The King of the Clairvoyants: The Man who bought the Sunnyside Conservatory

By Amy O’Hair
With research contributed by Kathleen Laderman

More about the Sunnyside Conservatory.

It is perhaps the fate of some unusual structures to attract unusual people. The Sunnyside Conservatory was built in 1902 by one such man, the eccentric inventor William Augustus Merralls, whose interests extended to outré alternative medicine. In 1919, the property was bought from the bank that had repossessed it from Merralls’ destitute widow by another remarkable person, Ernest Van Beckh.

When he and his beautiful wife Angele Ricono Van Beckh moved to Monterey Boulevard, they left behind them a sensational tale—of years of criminal fraud under the guise of occult practices, of spending weeks as fugitives hiding out in the East Bay, of serious charges of grand larceny and a narrow escape from a prison sentence. Before the drama was over, Ernest had shot a man, gravely wounding him. It was a story that few people could live down, but they managed to, in style.

The Van Beckhs liked their luxury and were devoted to each other; Ernest’s crimes paid for his wife Angele’s social and cultural aspirations. When the scandal died down, that loot bought this unusual large property in a modest neighborhood. In Sunnyside, they lived quietly in the lush compound behind tall fences for another five decades, outside of the public view, their crimes safely locked in the past.

The Sunnyside Conservatory, about 1968. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
The Sunnyside Conservatory, about 1968. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The price in 1919 was just thirty-five hundred dollars, and included the house at 258 Monterey Boulevard, the grounds, and the conservatory structure—seven city lots in total.[1] It was a very small price for a man who reputedly had amassed half a million dollars as the ring-leader of a gang of self-proclaimed clairvoyants, fleecing hundreds of vulnerable, gullible victims between 1911 and 1916.

Stories of “The Big Five,” as both the reporters and the dogged Assistant District Attorney bent on their convictions insisted on calling the loose conspiracy, splashed across Bay Area newspapers during the first half of 1916. Then the criminal cases fell apart without convictions, and newer, more compelling events like the Preparedness Day Bombing occupied the attention of readers and local law enforcement.

Portrait of Angele Ricono Van Beckh (1883-1982), about 1910. SF Call, 11 Mar 1916.
Portrait of Angele Ricono Van Beckh (1883-1982), about 1910. Published in SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, when her husband Ernest was a fugitive. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Mug shot of Ernst F Van Beckh aka Alois Dumas. 22 May 1916.
Mug shot of Ernest F Van Beckh aka ‘Alois Dumas’ when he was arrested, 22 Mar 1916. 

Fake Silver Mines with a Real Silver Lining

It’s a story worthy of San Francisco, where many people over its short history have come to do the daring and the semi-legal, to make and remake themselves, to feed strange hopes and stranger beliefs, for a profit. Van Beckh used the power of the occult to sell worthless mining stocks and make piles of money. But the ironic twist now for all those in Sunnyside, and from further afield, who enjoy our landmarked local gem is that it was Van Beckh’s mix of ill-gotten wealth and the subsequent need to keep out of the limelight for decades afterwards that meant the Sunnyside Conservatory was mostly saved from destruction.

By midcentury, such a large lot with a decrepit and old-fashioned conservatory on it likely would have otherwise gone the way of so many other large properties on Monterey Boulevard during the 1950s and 1960s, and ended up as a big apartment building. Van Beckh died in 1951, but his wife Angele lived there for twenty more years, enjoying her oasis of peace and beauty in little-known Sunnyside.

By the time Angele Van Beckh was ready to move away, when she was in her late eighties, San Francisco was on the cusp of the 1970s Open Space movement, which saved the Sunnyside Conservatory from complete demolition—although it was a very close call.

Not that it was saved in its entirety; in the 1950s, after Ernest died, Angele had allowed a neighbor to buy some of the land and build a modern house on the grounds. Although there was once another wing on the eastern side of the conservatory, that part of the original structure ended up located in the backyard of the new house, and, being on private land, was ultimately demolished.

The High Priest

Ernest Van Beckh, working under his nom-de-voyant “Professor Alois Dumas” (ah-low-EES du-MAH), had the personal traits necessary for this particular sort of con game. Anyone can learn tricks from fellow mediums, or even books published at the time, such as how to light smoking powders, or diddle scraps of paper around, or do secret research so you know convincing details about your mark in order to demonstrate your powers of occult knowledge. Mastering of the mechanics of the psychic adept is not enough to empty a sucker’s bank account. Van Beckh had the personal power to enthrall and compel an intended victim, to offer them a supposed route to sudden wealth and persuade them to take it.[2]

A tall man with a thick shock of reddish-brown hair and piercing hazel-colored eyes, Van Beckh’s physical presence projected power and conviction. In truth he also had disabilities. When the police arrested him, they noted “Has Locomotor Ataxia”—a condition impairing the ability to walk that was nearly always due to advanced syphilis. Later, Van Beckh was said to have fallen sometime in the past and shattered a kneecap. It was noted that he walked with a pronounced limp; Sunnyside neighborhood children passed a story around that he had crashed as a pilot in the First World War.[3]

Angele and Ernst Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Angele and Ernst Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Angele Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Detail from photo above. Angele Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Ernst Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Detail from photo above. Ernst Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.

Van Beckh was born in Manhattan in 1876 to German-immigrant parents, a pharmacist and his wife. Then his name was just Ernst Beckh. As a young man, he served in the Spanish-American War, though without injury. He spent about ten years working in New York, marrying Angele Ricono in 1903. He had an employment agency on 6th Avenue, and then became a broker. He and Angele left New York for San Francisco in 1911.

The European Edge

The Van Beckhs had pretensions to continental refinement and culture; Angele (pronounced in French as awn-zjell) was born to an Italian father and a French mother in the Doubs region of France, near the Swiss and German borders, and was said to be well educated and travelled. Ernest’s parents were from the Baden-Wurttemberg region in southwestern Germany; as “Dumas,” he always advertised that he spoke German and French as well as English.[4] But they also enhanced the picture; likely at Angele’s prompting, Ernest added the “Van” to their surname soon after they were married, giving a mysterious note of aristocratic flair.

Aspirations to culture cost money. It was reported that Van Beckh was devoted to Angele, and indulged in his highly profitable criminal enterprise largely to fund his wife’s social climbing. “Dumas provided lavishly for his wife’s visits to various big hotels and society resorts, where she was known as a cultured and delightful woman who had travelled much both at home and abroad….[She] filled the double role of keeping her husband informed concerning the affairs of society women and of advising these women to consult ‘the great Dumas.’” Once she even called herself “Countess Van Beckh,” as reported in a society-page item about an outing to benefit some public schoolboys in 1913.[5]

Angele Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.

Angele Van Beckh, at the bedside of an unknown woman. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.

A French Upbringing

When Angele Ricono was born in 1883, her father was a French clockmaker in Seloncourt, France. The town was a sleepy backwater until a chisel factory was transformed into a fine clockmakers, l’horlogerie Louis Boname. In 1882, the year Angele’s parents married, the factory got a new steam engine and soon expanded. The clocks made by the firm show extraordinarily fine work, and are still sought after today as antiques.[6]

Angele was an only child, and the family prospered to the degree that, by her own account later, she “was educated in the best schools in Europe, and numbered among her friends the wealthy and royalty of the continent.”[7] Well, perhaps. In any case, there was enough money for Angele to travel several times to the US on ships, the first time to Boston when she was eighteen. On one such trip to Manhattan she met Ernest Van Beckh. When they married, she was 20 and he was 27.[8]

Not everyone in the Ricono family had the desire to live the quiet life of le petit bourgeoisie. One of her uncles, Jacques-Philippe Ricono, headed Le Cirque Ricono, a long-running concern of sprawling, multi-generational proportions; it was still going in some incarnation into the 1970s. Jacques-Philippe joined the circus as a teen and was a famous equestrian performer, as was Angele’s cousin Célèstine, who married into the Grüss clan, also itinerate circus performers (pictured below with her husband).[9]

Circus directors M. Grüss and Mme Grüss (Célèstine Ricono), about 1900, showing a resemblance. The Canna Chronicles.
Circus directors M. Grüss and Mme Grüss (Célèstine Ricono), about 1900. Cousins Angele and Célèstine certainly bear a resemblance. The Canna Chronicles.

Angele was apparently quite attached to her father’s other brother, Domenico Ricono, who was a vintner and watchmaker just over the border in Switzerland. In 1908, while living in Manhattan with Ernest, she visited ‘Uncle Dominique’, as she called him on the ship’s manifest. The manifest also described her as standing five-foot-five, with black hair and green eyes.

She was at the time married to Ernest, but she travelled under a passport in her maiden name. It wasn’t until the following year that Ernest applied for a passport for them both under his name, before they travelled together to Europe in 1909. Ernest was by then a broker, and must have been making better money, because the Van Beckhs moved from their flat in the Garment District at 6th and 38th to a quieter block on the Upper West Side.

