The circus came to Santa Rosa in 1904, but that was only part of the fun that year. World heavyweight boxing champ James Jeffries also put on a show here, and John Philip Sousa's famous brass band played a rousing concert. For a dime you could be thrilled by "The Great Train Robbery," the first narrative movie ever made; audiences supposedly screamed and dived for the floor when a character turned his gun towards the camera and fired. But according to the Press Democrat, the most wonderful entertainment of all began when the Great McEwen came to town.

The Novelty Theatre, which offered vaudeville acts and movies on a bill that changed weekly, was a regular advertiser in the Press Democrat, with its program listed almost every day on the front page. The newspaper typically reciprocated with a few nice words about the show -- see an example here -- so it was no surprise when the paper reviewed that week's schedule on August 16th, with special praise for the top act: "The Great McEwen, who has been aptly named the 'Wizard of the West,' proved a big entertainer. His work is far superior to other such vaunted jugglers...his magic work is new and when it comes to palming he is inimitable. His handling of four billiard balls at once with one hand, and with his left hand a that, is a clever bit of his work only appreciated by being seen."

The next day there was another item: "...[L]ast night [McEwen] gave a fine exhibition of his ability as a mind reader, finding a number of articles previously hidden in the audience and in other ways demonstrating the wonder possibilities of the human mind." The unusual followup review also promised that McEwen would exhibit his hypnotic powers in the theater that night, and the following day "drive blindfolded through the streets in search of hidden articles."

Two days later, yet another item appeared: "McEwen the hypnotist visited the County Clerk's office on Thursday morning, just dropped in to see the boys, and while there demonstrated his powers by opening the big safe. The performance was watched with much interest by the office deputies and reporters who chanced to come in at the time." Santa Rosa was now on notice that someone remarkable was in town; not even the famous Houdini allowed people to watch him as he cracked a safe.

Three mentions of any entertainer in the same week was a sure sign that the editor was mightily impressed. Then on August 26, the item below appeared. Gone was any reference to McEwen being anything like a common entertainer; now he was just the "great mind reader." Over half of the article was one long, breathless sentence, shortened slightly here by removing the names and job titles of his august witnesses in the buggy.

McEwen had a return engagement at the Novelty Theatre ten weeks later. No mention of billiard balls and playing cards in the newspaper this time; McEwen was simply the "great hypnotist and mind reader." With all this praiseworthy media coverage, two questions hang over the story: Did PD editor Finley really believe the man had supernatural powers? And who was this "Great McEwen" guy, anyway?

Visited the Post Office Unlocked a Box and Took a Letter to Person to Whom It was Addressed

McEwen, the great mindreader, [sic] gave another of his wounderful [sic] blindfold drives on Thursday afternoon, and in it accomplished a triumph for his skill. Standing up in a vehicle he handled the ribbons over a spirited team and drove [a committee of four] over the route those gentlemen had previously agreed upon among themselves, got a combination of one of the lock boxes in the post office written upon a slip of paper from a person in H. L. Tripp's Toggery on Fourth street, drove to the post office, went inside, unlocked the box, took a letter placed therein by the committee, got into the carriage again and drove to Rohrer, Einhorn's store at Fourth and B streets and gave the letter to the person to whom it was addressed, W. H. Rohrer, and did all this without removing the blindfold. McEwen was watched by a large crowd of spectators.

While driving along Fourth street the wheels of the vehicle struck the railroad track and dislodged McEwen. Beyond receiving a severe shake-up he was uninjured. He quickly took his place in the vehicle and drove along as if nothing happened.

- Press Democrat, August 26, 1904

(Continues in part II)


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