The challenge of researching local history is knowing when to stop — a skill I have yet to master. The original 2015 version of this post ended at the last sentence above. Sometimes a busy schedule, paying work, or impatient exhaustion leads to a brief post that shares a piece of novel trivia and then ends without digging deeper or illuminating the subject. This originally was one of those posts. But…
… I really wanted to find a photo of Wonderful Louis for this post, so I did a little digging and discovered so much more about Seal Beach’s Ocean Avenue psychic beyond the classified ads she ran in the local Long Beach area newspapers from 1940 to 1943. What follows provides some shape to the life she lead, but, as often happens when one tumbles down the rabbit hole of obscure historical research, it also creates more questions that will probably remain unanswered.
Also, for those of you disappointed that you can’t drop in at 513 Ocean Avenue for $1 reading, Wonderful Louise’s current location (in the physical realm, at least) will be revealed by the end of this post. Guaranteed or your money back.
Wonderful Louise Morrell (sometimes spelled Morrill or Morrell in some ads and public records) was born as Mary Louisa Bailey in Boston in 1876 (although she would consistently shave a decade off her age late in life.) Details of her life are firmly entwined in and overshadowed by the life of her better known husband and fellow Seal Beach resident at 513 Ocean Avenue. Arthur Lincoln Morrell’s fame as a whittler lingers, and modern collectors still seek his carvings today.
A. L. Morrell worked the carny, museum, and circus circuits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In those days before television and radio, a skillful craftsman who had a talent for working with his hands could rate as a whittling attraction and become famous enough to copyright a postcard showing off his intricate miniatures as shown above. It was a traveling life that required being in constant motion and setting up performances in one small town after another. However less than thrilling such entertainment may seem today, Morrell continued to be a featured attraction from 1880s and well into the 1930s.
As these 19th Century ads show, Morrell performed with with some unusual (and racist) acts. He spent the early part of his career with a variety of stage names (The Yankee Whittler, The Sailor Whittler, and the very basic and literal Morrell the Whittler) before finally landing on the impressive-sounding “Professor A. L. Morrell, The Jack-Knife King.”
But whittling wasn’t Morrell’s only show biz line — he also represented people who were good at working with other people’s hands. He advertised himself as the manager of the New England Palmistry Amusement Company. It was in that non-woodworking position that he placed ads like these in Massachusetts newspapers advertising for female palmists in the late 1890s.
It’s impossible to know for certain, but Mary Louise Bailey may have very well responded to one of these ads. What is certain is that by 1900, she was part of a quartet of palmists and clairvoyants managed by Morrell.
The Fitchburg Sentinel reported on April 16th of that year that Professor A. L. Morrell “has opened a gypsy camp of a very refined character at 163 Main street, Fitchburg.” The camp was described as “most charmingly fitted up as reception parlors for ladies and gentlemen. An Edison grand phonograph discourses sweet music, songs, marches, and rag-time melodies” and the “windows are tastefully dressed with a display of Mr. Morrell’s skill in wood-carving and whittling.” The report also shared that “Four queens of palmistry — Madames Marianni, Zingara, Louise, and Gypsy Madge — attended to the wants of patrons and fortunes are told my them either by card reading or palmistry for 10 cents.”
For the next few years, Louise worked as part of this traveling fortune telling quartet, although she and Gypsy Madge were the core members while other palmists rotated in and out of the group. Gypsy Madge and Louise would also work as a duo with Madge getting the top billing. The two told fortunes in Kentucky, Kansas, Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Canada.
There was an English Gypsy Madge fortune teller performing in the USA as far back as the early 1890s, but it’s unclear whether this was the same woman. “Gypsy Madge” may have been a stock character popular at the time. There was a “Gypsy Madge” stage play. “Gypsy Madge” was a featured character in “Pretty Girl’s Destiny; or The Freaks of Fortune,” a novel by Frank H. Stauffer serialized in the Boston Globe in 1891. There was even an 1884 DIY fortunetelling how-to guide titled, “Old Gypsy Madge’s Fortune Teller And Witches Key to Lucky Dreams.” There may have a been more than one Gypsy Madge using the fame of the name to attract customers.
The Gypsy Madge managed by Morrell worked with Wonderful Louise from at least 1900 to 1907 and then left the fortune telling business after a late February gig with Louise in Winnipeg, Canada, never to be heard from again, at least using the Madge moniker. According to a 1904 story in The Star Press, Gypsy Madge and Morrell had married in Muncie on a previous visit the year before. This same story mentions that “Locating oil wells is made a specialty by Wonderful Louise.” The Star Press also mentioned that Louise had been palm and card reading with Madge and “made many friends when here in Muncie before.”
This is where we hit one of those unanswered questions. Who were these people to each other? At this stage, there is no clue to how they felt about each other. Was there really a marriage between Morrell and Madge? I can’t find any record of Morrell being married before he married Louise. Was there an attraction between Louise and Morrell while he was married to Madge? There’s just no way of knowing at this stage. How did Louise and Madge get along?