But better prospects lay elsewhere; by 1911, the Van Beckhs had relocated to San Francisco to launch his clairvoyant enterprise. Ernest would continue to deal in stocks, but now he would use the trappings of the world of séances and unseen spiritual powers in order to sell them.[10]

A Marvelous Wonder-Working Hindoo Post-Graduate

Van Beckh advertised almost daily as “Alois Dumas” for just over three years, starting May 1911. The ads varied in length and fantastical claims, and ran in all the papers. “The Only Yogi Mediator Practicing in America” was one such claim; it was just an obscure phrase recycled from ads by two clairvoyants who had operated in SF and Oakland during the 1900s. When Van Beckh picked it up again like a tattered banner it hadn’t been used by anyone for a couple years.

“King of Clairvoyants” was another self-given epithet, something later scooped up by reporters to label him during the police investigation. Van Beckh called himself a “Master Mind” in the ads—as did many other clairvoyants in these years—but for him this ended up being employed by the newspapers to describe his alleged role as head of the Big Five conspiracy. The most mysterious claim is “The Nes Dor-el-Hauid,” a reference so obscure its meaning has eluded my research. (Have a clue? Write me.)

Harmless Fun?

To be clear, the crimes the Big Five were alleged to have committed were not one-dollar psychic readings foretelling the arrival of a tall dark stranger. In San Francisco, then as now, the psychic industry was mostly tolerated. Like prostitution it seemed to many to be a victimless arrangement for the comfort of those in need who were willing to accept an illusion in exchange for some of their money—although also like prostitution it suffered periodic police crackdowns.[11]

In San Francisco, mediumistic practitioners did not generally have to pay police graft to operate. In New York, fortune-telling was illegal, full stop; enforcement was uneven, graft rife, and although court challenges were often successful, it was a hostile environment for the practitioner. In San Francisco, the ordinance on the books also made it illegal, unless practiced by an ordained minister of a religion. This was a loophole much taken advantage of, and this made a profitable business for those selling “ordination papers” from registered “churches”. Getting such papers was a cost of business.[12]

Although the Big Five gang all used the ordinary stock-in-trade of the clairvoyant, it wasn’t palm-reading and fortune-telling that Van Beckh and his compatriots specialized in; they worked together to sell mining stocks worth almost nothing for very high prices, to people who trusted their advice due to their claimed otherworldly powers. (Van Beckh also found it profitable to go in for a spot of blackmail.) The Big Five operated in concert over years to ruthlessly identify and defraud vulnerable people of many thousands of dollars—most of whom were too embarrassed to complain to the authorities.

But a few did talk, and that made hunted fugitives of all five men during several months early in 1916. It was a moment in the City’s history, before bigger concerns overtook it, when running the conspirators to ground was front-page fodder, driven by the zeal of a newly appointed deputy District Attorney, Charles Brennan. Over the preceding years, the city had by its liberality attracted this particular species of fraudster from other places too hot to operate in, and now it was reckoning with a veritable glut of con games hiding under the cover of claims to occult powers. Every day the classified ads in all the newspapers were full of ads for clairvoyants, some stretching the length of the page, and these drew many people from rural areas all over California in search of quick wealth or advice on other matters.

The Big Five gang had a number of tactics. For one victim, a rancher from Petaluma who arrived in the city with ten thousand dollars bulging out of his pockets, three of the clairvoyants worked together in a séance to convince him he would very soon make a fortune. Then, later that same day, a fourth man, a member of the ring that he hadn’t seen, managed to ‘run into’ him and talk him into buying junk stocks with all of this money. Some of the game was the art of making marks wait long periods, ostensibly for some spirit to show up and clarify the way forward, but more likely while Van Beckh acquired the worthless stocks to sell.

“When Alois was ushered in to meet Laura Watsabaugh he held her hand for a long time and gazed deeply into her eyes….’If you are careful and wait patiently for the contact, I see great wealth for you’.”

Watsabaugh, a woman with grave illness and failing eyesight, did wait—for over a year—to give up her money in exchange for Van Beckh’s rubbish mining stocks. She was a desperate woman in search of the health that eluded her, and in possession of money to invest, in the hopes of finding some better treatment for her illness. She had only a year more to live, and although she filed charges, she went home to Montana before the case came to trial.[13]

The Campaign against the Clairvoyants

In his bid to clean the city of all things clairvoyant, Assistant District Attorney Charles Brennan made an example of the five men, although there were other mediums in the city working just as hard to relieve victims of their money. But the Big Five made themselves conspicuous; they all liked big automobiles, partying at roadhouses around the Bay, and “were all known as ‘highrollers’” at the saloons and beach resorts where they spent their money.[14]

Brennan had started his professional life as a reporter, and clearly he had a nose for a story. He worked in District Attorney Charles Fickert’s office while studying law at night, and he had only just qualified for the bar in April 1915. As soon as he was appointed a deputy, he launched his campaign against clairvoyancy in January 1916, waging his war until he left the DA’s office for private practice in August 1916. When he left, his campaign against the clairvoyants of San Francisco would be noted as his premier accomplishment.[15]

Brennan focused on only those more egregious cases, and led an organized and strategic campaign. After he left, in the days when his former boss Fickert was making a hash of justice with the prosecutions of the two men accused of the city’s worst domestic terrorism incident, the Preparedness Day Bombing, the anti-clairvoyant actions of the DA’s office became scattershot. A lot of female mediums were arrested for vagrancy—women who unlike the Big Five guys did not make a point of gouging marks of big sums, and who likely did more good than harm in their role giving informal counsel and advice for those in need.[16]

But for several months, Brennan made the city very hot indeed for anyone in the trade bent on mulcting people of fat sums.[17] Things were never the same afterwards. The Examiner publicly stated it would never run another ad for a clairvoyant. The incidence of the word “clairvoyant” in all SF newspaper classifieds dropped precipitously, and did not pick up again until the Second World War, when people parted from loved ones sought otherworldly help.[18] Here are a few other practitioners, not Big Five gang members, who were also rounded during the crackdown. They stand out as the best dressed among the other mug book entries.

The Big Five

Ernest Van Beckh’s gang of clairvoyant hucksters was an assortment of semiprofessional law breakers and sometime opportunists. He was the clear leader, having begun operating in the city in 1911, with the others starting their practices later, during 1914 and 1915. His powers of persuasion were apparently superior, and his four underlings gladly brought him ready suckers.

Three of the men may have had a previous connection to Van Beckh during the ten years he lived in Manhattan before coming to San Francisco, living in the same areas of the city there. Why San Francisco? The freedom of operating in the city was appealing in a time when the heat was being turned up in New York, where laws banning fortune-telling were becoming stiffer and crackdowns more frequent. Chicago was too sticky to operate in as well.[19]

Beside Van Beckh alias “Alois Dumas,” there were four other gang members. “Dr Byron Kingston” was a professional criminal responsible for at least two deaths, and brazen enough to hang out his clairvoyant shingle the moment his charges were dismissed. “Professor Herbert Van Dyke” was a family man and the only one of the five who publicly expressed any contrition for his crimes—perhaps the result of being shot in the leg by Van Beckh and spending two months languishing in hideout houses, his terrible injuries untreated. “Dr Alexander Walton” had already jumped bail in Los Angeles once, and after the San Francisco blow-up, he fled to Chicago. There, his big-spending and big-talking ways led both to his capture and a beating at the hands of Chicago cops that allegedly caused his early death. The last member, “Professor William Castle,” is the most mysterious of all; his true identity was never definitively revealed, and he melted into the woodwork completely, leaving no trace for me to follow.

Brief summaries of Van Beckh’s gang members before the story of how everything blew up. After giving their real names in these bios, I will then use their clairvoyant aliases going forward, in an effort to keep things simple.

Earl Asaph Peabody, alias “Dr Byron Kingston”

Raised in Upstate New York on the Hudson in Glens Falls, Earl Peabody was the last of four sons and left an orphan in his teens. By age 22, he had managed to qualify as a dentist, and was working in Manhattan by 1902, just a half mile down Broadway from Van Beckh’s home and employment agency on 6th Avenue. At some point he expanded his service to include abortions, and took his hybrid practice to San Francisco, bringing along a woman he’d met in New York, Jane Lewis.[20]

In November 1912, the US Postal Service conducted a big sweep, arresting hundreds of people in California using the mail to distribute abortifacients and abortion instruments, but Peabody was in Mexico, and so was not arrested until he returned just before Christmas. Peabody hadn’t just violated US Postal laws; one of his patients, an eighteen-year-old girl, had died after he performed an abortion on her. He was charged with manslaughter, but pleaded guilty to the violation of postal laws. When he was sentenced, Judge WC Van Fleet was livid, calling him a murderer, and said he’d like to give him five years in prison. Peabody was sentenced to one year and $3000 as a fine; he did ten months in the Alameda County Jail and pleaded poverty for the fine.[21]

The month after Peabody was released, he changed tack; he hung out a shingle as “Dr Byron Kingston, Psychic – Palmist – Clairvoyant” at 1700 Sutter Street, premises that were described as a “luxurious apartment, perfumed with incense and lighted by weird candelabra of the Orient.”[22] At this point Ernest Van Beckh had been running his operation for three years, and would in a few months stop advertising all together, relying instead on the other gang members like Kingston to feed him juicy marks. Van Beckh after all was the Master Mind.

