Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Televangelists and their “healing” product scams have a history stretching far back in time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by news of events described as miracles, thousands of people lost money to clever con men (and occasionally women) posing as “divine healers.” One phony man of the cloth, going by the name Reverend Francis Schlatter, claimed to be able to cure the sick using handkerchiefs that he’d blessed. Send him your hard-earned cash, along with a handkerchief, and he’d bless it and return to you a “divine handkerchief” capable of healing whatever ailed you.

His name was as bogus as his handkerchiefs — he was born in 1838 in Switzerland and his real name was reported to be either Jacob Kunze or James Dowie. The original Francis Schlatter was an Alsatian cobbler and immigrant to the United States who, in 1894, felt the call of God in Denver, Colorado. Francis traveled around the west for two years, drawing huge crowds and supposedly healing the sick by clasping his hands together. He took no money for his services. He vanished mysteriously in Mexico and was presumed dead in 1896, though his body was never found.

real Frsncis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, the healer, c. 1895. Collection of the Library of Congress.

The absence of Francis’s body created an irresistible opportunity for con men and imposters began popping up immediately after he disappeared. Since it wasn’t illegal in most places in the United States to use a different name from the one you were given at birth, the copycat Francis Schlatters simply started using that name, claiming they were the “real” healer who hadn’t actually died.

Kunze/Dowie partnered with a younger man named August Schrader around 1908. Styling themselves as “King” Francis and “Prince” August, the pair traveled around America and Canada organizing churches — they weren’t picky about the denomination — and officiating at weddings and funerals. They also offered prayer for a fee and the blessed cure-all hankies, sent through the mail.

Schrader and Schlatter

August Shrader (left) and his partner, “Francis Schlatter” (right). The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, February 6, 1917, page 18.

They set up shop in Oakland, California, by 1910, but were asked to leave when people complained that their morals were “not conducive to the best interests of the neighborhoods where they carried on their practice.” Next they landed in Los Angeles (city of all things fake) and established their “Baptist Church, Inc.” — described as a cult — at a property they purchased in Hollywood. Garbed in long black robes, with flowing hair, thick beards and high silk hats, they attracted attention wherever they went.

It was the handkerchief scam that finally brought the pair down. Many of the people who sent money for handkerchiefs complained that they didn’t work. No one was cured of being blind or deaf (and certainly not of being dumb). In June 1916, postal inspectors arrested the men in New York and returned them to Los Angeles for indictment. The charge: conspiracy to use the mails to defraud.

Francis Schlatter handkechiefs

News photograph dated July 18, 1918. Collection of the author.

They signed over their Hollywood property to the lawyer who represented them at trial. August, aged 49, died of pneumonia before the trial finished and was given a pauper’s burial. “Francis” declined the offer to officiate at the funeral of his friend and business partner.

He was convicted of the mail fraud charge and sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, arriving on March 18, 1917, where he was booked into the prison as “Francis Schlatter.” It was unusual but he was allowed to wear his silk top hat in both his mugshots. (Normally the side view would be hatless.) His booking card notes that he had lost almost all his teeth and was less than five feet tall. He was released from prison on June 1, 1918.

On October 16, 1922, a man going by the name “Francis Schlatter” was discovered dead in a cheap rooming house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many newspapers reported that this was the man who’d been imprisoned at McNeil Island for mail fraud. But was it?

Francis Schlatter obit

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, October 25, 1922, page 15.

The informant on the man’s death certificate was Luverna Schlatter, who’d been contacted because she was thought to be the ex-wife of the dead man. Luverna was divorced from a different “divine healer” going by the name Francis Schlatter. However the body of the man who died in St. Louis in 1922 was not buried in Miamisburg, Ohio, as stated on the death certificate. In a bizarre twist, the body went unburied. On May 7, 1945, it was discovered in the basement of a St. Louis funeral home.

One plausible scenario is that Luverna, who lived in Chicago, went to St. Louis and discovered that the corpse awaiting her there was not that of her ex-husband, but belonged to the man who’d been incarcerated at McNeil Island* so she left without it. The death in 1922 of the fake Francis Schlatter is as much a mystery as the death of the man he spent years impersonating.

Featured photos: Francis Schlatter, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Collection of the National Archives at Seattle, Washington, record group 129.

*Update: I recently received a copy of an article from the Denver Times, dated October 19, 1922, from David Wetzel, author of The Vanishing Messiah. The article describes how the man who was imprisoned at McNeil Island was still alive at that date, when he visited the Los Angeles Times offices to tell the paper he was not the man who had recently died in St. Louis.

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