Mrs. Wilcus, Part 1

Newspaper illustration of Mrs. Wilcus' New Orleans Magic Belt.
The greatest of all fortune tellers.
- St. Louis Globe Democrat, 28 Nov 1886.

We're exploring a possible alias for Estelle. Are Mrs. Wilcus and Estelle True-Nell the same person? Newspaper accounts claimed that Estelle began her career as a scientific life-reader in St. Louis, Missouri. Estelle herself claimed that she had been a successful marketer of patent medicines after her divorce as she supported herself and her five children.

Mrs. Wilcus was a successful fortune-teller and seller of patent medicines in St. Louis -- could this be Estelle? Why was Mrs. C. Wilcus of St. Louis, Missouri the greatest fortune-teller of her time? We'll give you just a few reasons in this episode of How to Be Estelle. (Check below for the full list of 20 reasons, too.)

Listen to the episode or access the transcript below.

Next: Mrs. Wilcus, Part 2

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 5 December 1886, p. 21

Twenty reasons why Mrs. C. Wilcus is the greatest of all fortune-tellers:

  1. Because she removes all evil influences done by friends, enemies or relations.
  2. She tells your name in full. Ladies, your maiden name, if married.
  3. Name of your future husband, or wife.
  4. Date of your marriage.
  5. Date of death of your husband, friend or self.
  6. She tells your complete past. Your present life. Your complete future.
  7. Recovers stolen property.
  8. Brings the separated together in nine days.
  9. Secures situations for the unemployed.
  10. Changes bad luck to good.
  11. Causes speedy marriages.
  12. Tells lucky numbers.
  13. Tells names of horses and numbers sure to win in every race.
  14. Upward and downward tendency of stocks.
  15. Gives advice in all business affairs.
  16. Predicts important events months before they happen.
  17. Tells you the future in every business transaction.
  18. She gives you the correct advice when in trouble of any kind.
  19. She gives you a complete history of your enemies, and makes them your friends.
  20. She tells you everything pertaining to your life, from the cradle to the grave.

Transcript for Mrs. Wilcus, Part 1

[00:00:04] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: Mrs. Wilcus, Part 1. Newspaper articles profiling Estelle in the mid-1890s claimed that she began her career as a clairvoyant in St. Louis in 1889. When Estelle had a chance to tell her own story to the papers, she didn't usually mention the life reader part. She did, however, talk about her struggles to support her little family in the early days. Here she is in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August 1896:

[00:00:56] News reporter: She was well-nigh penniless, with five little children, and didn't know how to turn her hand to make a penny. But she was proud and full of determination to do for herself and her helpless children.

[00:01:07] Estelle: The first thing I got to do,

[00:01:10] News reporter: said Mrs. Trunell,

[00:01:11] Estelle: was to canvass for the sale of a patent rheumatism cure. I made money, and while doing it I learned how great a profit there was in patent medicines. I finally managed to get hold of two pretty good formulas for rheumatism and consumption. I advertised them freely, and in a little while I was able to start out on a tour of the country.

[00:01:34] Estelle: I went to various cities, established myself in good quarters, used the newspaper columns freely, and people flocked to me. Did I cure them? Well, they thought so and I got the money. My children began to grow big enough to go to school and my sole ambition was to educate them and give them the position in society they had been born to. I have done this fairly well, though three of them are confirmed invalids now, and I have to care for them more than ever.

[00:02:04] Estelle: Finally, I quit the patent medicine business and went to New York, where I established a small factory for medical instruments of a special kind.

[00:02:15] Narrator: Most of that story tracks with what I've found, although some of the details and dates she shared seem to have been adjusted just a little bit.

[00:02:24] Narrator: Taking clues from the articles, I started looking for signs of Estelle the life reader and Estelle the patent medicine entrepreneur in St. Louis. It's not an easy search, because she used many aliases, especially earlier in her career before she settled on “Estelle True-Nell” as her chosen name.

