Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
The Great Alexander was a town favorite. Of all the circuit-riding entertainers, he was without a doubt the most popular, and that’s why during the decade of 1910 he was invited back to Visalia time after time. The amazing performer was a magician, mind reader and so much more. But above all, he was a showman and promoter. He always left his audiences scratching their heads in wonderment and, on one of his visits, many believed that he actually took his performance beyond the stage of Theatre Visalia.
This time, he was arrested by the town marshal. Was Visalia seeing a dark side of this talented traveling mystic, or was it a well-choreographed ploy to gain publicity? It’s not totally clear, but regardless, his wizardly antics, both on and off the stage, earned him his rightful place in the town’s history.
The Great Alexander, whose real name was Claude Alexander Conlin, was born in 1880 in Alexandria, a town in what is now South Dakota, to Irish immigrant parents. By 1898, he was in the Klondike goldfields, where he worked as a faro dealer, gold assayer, cashier and psychic, revealing to miners where they could find their fortune. By 1902, he was in Seattle, and it was there that he decided that he wanted a career as a magician. He started in vaudeville as a stage illusionist and, by 1915, was a well-established mentalist who knew how to “wow” an audience.
His first performance in Visalia was scheduled to be a four-day engagement, with the first show to be given the evening of Jan. 20, 1915. The advance publicity in the Visalia Morning Delta described his show as vaudeville, and the large display advertisement boasted that he was “packing theatres everywhere.”
Theater Visalia was located on the northeast corner of Acequia Avenue and Court Street, (now a parking lot). Here, the fire department displays its equipment next to the theater in 1915.
Opening night brought a nice crowd, and word spread quickly about the quality entertainment that had come to town. The next night, attendance was even greater, and it became clear that the Great Alexander was becoming a hit in Visalia.
He and his assistants were staying at the Palace Hotel Annex, just two blocks north of Theatre Visalia. In the early morning of Jan. 22, Alexander and several members of his troupe were gathered in his room. According to Visalia Marshal Ed Rowland, who was patrolling nearby, he heard voices, cards shuffling and the sounds of coins clinking on a table, all coming from inside the room. Suspecting illegal activity, the marshal summoned Night-watchman Anderson and the two found a box, stood on it and peered into the hotel room through a transom. They saw the group of men, including Alexander, playing poker with money on the table. The lawmen knocked on the door and were invited inside. The men denied that they were gambling. The lawmen looked around and saw no cards or money, but did see a satchel. They picked it up, but Alexander refused to let them open it. The men were arrested and charged with illegally playing poker.
At 9:30 the morning of Jan. 23, 1915, the group appeared before Visalia City Recorder Earl A. Bagby, who sat as judge for city ordinance violations. The courtroom within Visalia City Hall was filled with onlookers. Rowland and Anderson testified as to what they saw, and then Alexander, acting as his own attorney, cross-examined the lawmen. He first raised questions about whether the officers remembered exactly which members of his troupe were in the room.
Then Alexander asked the officers about the coin denominations that they allegedly saw on the table and followed up with a question about the color of the cards. The lawmen were vague, unclear and confused in their responses.
Toward the end of the trial, Alexander pointed out that the lawmen provided no evidence of illegal gambling and added that their testimony was confusing and oftentimes inconsistent. And the illusionist also reminded the court that he was a magician and asked who would be foolish enough to play poker with someone like him — a mind reader!
Alexander’s logic was convincing. The Visalia Morning Delta commented, “In behalf of Mr. Alexander it may be said that the magician proved himself a lawyer. His questions were within the rules of law and his motion was presented at the proper time. Throughout the cross-examination he showed a knowledge of procedure and a splendid ability to fire questions of importance at his witnesses. Many in the courtroom could not help but laugh at times until cautioned by the court that it was no laughing matter.”
At the end of the trial, Alexander asked that all the charges against him be dismissed and, on Jan. 24, Judge Bagby ruled accordingly. All charges against the showman and his staff were dropped. The Visalia Daily Times reported that the “defendants and spectators went their way rejoicing.”
But the question remains. Were the arrest and courtroom antics all part of a publicity stunt designed to promote Alexander and his show? Many, including the Times, pointed out that the entire poker incident and subsequent trial was suspicious. The Times reported, “Many are still wondering if the whole affair was a piece of excellent advertisement and whether the marshal and his assistant were made the innocent victims of the prettiest piece of cleverness ever displayed in this section.” After all, the Great Alexander was a showman. Was this just another one of his magic tricks?
The arrest didn’t seem to tarnish the Great Alexander’s reputation. In fact, it seemed to enhance it. Within two weeks of the arrest, the charmer’s show was booked to return for a second engagement — Feb. 2-4. He was riding a wave of popularity.
But suspicion lingered about the legitimacy of the alleged crime and still does today. Shortly after the charges were dropped, Judge Bagby held a party, or some might call it a celebration, for Alexander and his entire company at his home, complete with dancing, games and refreshments.
The Great Alexander came to Visalia on at least seven different occasions, and each time he was a hit. The mystic left the stage in about 1927, some say as the richest man in vaudeville, and died in 1954 at the age of 74. One biographer called him “the world’s leading mind reader.” Some Visalians might add that he wasn’t a bad self-promoter either.