by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the offerings in the program for the Homestead’s “Sorrowful Soiree” special event, held tomorrow from 2 to 6 p.m. are seances by the remarkable magician Misty Lee, who has performed at many of our festivals and discussed, for example, spiritualism as a major cultural phenomenon in America during the Victorian era.
As a prelude to tomorrow’s event and Misty’s presentations, we look tonight at the summer stay in Los Angeles in 1875 of “Professor” Charles N. Steen, who conducted seances, mind readings, healings and other otherworldly activities.
Steen proved to have a durable career in the often-shadowy world of spiritualists and performed all over the United States and England (if not elsewhere, depending on whether his stories of his life are to be believed) from the 1870s through about 1900. His visit to the City of Angels in 1875 appears to have been at the beginning of that career and he certainly made a big impression on the locals before an abrupt departure–something he did a number of times over the years!
According to one version of his life, he was born in Prague in 1842, though there are other records that give his birth year as 1851 or around there. He was said to have been brought to America at the age of three and one report from the proprietor of “Cole’s Dime Museum” in St. Joseph, Missouri in the mid-1880s stated that he was part of a group called the “Davenport Brothers,” said to have performed in Europe from 1863 to 1866 before disagreements led to the troupe disbanding.
From there, the tale goes, Steen landed in San Francisco and, in two years, managed to earn $40,000, a princely sum. Alas, the account went on, he spent liberally, “thrown to the birds,” while much of the fortune “was lost in stock speculations.” Steen then took his “spiritualistic specialties” on tour on the Pacific Coast and then headed east. In 1872, he landed in Maryville, north of St. Joseph, “where he met the lady who finally became his wife.”
While Steen purportedly intended to settle on a farm there, “a feeling came over him to revisit the scenes of his former triumphs,” so he spent the ensuing winter teaching his wife “the art of second sight and mind reading.” This account claimed the education of the young woman took four years, after which they embarked on their first public presentation together.
The problem with this yarn is that Steen didn’t marry Martha E. Smith until early 1878 and he spent his spiritualistic summer in Los Angeles before that. His arrival in the city came about 10 July 1875 and the Los Angeles Herald, edited by James M. Bassett, became an enthusiastic admirer. In its edition of the 11th, the paper reported more skeptically:
Prof. Steen, the mind-reader, gave a private seance yesterday afternoon at the Lafayette Hotel to a few visitors. Some things he did were quite remarkable, but we ascribe them more to his keen judgment of physiognomy than to any higher power. He has a powerful perception and can follow a man’s eye like a hawk. In this way, we believe his mind-reading can be explained. Parts of the seance we cannot reasonably explain, but as it was in daylight and above board, we leave each spectator to ascribe the results to any known or unknown cause.
On the 15th, Steen appeared at the Merced Theater, which opened in 1870 in a three-story brick building that still stands next to the Pico House hotel building just south of the Plaza on Main Street. The Herald reported that “he will exhibit some of the most astounding feats of mind-reading and clairvoyance,” which “astounded the thinking men of San Francisco.” It added that whether his abilities resulted from “clairvoyance, second-sight or spiritualism,” his exploits were “very remarkable and worthy of investigation.” The piece ended by noting that Steen “is the only mind-reader in the world.” General admission was fifty cents and reserved seats cost a dollar.
Before that show, Steen took a brief tour to Anaheim, where he conducted several seances, and his Merced engagement expressly was advertised to focus on three elements: “mental questions answered,” “leading to objects thought of,” and a “wonderful figure test,” the latter being a mind reading exploit. Notably, however, Steen was also to “expose the so-called mind-reading of traveling quacks in the most complete manner.”
The performance was evidently so successful that the professor booked one last engagement, an afternoon matinee and an evening show, for the 17th before he was to leave Los Angeles and added three more program elements, including interpretations of a person’s “Past, Present and Future,” the answering of sealed letters, and “communication with a person’s deceased relatives.” The Herald stated that “whatever one may think of his pretensions a large degree of interest cannot be denied them.” As for the performance, it was “fairly attended” but by “a thoughtful audience” who expressed “immense satisfaction” with Steen’s act.
Meanwhile, the professor did not leave town right away because of “public demand” and decided to remain a few days longer. He continued to offer private seances at the Lafayette and, briefly, the St. Charles Hotel, with hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., though he advertised a request to interested parties to carefully observe those hours so he had adequate time for rest and relaxation. He also went to some private homes for seances, including one for Thomas A. Garey, a nursery owner and founder of the new town of Pomona.
