Of all the scam artists to set foot in Los Angeles, one of the most notorious was A. Victor Segno, who duped thousands of people around the world into sending him $1 a month to belong to his Segno Success Club. In return, he promised to send out brain waves twice a day to help members achieve success.
Some ideas never die.
In fact, a century after he carried out his scheme, the beguiling con man still can hook people.
Stamp expert Ed Grabowski, a retired chemist from New Jersey, is proof. He already owns 40 covers (stamped envelopes, to non-philatelists) from remote parts of the globe, addressed to Prof. A. Victor Segno, 701 North Belmont Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., or one of Segno's other entities.
This weekend, Grabowski will be at the annual Stamp Exhibition of Southern California convention at LAX, trying to add to his collection, though he explains, "99% are not valuable stamps or postal history stamps, just interesting."
Another fan is Philip R. Deslippe, a doctoral student in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara who began researching Segno for a book on William Walker Atkinson, a prolific 20th century author on mentalism, mysticism and the occult.
Deslippe says he became curious about Segno because of "the strangeness of a guy who is selling thought waves and making all this money. But the more you dig into it, it's almost like a three-act tragedy. He comes out of nowhere … he amasses this huge fortune and it all collapses."
Segno arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1900s and flourished during a craze for self-improvement, writing books such as "The Law of Mentalism," "How to Live 100 Years" and "Personal Magnetism" as well as pamphlets such as "How to Have Beautiful Hair" and "How to Be Happy Tho' Married."
His Success Club was a simple scam. Claiming the brain waves served as "treatments for the cure of non-success," he charged $1 a month — about $25 in today's money — and by 1903 was bringing in $12,000 a month.
He advertised testimonials, too. Member No. 5521 said: "You no doubt will be glad to learn that since joining your club I have improved in health, supported myself and little baby girl and made over $1,000, and risen from a servant to be a proprietor. I have also secured a position as traveling agent for a Chicago firm at a large salary..."
Deslippe says Segno's timing was perfect.
"It spoke to the time, the technology and expansion," he says. "There was something very American and also aggressive about Segno. You were in charge of your own destiny. If you could think of it and you could want it enough.… If you willed it hard enough, you could make it happen."
Segno was investigated by local postal authorities, who noted that he received the most mail of any single individual in the state of California — and sent as many as 7,000 letters a day, which included information about the Segno Success Club and such items as his Segnogram newsletter and various other publications.
By 1904, Segno had made enough money to build an eccentric concrete castle with a roof garden and a dome on Belmont Avenue in Echo Park, a place he called Inspiration Point that served as his residence and the headquarters of the American Institute of Mentalism.
The brain waves actually brought him so much money that in 1911, he embarked on a trip to establish a similar school in Russia. At least that's what he told his wife, Annie. It turned out that the author of "How to Be Happy Tho' Married" had left her for another woman — his former secretary.
The next year, Segno set up a similar scheme in Berlin, occupying a suite of rooms on one of the city's most fashionable boulevards. "He has a small army of assistants dispatching mental waves and opening letters containing checks, money orders and inquiries," the Los Angeles Times reported.
But as World War I engulfed Europe, Segno returned to Los Angeles and then vanished.
One of the most unusual envelopes in Grabowski's collection is from the New Hebrides Islands, known today as the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.
"There were only a dozen or two people who could write in the New Hebrides. Yet one of them was sending Segno money.... It's unbelievable, there was no radio, TV, Web," Grabowski says.
Deslippe sees a broader lesson in Segno's exploits.
"If you believe in limitless possibility and success is around the corner," Deslippe says, "Los Angeles is the most perfect place to be. It was growing so fast and so many people were going there. It was a perfect fit for Segno's optimism ... or opportunism, two sides of the same coin for him."
Developers eventually razed Segno's buildings to make way for the 1974 Lago Vista condominium complex. As for Segno, he disappears from the historical record, aside from a reference in Federal Trade Commission reports in the 1930s.
Did the author of "How to Live 100 Years" actually reach the century mark? If you're out there, Prof. Segno, send us a brain wave.