Alexander, the Man Who Knows

Alexander the Man Who Knows

While modern psychics have been relegated to talent shows and dodgy pay-by-the-minute telephone numbers, the mentalist circuit was once a staple of vaudeville theaters. Dressed in elaborate robes and professing powers gained from Eastern studies, these men and women thrilled live audiences with stage magic and psychic reading routines. Acts like Julius and Agnes Zancig, Harry Blackstone Sr., Horace Goldin, and Joseph Dunninger headlined stages across the country.

In the early 20th century, no one conjured a following (or a paycheck) quite like C. Alexander, known professionally as Alexander the Man Who Knows. A prolific author and tireless self-promoter, Alexander (real name Claude Alexander Conlin) performed amazing acts of mind reading, telepathy, and crystal ball scrying. His specialty was answering questions that audience members had sealed in envelopes. For older readers, this may bring back memories of Johnny Carson and his Carnac the Magnificent — turban and all.

During his 12-year career, Alexander earned several millions in performance fees and private session appointments. He earned a reputation as the highest paid mentalist or magician during the Vaudeville era.

When he retired in 1927 at the age of 47, he turned to writing in two distinct fields — a delicate balance for a former mentalist. On one hand, he wrote several texts intended to expose the tricks and techniques of fraudulent mystics, many his former colleagues. On the other hand, his C. Alexander Publishing Company produced (under a different name) dozens of volumes on the study of astrology, divination, mediumship, and New Thought.

After his death in 1954 at the age of 74, Alexander enjoyed a renewed interest in his life and work. Biographers noted that very little was known of his personal life, and few of his professional secrets had ever been made public. Extensive interviews with his extended family and other former Vaudeville performers filled in the gaps, often providing conflicting accounts of the man and his work.

Various stories emerged of Alexander’s early years. His marriages were thought to have been as few as seven and as many as 14, according to his own son. These marriages often overlapped. Relatives also reported that Alexander spent several stints in local jails and a federal prison. His crimes included grifting, bootlegging, evading authorities, and — if Alexander is to be believed — killing four different men.

In the end, all that lingers of Alexander is his library of beautifully chromolithographed posters. These images remain among the best-preserved relics of the Vaudeville-era mystics. In the 70 years since his death, Claude Alexander Conlin had faded from the history books and only the legend of Alexander the Man Who Knows remains. It may be his best trick of all.

Subscribe to the Arca Noctis Newsletter

Get 10% Off
Your First Purchase

Subscribe to our monthly email newsletter and get a discount code for 10% off your first purchase.