From Chapter Seven, “These men were imposters”

On the morning of June 8, 1897, two men entered a boardinghouse on Huron Street in Cleveland. They signed up for rooms, then made their way to a large table where the current boarders were sitting at breakfast. Some of the company had finished eating and were reading the paper.

“I see by the morning Leader,” one boarder said, “that healer Schlatter’s body has been found in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.”

One of the newcomers, a man of about sixty, spoke. “Has it indeed?” he said. “That’s very queer. I was under the impression that Schlatter is still very much alive. In fact he is here with us.” He gestured to his younger companion, who was a clean-shaven man of about forty with languid eyes and long hair that fell to his shoulders. “Allow me to introduce to you—Mr. Schlatter.”

The long-haired stranger in the Cleveland boardinghouse was the first person, in the wake of Schlatter’s death, to assume the healer’s name and identity. But he was by no means the last. Over the next quarter century a succession of pretenders came forward, each proclaiming himself to be the great healer. Their staying power was remarkable. Years, even decades, after his disappearance, claimants to Francis Schlatter’s identity were still making headlines across the country—and still drawing crowds of sufferers.

* * * * * *

One man, journalist Thomas Dawson, a former owner of the Denver Tribune, took an interest in Schlatter’s imposters and tracked them for more than twenty years—religiously clipping and saving newspaper articles about them. In 1916 Dawson interviewed Clarence Clark, who was then living in comfortable retirement in Los Angeles. Clark gave Dawson a firsthand account of the healer’s disappearance. Then he told of a letter from Mexico he received sometime later stating that Schlatter and his horse had died of thirst. Personal possessions had been found at the scene that pointed to the healer’s identity. “At any rate,” Clark said, “no other reasonable report as to the place or manner of death ever was received.”

Clark believed Schlatter died in Mexico, but he wasn’t sure. “If he did not,” he said, “he hid himself so effectively that he never since has been heard from.” That tiny bit of doubt led him to “run down” the imposters who arose after Schlatter’s death. It’s more likely, however, that Clark conducted his investigations from an armchair, for the news coverage that exploded from time to time whenever Schlatter died and rose again reached every major daily in the nation.

* * * * * *

Like Thomas Dawson, I was drawn to Francis Schlatter’s imposters—and to this man in particular. All of them played out their dubious notoriety in newspaper clippings that Dawson had collected from 1903 to 1922. They constituted a tiny fraction of the newspaper and magazine articles Dawson assembled on all manner of subjects to satisfy his encyclopedic interests. Of the nearly one hundred volumes in the Dawson Scraps at the Colorado Historical Society, these slowly disintegrating, yellowed clippings had been pasted into Volume 88, “Oddities and Freaks.” It took me a while to sort out one imposter from another, and when I had once identified Charles McLean, August Schrader, and Jacob Kunze, I was left with a man whose real name was like refractory ore—so buried in the surrounding historical rock that it defied easy extraction.

It would have remained there, too, if I hadn’t accidentally run across a long-forgotten book in the Library of Congress while I was in Washington, D.C., researching Helen Wilmans and her influence on Schlatter. The book, published in 1903, was entitled Modern Miracles of Healing: A True Account of the Life, Works, and Wanderings of Francis Schlatter, the Healer. It was not a biography but an autobiography. As such, it not only asserted that Francis Schlatter was alive but provided a reliable touchstone for determining its author’s truthfulness. His career, it turned out, spanned the era of Schlatter’s imposters, from his first appearance in a Cleveland boardinghouse in 1897 to his death in St. Louis in 1922. Except for briefly rising to national attention in 1903, when he announced that he would return to Denver and prove himself to be the genuine healer, he remained elusive.

Modern Miracles of Healing borrowed its main title from the sermon “Modern Miracles” given by Rev. Myron Reed in 1895, when Schlatter was in Denver, and its subtitle from a popular biography of Francis Schlatter published by Harry B. Magill in 1896. The title page of Modern Miracles listed its authorship:

By FRANCIS SCHLATTER,
THE ALSACIAN.

and a saying:

I come not to bring a sword
but peace to mankind.
—Schlatter

Nearly everything about it, alas, was a lie. But it was a lie of such magnitude that I could not dismiss it. From the time I read its first chapter in the cavernous learning sanctuary of the Library of Congress, I had to know who its author really was, and why he had written such a book.

