Today’s post was written by Jessica Lee. She’s a summer intern in the Archives 1 Reference Section, working with the Civil records team.
One of the projects I have been assigned this summer is to help create a finding aid for the approximately 10,000 fraud cases housed at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC in Record Group 28 (Records of the Post Office Department), Entry 50, Office of the Solicitor: Fraud Order Case Files, 1894-1951 (NARA Online ID Number 2660896). In order to provide better access for researchers I have been noting the names of the parties who were charged, the date, and the location. Of the 540 cases I have gone through so far, some cases brought charges against only one person or company; while others charged well over two hundred. Because of the scope of this project, I do not have the luxury of time to flip through every file and learn about every case, but once in a while something in a folder will make me pause and examine it more closely. In one particular case, it was the name of the party accused in Case No. 6232 (by Order No. 7379 on June 24, 1935): “White Wizard,” of Tacoma, Washington, that drew my attention. To my disappointment, the accused party was not your friendly neighborhood Gandalf, nor even your unfriendly neighborhood Saruman.
Normally after a complaint was filed, the Postmaster General would conduct an investigation.
Scam Letter from White Wizard
If he deemed it appropriate, a charge of mail fraud would be brought against the accused. The general charge against the named parties was “conducting a scheme or device for obtaining money through the mails by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises.” Once charged with mail fraud, a “fraud order” would be issued. This directive would forbid postmasters from delivering any money orders, letters, and other mail matter to said party and then directed them to return these materials and/or inform senders that the delivery of these materials has been prohibited. At that point, an administrative hearing was usually held to determine the facts of the case and for the accused to present his side.
According to this case’s file, the “White Wizard” scheme was operated by S. Bannister, and involved “the sale of so-called horoscopes and answering of personal questions” via the mail. In one advertisement included in the file, White Wizard claimed to be a “nationally known psychologist and philosopher” who offered “[his] new Astrological Readings” at a “special low price” which would tell customers “the exact days and dates, month by month, when the planets are in favorable or unfavorable aspect for your business and social affairs.” Interested parties were instructed to send an “exact birth date” and the $0.50 cost of a complete reading. According to the government CPI inflation calculator, $0.50 in 1935 is the equivalent of $8.63 today.
The solicitor bringing this case forward, Karl A. Crowley, wrote that White Wizard, or the man behind it, “does not claim to have any supernatural powers, that questions submitted to him are answered solely from a common sense standpoint,” that “a good percentage of the questions are answered by his stenographers without any assistance from him,” and that “readings” were purchased “in quantities in advance,” one for each of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Crowley concluded that, because White Wizard did not (1) answer all questions submitted to him; (2) did not furnish correct answers; and (3) did not furnish a personal reading “prepared especially for each remitter,” he found this to be “a scheme for obtaining money through the mails by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises” and so recommended a fraud order be issued.
Crowley also noted that White Wizard attempted to “justify his use of the mails in this scheme” by stating his security of “a third class permit under which he mailed the printed matter sent to remitters in this scheme,” but that White Wizard did not assert that he “asked for or obtained a ruling” from the post office as to “whether or not the scheme proposed to be conducted by him through the mails would be in violation of the postal fraud statutes.” Crowley went on to state that postmasters “are prohibited, by Section 602, Postal Laws and Regulations, 1932, from giving opinions in such matters,” and he was “satisfied that no such opinion was given the respondent.”
According to Crowley, on June 20, 1935, the day set for White Wizard’s hearing, no one appeared “in behalf of the respondent.”
All of the above information was submitted in Crowley’s memorandum to the Postmaster General, and on June 24, 1935, the Postmaster General issued Fraud Order No. 7379 against White Wizard.