Clairvoyant ad for Kingston. SF Chronicle, 12 Jan 1915. Newspapers,com
Clairvoyant ad for Kingston. SF Chronicle, 12 Jan 1915. Newspapers,com

While Kingston had moved onto swindling the vulnerable by using occult fakery, his off-again-on-again wife Jane Lewis would herself be arrested several times for performing abortions, and also for staging dramatic scams involving her teen children. By 1920 Kingston married again, apparently to get his hands on the woman’s cash to start an auto garage, a practical solution in a city that by then had got too hot for the fraudulent medium business.[23]

As with all of the players in the Big Five drama, Kingston liked his high living, having a big car and drinking often in the far-flung roadhouses around the city; during the Big Five scandal, Kingston also killed a pedestrian while driving drunk, while claiming that his car had been stolen.[24]

Herbert Cavit, alias “Dr Alexander Walton”

Cavit was another Manhattanite; although born in England in 1878, he came to New York as a young child, growing up in SoHo. About 1910, he decided Southern California was a more salubrious place to do business. In 1912, he married an actress of the vaudeville stage, Florilla Stanford, in Santa Monica. The same year, he began advertising his services as a clairvoyant medium in Los Angeles; perhaps his wife helped him develop the dramatic talents needed to be a convincing clairvoyant. As “Professor Luzon” he promptly got into trouble, being exposed in an oddball blackmail scheme to force a mayoral candidate out of the race in late 1913. He had obtained a confession under hypnosis from a married woman who’d had an affair with a prominent bank manager running for office. Still under the influence, Cavit had induced her to sign the document, which he promptly took to the man’s opponent, so that the bank manager could be forced to withdraw his candidacy. The intended victim, the bank manager, did not cave, preferring instead to go to the police to expose the whole ridiculous scheme.

The judge put Cavit on the stand, where he was described as displaying a “vivid scarlet flush and many twitchings,” protesting “I am a minster of the gospel.” Rebuked for his devious ways, his license to practice under threat, Cavit nonetheless continued to practice. Eventually he ran afoul of the law again, when he was charged with fraud. He posted the $5000 bail, and promptly jumped it, decamping to San Francisco and restarting his business in November 1914 under the new name “Dr Alexander Walton.”[25]

Ad for Walton, SF Chronicle, 31 Oct 1915. View entire long ad here.
Clairvoyant ad for Walton, SF Chronicle, 31 Oct 1915. View entire long ad here.
Mugshot for Herbert Cavit aka Alexander Walton, when he was returned to San Francisco, April 1916.
Mugshot for Herbert Cavit aka Alexander Walton, when he was returned to San Francisco, April 1916. 

Like many clairvoyants at the time, Walton had got himself a set of “ordination” papers from another huckster who dealt exclusively with mediums in need of a dispensation from the ordinance forbidding fortune-telling by the unreligious. If you were a minster of some sort, the right to freedom of religion would protect you in San Francisco. Kingston never bothered with this nicety, and neither did Ernest Van Beckh, but Cavit made a point of it in all his advertising, as did the others.

John Henry Long aka “Professor Herbert Van Dyke”

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1877, JH Long was married about 1910 to a girl named Connie in Erie, Pennsylvania. By 1913, they had relocated to San Francisco, where their son was born. Long may have had an above-board occupation in these years, but he seems to avoided placing himself in directories or getting recorded for the 1910 US Census, and I could not pin down his pre-larcenous career.

In July 1914, a month after Van Beckh stopped advertising, Long placed his first clairvoyant ad in a city newspaper as “Professor Herbert Van Dyke”—“Ordained medium, clairvoyant: He tells every hope, fear and ambition of your life,” with his premises listed at 1700 Geary Street at Webster, a flat in a Western Addition Victorian (now gone for Japantown).

The block of Geary Street where Van Dyke had his premises. OpenSFHistory wnp27.7969.
The block of Geary Street where Van Dyke had his premises. OpenSFHistory wnp27.7969.

As with the others, Van Dyke was pulled in to Van Beckh’s ring of conspirators over the next year or so, with the promise of fat commissions for bringing him ripe and ready prey with bulging purses and a thirst for easy money. Everything went swimmingly until the end of 1915, when the Big Five’s schemes landed them on the desk of the deputry District Attorney Charles Brennan, and Van Dyke found himself a gravely wounded man on the run, his leg shattered by a bullet from Van Beckh’s own gun—more on this below.

The Mysterious “Professor William Castle”

The last of the Big Five to profile before I get to the drama as it unfolded in 1916 is a man whose real name was never established definitively. Later he was the only one to completely disappear, melting into the woodwork so perfectly his true identity never came to light. The real names of any of the operators depended on what each had told their compatriots about themselves—and later what those men told the police, when they had to choose between grassing on an associate in hopes of leniency or facing a stiffer charge.

“Professor William Castle” seems to have managed to keep his secrets better than the rest. He may have borrowed this alias from a real Professor William E Castle, a famed geneticist at Harvard during those years (and later UC Berkeley). Using this alias, “Castle” placed his first ad in San Francisco newspapers in January 1915, and was the last of the five man to start working in the city. Remarkably, his ads sometimes featured a photo, albeit grainy.

Clairvoyant ad for Castle. SF Chronicle, 7 Feb 1915. View entire long ad here:
Clairvoyant ad for Castle. SF Chronicle, 7 Feb 1915. View entire long ad here.

Later when Van Dyke was captured, wounded, he told the police that Castle’s real name was Max Rothschild. In the SF Bay Area at that time there were two Max Rothschilds, one an aging and humble family man in Noe Valley with an auto shop. The other was a man of pretention and wealth, a famous doctor with a tuberculosis sanatorium and a reputation that stretched to Europe. That Dr Max Rothschild (1871-1936) was a high-flying society figure, giving parties for minor royalty, playing lots of bad, expensive golf at the Burlingame Country Club. His high-born wife was the former Lucy Jackson, daughter of newspaper tycoon and customs collector, Colonel John P Jackson. She was rarely out of the sports pages for her own relentless parade of amateur golf matches and society events.

It is just conceivable that, for a year or so, this man of prestige and reputation decided to indulge in some daring and illegal money-making in the form of hocus-pocus fakery—perhaps during an extended bout of mania or in a desperate bid to raise funds for the lavish spending he and his wife enjoyed. Or after getting talked into it by Van Beckh and his wife Angele, who were known to have aspirations to move amongst the elite of Burlingame. Dr Rothschild was sometimes reckless, and had got himself into trouble. As a younger man he had run down and killed a pedestrian during a “race” with a delivery wagon on Van Ness, having one of the few automobiles in the city then.[26]

The real swindle was always selling worthless mining stocks for big prices to dupes hoping to get rich—and after all, much of what successful doctors do, when real cures elude them, is to wield their personal powers of suggestion. A compelling and persuasive manner can be put to many uses.

Having gone over the events in the life of the real Dr Max Rothschild for the time in question, such a wild and secret double life as a swindling medium looks just conceivable. I found it amusing to imagine the well-heeled doctor showing up at the big Del Monte golf tournament in Monterey down the coast, which drew both pros and wealthy amateurs, in February 1916—the society pages noting his presence—on the very day after he was indicted on felony grand larceny charges in the city. Or holding a party in his box at the opera on opening night just days after being present at a shoot-out over dividing the spoils at a lowbrow roadhouse.

But the story isn’t very likely. After all, the clairvoyant named Castle had to answer to police charges, showing up in court at least once before disappearing forever. And the Dr Max Rothschild everyone knew would have been questioned in his big Burlingame house after the co-conspirator squealed the “real” name of William Castle. Who could hope to get away with it?

But there is one weight still stuck on the ‘yes’ side of the balance: the photos of William Castle, the man hawking his psychic wares in ads, and the doctor known widely for his special treatments for TB, do look similar—the same thick wavy dark hair, pince-nez glasses, and forthright manner. However, a simpler explanation may be that, as Dr Max Rothschild was a well-known figure, the law-breaking clairvoyant used his own physical similarity to convince his fellow gang members that he was “Max Rothschild,” whatever his real name. Double bluff. After all, he had borrowed his clairvoyant name from a living, well-known professor.

Later, after the cases against Castle and the others fell apart, all traces of the clairvoyant “Professor William Castle” evaporated. I have searched; whatever way this man rebuilt his life, he managed to obscure his tracks completely.

Hell Breaks Loose

At the beginning of December 1915, four years into Van Beckh’s San Francisco career as “Alois Dumas, Master Mind,” the first big domino tumbled, in the form of an ailing, unprepossessing retired dairy farmer from up north named Antone Spaletta. Three of the gang had spent several months emptying Spaletta’s wallet. Then this victim had done the unthinkable, what the operators counted on not happening. Spaletta had gone to the police with a story of being defrauded of his little fortune. Exposure loomed on the horizon like black clouds threatening thunderous storms.

Suffering from TB and unable to regain his health from local doctors, Spaletta had come to the big city from Humboldt with what money he had, to find better doctors. The rest and patience they advised didn’t satisfy him, so he sought out clairvoyants. He had several thousand dollars but would need a lot more if, unable to do the hard work of farming any longer, he was to face down an early retirement. First he visited William Castle, who told him he had been cursed by a woman. Spaletta objected that he knew no women but his wife. Castle burned some smoky powders and offered to lift the curse, warning him to tell no one or he would die.

