A tribute today to the mentalist known as Alexander (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954), billed sometimes as The Crystal Seer, sometimes as The Man Who Knows.
Originally from Alexandria, South Dakota, Alexander launched his career around 1915, performing on the vaudeville stage, and also giving private readings. Dressed in turban and flowing robes, he gazed into a crystal and read peoples pasts and futures and answered questions from sealed envelopes. He is said to have been a pioneer in the use of electric effects for the stage; I take this to imply that listening devices may have been employed to assist his supposedly psychic illusions.
Alexander became one of the highest paid illusionists in vaudeville. He augmented his income by authoring several books under the pen name “C. Alexander”. Like many in his business, Alexander liked to work both sides of the street. Some of his works are exposes that reveal the techniques used by professional stage mentalists. Others of his books were New Age treatises about the genuineness of psychic phenomena.
Over and beyond this, according to lore and his many biographers, Alexander also was a con man beyond the obvious mental telepathy charlatanism: he was involved in bootlegging and extortion, was married as many as 14 times (often bigamously), and may have committed several murders. This, combined with his admiration and emulation of the Zancigs, makes him seem an obvious inspiration for the 1947 film Nightmare Alley.
The true Alexander retired from the stage in 1927, though his illusions and much of his promotional material (posters, etc) were later purchased by magician Leon Mandrake who went by the name Alexander after the 1950s. Like many in his line of work, the original Alexander maintained friendships with many celebrities, even after his professional retirement, among them Marion Davies, Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd and Jackie Coogan.
Alexander’s brother, Clarence B. Conlin, also worked as a professional stage mentalist.
For more on the history of vaudeville, including mentalists like Alexander The Man Who Knows please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous