For ten full years, Aletheia and Aleko toured the United States astounding audiences with their psychic abilities. I make no claims for their true powers as mentalists. Aletheia always claimed to be the only genuine psychic who ever appeared upon the Vaudeville stage. Columbia University professors were said to be stymied by this couple’s uncanny abilities. All that I can report, based on newspaper articles and advertisements, gathered from around the nation, is that this couple remained a hugely popular act from 1910 to 1920. Describing Aletheia’s and Aleko’s performances, which did change considerably in execution over this decade, will provide the foundation for our considerations here.
As succinctly described in a 1911 issue of Variety magazine the core act was as follows: “Aletheia in Oriental garb, blindfolded sits in the center of the stage, while Aleko, a big broad-shouldered Greek in his native attire, approaches different persons. After a whispered conversation, he asks Aletheia to tell the first name, initial, and wish of the person in question. This woman proceeds to do in a loud, clear voice.” A variation on this format soon developed. “Aleko goes into the audience and asks questions in a whisper, so that Aletheia cannot possibly hear. She immediately repeats the question and gives the answer. An investigation of their work was made by a committee of scientists from Columbia University, in New York, who failed to detect any mechanical contrivances to make their feats possible (Seattle Star February 4, 1911).”
While there were any number of mind reading acts during this era Aletheia and Aleko were unique as was fully recognized at the time. “This act stands out pre-eminent among the other acts of this nature in Vaudeville. Aletheia uses no writing pads or mechanical devices of any kind, and depends entirely upon the working of her mind to answer the multitudinous questions hurled at her by the audience. There is a refined vein of humor running through the turn which gives it a most delightful finish (Times Dispatch January 28, 1912).”
Aletheia is always described as a psychic who possesses telepathy and prophetic vision. Aleko is said to “share her powers” which is how they are able to communicate over any distance. More than that Aletheia and Aleko are also always described as ethnic Greeks. Advertisements in virtually every newspaper announcing their arrival in local theaters makes this point in one form or another. Various claims are made such as Aletheia is “the new Sibyl of Delphi in Telepathy and Prophetic Vision;” or the couple is described as “Greek Mystics Who Read Your Secrets and Lay Bare All Mysteries;” “True Descendants of the Seeress of the Delphian Oracle” who possess nothing less than “Grecian Psychic Marvels,” whatever those may be.
We need to offer some background to this sketch of Aletheia and Aleko Vaudeville Act. This was the era of Mentalism or Spiritualism. A time of great claims for those who professed psychic abilities and what could be called the first era of ghost busters. For public figures such as H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Harry Houdini all set about to disprove the claims of all those who claimed psychic powers. Initially the claims of those with psychic powers made sense given the broader beliefs of the general Christian society of Europe and North America. Since, God existed and influenced the lives of men everywhere, then the dark side must also exist. If in the distant past men had contact with angels, demons, fairies, spirits and even God, then logically, conceivable, such contacts could be made—even today. There is much much more to this period and the entire issue of Spiritualism but it is enough, for our purposes here, to offer this briefest of outlines.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a full name for either Aletheia or Aleko. The couple is said in various newspaper accounts to be husband and wife. Clearly, these two individuals were basing their performance upon existing American popular cultural beliefs of Greeks. First Aletheia is presented alone on stage in “Oriental garb,” which was always in white with a full veil, which harkens back to American recollections and notions of Greeks under the Ottomans. Eventually Aletheia is shown in various advertisements in robes holding a Greek urn. While I could not find an illustration or photograph of Aleko, in costume, he is always referred to as “a Greek poet in his native costume.” Since so much is made of this point, and all the references to Delphi, I can only imagine that Aleko was attired in some sort of robe.
Another critical point of Aletheia and Aleko’s overall success on the Vaudeville stage was that they could conduct their act in nine languages. Immigrants from the 1880 to 1920 waves of arrival to North America heavily attended Vaudeville given that many of the performances did not require an understanding of English. Still, as we know from sporting events such as wrestling or boxing during this same period, speaking in their native tongue always drew immigrant crowds.
My claims to the huge success of Aletheia and Aleko are supported by the advertising the couple received. Vaudeville advertisements had a structure that is critical for our understanding. Slang terms, now popular, such as “top-billing” or “headliners” have their basis in theatrical advertisements. As these terms imply Aletheia and Aleko names were always at the very top line of the advertisement. In traveling from theater to theater from town to town Aletheia and Aleko were not always first given top-billing due to the popularity of running acts. Nevertheless when not listed as the headliner, Aletheia and Aleko saw inclusion in the advertising copy in some other prominently displayed or illustrated manner.
The act began to gain in renown as the phrase “No writing! No Questions!” began to see inclusion in the duo’s advertising. As the act evolved, as we hear in the November 15, 1913 edition of the Gazette and Courier form Greenfield Massachusetts: “Questions from all parts of the house are answered, and in many instances names are given and questions answered to well-known people who had not asked verbally anything.” Aletheia also began to make public predictions such as: “the election of Gov. Walsh, Pres. Wilson, (the) Mayor of New York and many other occurrences (Greenfield Recorder November 13, 1913).” Aletheia soon began to hold sessions just for local women. The Aletheian, a magazine of some sort, was soon published and available to the audience.
From 1910 until 1918, Aletheia and Aleko had been touring the United States contracted annually to various Vaudeville theater chains. In 1918, an exclusive contract was signed with Alexander Pantages. A fellow Greek immigrant, Pantages once owned the largest independent chain of Vaudeville theaters in the United States and Canada. It is at this moment that Aletheia disappears from the act and Aleko becomes the central figure. Yet the “act” continues as headliner on the Pantages circuit. Aleko, is ever described as a “Grecian Telepathist,” who is now assisted by a variety of persons: “They are the only headliners on a program which includes Aleko, a telepathist, in much drapery and in possession of a gift of gab so fluent that Professor Presco has trouble interrupting with his questions. In the aggregation is also Panthea “the Delphian Oracle (Goodwin’s Weekly December 28, 1918).”
Now, in this version of the act, we see “the serious and adept demonstration of telegraphy given by Aleko, the Greek mystic, who is ably assisted by Panthea, the beautiful Grecian seeress, and Professor Presco, a student of telepathic science and a graduate of the National College of Sciences in Athens Greece (Ogden Standard December 31, 1918).”
“Aleko, a tall man with a commanding presence, walked down into the audience, after a brief announcement and invited those in the audience to ask him their questions, in a confidential whisper. Meanwhile, on the stage, Panthea and Presco entered from a replica of the Acropolis in Athens, behind which was a beautiful drop depicting Old Athens in all her glory of historic splendor. The two assistances took their seats on the stage and then Aleko called out: “Answer the question:” Presco answered: “I receive the name of the lady as Mrs. Minnie Williams; he said promptly, “She is asking about a diamond ring which she lost about a week ago. She will find the ring under the corner of a rug in the home of her friend, Mrs. Walker, where it was accidently dropped.” And there the ring was found, the very next day.
We need to know more about Greeks who performed or worked as promoters for American popular entertainments. Assessing how much influence Greeks may have had, in the past, on the popular imagination can help in a long overdue reconsideration of their history in this nation. This is especially apt for any review of Aletheia and Aleko since being native-born Greeks was always the central organizing theme of their presentations.