The next day Spaletta visited a second medium, Alexander Walton, disclosing that he’d been to Castle, and feeling weak after breaking Castle’s injunction, as though the death he had threatened would overcome him. Rather than compete with his predecessor, Walton took him right over to Castle’s offices, and the two of them got to work on Spaletta, getting him to visit each in turn over several weeks. When he was ripe, and they’d figured out he had money and wanted more, Walton and Castle took him to the man they said was “The High Priest”—Alois Dumas, that is Ernest Van Beckh.

Fixing Antone’s eyes with his own, Van Beckh said:

“My friend Antonio Spaletti, you must think of death. Follow my advice in your investments and you will become rich. I want no money from you but will retain 5 percent of your profits. Now go home and every night from 9 pm to 1 am, think of me or think of death; and tell nobody.”

Van Beckh and his fellows did a little quiet research on Spaletta’s sons, using that to increase his appearance of hidden powers of knowing, Van Beckh said he wasn’t sure he could handle the case, as Spaletta hadn’t enough money. Finally, Van Beckh convinced Spaletta to convert everything he had to cash, and buy 5000 shares of “Rose Spring” mining stocks.[27]

Spaletta paid $6,800, reportedly all of his money, for the fancy pieces of paper; Van Beckh had bought those 5000 shares for just over $12. Even without getting his 5% of the “profits,” Van Beckh cleaned up. Then he gave Castle and Walton their cut, probably 20% of the takings each.[28]

An example of a stock certificate from the era, The Creed and Cripple Creek Mining and Milling Company. 1907.
An example of a stock certificate from the era, The Creed and Cripple Creek Mining and Milling Company. 1907.

The Modus Operandi

Van Beckh’s basic method of having his underlings sift out clients who had money, break down their resistance and increase their awe of the supposed powers of the practitioners, then bring them to him for the kill—that is a sale of worthless stocks for sky-high prices—was the modus operandi of the ring. Van Beckh also brought plain old blackmail into the mix of profit-making methods, which I’ll get to shortly.[29]

The operation had been going for several years. One article I happened on in a Petaluma newspaper from the previous May described the same con game, involving a set of unnamed three clairvoyants telling a rancher visiting the city that he would soon make a fortune in mining. Amazingly, he was later that day approached by a “well-groomed stranger”—which sounds like Van Beckh—who fed him a fine dinner and sold him worthless stocks in the Rose Spring mine. The rancher, Manuel Teixeira, refused to believe his finely engraved certificates weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. Although no names were given for the clairvoyants involved, the method perfectly fits the Big Five. The take for this one day of work? $10,000 (about $300K now).[30]

There were hundreds of such people; the gang had left a trail of victims behind them over the preceding years. Now each swindle represented a potential additional charge, should any of the marks feel emboldened to reveal they had been tricked.

Over the few years they operated, the Big Five had pulled in something approaching a half million dollars ($13 million now). Certainly some people who had been fleeced had returned, full of misgivings. Early in his career, Van Beckh made the rookie mistake of not giving back money to a dissatisfied customer. But then he had wised up. Like a good businessman, he assessed his risk, paid an unhappy customer off at the lowest possible rate, and counted it as the cost of doing business. After all, most just wanted their money back and were pleased to avoid exposure in the newspapers. But Spaletta hadn’t played fair; he’d gone straight to the cops.[31]

Shoot-out at Coppa’s Roadhouse

The news that Spaletta had squealed “was as a bomb in the camp.” The gang made arrangements to meet one rainy night, 12 December 1915, to discuss the mess, part of an alcohol-fueled “joyride” that ended up at Coppa’s Roadhouse, a big partying spot on a lonely stretch of the Mission Road in Colma. Van Beckh was there with the demure and ever-presentable Angele, Walton with his glamourous actress wife Florilla, and Kingston and his wife Jane Lewis. Van Dyke was also present, but without his wife; they had an infant son after all. The fifth member, Castle, had vanished and would be exceedingly hard to find for months to come before disappearing completely. There were at least two automobiles present to drive them out to the locale. Van Beckh had a big, powerful vehicle, as did Walton.[32]

Inside the venue, one of a chain of splashy restaurants run by Giuseppe Coppa of North Beach, the gang got to the matter at hand. What could they do? After several rounds of drinks, the argument got very heated. If Van Beckh were going to offer Spaletta his money back, the tried-and-true method to stanching a threatened bleed, he’d need those commissions he’d given to Walton and Castle returned to him.[33]

They all knew it was only going to get worse. If any other cheated customer cast away their fear and came forward, more charges could quickly mount. Indeed, soon another dissatisfied client would rise out the gloom like a specter; Laura Watsabaugh, the chronically ill woman from Montana who was losing her eyesight and needed more money for treatments had ended up with a pile of worthless stocks at Van Beckh’s hand, assisted by Van Dyke, and now had come forward. The heat was on.[34]

Perhaps Van Dyke demurred at the thought of giving up his commission from the $3,800 Watsabaugh haul; he had a wife and little son to support. He and Van Beckh argued, and Van Dyke stormed out of the saloon toward his auto.

That was the moment that Ernest Van Beckh, the so-called mastermind and the most experienced of the five operators, crossed the line—the invisible one that said you take money but you don’t do violence. He pulled a revolver on the exiting Van Dyke, and shot him in the leg, shattering the thigh bone.[35]

The assemblage broke up in a panic. Walton drove the wounded Van Dyke away, first to his own home, then to St Mary’s Hospital for treatment when the seriousness of the injury was reckoned with. At the time of the shooting, Van Dyke and Walton lied about the event to the police, saying it was a random shooting by an unknown assailant. Van Dyke remained at the hospital until DA Brennan’s case was sufficiently assembled to issue warrants on 25 Jan 1916, for the arrest of Van Beckh, Walton, and Castle for the Spaletta fraud. Van Dyke knew the time was up; he would be sought for the Watsabaugh fraud soon. He went into hiding, ending up in Oakland in a big house perched on a hill, 3542 Laguna Street.[36]

3542 Laguna Street, Oakland, hide-out for Clairvoyant Herbert Van Dyke in early 1916. Photo: Amy O'Hair
3542 Laguna Street, Oakland, hide-out for Clairvoyant Herbert Van Dyke in early 1916. Photo: Amy O’Hair

On The Run!

Now it was time for each man to save himself. Ernest and Angele Van Beckh quietly holed up in a little cottage in Oakland, at 2235 42nd Avenue, not far from Van Dyke’s house on Laguna.

Ernest Van Beckh, from the SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, when he was a fugitive. Dapper motoring hat. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Ernest Van Beckh, from the SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, when he was a fugitive. Dapper motoring hat. California Digital Newspaper Collection.

2235 42nd Avenue, Oakland, hide-out for Ernest Van Beckh when he was a fugitive in early 1916. Photo: Amy O'Hair

2235 42nd Avenue, Oakland, hide-out for Ernest Van Beckh when he was a fugitive in early 1916. Photo: Amy O’HairWhile William Castle disappeared from view quietly and completely, Walton fled to Chicago with his wife Florilla, living in posh hotels and making himself conspicuous, throwing cash around. By 20 January 1916, the Chicago police knew he was in town and were hunting for him; they found him five weeks later, on 25 February by tailing his wife when she went to collect a decoy letter. Walton wasn’t about to let himself be extradited back to San Francisco, so he hired two expensive lawyers and put up a big fight. The Chicago cops were not pleased with Walton’s lack of cooperation. After all, taking Walton in didn’t close any of the cases on their books. Walton made trouble for them, and apparently they took their ire out on his body in a beating that injured something in his gut, allegedly leading to his death four months later.[37]

Meanwhile, Van Dyke, still gravely wounded, was finally run to ground at his hide-out in Oakland, his wife Connie bravely trying to prevent the cops from entering to arrest him on 10 March. Lying in bed, Van Dyke pulled a gun out from under his pillow in a last ditch effort to avoid being taken. Once in custody, he seemed relieved, and gave up a lot of information such as details about the shoot-out.

Around the bedside of the recently arrested Herbert Van Dyke (JH Long). From left to right: Charles Brennan, Asst DA; Sam Thomally (police) and Thomas Regan (police) and Van Dyke (in bed). SF Call, 11 Mar 1916.
Around the bedside of the recently arrested Herbert Van Dyke (JH Long). From left to right: Charles Brennan, Asst DA; Sam Thomally (police) and Thomas Regan (police) and Van Dyke (in bed). SF Call, 11 Mar 1916.

The Call noted that he was the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, and quoted him.

“I’ve told my wife all and asked her to leave me now. If I don’t die it’s the ‘pen’ for me for the rest of my days. There’s a curse on me for sure; the game’s up at least.”

But Van Dyke did not die, and his wife did not leave him, at least not then.[38]

The Master Mind, Captured

With his head down in Oakland, Ernest Van Beckh had the good sense to keep quiet, and so he evaded capture for two full months after a warrant for his arrest was issued on 25 January. One day in March when Angele had taken their automobile out for an errand, the Oakland police, who had been on the lookout for weeks, saw it and followed her back to the cottage on 42nd Avenue. There they arrested Van Beckh in his own garage. He was charged in the Spaletta scam and freed on $5,000 bail—a pittance given the amount of money the gang had been taking in.

