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.”