Steen’s local fame grew to such an extent that, when the Herald covered the mid-July auction of lots for the newly developed coastal town of Santa Monica, which was a project of Nevada Senator John P. Jones including a branch line of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, founded by F.P.F. Temple, the paper joked that some people showed up to the proceedings, which purportedly did not go as well as hoped, because they heard that Steen was to give a seance. The paper also claimed that, at one of his hotel seances, a purchaser of property at Santa Monica was told that, if he dug an artesian well, he’d come up with a gusher at precisely 417 feet.
Steen extended his visit to travel to the Los Nietos township, where Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Pico Rivera and other cities are today, where he reportedly made substantial progress in healing a partially paralyzed woman. It was later stated he received nothing for this service, but was paid $100 to work on a young girl in Los Angeles. Fully buying in to the professor’s purported powers, the Herald gushed on 29 July:
Prof. Steen has effected wonderful results . . . this lady has been paralyzed for several years, but since the laying on of Prof. Steen’s hands she can move her paralyzed hands easily, and, from appearances, will soon be able to walk.
A couple of days later, a follow-up stated that “his success in this case is quite surprising and will give him a name high up among physicians and medical men.” On 3 August, the paper reported that Steen appeared at a benefit of the Los Angeles African Methodist Episcopal church, founded by the small, but very active black community of the city, at Lorenzo Leck’s hall. Steen, it was noted, “gave them the figure test and an experiment in mesmerism,” observing that the event was attended “by people of all nationalities, parties and colors.” Moreover, it claimed, Steen “was successful and received the unqualified endorsement of all present.”
His powers were not limited to public performance. He used his persuasiveness in private matters by getting married, on 4 August, less than a month after drifting into town, to Lydia Lilley. In its coverage, the Herald noted many friends were there to witness “the tying of the silken fetters that were to unite them for life” and offered congratulations and the wish that “Mr. and Mrs. Steen will have every happiness in this life.”
Steen’s extended stay included more private consultations and seances, a third Merced Theater performance and an announcement that he was soon to leave for Philadelphia where he was to perform with a “Signor Blitz” at a major concert venue in the City of Brotherly Love. Yet, by mid-September, the professor then claimed that because the Czar of Russia supposedly was expending $50,000 in studying spiritualism, Steen was going to travel to St. Petersburg via New York by the end of the year “to help illustrate the mystery.”
Instead, Steen headed north for San Francisco and a 22 October reprint of a report from the Alta newspaper of that city noted that, while the professor was received with much interest and expected success, “clouds will come upon the fairest skies, and our fondest aspirations often prove to be but castles in the air.”
Referred to as a circus magician and an expert trickster, it was asserted he fleeced the gullible on the East Coast and in Europe a few years back, but in San Francisco, he had another problem: he was a deserted from the U.S. Army and was expected to spent two years in hard labor at Alcatraz Island (which, as a series of posts on this blog discussed this year, was once owned by William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.)
He was captured by Army officers, who evidently recognized him on the busy streets of San Francisco, and he was arrested upon confessing that he did go AWOL from his infantry company, which was serving in Arizona as part of ongoing operations against Indians in that territory.
On the 23rd, the Herald, formerly an ardent admirer, turned critical with Steen, publishing a long piece, saying that “his adventures in Los Angeles would fill a dime novel.” The paper reported on only marginally attended performances and financial failures, which were not so described at the time, and noted that his healing efforts were not fully known, though the Herald sure seemed optimistic as he was engaged in that work.
As for the seances, it was stated that Steen gave pleasant and vague responses, but obtained useful information about hotel guests from maids and workers who sought their own fortunes from the spiritualist. With regard to that marriage to Lydia Lilley, who was, the paper said, “fair, frail, and foolish,” it lasted all of eight days before “she returned to her old haunts” and there was reference to Steen’s claim to “reform” her. Again, the paper was ebullient in its offerings of best wishes to the couple at the time of the nuptial.
There was, however, a tryst with “a grass widow and there was a third women, as well. Also saddled with an unpayable hotel bill, Steen was apparently headed for physical and legal woes, when “disgusted friends, knowing him to be a strange compound of idiot and lunatic” bailed him out. Then, there was an arrest for petty larceny for stealing a photo and a pack of cards from a private home (presumably where a seance was conducted), but Steen was acquitted.
Once Steen landed in San Francisco, the Herald alleged he had a relationship with a “Sandwich Island Princess (from Africa” and with a European woman purportedly recently arrived from China. It was reported that he wrote a letter exclaiming, “I thank God that I have left Los Angeles” and asking for his wife to join him, while offering that he would pay his debts to those in the City of Angels. Then came his arrest and imprisonment at Alcatraz.