Mugbook entry for Ernst F Van Beckh aka Alois Dumas. 22 May 1916.
Mugbook entry for Ernst F Van Beckh aka Alois Dumas. 22 May 1916.

A Touch of Genteel Blackmail

The fantastical Madame Zoraida de Lefevre, blackmail victim, dressed for a society costume ball. Oakland Tribune, 5 Mar 1916. Newspapers,com
The fantastical Madame Zoraida de Lefevre, blackmail victim, dressed for a society costume ball. Oakland Tribune, 5 Mar 1916. Newspapers,com

During that time, another victim came forward in the person of Madame Zoraida de Lefevre, the wife of an unnamed South American consul (although her name makes her sound like another clairvoyant operator). This glamourous society figure alleged that in 1914 she had consulted Van Beckh for counsel and advice, having fallen in love with a well-known physician in the city. He advised her to write letters describing her very complex feelings, which he used over the following year to extract from her several pieces of expensive jewelry and some cash, all told worth $6,500—the cost of him refraining from passing the damning letters to her husband.

Madame Zoraida hired a private detective named Lawson from the Burns Agency, telling him “I have fallen into the clutches of this man, and I fear he will drive me to some horrible act….For over a year he kept me in torture, getting sums large and small from time to time. Finally I could bear it no longer and went to the police seeking help.”[39]

A cunning plan using the latest technology saved Madame Zoraida. Undercover, the Burns detective met Van Beckh, luring him into disclosing the existence of the letters by offering to collaborate with him, while recording him on a hidden Dictaphone acknowledging the letters. When confronted with this evidence of his blackmail scheme, Van Beckh took the detective to his bank and retrieved the woman’s letters from his deposit box, which the detective returned to her.

A dictaphone. 1922.
A Dictaphone. 1922.

(Remarkably, even today a person cheated of large sums by a psychic will often have better luck hiring a private detective than trying to get the police to assemble a case ready to prosecute, as detailed in this recent article in The Atlantic.)

Back from Chicago

'Dr Alexander Walton' (Herbert Cavit) upon being returned to San Francisco. SF Examiner, 11 Apr 1916.
‘Dr Alexander Walton’ (Herbert Cavit) upon being returned to San Francisco. SF Examiner, 11 Apr 1916.

With Van Dyke and Van Beckh now brought to heel, San Francisco detectives finally won the right to bring Walton back from Chicago to face charges over the Spaletta fraud by the second week of April. Walton’s attorneys only bowed out from their fight against the extradition when threatened with arrest themselves; the signatures of Governor Dunne of Illinois and Governor Johnson of California both had to be obtained. On the way back to the city via train, accompanied by an SFPD detective, Walton was joined by his wife Florilla in Omaha, and his mother and sister-in-law and her husband in Oakland.[40]

The next day Walton was indicted on grand larceny charges in the Spaletta and Watsabaugh cases; Van Beckh was re-arrested for the Watsabaugh case and required to post an additional $1000 bail.[41] Later that week, William Castle made one of his few appearances in public, pleading not guilty to charges of grand larceny in the Spaletta case. Peripherally, caught up in the sweep, another “master clairvoyant” was arrested that same week in San Francisco, having been on the run for seven years from charges of grand larceny. He’d gone missing years before after jumping bail, being recaptured, and then orchestrating a mass prisoner escape from a jail in Arkansas. Such was the early (and largely unknown) career of the famous illusionist Claude A Conlin.[42]

The Dauntless Earl

The most reckless of the Big Five, Kingston, went right on practicing his crafty art in SF. During the same time period as the other were on the run, he had been reckoning with a series of charges from DA Brennan, but was a far more brazen character. First charged with defrauding a client in December 1915—not his first such charge—he quickly sent over his secretary to bribe the fellow, who instead of accepting the money to shut up, reported Kingston. Now he faced federal witness-tampering charges, which were far more serious and easier to get a conviction on.[43]

But luck hadn’t yet run out for Kingston. The judge dismissed the witness-tampering charge on 15 March. It was time to celebrate, and that meant a booze-soaked joyride in the big car. That night Kingston’s automobile, driving recklessly through the intersection of Broderick and Geary, knocked down a pedestrian, Nicholas Lauerman, a fifty-something German marble-cutter. The man died on the scene. Kingston’s car did not stop. A witness noted the number. The next day Kingston reported the vehicle had been stolen, and he and his wife Jane Lewis denied all knowledge of the collision.[44]

Things Fall Apart

The Spaletta case was to go forward to trial, with Walton, Castle, and Van Beckh charged. But Walton, severely injured at the hands of the Chicago police, died on 3 July. An inquest ruled it was stomach cancer, but his wife insisted it was the delayed result of the beating. That left Van Beckh and Castle, who had disappeared completely. The case looked shakier.

The day of the Preparedness Day Bombing, 22 July 1916, the District Attorney made a motion to dismiss the charges against Ernest Van Beckh. I do not know the details of the motion; it is conceivable that Van Beckh knew secrets about society figures that resulted in the DA being encouraged to drop the case, but this is just my speculation, given that he did not shrink from blackmail once before. Charges against Castle stayed on the books for a full year after this, but he was never found.[45]

The following month, during the trial for the Watsabaugh case, Van Beckh and Van Dyke were charged with grand larceny, but the victim, Laura Watsabaugh, declined to show up and testify. She had other priorities, preferring to go home to her family in Billings, Montana; she was very ill and would live only another six months. All charges against both Van Beckh and Van Dyke relating to Watsabaugh were dismissed on a motion by the district attorney on 14 Aug 1916.

A New Life on the QT

For the next three years, the Van Beckhs stayed in Oakland, living in several rental houses in the Fruitvale/Lower Dimond area, as well as in a house on Noe Street in San Francisco for a while. After this unsettled period, they found a new home; in May 1919, they bought the large property on Monterey Boulevard that comprises the house at 258, the Sunnyside Conservatory, and the surrounding land—175 feet along Monterey Boulevard, and 100 feet deep.

Even though it had been neglected for several years, it was still a beautiful place. The exotic trees and plants that William Merralls had collected over his years living there were extraordinary; some of these still survive today. The grounds were much larger, including the two lots on which the house at 234 Monterey would later be built and the house at 258 Monterey and its side-yard. The aerial photos from 1938 and 1948 show the grounds full of vigorous plant life.

Later, Angele was apparently fond of telling a story about the time they began living at the property, which is recorded in the error-ridden account of Sunnyside written by amateur historian Thomas Malim in 1976. I have always found it unbelievable, because it is difficult to overlook a structure of that size, however thick the bushes. But I reproduce the tale here for its value as a local legend.[46]

“When he and his wife purchased the Sunnyside Avenue property from the bank, they assumed they were purchasing the house and land only, not knowing that there was a bonus hidden behind the thick growth of trees and brush that covered the property. Mrs. Van Beck [sic] liked dogs, and kept several of them on the property. One day, one of them became entangled in the brush and Mrs. Van Beck, in cutting her way through it in an effort to free the animal came across a concrete walkway. After freeing the dog, they both retreated, and during a later conversation she mentioned the walkway to her husband. Intrigued by her story, Van Beck hired some laborers to clear the land of brush, and discovered The Conservatory. Realizing the value of the structure, he went to the expense of restoring it to its proper condition, and to bringing the landscaped areas back to their original splendor.”

Angele Van Beckh, in front of the Sunnyside Conservatory. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Angele Van Beckh, in front of the Sunnyside Conservatory. About 1920. Previously I had mistakenly identified the woman here as Temperance Laura Merralls. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Angele Van Beckh, in front of the Sunnyside Conservatory. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Detail from photo aboeve. Angele Van Beckh, in front of the Sunnyside Conservatory. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.

The Malim account also describes Ernest’s character, calling him “a stern personality….The children of the neighborhood…dared not bounce a ball against the fence of Van Beck [sic] when he was home.” Malim goes on to tell a story about how Ernest “secretly bought [sic] home packages of candy on Halloween and persuaded his wife to dress as a witch and pass the candy out to [the children of the neighborhood].” I love the idea of Angele in a witch’s costume, but I would not venture to say how much truth there is in this tale.[47]

The grounds of the Sunnyside Conservatory. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
The grounds of the Sunnyside Conservatory. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Angele Van Beckh on the grounds of the Sunnyside Conservatory. Detail. About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.
Detail from photo above. Angele Van Beckh on the grounds of the Sunnyside Conservatory.  About 1920. Courtesy the Hartsough Family.

Selling the Power of the Unseen, Again

A few years after quietly settling into the property on Monterey, Ernest Van Beckh started a new enterprise, this time stepping carefully around the law and avoiding any threat of prominence. Established in 1926, his new company was called International Radium Products, and marketed devices that ostensibly allowed the consumer to create their own radioactive water at home, for a low cost. Or maybe they just filtered the water—it’s not entirely clear. The basic product was a ceramic crock with a spout called “The Invigorator Rejuvenator,” the name emblazoned on the front and given extra zing by bolts of radioactivity springing energetically from the logo. It may or may not have had a lining made with radium.

