Alexander The Man Who Knows (1880 – 1954)
This series of articles starts with one of the most fascinating stories in the history of magic, let alone mentalism. Alexander’s story is surrounded by intrique, controversy and a mixture of fact and fiction (much coming from Alexander himself). Here was an average magic performer, copying acts from other magicians including Houdini’s escape act, striving for a successful formula; he eventually and almost accidentally found fame and a considerable fortune as the world’s leading mind-reader. Here was a very driven, focused individual, whose strengths included a very good grasp of human psychology, a remarkable understanding of marketing and promotion, a financial astute mind to enable him to profit from his successes and taking ideas from anyone and anywhere to create what was one of the most successful and profitable acts of its time; a performer rigging a stage with underground wires to receive electronic signals in the 1920s, using concealed earpieces under his turban, and hidden listening devices in the toilets of theatres to gain vital information to be used later in his shows. Add to this a serial adulterer, with up to possibly twelve marriages, bigamy, a suspected murder, money laundering, grand larceny, fraud and drug smuggling, a significant FBI dossier, Alexander’s life was nothing but dull. He is the original man of mystery and his story is simply incredible.
Born from Irish immigrants in a small town called Alexandria (In Hason County in the Dakota territory, US) on 30 June 1880, Claude Alexander Conlin became a master of his trade long before many other performers saw the potential of a mind-reading act (although he was also influenced by the success of Anna Eva Fay and Sammi Baldwin). He was the son of a doctor, Berthold Michael Joseph Conlin (affectionately known as BMJ) and Martha Johnson, and grew up mainly in southeast Alaska. Within the family Claude Alexander was known as “CA.” and his brother Clarence B. was known as “CB.” Clarence B. had a successful career as an attorney and also worked as a stage mentalist, although his fame never equalled that of his brother Claude.
As an adolescent boy, Claude spent much of his time hunting and fishing, passions that remained with him throughout his life. Travelling shows visiting his town and regular trips to the magic section of his local library (where he discovered Hoffman’s Modern Magic), fed his curiosity on the mysteries of life (as too did the revealing pictures of women found in his father’s medical books) leading to an early fascination with magic (and women); after being expelled from school at 17, he decided (against his parents approval) to travel east and by chance found work at the most famous spiritualist resort of Lily Dale, near Cassadega, New York. It was here that the young Claude’s education into his future career really took hold. During his work as a boat-boy and cleaner he discovered the fraudulent ways of the mediums, learning how they did their slate writing, billet switching, spirit collars, rope ties and other tricks of the spiritualists. More importantly he discovered the psychology of the psychics, which allowed them to turn simple effects into supposed miracles performed by spirits. Presumably considering a career in magic, after leaving Lily Dale, he visited T.Nelson Down (the “King of Coins”) on his way ‘west’. His nomadic instincts led him to the Alaskan gold rush where a long term friendship with a Greek Immigrant, Alexander Pericles Pantages began; it was during his time here that he was suspected of shooting a swindling gangster Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith, who was apparently out to get Pantages (although many say that the whole story was fabricated to add to the mystery of Alexander). Following work as a faro dealer, an assayer of gold, a cashier and a psychic (telling prospectors where they could find gold), Claude gave his first stage performance in 1898 (aged 18). It was not until returning to Seatlle in 1902, however, that Claude decided to make a career as a magician and he took the name Alexander the Great (after his friend) and started performing in vaudeville as a stage illusionist.
Depending on the references you read, Alexander had between eight and twelve marriages, including marrying one woman twice and also being married to two women at the same time. He married the first of his wives, Jessie Cullen, in 1902 (divorcing in 1903) and tried to develop an act to rival Houdini’s popular and successful escape act. His second marriage was to Ethel Lyman, whom he met when she was only 14 years old.