In a section titled “Requiescat in Pace” (Rest in Peace), the Herald averred that the jailing “closes the short but brilliant career” of Steen, who claimed he graduated college in Prague at 9 years old or at King’s College in London at 12, saying he was from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) or England or America. The paper accounted him a total spiritualistic fraud, despite its earlier enthusiasms, and offered that Steen had “no idea of propriety or morality,” while believing that “he can conquer a women by a magnetic glance.”
To the paper, the professor was “a useless monomaniac” who “wonders that the world does not acknowledge his genius” and was “good for nothing physically, mentally or morally.” In December, the Herald reported that Steen put on a performance in prison for the “Alcatraz Prison Dramatic Association” utilizing his skills as a mind-reader and the paper hoped that federal authorities “will take good care of him, until he is cured of his mind-reading vagaries.”
In May 1876, however, Steen was released and was discharged from Army service with no charge preferred against him, apparently because the professor “has been within the jurisdiction of the United States continuously for the two years immediately preceding his arrest.” Moreover, he told the Call in San Francisco that he was going to work as a marionette and “for exposure of all the tricks” of spiritualism.
He then drifted to Missouri, where he married young Martha Smith and the two formed a professional partnership that lasted for over two decades, with Mrs. Steen acquiring more fame and higher billing than her husband and reputed mentor. The couple performed throughout the United States in the last years of the 19th century.
The aforementioned 1885 biographical statement claimed that the Steens performed for an entire year at a New York venue, played fourteen weeks in London, and then turned to a statement from the professor that “spiritualism is the grandest humbug the world has ever known” and claimed to have exposed many practitioners. He even took the reporter who wrote the lengthy article to his hotel room and gave him a demonstration of how to expose a medium’s trick of having spirits write upon a slate through several methods.
In 1891, the Steens came to Los Angeles, in what appeared to be the professor’s first visit since his 1875 run. They performed at the Los Angeles Theatre and coverage by the Los Angeles Times was quite positive. The show was called “unique of its kind and furnished food for thought” to the few hundred in attendance. It was observed that “Mr. Steen makes no claim to the possession of occult powers for himself or his wife,” but Martha’s abilities were lauded. One trick was done involving former state senator Reginaldo del Valle that sounds like the figure test of days of yore.
Steen, moreover, “made a public challenge from the stage to spiritualists that he would duplicate any phenomena ascribed to supernatural origin, and do so by his scientific methods or forfeit a sum of money.” This evidently was a way for him to continue his role as a debunker and exposure of spiritualism.
In fact, on 1 March, Steen attended a medium’s “Public Circle of Harmony,” including slate writing and trance inducement. Before an audience of about sixty, Steen confronted Mrs. F.A. Logan and “offered her $500 if she or her medium friends would write his mother’s maiden name on a slate for him.” As he counted out the bills, one of the women declared that he was medium who “disturbed the conditions” for a successful evening and the evening ended with Steen’s “‘bluff’ having worked more successfully than even he had anticipated.”
Yet, there was another report of the Steens “humbugging the people of San Francisco” and also that he “at one time created quite a furore in Los Angeles.” So, in August 1892, the couple left a trail of debts in the Bay Area and, instead of going to Stockton, as announced, they and others in their troupe decamped for Honolulu.
By the mid-Nineties, the couple was in England, where they settled in London and then Wales and performed their act throughout Britain. There was an extensive profile in 1898, including photographs of Charles and Matha, in the London Era newspaper. Again, the biographical information is interesting and contradictory to other material from previous years and, of course, not corroborated.
The list of luminaries and dignitaries who were listed as among those to whom the Steens performed is ostensibly impressive. There was, however, a reprint of an 1894 British newspaper review of a performance in India. And, it is notable that the article observed that the two claimed no pretense to being spiritualists and “boldly say theirs is an act, which they have perfected by long continued study and hard work.”
The last professional reference found is an October 1900 ad from Steen seeking sketches for his act while in Glasgow, Scotland. The following year’s British national census found the Steens in Harwich, Essex, a port town northeast of London, and they were listed as “Music Hall Artists.” The next census, in 1911, listed the two in Wales and still working as in variety acts in theaters. From there, the trail goes cold.
The story of Charles N. Steen and his spiritualistic summer in Los Angeles in 1875 is an interesting and notable prelude to tomorrow’s event, where Misty Lee enacts the seances of long ago with all the skill of the long line of practitioners of that ancient activity.