Eerily, like his predecessor, WA Merralls, who built the Sunnyside Conservatory, Van Beckh’s product dipped into the field of alternative health treatments. Radium products were popular until Hiroshima made the idea into a ghastly notion for many. Unlike Merralls, however, Van Beckh was no inventor; in creating this project, he was clearly copying the product of another, bigger, and more ambitious company, the “Radium Ore Revigator”—which also sold radium-lined crocks.

The competition. Ceramic crock of the Radium Ore Revigator. Photo: Andrew Kuchling, Flickr.
The competition. Ceramic crock of the Radium Ore Revigator. Photo: Andrew Kuchling, Flickr.

That Los Angeles-based company had begun manufacturing two years earlier, and ended up as a truly international firm, running well through the 1930s, with large advertisements claiming health-giving properties for the resulting radon-rich water. The German connection mentioned in the ad was a Dr Sautermann, who invented a device to infuse water with radium, patented in 1914.[48]

Ad for the "Revigator" crock that infused water with radioactivity. 23 Nov 1924, Los Angeles Daily Times.
Ad for the “Revigator” crock that infused water with radioactivity. 23 Nov 1924, Los Angeles Daily Times.

Van Beckh did not advertise much—I found but one ad (below) in a small newspaper down the peninsula—and he never made claims for the “Invigorator” beyond that it filtered water. He didn’t have to make claims—the bigger, nationally known company did that for him, calling the radon-infused result “Health Spring Water”. Van Beckh needed only to sell a cheaper imitation.

Only advertisement I found for Ernst Van Beckh's company, International Radium Products. Redwood City Tribune, 19 May 1928.
Only advertisement I found for Ernst Van Beckh’s company, International Radium Products. Redwood City Tribune, 19 May 1928.

That Extra Oomph

There exist no complete ceramic crock devices sold by Van Beckh’s company, but advertisements for the leading brand explain how it worked: one filled it with water and left it overnight to gain “an indispensable element of freshness,” that is, radioactivity. It sounds like madness now, swallowing radioactive water—“eight or more glasses daily” in the words of the Revigator-brand cant. Up until the point when medical warnings about the dangers of radiation exposure took hold among the general public, many people saw radium as a source of miracle cures. In this same period, the new radioactive substance even gave inspiration to occult romance novels.

The 1910s and 1920s saw the rise of many radium-laced products foisted on the public without precaution, including devices like these for producing your own radium-laced water. When regulation or medical authority did intervene, it came in the form of protecting the public not from harmful radiation, but from being sold a dummy product, devoid of any actual measurable radioactivity.[49]

For all we know now, Ernest Van Beckh’s ceramic crocks for filtering water—radiation-bolt logo aside—may well have contained no actual radium. He was after all a man with a record of selling the relatively worthless for a high price to the gullible. Ceramic filters are an established method for cleaning water, and clean filtered water was all his single advertisement in 1928 ever claimed to do.

The photo of one of Van Beckh’s lidless “Invigorator” crocks shown above reveals a ditch running around inside the rim, suggesting that another receptacle may have rested inside the crock to complete the setup, possibly a concave ceramic filter.

Vigorous Legends

As I said earlier, the history of Sunnyside written in the mid-1970s by Thomas Malim contains plenty of errors and omissions, not least leaving out any mention of Van Beckh’s front-page-worthy criminal history as a larcenist. As a source, Malim is both unreliable and invaluable, in that I believe he interviewed people now long-dead, such as Mrs Van Beckh’s friend and neighbor Bertha Anderson.

Malim makes a couple of vague or slightly erroneous statements that relate to Van Beckh’s enterprise, which he called a “bottled water” business. It seems possible that Van Beckh may also have been in the more ordinary business of supplying water in big glass bottles for office water coolers. The 1920s saw a huge growth in the bottled water business. Several companies still in business got their start then, including Alhambra, Bartlett, Crystal Springs, and Shasta.

Classified ad for Ernst Van Beckh's company, International Radium Products. 1930 San Francisco Directory.
Classified ad for Ernst Van Beckh’s company, International Radium Products. 1930 San Francisco Directory.

Malim made the inflated claim that Van Beckh “soon held almost a monopoly over most of the water supplied to offices and government buildings in San Francisco.” He then touches on the radium-ore crocks, saying Van Beckh “had concocted a fortified type of water laced with various minerals. He designed and had manufactured special jugs for the products. The venture never got off the ground….The jugs were well-decorated, and only one is known to be in existence, and that rather faded.”[50]

It is an elision of the truth to call radium “various minerals,” but Malim’s record of “The Invigorator” ceramic crocks as being “well decorated” stands up to the fact of the relicts shown in the photos. These come from online auctions. Van Beckh’s competitor “The Revigator” obviously sold many more of their radium crocks, and so many more have survived, and can be seen for sale on auction websites.

In all the years he operated, Van Beckh’s company, International Radium Products, was only listed once in the classified section of the San Francisco Directories, in 1930 under “Water Distributors”. Whatever business he managed to eke out, it was a quiet affair. In 1929 he sought “lady solicitors” for marketing the products.

Van Beckh’s business premises were located in the old Rainbow Grocery building at 15th and Mission from 1926 until 1937, when he moved to 2136 Market Street, a modest two-flat Victorian. He was still there in 1940, but I don’t find evidence for further activity after that.[51]

After 14 years in business, Van Beckh appears to have closed shop. By then he was in his mid-fifties. In November 1951, just past his 75th birthday, he suffered a short illness and died.[52]

The Last Years on Monterey Boulevard

Angele Van Beckh made friends with a couple, Mr and Mrs Walter Anderson, who moved into a house directly across the street in about 1943. The Andersons were in their 30s, and like the Van Beckhs, childless. The two women became fast friends, it would seem, despite the difference in age. Angele told her a good deal about her life and background, not all of it strictly true. Perhaps Bertha became like a daughter to Angele. In any case, Malim’s account gives several details of Angele’s history that sound much like the confidences shared with a friend.

“After the marriage, Mrs. Van Beck [sic] decided to remain in America, and turned the operation of her estate over to relatives in France. This was a mistake, as through their mismanagement and dishonesty, she eventually lost all of her financial and landed heritage.”[53]

By the time of Malim’s writing, Angele Van Beckh was well over 90, and it does not look like he interviewed her. Mrs Anderson, however, was still living and had only recently sold the property.

Chipping Away at the Property

The seven-lot original piece of property that the Van Beckhs bought in 1919 shrank over the years, due in part to Angele’s need to raise money after Ernest died. What we know today as the Sunnyside Conservatory was a different piece of land when the Van Beckhs bought it in 1919.

In 1927, the City bought a ten-foot wide piece on the far eastern edge, in order to create a right-of-way for sewer pipes. Also bought by the City and used for pipes was the garden stairway strip that connects the current Sunnyside Conservatory to Joost Avenue.[54]

Between 1950 and 1969, the Andersons purchased from Angele Van Beckh every single lot that made up the original property. It may have been convenient for the aging woman to sell to a friend and neighbor, but from the point of view of history, the Andersons represented the greatest danger to the future of the conservatory as an historic structure.

First, Angele sold the two lots on the east side to Bertha and Walter Anderson, who would build a big house on the 50×100’ property in 1954, the current house at 234 Monterey Boulevard. Then, after Ernest’s death, she sold the Anderson the next three lots over. At that point Angele retained only the house at 258 Monterey and the side-yard on the east. Finally, in 1969, Angele sold the Andersons these last two lots, with the house, then retired to San Mateo where she passed away in 1982 at the age of 98.

When Walter Anderson died in 1974, Bertha sold the house at 258 to the family that still owns it today, and the newer house at 234 to another family.[55]

Saved from the Wrecking Ball

1974 was also the year Sunnyside Neighborhood Association was formed, and part of the impetus for the organization was to save what was then called “Merralls’ Conservatory.” The City gave it landmark status in December 1975, but did not own the land under the structure, which was acquired in the early 1980s. The open space we know today was then developed, connecting it with the sewer-lot steps up to Joost Avenue, with the final renovation coming in about 2000. I’ll tell that story in another post.

The Sunnyside Conservatory, 1981. Photo by Greg Gaar. OpenSFHistory wnp33.03491
The Sunnyside Conservatory, 1981. Photo by Greg Gaar. OpenSFHistory wnp33.03491


The Van Beckhs certainly lived singular, even astonishing lives. I credit their extraordinary history and peculiar choices, frauds included, with helping to safeguard the remarkable structure that is the Sunnyside Conservatory—at least until the idea of keeping some land open and undeveloped inside the growing city took hold, and a piece of history could be preserved for the pleasure of everyone.

More about the Sunnyside Conservatory.


My deep gratitude goes to Kathleen Laderman for her diligence in research; as always she is the soundest of my sounding boards and a solid check on outlandish notions. A big thank-you to Don Cohn, whose innocent question led me to uncover this story. Thanks to Tom Carey of the San Francisco History Center. I remain indebted to Chester Hartsough for the privilege of scanning the mysterious glass negatives found in a closet in the Merralls’ house in the 1970s.

Family Trees on

I created these trees to organize the huge number of moving parts in this story. These trees contain links to records and news articles that have informed much of the story. is a subscription service but is available in every SF Public Library for free.

