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.”

CLICK or TAP to enlarge

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

Read More


Jaded survivors of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake might have thought they’d seen everything, but five weeks after the disaster came astonishing news: The man who promised he would live forever hadn’t.

Thomas Lake Harris, Santa Rosa’s most famous adopted son prior to that guy named Burbank, had died at age 86 in New York. He’d actually died two months earlier, but his remaining followers hadn’t mentioned it just in case he was, you know, testing them or something. They announced his death in May, just as the weather began to warm up and presumably assured them that this was not a drill.

Harris is mostly forgotten now outside of his Fountaingrove connection, and in truth, he wasn’t well known in his own day except by the most avid fans of spiritualism. See and the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica for good overviews of his life, but there’s much more to his story.

Some brief background: His utopian ideals built upon what he called “theo-socialism,” which was really a blend of two belief systems that were well-known in the mid-19th century: Fourierism, with its goal of social equality in a classless, gender-blind society, and the mystical christianity of Swedenborgianism, which viewed heaven as a kind of enhanced reality, and that anyone who was spiritually advanced could communicate with the angels who lived there. Harris also borrowed from Swedenborg the belief that certain breathing techniques could create a supernatural hotline.

But Harris did far more than serve from a buffet of warmed-over philosophies; he invented a cosmology that sounds like a great-great grandfather to Scientology. All planets in the solar system were peopled with highly spiritual beings, and the moon, which had Lunarians living on the far side, originally circled the destroyed planet Oriana, which was where evil originated. Harris also wrote (very, very bad) poetry about the spiritual “interspace” of the fairies called “Lilistan,” where he had a “counterpartal marriage” with the Lily Queen, who gave birth to their two celestial children. Seriously.

The year of crisis came in 1891, sixteen years after he began his utopian colony at Fountaingrove, when Harris suddenly fell into the media’s hot spotlight. Famed British writer Margaret Oliphant published a memoir of her late cousin Laurence, who in 1867 had walked away from a promising political career as a reformer M.P. in order to live in an American hayloft in service of Harris, joined by his mother, Lady Oliphant, who “washed the pocket-handkerchiefs of the settlement,” and later his newlywed wife. Harris was painted as an didactic cult leader who endlessly poked into every cranny of his followers’ lives. The Oliphants also donated something over $90,000, no small change in Victorian America.

Trouble also arrived in 1891 in the form of Alzire Chevaillier, a young woman who apparently imagined herself as among the new breed of muckrakers with a specialty in spiritualism, but was really a gadfly seeking celebrity for herself. Ms. Chevaillier – “suffragist, sociologist, spiritual scientist, philanthropist, nationalist, magazine writer, and reformer” – and her mother were guests at Fountaingrove for six months before she left in a huff, “thoroughly disillusionized.” She told reporters that she was going to present damning evidence of immorality and fraud to the President of the United States. (For a full account of the Alzire Chevaillier episode, read Gaye Lebaron’s rollicking good essay, “Serpent in Eden.”)

By coincidence or no, 1891 was also the year Harris declared that he had achieved immortality…sort of. He published no fewer than three pamphlets that year, two of them (Brotherhood of the New Life, The New Republic) proclaiming that his frail body now had been restored to youthful vigor, thanks to his “finding the touch of the last rhythmic chord that leads the harmonic vibrations into bodily renewal.” In “Brotherhood of the New Life,” he vowed “never to publish another word respecting my discoveries unless I should pass safely through this final ordeal.” There he also denounced the Oliphant memoir and “nasal purveyors of the Sensational Press, who prowl about the kitchen middens.”

Troubles peaked after the new year, as Chevaillier gave lectures in San Francisco and Santa Rosa where she melodramatically demanded that either she or Harris should be sent to state prison. Harris was a “vampire,” a lecherous fiend,” and a “horrible sensualist,” she charged. He was the “greatest black magician today” who had boasted to her that he had psychically murdered Laurence Oliphant.

