Claude Alexander Conlin (June 30, 1880 – August 5, 1954), also known as Alexander, C. Alexander and Alexander the Crystal Seer, hit the branding sweet spot as Alexander the Man Who Knows.
Hymned for psychic reading acts and using a crystal ball, we can only wonder if he really did know your past and future from cradle to grave, as the words on his posters boasted.
What we do know is that Alexander wore a cape and a turban, which, unless you’re the writer Barbara Cartland, hereditary Canadian politician Justin Trudeau or Noël Coward’s Madame Arcati, marks you as a mysterious Oriental, knowing and trustworthy.
Alexander was a hit. And he knew it, getting successful enough to hang out with the like of Hollywood’s Marion Davies, Margaret Sullavan, Jackie Coogan, Harold Lloyd and Clara Bow. And he grew very rich.
People keen to know what he knew gave “Alexander, The Man Who Knows” sealed questions, which he answered from the stage. How he got the answers right remains a mystery. That turban might have played a part – or more exactly, the radio transmitters secreted in it. He could pick up messages relayed from plants stood by audience members waiting in line to see his show and sat in the stalls. He could then have picked their questions from the silk bag, having already learned the answers.
But, was it real? Do you hold with the notion that déjà vu is a glimpse into the metaphysical ether? Do you think you bought the winning lottery ticket because it was preordained and your guardian angel smiled on your wallet? Can it be that the more extroverted among the dead want to be contacted by the living, hanging out in a dank brick cellar in an old house awaiting the arrival of a TV crew, or waiting to be called upon at a packed theatre before a live audience ?
Who can resist the chance to knowing the unknown? Check out Alexanders’ adverts, those wonderful lithographs, the magician posters that told of conjuring demons, fighting evil and self-decapitation.
So what if the card was up his sleeve all along and the knowing was part of The Prestige – the third part of magic show that follows The Pledge (‘look at this ordinary thing’) and The Turn (‘note how the ordinary is now extraordinary’) – in which we are all in on the lie, but remain keen to believe and fooled, shying away from asking too many questions lest the illusion evaporate and kill the chance out between two worlds.
Maybe the real magic is that by merely speaking Alexander could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.
What else we know is thanks to the biographer David Charvet, who interviewed surviving members of Alexander’s family, noted that the magician had seven marriages (sometimes to more than one woman at once; and at other times to one woman more than once); and biographer Darryl Beckmann who calculated that Alexander was married eleven times. In an interview with Charvet in 2006, Conlin’s then-89-year-old son, John, claimed that Alexander was married 14 times.
Charvet adds that Alexander spent time in local jails (including a jail break in Oklahoma in 1906) and federal prison in Washington state. He was tried in court for allegedly extorting $50,000 from oil tycoon G. Allan Hancock, made an attempt (failed) to outrun the authorities in a high-powered speedboat loaded with bootlegged liquor in the Queen Charlotte Strait between Canada and the US, and – get this – admitted to killing four men. Alexander claimed that he was involved in the shooting of Alaska gold rush con-man Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. No evidence of his involvement exists.
But if you know how to, you could always ask him…
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