Here’s an interesting little case study in journalism ethics: What does an editor and publisher do when an advertiser is exposed as a fraud? It’s a delicate problem — unless, of course, the advertisements appeared in a rival paper.

Even before America was a nation, its newspapers had an oily history with advertisers. Readers of the November 16, 1775 New York Gazette couldn’t miss that splashy ad on page one, column one, for “Maredant’s Drops,” a snake-oil that promised to prevent scurvy and cure leprosy (scrofula, pimples and ulcers, too!) — but more diligent readers might have noticed that other little item on the same page that didn’t even have its own headline: King George had ordered the property of all colonial rebels to be confiscated by the crown.

Besides crowding out important news, there’s always been the problem of truthfulness in advertising. Did Maredant’s Drops work as promised? Probably not, and were even likely to kill you — a key ingredient was the ultra-toxic mercuric chloride. (And by the way, that big advertisement may even have been selling fake deadly snake-oil; Maredant’s Drops were frequently counterfeited.) More than a century later, a steady stream of pharmaceutical display ads appearing in the early 20th Century Press Democrat showed that the hucksters was still as bad, or even worse: A particular cod liver oil formula promised to cure tuberculosis; horehound syrup would stop you from coughing to death.

But let’s give our dear old editors and publishers the benefit of doubt, and presume they didn’t know that the nostrums they helped sell were often useless and sometimes potentially lethal. Likely those same quack cures could be found in their home medicine cabinets as well; anyone who thinks newspapermen were smarter and more well-informed than the general population should spend more time reading editorial pages.

We also should cut the 1905 newspapers some slack for running ads from fortune-tellers, mediums, and other spiritualist hokum. It would still be almost two decades before Houdini* and Harry Price brought media attention to exposing these con-artists. And again, maybe those in charge of the newspapers really believed in occult powers; as debunked in the earlier “City of Roses and Rubes” item, “The Great McEwen” passed through Santa Rosa with his skillful telepathy act in 1904, with the Press Democrat acting as his enthusiastic cheerleader.

Both the Republican and Press Democrat ran classified ads for spiritualists in 1905. Some examples:

MRS. CLARA MALLORY – Clairoyant, clanandant spirit card reader, born medium, honest, confidential readings, helpful advice, when others fail consult me, price 50c, Piedmont Hotel, room 6

CLAIRVOYANT – Consult Madame Florence, Clairvoyant, Card Reader and Palmism, on all matters pertaining to business, courtship and marriage. Spirit Pictures of future husband or wife, 10c. 533 Fourth St., room 8

SCIENTIFIC ASTROLOGY – SEND BIRTHDATE and 20c for characteristics and years prospects. Edith Lloyd, box 103 Santa Rosa, Calif.

But it was a 1906 dust-up over phony names that made offers of supernatural services newsworthy. The simple story is this: A woman in Santa Rosa sent a letter with questions to “Ismar” in San Francisco, enclosing a dollar (remember that her buck was the equivalent of $100+ today). While waiting for an answer, she learned that “Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium” supposedly was now in Santa Rosa. The letter-writer — exercising some long-overdue skepticism — discovered that the fortune-teller in town was an impostor of the San Francisco seer. No arrests were made for false identity, by the way.

(At left: the “real” Ismar, from an ad in the 1905 San Francisco Call.)

The Press Democrat was running competing classified ads for “Madame Florence” at the time, and the bogus “Ismar” was advertising exclusively in the Republican (see ad below), which by itself gave PD editor Ernest L. Finley incentive for snark. As no display ad or classified appeared in the Press Democrat, Finley was also presumably miffed that she used another printer for flyers that must have been posted around town spelling her name as “Ismer.” (The Press Democrat also claims that the letter-writer learned about the fake Ismar’s arrival from a notice in the PD, although I couldn’t find it on microfilm.)

To discredit the bogus psychic who advertised elsewhere, the PD tossed up her name as often as possible in the article. But even more astonishing is the equivalent Santa Rosa Republican story, where the reporter never mentioned the fortune-teller’s name — some acrobatic writing, that. Yet the Republican still continued to run the Ismar ad for the full week. Look, it’s not our fault if you’re defrauded by an impostor of a fake spiritualist that we sort-of warned you about.

*Until the recent biography, “The Secret Life of Houdini,” it was little mentioned that he began his stage career as a fake medium. He had found the out-of-print 1891 book, “Revelations of a Spirit Medium,” and although the anonymous author wrote it intending to expose chicanery, the teenage Houdini studied it to learn how to pose as a psychic as well as picking up several magic tricks used in his early stage career. When Harry Price and others reprinted the book in 1922, Houdini wrote a praiseworthy review in the New York Times crediting its influence on him and other magicians. Two years later, Houdini followed Price and other spiritualist debunkers with his autobiographical A Magician Among the Spirits.

Two Fortune Tellers Who Look Alike But Yet Are Different

Who is “Ismar, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium”? Is she the woman who is now in this city advertising her powers in the local papers, or is she the woman who is advertising in the San Francisco newspapers and still doing business at the original stand? That is what a good many people are asking themselves these days.

A few days ago a clairvoyant arrived here and began advertising herself as “A. Ismer, the Great Egyptian Spiritualist and Trance Medium, who created a profound sensation in San Francisco.” She knows her business, according to the advertisement, for it goes on to say: “The sick and broken-hearted went away happy in mind and body. Lovers were united, and those who consulted her were not divorced.”

When questioned last night as to her identity, the seeress now doing business here denied that she was or that she claimed to be “Ismar, the Great,” and through her manager called attention to the difference in the way the two names were spelled. She also said that she had been “fighting” the San Francisco notability for some eight years, and that she had plenty of documents with which to prove her claims to occult power.

A few days ago a lady residing in this city wrote to “Ismar” asking some professional questions. No reply was received, and on picking up the Press Democrat one morning the seeker after information noticed that “Ismer” was here. On phoning to the latter at her Santa Rosa address and asking if the inquiry had been received, the seeress now here replied in the negative and explained that her mail had not been forwarded regularly. The next day the answer was received in due form from the San Francisco office. When questioned again by phone “Ismer” explained that when she left her San Francisco office she put a competent woman in her place. A message received from the San Francisco office last night claim [sic] that the local seeress is an impostor. She spells her name differently, however, and except in the general tenor of the advertisement and the similarity of the two names, both of which might be mere coincidences, there is no real proof of any intention to deceive.

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1906

A San Francisco seeress of repute had sent a telegram to persons in this city that a woman doing business under her name is an imposter. The woman who is here under the name of the San Francisco seeress is alleged to use the same address as that given by the woman in the metropolis who claims to be the original of that name. The discovery was made by a Santa Rosan sending a dollar to the San Francisco woman asking answers to three questions, and after a long delay and no answer arriving, she telephoned to the woman at the address in this city. The latter declared that the letter had not been received, but that possibly her “secretary” had the missive. Finally the answer came from the San Francisco woman, and then the Santa Rosan called up the local seeress and asked if the letter had been received. The reply in the negative showed that something might be wrong and a hurried letter to the metropolis brought forth the response that was expected. It was as follows:

“Have not left San Francisco. Woman using my name is an imposter.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 25, 1906

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