By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Spiritualism and attempts to communicate with the dearly departed surged in popularity during and shortly after World War I with some of its more nefarious practitioners ending up in state penitentiaries. The case of a clairvoyant criminal ring involving fraudulent sales of radium mining stock, tall tales told by a smooth-talking mystic and costume changes reads more like a movie than a bit of history.
Beginning of the end
“Confident of acquittal, ‘Rev.’ Oscar Haas, so-called ‘spook doctor,’ charged with having obtained money under false pretenses, today permitted his fate to be placed in the hands of the jury without taking the witness stand himself or calling a single witness on his behalf,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, March 9, 1915.
According to the news report, Hass “pretended to go into a trance and while in that state had permitted ‘White Eagle,’ supposed to be the spirit of a deceased Indian chief, to use his voice to induce (victims) to purchase some ranch property which Haas had for sale.”
Deputy District Attorney Keetch said the victims claimed Haas, while supposedly under a trance, said “ooga, jooga, jooga jig” and the “utterances were (meant) to represent the spirit messages received advising immediate purchase of the land.”
“He (induced one victim) to pay $300 per acre for land in Riverside County upon the representation that the spirit of (the victim’s) deceased mother advised the purchase,” reported the Herald, March 20, 1915. “Haas had purchased the land for $20 per acre.”
Another victim said Hass told her “he had communicated with spirits of the dead and had learned that some real estate he owned near Banning was to become very valuable,” according to the Herald, Aug. 9, 1915. “He met his … victims in a little church that he erected and witnesses said he frequently appeared to go into trances. … This continued for several months (until) someone who had more faith in the district attorney than the spirits asked the district attorney about it and Haas’ arrest, conviction and sentence … followed.”
He was sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison.
Investigators believed the clairvoyant’s scam went beyond the realm of one con-artist and four years later, detectives uncovered a ring of con-artists using spiritualism as a means of bilking people out of money.
“Concluding an exhaustive investigation into the alleged operations of ‘spook doctors,’ mediums and clairvoyants, the county grand jury today returned three secret indictments,” reported the Herald, Jan. 30, 1919. “Bail was set at $5,000 for each person accused. … It was indicated that a number of arrests probably would be made within a few hours.”
One of those named in the indictment was Carlos “Charles” de Alvandros. For roughly 20 years, perhaps longer, he had been leading a life of crime.
Decades of scams
Alvandros’ con-artist career was long. In 1897, he and a female accomplice rented rooms in a hotel and ran a scam for a few weeks, then skipped town.
“More than 100, most of them women and some of them prominent socially, have been made the victims of a pair of swindlers who advertised themselves as clairvoyants and spirit mediums (in New Jersey),” reported the New York Sun, July 30, 1897. “The pair passed as man and wife, the former Signore Charles Alvandros and the woman Marion C. Golden. … (They) came here about three weeks ago, engaged rooms in a house … and advertised their business extensively, the woman promising to ‘read your life from cradle to grave.'”
The clairvoyants would convince their victims to leave a valuable personal item so they could improve the readings. The victims were instructed to return in three days to pick up the object and finish their fortune-telling session.
“Wednesday afternoon … was the time set for some of the dupes to call again. Others had appointments (for later),” the newspaper reported. “The swindlers left town suddenly on Tuesday evening.”
In 1899, the fanciful tales spun by Alvandros caught the attention of a Nebraska newspaper gossip columnist. At the time, as well as in later years, he passed himself off as being descended from royalty.
“I am on my way to Honolulu to see for myself what the prospects are for the production of coffee,” he said over dinner, according to the Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 16, 1899. “This was the explanation given in good conversational English of his presence in this city … by Senor Don Carlos de Alvandros, of Para, Brazil, as he lighted a fragrant cigarette that had been made in his own country. He is a handsome young Brazilian of olive complexion and is accompanied by a charming little wife, who seems hardly more than a girl. A scion of a branch of the old imperial house of Dom Pedro, he has abundant means and opportunities for travel.”
He told the columnist he left Brazil the year prior, on his own personal steam yacht. He also bragged of already having traveled around the world twice. “The party came in from Chicago and will go to Kansas City and thence to Denver and Salt Lake,” wrote the columnist.
“I think the American people are the best in the world, the most courteous and obliging,” Alvandros said.
A few months later, the con-man ended up in Kansas City and promptly separated several people from their hard-earned cash. Alvandros was using the names Cecil Miller and William Benn.
“Alvandros, ‘the world’s renowned clairvoyant,’ and his helpmate, George Duboise, … were taken before Judge Spitz yesterday,” reported the Kansas City Journal, Sept. 22, 1899. “(Alvandros) and his pal’s photographs now adorn the rogues’ gallery. Each was fined $5, and (Alvandros) refunded the money to each of his victims and agreed to leave (the city).”
The victims did not want to press charges.
In New Jersey in 1908, he was accused of slipping a powerful sedative in a young lady’s drink. When she awoke the next morning, he told her they were married. Rebecca Cummings, the infuriated mother of the bamboozled bride, took matters in her own hands and shot Alvandros. Cummings, the supposed bride and her real husband were arrested.
“Martha Hurd, whom Alvandros says he married in New York three months ago, and Edwin Hurd, said to be her husband, were held this afternoon,” reported the New York Tribune, March 11, 1908.