Whatever happened, the paper trail on the trio ends in 1907 and doesn’t resume until November 1912 when Arthur L. Morrell and a Louise Bailey from Peoria, Illinois show up in Kansas City, Missouri without Gypsy Madge and get married. The next year, ads for Professor A. L. Morrell appearances start showing up in newspapers across the country. Morrell appeared to be working exclusively as a whittler and ignoring his past as a manager of palm readers.
It is hard to resist supposition to fill in the blanks that historical records leave. In early 1906, Morrell was briefly arrested after the estranged husband of Wonderful Carmen, one of the palm readers Morrell managed, was shot and named Morrell as the shooter. Morrell was quickly released when the police investigation revealed the truth that the husband had attempted to shoot Wonderful Carmen and she shot him back in self-defense. Morrell had only been a witness to the fracas, but the jealous husband had named him as the shooter. Perhaps Morrell decided being The Jack-Knife King was a calmer, less drama-filled way to make a living.
Louise also didn’t return to palmistry. On May 1st, 1914, she gave birth to Annie Louise Morrell. Three years, eleven months, and seven days later, tragedy struck the Morrell family, and Annie died of gastro-intestinal poisoning. Newspaper clippings and official documents don’t record the pain of parents who have lost a child or anything about the deceased child’s personality. We are left to briefly imagine the depth of Louise’s and Arthur’s grief and then move on to the rest of the story.
In 1925, after years of criss-crossing the country, Louise and Arthur moved to Honolulu in 1925. Arthur continued to perform and work fairs and community events and was adept at gettin his name and photo in the newspaper. The following year, Louise would place the first of over four thousand ads for her services in Honolulu newspapers oveer the next thirteen years.
These appear to be happy years for the Morrells. Local fame suited Arthur, and it must have been a relief to stay in one place after years of hustling from town to town. A Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist, Grace Tower Warren wrote fondly of Wonderful Louise and gives us a first and only glimpse of Louise’s personality and appearance.
“Louise was tall and gaunt and had bright red hair. The flaming disposition was hers also. She adored her husband and took great pride in the fact that she paid #25 each for his Panama hats and $5 for his neckties.”
Consider these prices in 1930s dollars.
Warren shared the story of a visit to Wonderful Louise.
“One day I made an appointment for a palm reading without giving my name. I arrived on time and was met at the door by the “Jack Knife King,” He ushered me in and called his wife. When she appeared she looked at me for a moment, and then said: ‘I can not tell your fortune.’
Disappointed, I urged her. She replied.
‘Well you may cut the cards. If you cut your birth month, I can do nothing for you.’ I cut the cards and a 5 of Spades bobbed up! The fifth month is May, my birth month. Why she refused I never knew.”
According to Warren, Arthur and Louise had met when they both worked the same “carnival where she reigned over the fortune telling booth.” After they married, they joined Ringling Brothers and toured Europe. She worked as a wardrobe woman, and he starred in the sideshow. The story they told her was streamlined and left out the rougher edges and inconvenient existence of other palm readers.
There was at least one big trip outside of Hawaii in the 1930s. Arthur and Louise traveled to Chicago to appear together as an attraction in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Odditorium. One story about the exhibition noted that Mrs. Morrell was almost as good at whittling as her husband. Arthur would report back that their exhibit was a big success, but that they were also glad to be heading home.
And this is where my quest for a photo of Wonderful Louise ends. There was a postcard of their exhibit at the Odditorium, and here is a bleary low-res 1934 photo of Louise and her husband six years before she started advertising in Seal Beach.
But their story doesn’t end there. Wonderful Louise was essentially run out of Honolulu. In this period, cities would often close down psychics and fortune tellers under vagrancy laws. In late February, 1938, Louise and four other fortune tellers were arrested under such laws. Three of them plead guilty, but Louise and another psychic plead not guilty. They chose to fight, and they lost.
Warren’s column hinted that there might have been more to the arrests than a pure law enforcement effort to crack down on flim-flam artists and the fortune telling con games. According to her, Louise had told the fortune of a police officer and had advise him to go home where he would find his wife two timing him. He did, and she was. This did not sit well with the chief of police who then used a law that fortune tellers must have an astrologer’s license.
Louise didn’t have a license and was forced to leave. On May 14, 1938, Louise and Arthur arrived at the Los Angeles harbor port on the Matsonia. How or why they choose to settle in Seal Beach is not recorded. Professor Arthur Lincoln Morrell passed away in 1951, and Wonderful Louise joined him in 1955. Because they were performer and show people, they are interred in The Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association’s section of the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. And that is where you can find Wonderful Louise today.
However, there is one last mystery to present. Look at at the birth date on Louise’s gravestone.
According to Ancestry.com, Mary Louise Bailey was born on August 4, 1874, but that Mary Louise Bailey married Frederick Batchelor on October 22, 1903 and lived the rest of her life in Massachusetts. Remember how I mentioned how Louise Morrell would shave a decade from her age late in life? There was a Louise Bailey from Peoria (the residence cited on Arthur’s and Louise’s marriage license) who matched that younger age, but she married a Harry Bunn Van Tassel in 1905 and then divorced him to live Washington. She did remarry in 1919… to Harry Bunn Van Tassel. Neither of these women ever married Arthur Lincoln Morrell.
So there’s one final unanswered question.
Who was Wonderful Louise?
– Michael Dobkins
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