To use these links at a SF Public Library computer, use the second link for each person, with the word ‘library’ after ‘ancestry’ in it.

Ernest F Van Beckh (1876-1951)

Angele Ricono Van Beckh (1883-1982)

Earl Asaph Peabody aka “Byron Kingston” (1881-1938)

Herbert Cavit aka “Alexander Walton” (1878-1916)

John Henry Long aka “Herbert Van Dyke” (1877-1952)

Alberta (Bertha) Da Silva Anderson (1911-1995)


Books, articles, manuscripts

Abbott, David Phelps. 1916. Behind the Scenes with the Mediums 5th rev. ed. Chicago: Open Court Pub. On the Internet Archive:

Balleisen, Edward J. 2018. Fraud : An American History from Barnum to Madoff. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Corcos, Christine. 2010. Law and Magic : A Collection of Essays. Durham N.C: Carolina Academic Press.

George-Parkin, Hilary, “When Is Fortune-Telling a Crime?” The Atlantic, 14 Nov 2014. Accessed 3 Apr 2023.

Hayes, Reginald Hewlett. The Intensive Treatment of Syphilis & Locomotor Ataxia by Aachen Methods (with Notes on Salvarsan). Senegal: C.V. Mosby, 1920.

Malim, Thomas William [1923-1988], “The Sunnyside District,” unpublished manuscript, 1976.

Patrick, Jeremy. 2020. Faith or Fraud : Fortune-Telling Spirituality and the Law. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Roysdon, Keith, “Seers, Mystics and Scam Artists: Clairvoyants in 20th Century America: A brief history of a nation that wants to believe,”, 7 Jan 2022. Accessed 9 Apr 2023.

Santos, Lucy Jane. Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. United States: Pegasus Books, 2021.

Suddath, Claire, “First Amendment Protection of Fortune Tellers,” Bloomburg Business Week, 8 Nov 2013. Accessed 27 Apr 2023.


San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
San Francisco Call
San Francisco Call and Post
Oakland Tribune
Chicago Times
New York Herald
New York Times
California Digital Newspaper Collection

To access the SF Examiner or the SF Chronicle at the San Francisco Public Library website:

Go to > Research & Learn > Articles and Databases > S > San Francisco Examiner (ProQuest) [or San Francisco Chronicle] – then sign in with your library card.


