Fortune-teller scandal, 1897

A fortune-teller with a gift of gab went to prison in 1897, thanks partly to an investigation by Springfield’s first woman dentist.

Arthur A. Waite went by the name of “Luke Leslie” when he set up shop at Second and Adams streets in 1896. Leslie/Waite claimed to be able to put people in touch with their deceased loved ones. The dead people answered their relatives’ questions through Leslie, who wrote the responses on a slate. Leslie was persuasive, the Illinois State Register reported when his trial began in February 1897.

It is said he performed some feats that looked well nigh supernatural, the hand writing on the slate being apparently identical with that of departed ones, in many instances, and Leslie displaying a familiarity with affairs of a private nature that seemed miraculous.

In many cases, Leslie told his marks – most of them women – that he also could reveal the hiding places of “secreted treasures” their relatives had left for them. All he needed to do that, he said, was a $10 gold piece “in order to get (the victim’s) own magnetism.”

Leslie gave the victims receipts that promised he would return the gold pieces, almost always with a deadline for repayment of Aug. 13, 1896. When that date came around, however, Leslie was gone from Springfield. He was arrested a couple weeks later in Birmingham, Ala., where he may have lived before. When he lived in Springfield, Leslie was estimated to be 40 to 50 years old.

How many people Leslie bilked was never known. The names of only five victims were made public, but the Register said there were many more.

There are supposed to be numerous other victims in this city, and it is supposed that they are no small moiety of the crowd of spectators at the court room. These, however, are content to let bygones be bygones, and are willing to allow Leslie’s duplicity go unpunished so long as their own credulity remains unexposed. They have, therefore, kept their misfortunes a secret in their own bosoms.

Leslie’s main opponent was local dentist Jennie F. Spurrier. Suspecting Leslie was a fraud, she gave him three $20 gold pieces in an attempt to trap him, she said later. When Leslie disappeared, Spurrier swore out a warrant for his arrest.

Confronted by Spurrier when he was brought back to Springfield, Leslie went into a rage, the Illinois State Journal reported.

When he entered and saw her, his anger got the better of his discretion and he forthwith spued (sic) out volumes of vitriolic abuse at the woman, using every foul and nasty epithet that is anywhere known in the vilest slang of the streets. Mrs. Spurrier, however, quietly held her peace in a lady-like manner and said never word in reply to the self-styled mediumistic fortune-teller. But many of the men who happened to be present were considerably worked up over the affair and it was said that it was the quick intervention of the officers in removing him from the court room that alone saved Leslie from personal chastisement at the hands of some of the indignant listeners.

At trial, Leslie’s defense was that he always intended to return to Springfield and repay the money. (He also vowed to produce “ghosts” in the courtroom, but the judge overruled that idea.) One of his clients even testified that she still trusted Leslie and expected her money to be returned. However, the jury took only an hour to convict him, and Leslie was sentenced to an indeterminate term in the state prison at Chester.

Leslie/Waite continued to demonstrate his talents as a magician and spellbinder behind bars. In the Sangamon County Jail before his trial, Sheriff Edward Baxter told the Journal, “Leslie’s performances (were) as good as the show.”

The other day he took hold of another prisoner’s nose and immediately a great lot of tin pans began to drop from it. I do not know where he got the pans, but it looked for all the world like he was pulling them out of the fellow’s nose. At another time he produced about a dozen silver dollars in the same way, and where he got them is still a mystery to me. All of the prisoners are carefully searched when they are put in the jail and we did not know there was a dollar in the place.

Leslie continued to mystify officials and inmates in state prison, according to a July 1897 article in the Journal.

On several occasions for the entertainment of visitors Leslie has been called upon to give exhibitions of his powers as a prestidigitator, and he has repeatedly furnished entertainment to visiting committees from the legislature. A deck of cards in his hands seem endowed with animation, and the tricks he performs with them are numerous and wonderful. He is conceded to be one of the most interesting characters ever incarcerated in prison in this state.

Leslie reportedly also was a talented painter and fresco artist, and the Journal said in January 1898 he was in the process of decorating the ceiling of the prison hospital with images of flowers and birds.

Leslie apparently was released in early 1897. At various times later, he ran a shooting range in southern Illinois and practiced palmistry in Rock Island. In 1902, Chicago authorities asked Springfield for background on Leslie, suggesting he had gotten in trouble there too. At that point, however, Leslie/Waite disappears from local newspaper accounts, and what happened to him is unknown.

Jennie F. Spurrier (1847-1912), meanwhile, practiced dentistry from an office on the downtown square from about 1879 until 1906. She later moved to California. In a brief notice, the Register reported that she died in Springfield, Mo., in March 1912.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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