It had been years since a “psychic” huckster had worked the city of roses and rubes, so Santa Rosa was ripe for plucking by 1908.
Not that the town was completely bereft of soothsayers; the occasional spiritualist slipped into town and announced she was available for consultations via a cheap, two-line ad, where Madame promised she would peer into your future, talk to the spirits, read your stars, and what have you. Although the number of psychic ads dropped off in the year following the great earthquake, the fortune-telling biz appears to have roared back in 1908, perhaps in part because of widespread anxiety following the recent bank panic and near collapse of the U.S. economy. (It might seem that a natural disaster would spur a greater demand for those who claimed mystic abilities, but crisis psychology can defy assumptions; in San Francisco, for ex, reports of suicide fell dramatically after the 1906 earthquake and remained low until the following year.)
As these carny-like fortune tellers came and went, there was also an elite cadre of magicians that allowed the gullible to believe that their diamond-stickpinned selves had actual supernatural powers. Some, like “The Great McEwen” who passed through Santa Rosa with his mentalist act in 1904 (see my earlier “City of Roses and Rubes” series), only used offstage stunts to draw audiences to his performances, but other magicians dishonestly used tricks to convince suckers of their psychic bona fides. Houdini did this early in his career and later felt ashamed for having fooled people into believing he could actually communicate with the dead. Less scrupulous was a man named Grant Chesterfield, who followed a magician’s playbook to convince Santa Rosans that he could diagnose their illnesses or peer into their futures by studying the palms of their hands.
Chesterfield arrived in Santa Rosa with a splash at the end of 1908. Large ads appeared in the newspapers daily, either with a photo of him or an illustration of someone’s hand to accompany a little story about what Chesterfield discovered there. An article about him – undoubtedly written from copy provided by Chesterfield – claimed he was “endorsed by such authorities as the Press Club of Chicago, practically by the Universities of St. Petersburg.” (That he was “practically” endorsed is a nice touch; read that quote again, imagining it in the voice of W. C. Fields as The Great McGonigle.)
From that article and others we learn that he also introduced himself to a new community via the same tricks as stage magician McEwen. He drove a vehicle blindfolded (in this case, piloting a ferry from Oakland to San Francisco) and opened safes by “reading minds.” Both were tricks detailed in a 1901 book by “Professor Leonidas” that all of these would-be psychics copied – see link above for more details.
Grant Chesterfield was born in 1862, and first mention of his palm reading can be found in a Salem, Oregon paper from 1898. From newspaper accounts he seemed to work mainly in the Portland area, with occasional trips to California, from San Francisco to smaller cities such as Bakersfield. He was in the Midwest 1912-1913, where he curiously never mentioned his endorsement by the nearby Chicago Press Club. In the prairie states he instead touted himself as the palm reader of choice by politicians, European royalty, and declared he was “looked upon in Eastern cities as a prophet.” His trail disappears after a mention in the 1916 Klamath Falls newspaper, and he appeared in the U.S. census exactly once, in 1900. Occupation: “Palmist.”
SEES WITH HIS MIND
Most Miraculous Are the Powers of Grant Chesterfield
Grant Chesterfield, the noted thought reader and clairvoyant, who is going to pilot the “Piedmont” from San Francisco to Oakland mole blindfolded shortly, possesses power most marvelous, if the statements of the most prominent citizens of Santa Rosa are to be believed. They claim that he has examined their palms, immediately told them the story of their past, diagnosed their physical condition, described their present situation of affairs, and then proceeded to define for them their future. They further aver that many predictions made by the enigma have already come to pass. Seen at his parlors at the Hotel Majestic, 435 Fourth street. Professor Chesterfield said:
“Possibly some reports are exaggerated, but then you must remember that I have been endorsed by such authorities as the Press Club of Chicago, practically by the Universities of St. Petersburg and a long string of others.
Again among the hotel personages whose palms I have read are the most distinguished of either hemisphere, so I hardly thing this report that you have heard is at all exaggerated.”
“But do you pretend to read one’s future?” was asked.
“I read the palm, and the future as well as the past is written therein.”
“Do you give legal advice?”
“The same as in certain cases I diagnose one’s condition and advise according how to recover lost nerve energy and power and what to do to take care of their health in the future. Some have certain business changes they should make, others have marriages, divorces, lawsuits in store for them; still others have mining interests or geographical changes to undergo, and so it runs on.”
“How many palms do you read daily?”
“Oh, that’s hard to say. In Fresno I read 2000 in several weeks. Now come up another time and I’ll give you a reading.”
Then the wonder worker, who kept Boston, New York, Copenhagen and other cosmopolitan cities in a flurry, called “next” and vanished into his consultation room.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 29, 1908