Thanks for subscribing! Please check your email for further instructions.
Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic. (picture courtesy of medium.com)
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
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
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
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.
City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.