  1. The deed on file at the Office of the Assessor-Recorder, San Francisco City Hall, gives a price for the property of $3,500. Thomas Malim, writing his account of Sunnyside in 1976, which had no citations, says the Van Beckhs paid $12,000. Although it is possible that part of the price was privately negotiated, I find credible the $3,500 purchase price on the deed, as an established bank was involved in the transaction and an average house in the district was then about half that price. A copy of the deed, dated 22 Mar 1919, can be read here (PDF) . On the 1930 US Census, the Van Beckhs reported that their property was worth $10,000. In 1940, they said $5,000; everyone took a hit on property values during the Depression.
  2. Houdini would later make famous the work of exposing fake mediums, even going before the US Congress, but preceding him was the illusionist David Phelps Abbott, who in 1907 wrote a long book, Behind the Scenes with the Mediums, detailing the mechanics of all manner of psychic fakery, which had several revisions over the next few years. It was an excellent instruction manual for any looking to get into the business. See Bibliography for reference and link. For a basic roundup of the methods of fraud used in occult practices, see this section of the Wikipedia entry on Mediumship:
  3. Physical descriptions of Van Beckh come from three sources. New York, U.S., Spanish-American War Military and Naval Service Records, 1898-1902, Ernest F Beckh (1899). U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Ernest F Vanbeckh (1909). . U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Ernest Fred Beckh (1918). . For using see my note in Family Tree section above.The later description of his disabilities from Malim, 1976.
  4. Angele’s genealogy comes from a European genealogical site, Geneanet: . Other genealogical sources for both Ernest and Angele I have collected into the webpage that is linked in the Family Trees section at the end of the article, which includes details from census data, directories, ships records, and so on.
  5. “Seer Found Hiding in Oakland,” Oakland Tribune, 22 Mar 1916, p1.
  6. A history of the Clockmakers, Louis Boname, in Seloncourt, France: “Usine d’horlogerie Louis Boname, puis Charles Vuilleumier, puis fonderie Charpentier, puis usine de décolletage Devaux et Meinen, actuellement école professionnelle,” . Accessed 14 Jul 2023.
  7. Malim, 1976. This account is rife with inaccuracies and unverified assertions, and it lacks any citations whatever. Malim misspells the Van Beckh name for the entire document, and basic, easily verifiable dates like Ernest’s death are misreported, to call out just a few of the errors. But I find it credible that these statements were in some form ones that Angele made about herself to her friend and neighbor, Bertha Anderson, who reported them to Malim when he was assembling his history of Sunnyside. She was called “Countess” in this item: “At the Boys’ Outing Farm,” San Jose Mercury News, 6 Jul 1913, p32. Other mentions of the same event call her “Mrs A Van Beckh”: “Outing Farm Life is Enjoyed by Boys,” SF Examiner, 22 Jun 1913, p53; and “Another Bunch of Boys to Outing Farm,” SF Chronicle, 23 Jun 1913, p5.
  8. Linked sources for these facts and many of the details on which I base my account are contained under the Facts tab of the pages I created for the Van Beckhs and other figures in this story. Please see the list of links on Ancestry above the Bibliography at the end of the article.
  9. Two stories of the circus families through the generations are available online in French. “L’extraordinaire histoire du Cirque Gruss-Jeannet: Chapitre 02 : Les ancêtres GRUSS,” . Accessed 11 Jul 2023; and “26 février 2019: ‘R comme Ricono-Sturla….’ ou ‘ Avec ou sans les Grüss….’, . Accessed 11 Jul 2023. Although both tales of the circus family do not mention the other brother Martin Ricono, the French genealogy site Geneanet does connect all three brothers, and give the critical genealogical information for Angele Rinono.
  10. Angele Ricono Van Beckh travelled back to Switzerland in 1909 to visit her uncle, Domenico Ricono, according to ship records. On the 1910 US Census, the Van Beckhs say they were married in 1903. Linked sources for these and many of the details on which I base my account are contained in the Facts page of the pages I created for them, and other figures in this story. Please see the list of links on Ancestry above the Bibliography at the end of the article.
  11. To operate as a psychic in San Francisco, then or now, you had to jump through a few hoops. Trace the evolution of the business in the city through these links:1915: ORDINDANCE 648: General ordinances of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco [1915 Edition] by San Francisco (Calif.). Board of Supervisors. amendment to the ordinance, bizarrely adding phrenology to the list: Current regulations, taxes, permits, SFPD vetting, contained in: Meeting minutes [18 Jun 2003] by San Francisco (Calif.). Board of Supervisors. Finance and Audits Committee. How to get a psychic business in SF. “Why Do San Francisco Psychics Need Permits from the Police,” KQED, 9 Aug 2018. Accessed 10 Jul 2023.
  12. “New Law to be Aimed at Clairvoyants,” SF Examiner, 16 Apr 1916, p9.
  13. Jean Yoell [Genevieve Yoell Parkhurst], “Medium Cures Eyes: Wife Loses Fortune,” SF Call and Post, 19 May 1916.
  14. “New Law to be Aimed at Clairvoyants,” SF Examiner, 16 Apr 1916, p9.
  15. “Charles H Brennan Will Leave Fickert,” SF Examiner, 24 Aug 1916, p4.
  16. “Three Girls Made Regular Lawyers,” SF Chronicle, 17 Apr 1915, p8; “Man Carrying Pistol Given Six Months,” SF Examiner, 18 Jan 1916, p5; and “Charles H Brennan Will Leave Fickert,” SF Examiner, 24 Aug 1916, p4; and “Charles H Brennan, SF Legal Figure, Dies,” SF Examiner, 20 Feb 1942.
  17. This lovely-ugly word should come back into use. Mulct: a. : to defraud especially of money : swindle. b. : to obtain by fraud, duress, or theft.
  18. “Read The Examiner Every Day for the Advertisements [ad],” SF Examiner, 26 Nov 1916, p40. “You’ll find no advertising of whisky and other strong liquors, habit-forming narcotics, fake financial schemes, lotteries, quacks and clairvoyants.” My casual statistic about the drying up of the medium business in the city between 1920 and 1940 comes from search results on SF newspapers on When fraudulent mediums got going again in the early 1940s to target vulnerable people who had lost, or possibly lost, loved ones overseas, there were more debunkers around poised to interfere and educate the public.
  19. Patrick, pp79-83.
  20. I assembled a family tree with genealogical and newspaper documentation for EA Peabody on (Paid subscription, but free to use at the SF Public Library in person.) Trees for the other figures mentioned in this post, with many facts and sources attached, are linked in a list, under Family Trees, above the Bibliography.
  21. “US Swoops Down upon Doctors,” SF Examiner, 21 Nov 1912, p15; “Many Arrests Made on Coats,” SF Chronicle, 21 Nov 1912, p2; “Dr Peabody Surrenders,” SF Examiner, 24 Dec 1912, p3; “Jailed on State Charge outside Federal Court: DR Earl A Peabody is Accused of Causing a Girl’s Death,” SF Chronicle, 31 Dec 1912, p14.; “Arrested for Manslaughter,” SF Call, 31 Dec 1912, p16; and “Physician is Branded Murderer by Judge,” SF Examiner, 5 Jan 1913, p63. Also “Prison, Heavy Fine, Fate of Physician,” SF Examiner, 10 Jan 1913 and “Dismayed Quacks in Plea for Delays,” SF Call and Post, 10 Dec 1913. and California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  22. “Jury Listens to Occult Mysteries,” Oakland Tribune, 15 Mar 1916, p2.
  23. “[classified ad] Notice is hereby given that Mrs Jane C Peabody has secured a divorce from Dr EA Peabody on the ground of habitual intemperance and nonsupport,” SF Chronicle, 13 Jun 1915, p44; “Arrest of Wife of Medium,” Oakland Tribune, 25 Mar 1917, p33; “Girl Revokes Court Record,” SF Examiner, 3 Jun 1919, p7; and “Woman Taken Under Medical Practice Act,” SF Chronicle, 10 Apr 1920, p7.
  24. “Seer Questioned as to Fatal Accident: Byron Kingston and Wife Say His Auto was Stolen,” SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 1916.
  25. “Places Blame on Hypnotism: Purported Confession Denied by Alleged Accuser,” Los Angeles Times, 18 Nov 1913, p11; “Revoke Permit of Hypnotic Man After Shake-Up,” Evening Vanguard (Venice CA), 3 Dec 1913, p3; and “Fortune Teller Sued on Hypnotism Charge: Mrs Mae Koss brings action against ‘Professor Herbert Luzon’,” Los Angeles Evening Express, 3 Jul 1914, p9. First classified ad in SF as Alexander Walton: SF Chronicle, 8 Nov 1914, p39.
  26. “Old Man is Seriously Injured in Collision: Probably Fatal Result of a Race Between an Automobile and a Wagon,” SF Call, 1 Oct 1901, p9. Rothschild was also sued for malpractice. “Sues Doctor for Damages,” SF Call, 25 Oct 1903.
  27. “Tells How Seers Fleeced Him,” SF Examiner, 10 Apr 1916, p6.
  28. “Tells How Seers Fleeced Him,” SF Examiner, 10 Apr 1916, p6.
  29. In the first year after starting to operate in San Francisco, Van Beckh ran into his first unhappy customer in the person of George Croyle, a farmer from Portland, Oregon, who’d come to the city for occult advice on making a quick fortune. Van Beckh had sold him some junk mining stock for $1,750, and Croyle then changed his mind. Van Beckh, inexperienced it would seem in the ways to run this kind of business, refused to return Croyle’s money, and Croyle went to the police. This was the last time Van Beckh made this basic mistake. “Buys Stock from Spirits,” SF Examiner, 21 Aug 1912, p2; and “Farmer Alleges Swindle,” SF Chronicle, p2.
  30. “Loses $10,000 But Will Not Believe It,” Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, 15 May 1915, p3.
  31. “Walton, Seer, on Way Back for Trial,” SF Examiner, 10 Apr 1916, p1,6; “Seers’ King is Returned in Shackles,” SF Examiner, 11 Apr 1916, p3; and “Master Mind Clairvoyant is Arrested,” SF Examiner, 12 Apr 1916, p8.
  32. The basic roadhouse shoot-out story is pieced together from several articles, but mainly “’Big Five’ Clairvoyant, Shot by Ring, Found: Seer Gang High Priest hunter for Crime,” SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, pp1-2. Van Beckh’s car is described when he is finally captured in the Dimond District, Oakland. “Seer is Jailed; Last of ‘Big 5’ is Hunted,” SF Call, 22 Mar 1916, p5; and “Seer Ruler Found Hiding in Oakland,” Oakland Tribune, 22 Mar 1916, p1.
  33. “Doctor Walton on Way Back to West,” Oakland Tribune, 10 Apr 1916, p3; “Seers’ King is returned in Shackles,” SF Examiner, 11 Apr 1916, p3; “Dies While Detectives Seek Story,” Oakland Tribune,, 4 Jul 1916, p9; and “Blames ‘3rd Degree’ for Husband’s Death”, Oakland Tribune,, 5 Jul 1916, p13.
  34. “’Big Five’ Clairvoyant, Shot by Ring, Found: Seer Gang High Priest Hunted for Crime,” SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, p2; and “Master Mind Gang Nearly All in Jail,” Oakland Tribune, 12 Mar 1916, pp17-18.
  35. “’Big Five’ Clairvoyant, Shot by Ring, Found: Seer Gang High Priest Hunted for Crime,” SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, pp1-2; “Shot by Pal, Alleged ‘Seer’ is Captured,” SF Chronicle, 12 Mar 1916, p52.
  36. “Clairvoyant Bullet Victim Tells of Shot: Herbert Van Dyke Says That He Believes He Was Fired on by Mistake,” sf Examiner, 17 Dec 1915, p9; “’Big Five’ Clairvoyant, Shot by Ring, Found: Seer Gang High Priest Hunted for Crime,” SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, p2; and “Master Mind Gang Nearly All in Jail,” Oakland Tribune, 12 Mar 1916, pp17-18.
  37. “Chicago Police Capture Cavitte: Man Wanted as Member of the ‘Big Five’ Ring Under Arrest,” Oakland Tribune, 25 Feb 1916, p9; “Detectives Get Accused Seer by Following Wife, Chicago Tribune, 26 Feb 1916, p9; “Seer Indicted for Swindling: Clairvoyant Walton to be Brought Back From Chicago by Local Police,” SF Examiner, 26 Feb 1916, p6.
  38. “’Big Five’ Clairvoyant, Shot by Ring, Found: Seer Gang High Priest Hunted for Crime,” SF Call, 11 Mar 1916, pp1-2; “Shot by Pal, Alleged ‘Seer’ is Captured,” SF Chronicle, 12 Mar 1916, p52; and “Alleged Member of ‘Spirit Ring’ Caught Here: Blackmail and Fraud Charged to Group of Clairvoyants,” Oakland Tribune, 11 Mar 1916, pp1-2.
  39. “Police Pursue ‘Master Mind: Leader of Seers in Oakland? Scions of Wealth Fleeced,” Oakland Tribune, 5 Mar 1916, pp1-2; and “Hunt for King of Clairvoyants: Wife of a South American Consul Duped of Thousands of Dollars: Dictaphone brings Confession,” SF Examiner, 5 Mar 1916, p9.
  40. “Seers’ King is Returned in Shackles: Dr Alexander Walton, Alleged Head of Clairvoyants’ Trust, Brought Back from Chicago,” SF Examiner, 11 Apr 1916, p3.
  41. “Master Mind Clairvoyant is Arrested,” SF Examiner, 12 Apr 1916, p8.
  42. “’Handcuff King; Again in Custody: Claude A Conlin Held for defrauding Coos Bay Man in 1909,” SF Chronicle, 14 Apr 1916, p6.
  43. “Witness Against Clairvoyant Missing,” SF Chronicle, 9 Mar 1916, p8; and “Jury Listens to Occult Mysteries: Byron Kingston Faces Court as One of ‘Big Five’ Gang,” Oakland Tribune, 15 Mar 1916, p2.
  44. “Jury Listens to Occult Mysteries: Byron Kingston Faces Court as One of ‘Big Five’ Gang,” Oakland Tribune, 15 Mar 1916, p2; “Jury Instructed to Clear Clairvoyant,” SF Examiner, 16 Mar 1916, p8; “Seer Questioned as To Fatal Accident,” SF Chronicle, 18 Mar 1916, p4.
  45. Notices in SF Recorder: 22 Jul 1916, p3; 24 Jul 1916, p4; 4 Aug 1916, p5; and 15 Aug 1916, p5. The last notice of Wm Castle wanted for arraignment: SF Recorder, 28 Jun 1917, p3.
  46. Malim.
  47. Malim.
  48. Santos, p119.
  49. Santos, pp124-140.
  50. Malim.
  51. International Radium Products was at 1893 Mission St in San Francisco, as shown on classified ads in search of salesmen, and in the 1933 and 1936 editions of the San Francisco, Colma and Daly City street address list . The company was listed at 2136 Market St in the San Francisco house and street directory for 1940.
  52. Coroner’s Register for Ernest Beckh, 17 Nov 1951. “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997”, database with images, FamilySearch (ark:/61903/1:1:QKD4-R8JV : Wed Jul 12 13:03:48 UTC 2023), Entry for Ernest Beckh and Angele Beckh, 17 Nov 1951.
  53. Malim.
  54. Notice in SF Recorder, 21 Nov 1927, p8.
  55. Property transfers as recorded in the Sales Ledger, Office of the Assessor-Recorder, City Hall, San Francisco.


1 thought on “The King of the Clairvoyants: The Man who bought the Sunnyside Conservatory”

  1. Amy, your posts are literary-award worthy IMO, and this one was well worth the long read! Kudos to everyone you enlisted for the detailed research. I loved the revealing insights and back stories of our neighborhood gems. Thanks for keeping me connected to Sunnyside!

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