which we soon arrived at the renowned precincts of Mottville.
“Thence continuing our peregrinations about three quarters of a mile on foot, we arrived at the new, but extensive paper manufactory of Messrs. Earl, Thayer & Co.* We arrived just in time to see the first sheet run through, in which we considered ourselves as peculiarly fortunate. The manufactory is in a most excellent location, and bids fair to one of the best in the State. It has four engines of the largest kind, and is fully capable of turning out 8,000 pounds a day. The mill is supplied with every modern convenience, and the machinery is of the newest and most approved pattern.
“The water used in the manufacture is taken directly from the beautiful Skaneateles Lake, and as the supply is unfailing, the mill can be run through the entire year without the usual hindrances of ice or scarcity of water. The foreman of the mill, Mr. H. Brady, is a gentleman in every sense of the word, and one who has had large experience in the manufacture of all kinds of paper. Consumers can rest assured that in every instance the paper received will correspond with the sample ordered, and, what is equally important, will be correct in weight and size, which is important to all purchasers.
“After viewing to our satisfaction the machinery of the mill, we proceeded upon invitation of Mr. Earle. one of the proprietors, to indulge in a ride through the village, and, we must say, in all candor, that a more agreeable time we never experienced. We had heard much of the beauties of Skaneateles, but our visit convinces us that they are far underrated.
“Skaneateles, before the breaking out of the rebellion, was a favorite resort for a large number of Southerners during the warm season, but, notwithstanding the absence of these generous-hearted people, the houses still continue to do a thriving business. After a most pleasant and agreeable ride through the precincts of the lovely village, and its pleasant surroundings, we were kindly invited to partake of the generous hospitalities of Mr. Earle.
“We took up our line of march for the City of Salt, most firmly convinced that for natural beauty and scenery, and above all the sociability and genuine good friendship of its inhabitants, the lovely village of Skaneateles will ever hold its own. The pleasant time we experienced on the occasion of our first visit to Skaneateles will not soon be forgotten.”
— Courier and Union (Syracuse), June 10, 1865
* * *
* Earlls, Thayer & Co. converted the Earll & Kellogg distillery, situated on the outlet between Mottville and Willow Glen, into a paper mill in 1864. The Earlls had been distilling since 1802 and were numerous; it was Leonard and Augustus P. Earll who were involved in this particular paper mill. Joel Thayer was the third partner, with three other junior partners.
In his Skaneateles: History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902), Edmund Norman Leslie noted, “This was an old distillery transformed, and they have now running four engines and a machine, making 3,000 pounds of printing-paper a day, consuming 6,000 pounds of rags. They employ about forty hands, male and female, and pay about twelve hundred dollars a month.”
In 1875, the mill later became Earlls, Palmer & Co., and in 1878, the Skaneateles Paper Co. The site today, bringing things full circle, is the home of the Last Shot Distillery.
“A tribe of Gipsies passed through our village, Christmas, from the east, and passed up the west side of the lake. The company consisted of sixteen individuals, four apologies for horses, and two dogs. A more squalid set of individuals one hardly ever sees.”
— From the Skaneateles Democrat, reprinted in the Auburn Weekly Union, December 1860
Love the photographer’s bicycle in the center of the photo.