And what a book it was. The story of the “Alsacian’s” boyhood, by itself, was extraordinary:

When he was two years old his parents moved to London, England, and the child attended school in that city on the East India Road, Paplar, E. C. [Poplar, East Central]. He had an own sister and brother who died in Ebersheim. His parents came to America in 1860, stopping at Columbia, Tennessee, where his father purchased a plantation on the Pulaski Pike. Being of a roving disposition, he [Francis’s father] did not remain very long on the plantation, but returned to England. He came to this country again at the close of the civil war, settling on his plantation, where he soon died, and was buried at McCain [McCain’s Cemetery], seven miles from Columbia, in 1868. His mother married a man by the name of Edward Martin, who was a contractor by occupation, and one son was born to them. He was named Thomas….

Aside from the considerable stretch of imagination this passage required, I knew that Francis Schlatter had eight siblings, only one of whom died in childbirth, and that both of his parents lived, respectively, until 1870 and 1871, and died in Ebersheim. But I had to accept the author’s story, even if a fabrication, in order to understand his motive behind the lie. At the time of his father’s death, he continued, Francis

discovered his power to heal. His mother had chronic neuralgia and he healed her by his touch. This was when he was twelve years old. It being known that the boy could do such strange things, the boys in that neighborhood would not have anything to do with him. They thought he was possessed of some mysterious power. This drove him away from home. He went to the old country and traveled about all the time, his parents furnishing him with money.

Francis, wandering around Europe, then loses track of his parents. “He thought his mother had died,” he wrote, “and he was determined to find out if it was true and sailed back to America, landing in New York in May 1884.” Yet, strangely, the young man abandons his quest to find his mother and pursues work on Long Island. At this point, his narrative merges with that of Francis Schlatter’s known story.

In most respects, I found, the story of the healer’s rise to fame in Modern Miracles of Healing was consistent with other accounts—not unusual considering its author would have had both Magill’s Biography of Francis Schlatter and Ada Morley’s Life of the Harp to rely on as guides. But there was one glaring exception. His pilgrimage as recounted in Modern Miracles differed dramatically from the one Schlatter described in Life of the Harp. As the original healer told his story to Ada Morley, every step of his journey followed a course dictated by the Father—and so the very route itself was sacred. Yet, the author of Modern Miracles distorts the holy tramp of his predecessor, describing a journey that looks more like a tortured figure 8 rather than the simple loop taken by Schlatter.

I couldn’t fathom why he would do this. One might suppose he had no knowledge of Schlatter’s route, but he clearly did. Several significant places that the healer visited on his pilgrimage—Hot Springs, Flagstaff, Throckmorton, San Diego, San Francisco, Yuma, and Paris, Texas—the healer of Modern Miracles did, too. But he did so at different times on his journey, and following a different path. It was a great mystery, but not one I could solve at the time—if ever.

Finally, I got to the part of the book in which Schlatter departs Ada Morley’s ranch for Mexico. Four days later, he writes, “my pony drank some alkali water through the night and died.” Grief-stricken, the healer walks to the nearest railroad station, then makes his way by train to the upper Ohio River valley. There he begins a new pilgrimage, walking down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, then down the Mississippi River to Memphis, where he reappears as Francis Schlatter in a public auditorium in March 1897. In the meantime, he is jailed twice, once on suspicion of blowing up a church in Portsmouth, Ohio, and hospitalized twice, once in Wheeling, West Virginia, from a railroad accident, and the second time in Cincinnati’s Good Samaritan Hospital.

I knew too much about the real Schlatter’s life to accept Modern Miracles of Healing as a true account. Too many of the details didn’t fit or were obvious lies. Yet I couldn’t dismiss the book out of hand. The author clearly knew much about the real Schlatter and had studied him closely. Though clearly an imposter, he seemed to offer the last reasonable opportunity to learn whether or not Schlatter walked out of Mexico and into a posthumous life.