Fate would play a significant part in much of Alexander’s life. A chance call to leave his hotel in San Francisco early one morning saved his life when the hotel was destroyed in an earthquake as he crossed the street; and it was following a blizzard which stopped trains transporting his show, and leading to potential disaster, that one of his assistants suggested he simply do his short mind-read set as the main act. Despite his reluctance, he had little choice in the matter and the success of the ‘propless’ show surprised even Alexander. His career never looked back and now in his mid-thirties, he discarded the large props and relied on his tremendous skills as a showman to put over an act of mind-reading, taking much inspiration (or simply copying) from other top mentalists at the time including Anna Eva Fay and Sammi Baldwin. Despite already being married (and now with a 5 year old son) he married his third wife, 17 year old Della Martell in 1907 and returned to San Francisco to act as a psychic, knowing he would have plenty of customers seeking to speak with lost ones from the earthquake the previous year.
To add the sense of theatre and mysticism in his stage act, he began wearing a jewelled turban, Oriental-garb, and performed with his crystal ball as ‘Alexander The Man Who Knows’ – his act presented in a quasi-Oriental setting with lavish costuming for himself, and several female assistants. He promoted his psychic act as a form of mind-reading and could achieve the most remarkable display the world had ever seen. He also performed as a psychic “Astro” (to distance himself from his stage act), earning more money than he could from stage performances. He married again in 1915 to Lillian Marion, who would become an integral part of his show and they were to stay together for 14 years before she would file for divorce. His show at the time consisted of audience members giving Alexander sealed questions, which he amazingly answered from the stage (fans of Derren would have seen him do precisely this type of routine in one of his own shows). Alexander’s mind-reading show became an instant hit and at the height of his career, he sold out theatres across the United States and Canada for weeks at a time. He made millions from box office receipts, and having the foresight to side-sell, made even more from the sale of books, crystal balls, and related merchandise (setting up a mail order business with six full time employees sending merchandise out). He travelled the world, and counted among his friends such show-business luminaries as Alexander Pantages, John Considine, Rudolph Valentine, and Clara Bow. One of his strengths was understanding marketing, and Alexander was at the forefront of poster designs to promote his stage acts. Some of his designs and concepts were quite masterful, even detailing like adding eastern words to the bottom of the posters to add further mysticism, along with giving himself a darker ‘eastern’ complexion. His posters are still very much in demand.
In terms of innovation, it was his use of electronic transmitting devices in the 1920’s that really catch the imagination. Using his turban to hide earpieces he could carry out quite extraordinary feats of mind-reading that had never been seen before. He suffered from bad nerves before every show in case the electronics failed (so nothing has changed in this regard!). Interestingly his show featured many straight magic effects such as using a nest of boxes and vanishing cane, which, as many modern day successful mentalist would agree, are a fine way to add some colour and diversity to their mind-reading act. He would also perform Asrah, the Double Box trick and the Cabinet Box and one of his favourite and most successful illusions was Spirit Painting, whereby he would ask local politicians, distinguished community leaders and doctors (all whom could not advertise) to pay to have their picture appear at every show in the Spirit Painting.
In his early 40s, he authored many books and wrote under the name “C. Alexander.” In 1921 he wrote and published The Life And Mysteries Of The Celebrated Dr. Q (also known as The Dr. Q. Book). Alexander also operated a publishing house, the C. Alexander Publishing Company in Los Angeles, California. His company released his own pro-spiritualist and New Thought material, including a multi-volume series called ‘The Inner Secrets of Psychology’ and a booklet for his clients called ‘Personal Lessons, Codes, and Instructions for Members of the Crystal Silence League’. Interestingly he would send the Narell twins out to libraries where he was performing to research and steal pages form psychology texts and this formed the basis of his own book. He often ended shows saying ‘someday psychology will be taught in schools’ much to the disbelief of his audiences.
It is reported that Alexander earned around four million dollars during his relatively short career (equivalent to around £150-200 million in today’s money). He dominated the stage for nearly a decade before retiring in 1924, at the age of 43, the richest man in vaudeville, spending much of his time at his retreat, hunting and fishing and taking photos of nude women (a hobby from which he made a further $40,000 selling the images to various calendar companies).
Claude Alexander Conlin died in 1954 at age 74.
Charvet David: Alexander The Man Who Knows. Mike Caveney’s Magic
Beckman, Darryl: The Life and Times of Alexander
This article first appeared in The Magic CIrcular 2016