“I first met Alvandros about a year ago, when I went to him to have my fortune told and he invited me to have a drink with him in a saloon. … I remembered nothing after taking the drink and I am sure I was drugged. Next morning, Alvandros said we were married,” Martha told the newspaper.
The next day, law enforcement turned their attention to Alvandros.
“Detective Howry … holds a warrant for the arrest of Alvandros on a charge of grand larceny,” reported The Sun, March 12, 1908.
According to The Sun, Alvandros, going by the name of Imro Palma, swindled Florence Foye out of $50. After losing her job, Foye went to Alvandros hoping he could help her get reinstated. “Alvandros said he would do this on the payment of a $13 fee. She paid this and subsequently, she says, he induced her to buy 100 shares of mining stock he was selling, for which, she says, she paid him $50. The stock, she says, proved worthless.”.
In 1910, he attempted to gain his law license in New York but was shut down by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn.
“(The court) has refused to allow Alvandros of Tottenville, Staten Island, to practice law in this state,” reported the New York Tribune, March 6, 1910. “Alvandros, it was alleged, had intimate relations with fortune tellers and clairvoyants. … The court committee learned, they said, that Alvandros not only had fortune tellers for his clients, but that he was one himself, under the name of Esteban Verne.”
He pulled up stakes and reestablished his law practice in Illinois. In Chicago, his name made headlines again when Loretta Conroy accused him of swindling her out of $400.
“Miss Conroy caused a warrant to be issued for his arrest on a charge of confidence game,” reported the East Oregonian, July 20, 1912. “It was also recommended by the judge that disbarment proceedings be started against the lawyer before the Chicago Bar Association.”
The man behind the crime ring
Alvandros also faced charges for leading the ring of Chicago clairvoyants. His arrest also resulted in a massive probe of police corruption.
“Chicago police implicated in ‘white envelope’ graft fund,” reported the Sacramento Union, May 16, 1913. “(Alvandros) is said to have acted as chairman of weekly meetings held by clairvoyants where the ‘white envelope fund’ was collected for distribution to the politicians and detectives who protected their operations.”
According to reports, the con man “led a dual existence, posing as a lawyer and operating as a seer. As a lawyer he had an office downtown; as a clairvoyant he is said to have maintained three mystic parlors in which he appeared disguised to those who had met him in his capacity as an attorney. As a lawyer, he is alleged to have directed his victims to consult the seer. Thus he was able to make surprising disclosures to his victims. The less important cases were handled by assistants.”
When any of the mystics ran afoul of the law, he usually handled court matters.
He and five others faced charges in Illinois so he pulled up stakes and headed to the Golden State.
California clairvoyant ring crashes
Six years later in Los Angeles, he was up to his old tricks. Alvandros faced new charges as the leader of yet another fraud ring. Radium mining stock also factored into the California con-game since radium’s popularity was on the rise. This time, he used the aliases Professor Herold and Leon Alvandros.
Of those charged, Alvandros, “alleged leader of a ‘spook doctor’ ring,” was the first one convicted, reported the Los Angeles Herald, April 10, 1919. The 48-year-old Alvandros was sentenced from one to 10 years in San Quentin.
“Alvandros and (others) were arrested following the murder of Reuben Fogel, a money lender. The (group) had been in the habit of using the ‘murder house’ as a ‘church,’ and district attorney detectives in their investigation uncovered what they declared was a ring of ‘spook doctors’ organized as a church, but whose main purpose was to separate men and women from their savings.”
According to the paper, “The mediums (were) charged with having fleeced Schroeder, a retired rancher, and others, by means of ‘spirit’ messages obtained from mystic séances and other alleged tricks.” One victim said he was “fleeced of $500 by the ‘spook doctors’ and induced to buy worthless radium stock.”
What is radium?
Alvandros, a true con man, used the popularity and name recognition of radium to sell worthless stock in radium mines. When Alvandros was sentenced in 1919, the substance had only been discovered 20 years earlier.
Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and her husband Pierre discovered radium in 1898.
“Another extraordinary property of radium is to throw off rays not only of heat, but of light like those of the glowworm or firefly,” reported the New York Tribune, April 19, 1903. “The most puzzling property of radium is that … its properties of emitting heat and light are inexhaustible.”
Early on, the Curies warned of possible dangerous side effects from exposure to radium.
“A glass tube containing a few milligrams of radium, when introduced beneath the skin of a mouse near the vertebral column, produced death by paralysis in three hours,” the Tribune reported. “Mr. Curie says that death to a man would probably ensue upon entering a room containing a pound of radium. … Radium is their work, their dream and their goal in life.”
Madam Curie died in 1934 from “aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation,” according to reports.
Despite warnings, radium was used in health remedies, hair tonics and to paint glow-in-the-dark clock faces. Hospitals stockpiled radium to treat patients. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the government banned its use in health products. The glow-in-the-dark clocks were finally phased out in 1968.
For Alvandros, his life of crime appears to have ended after his incarceration in San Quentin State Prison. A Brazilian-born man with the name Carlos de Alvandros turns up in a 1940 census, married and living in Seattle, but there are no further references to him as a clairvoyant or an attorney.