The San Francisco papers ate it up (the Santa Rosa press, not so much) because her charges squared with assumptions that Fountain Grove was a “free love” commune – although the main complaint in the Oliphant memoir was that men and women were kept separated even if they were married. Harris said he personally had been celibate since 1855. But at the same time, most of his writings circled around different aspects of sexuality. Besides the clumsy odes he penned to his mystical fairy wife, Queen Lily, a core part of Harris’ belief system was that God was bisexual, not asexual, an “All Holy Two-in-One,” and Christ was the “second Eve-Adam” that he named “Divine Yessa-Jesus.”

But a week after Chevaillier denounced him at the Athenaeum theatre on Fourth Street, enough was enough for the immortal man. Harris fled Sonoma County, but not before marrying his long-time disciple and secretary, Jane Lee Waring. Predictably, the San Francisco Call headline sneered that Harris was “No More a Celibate,” slyly adding hypocrisy to their list of accusations against him.

Harris and earthly wife Jane moved to Manhattan, where he mostly retired. Nothing came of ideas to launch new communities in Florida, Canada, and one in Mexico that would be entirely Japanese. Gaye Lebaron uncovered architectural drawings that show he had fantasies about building a palatial complex on the Upper West Side that would also be called Fountaingrove and which would include a “hundred bowers of love’s repose.”

Even though he was no longer a local, Harris was still catnip to Bay Area newspaper editors, particularly at The San Francisco Call. That paper was dismayed that a Grand Jury wasn’t held to investigate the (apparently accidental) suicide of his teenage granddaughter at Fountaingrove in 1896, four years after Harris had left. The Call also produced a special Sunday section on Harris in 1901 seen at right (CLICK to enlarge) that portrayed him as a wild-eyed Svengali, and in 1908 – two years after Harris died – the Call reported that his old house at Fountaingrove had been lost to a fire with the headline, “‘Free Love’ Home Burned to Ground.”

There are two epilogues worth telling about the story of Thomas Lake Harris:

* At the end of 1906, 77 year-old widow Jane Lee Waring Harris – always affectionately called “Lady Dovie” by him – showed up at Fountaingrove for the first time in 14 years and announced her intention of living there for the rest of her life. Whether or not she stayed awhile is unknown, but she died in San Diego ten years later (cause of death: “Changes”).


* The notion that old Harris had unusual powers has found new life in the Internet age. Some write that his breathing techniques to reach a transcendental sexual state were a form of Tantric Yoga; others see his breathing to reach an intimate connection with the spirit world as part of ritual magic. Googling for “Thomas Lake Harris” and “sex magic” or “tantric” returns hundreds of hits.


Thomas Lake Harris Dead

A month ago Thomas Lake Harris died at his home in New York at the age of eight-six years. Our older readers will remember his coming to this county and the founding of Fountaingrove by him. He was a man of fine ability and culture and an author of excellent repute. Many years ago he received the orders of knighthood in Santa Rosa Commandery No. 1, Knights Templars, and continued a member thereof as long as he lived. Several years ago he removed to New York, which was the home of his later years. He had many warm personal friends in Santa Rosa.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1906


Mrs. Thomas Lake Harris Returns to Santa Rosa After an Absence of Many Years

Mrs. Thomas Lake Harris, widow of the late Thomas Lake Harris of Fountaingrove, has arrived here from New York, after an absence of many years. Mrs. Harris made a very pleasant trip across the continent to Santa Rosa in four days, and is enjoying the best of health.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris left Fountaingrove for New York in 1892. Mr. Harris died on March 20 last. This is Mrs. Harris’ first visit since her departure in 1892.

Mrs. Harris, who is probably best known here as Miss Jane Waring, is a sister of Colonel Waring, the noted sanitary engineer. He was at one time a commissioner of New York and did much to reform sanitary measures there and in other great centers of this country and abroad.

Mrs. Harris’ friends here will be interested to know that it is her intention to make her permanent home in Fountaingrove. Her deceased husband was a member of Santa Rosa Commandery, Knights Templar.

– Press Democrat, December 6, 1906

Read More


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

Read More