MONMOUTH, Ill. — Near the turn of the 20th century, the occult science of palmistry experienced a renaissance in the Western world through the efforts of a celebrated Irish astrologer named William John Warner. As a teenager, he had traveled to India, where he was taken under the wing of a Brahman guru who allowed him to read an ancient book on the study of hands.
After two years of study, Warner returned to London and launched a career that would bring him international fame as the palmist Cheiro. His clients included Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison, Grover Cleveland and Mark Twain.
Soon, “Hindoo palmists,” seeking to emulate Cheiro’s success, began popping up across the United States. Open the classifieds section of any major newspaper and you could find columns of ads promoting clairvoyants and palmists with exotic names, many who claimed to be Indian mystics, but were more likely con artists.
One particularly brazen “palmist” cashed in on his ancestry to help perpetuate his fraud. Born in Texas in 1881, Bert Bismark came from Mexican and Native American stock. Although he stood less than 5-foot-7, his jet black hair and dark complexion, along with a handsome profile, gave him an air of mystery that was particularly appealing to young women.
One such woman who fell under his spell was Ruby Dixon, a 22-year-old servant who worked on the farm of William Butler near Monmouth. The only child of a Monmouth couple who operated a rug-weaving business, her father — Ausman Dixon — had married Sarah Purks after his first wife had died in 1885, leaving him with five children from his first marriage. Ruby had dropped out of school after seventh grade to help in the family business, which was operated out of their home at 604 East Euclid Ave. and later 328 South 10th St.
When she came of age around 1910, Ruby ventured out on her own as a hired girl. Shortly after that, she crossed paths with Bismark, who was then using the alias Warrenetta Brookheart. In the middle of July, she dropped by his rented room on West Boston Avenue to have her fortune told. After the reading, Bismark asked her if she would like to travel with him as a companion to his wife. Ruby asked her parents and they eventually gave their permission.
The trio left Monmouth July 16 and went first to Macomb, where Bismark not only practiced his craft but taught it to Ruby. It wasn’t long before Bismark’s wife, claiming physical abuse, ran away, leaving Ruby alone in the palmist’s clutches. When he slapped and beat her, Ruby told him she wanted to go home and Bismark offered her the money to do so, but she claimed he exerted a hypnotic power over her and she was not able to escape. The couple next went on foot to Beardstown, where they remained for 10 days. It was during that stay that Ruby realized Bismark was in the habit of panning for money and skipping town in lieu of paying his bills.
Rarely did the pair ride the rails — they would walk between towns and sleep in barns. Bismark only allowed Ruby one cold meal per day, and he once forced her to go to a farm and beg for food. When she returned emptyhanded, he beat and choked her and threatened her life.
They next went to Mays, Ill., where Bismark assumed the name Charley Jones, posing as a piano tuner. They walked to nearby Paris, Ill., then crossed the Indiana border to the cities of Terre Haute and Middletown. At that location, Bismark again beat Ruby after accusing her of flirting with a druggist.
Throughout Ruby’s ordeal, Bismark wrote letters on her behalf to her father, pretending that his wife was still with them, and putting bogus postmarks on the envelopes to disguise their location. In one of those letters from Anderson, Ind., Bismark gave a hard luck story and asked him to send money. After Ausman received a similar letter from Ruby he sent them $8, but the letter was stopped at the Anderson post office.
Three weeks after they arrived at Anderson, Bismark told Ruby that he thought he knew where he could pick up a little change and left her alone. She immediately made her way to the police station, arriving with a bruised face and an eye almost swelled shut. Bismark was quickly apprehended and locked up — along with Ruby — in the county jail, pending investigation. That proved to be his undoing, as it didn’t take long for the police chief to connect him to a long string of felonies, including falsely obtaining a quantity of jewelry in Michigan, waylaying and robbing victims at Terre Haute and Greencastle, and consorting with a hooker companion at Terre Haute.
Bismark admitted to employing a string of at least a dozen aliases, including “Zankhole,” “Mexican King,” “Warrenetta Brookheart” and “John Williams.” He used the latter name when he married Miss May Martin of Flora, Ill. It was his fourth marriage and the third in which he was not legally divorced.
On the morning of Oct. 13, the couple was tried in police court. Bismark was found guilty of adultery, fined $10 and costs, and sentenced to six months in jail. Ruby was also found guilty of adultery, fined $11 and sentenced to six days in jail. However, her sentence was suspended when her father, whom the police chief had notified by telegram, arrived to take his shaken daughter back to Monmouth.
Two years later, Ausman and his wife relocated, along with Ruby, to Marshalltown, Iowa. It’s not clear whether the decision was driven by scandal or business opportunity. Ausman quickly established a successful carpet cleaning business and Ruby soon acquired a new beau. She married Raymond Eldridge, an auto mechanic and truck driver, in the spring of 1913.
Ruby and Ray had two daughters prior to his death in 1957. Ruby lived to the ripe age of 80, dying in 1970.
Bert Bismark was not so fortunate. Although he apparently escaped being convicted for bigamy, he was arrested in Polk County, Iowa, in 1912 on a charge of stealing a team of horses and wagon from an interurban lineman and selling them. The grand jury expedited the trial because Bismark was dying of tuberculosis. On May 17, he was convicted of larceny and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary at Anamosa. He readily accepted the sentence, as it guaranteed him medical care for his remaining days, which ended on Aug. 28.
Bismark — if that was truly his name — was buried at “boot hill” cemetery of the Iowa State Penitentiary near Anamosa. He was 29 years old.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.