[00:02:41] Narrator: One big clue that tells me I might be in the presence of Estelle is the writing style in her advertising. There are certain themes, phrases, and patterns that often appear, even as her style evolves over the years. For example, her ads tend to be much longer than average. She loved words, and either she negotiated good advertising rates, or she budgeted well to support that style.

[00:03:04] Narrator: That's what alerted me to a potential Estelle sighting in St. Louis in the 1880s. Our candidate today advertised as Mrs. Caroline Wilcus. Mrs. Wilcus seems to appear first in St. Louis in December 1883. Now, I do think that's early for Estelle, who I think should have still been in Kentucky at that time, but it is after she separated from her first husband, so it could be possible.

[00:03:29] Narrator: Even if Caroline was only a “sister from another mister,” Mrs. Wilcus was operating very much along the same life-reader lines as Estelle. So, even if she's not Estelle, I want to share her with you as an example of the approaches they both took and the issues and environment they both faced.

[00:03:48] Narrator: Like Estelle, Caroline advertised herself as the truest and greatest of fortune tellers, and they shared a number of common promises. Both women specialized in reuniting separated friends, families, and lovers. Caroline promised to bring parted lovers back together within 9 days. (Why nine days? I'm not sure.)

[00:04:09] Narrator: In one ad, she listed 20 different reasons why Mrs. C. Wilcus was the greatest of all fortune-tellers. I'll give you just a few here that she shares in common with Estelle, but I'll put the whole glorious list in the show notes.

[00:04:23] Narrator: She removes evil influences. This was a key service Estelle offered, too. In Caroline's case, she specialized in removing evil influences done by friends, enemies, or relations. That could come in handy.

[00:04:37] Narrator: She could tell you your complete past, present, and future. That matches with Estelle's promise to read your life like a book.

[00:04:45] Narrator: She caused speedy marriages. That's one that Estelle and many other clairvoyants advertised. I suppose if you want them to help you reunite with a lost love, you'd want to go back to make sure a speedy marriage was the next step in the process. Like Estelle, Caroline gave advice on all business affairs, including predicting the stock market. She also promised to give you a complete history of your enemies and make them your friends.

[00:05:12] Narrator: Notice how these issues seem to be pretty common across the generations. While Caroline and Estelle both offered things like good luck charms, most of what they were doing involved reading a person and giving them advice. Caroline was so good at this, her patrons wrote testimonials which ran in the same columns as her ads. Here's one from a satisfied customer in the October 2, 1884 St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

[00:05:36] Testimonial: Personal - I am a young lady and have had a quarrel with my lover, and in my distress I called upon a certain fortune teller, but she gave me no satisfaction, and having heard about the great fortune teller, Mrs. Wilcus, 502 N. Fifteenth St., I determined to call upon her, and I did so, and was much surprised in her ability in bringing separated lovers together, for I being separated over five months. He was reconciled and brought back to me within three days' time and after following her directions. I can recommend any of my young lady friends, as she told me things of the past and present that none knew but myself. Yours respectfully, M. M., Olive and Twenty-third streets.

[00:06:21] Narrator: In October 1885, Emma Miller of St. Louis put her name to this:

[00:06:27] Emma Miller: A Great Person. Personal -- The writer hereof in the last six or seven months has heard a great deal of Mrs. Wilcus, the well-known Fortune-Teller, of 500 N. Fifteenth street, between St. Charles and Washington avenue. Having seen cards in the daily press of her great ability in telling past, present and future, of her wonderful ability to bring separated lovers together, etc., the writer concluded to give her a call. We found her a very pleasant lady in every respect, and before we left this remarkable lady, we were all firm believers in fortune telling.

[00:07:03] Narrator: She told us past, present, and future, and a great many things we supposed only ourselves were aware of. Should the reader be a disbeliever in fortune telling, we beg them to give her a trial, as we did, and be convinced. The writer is only one of a thousand who has testified to her wonderful ability. Yours very respectfully, Emma Miller.

[00:07:25] Narrator: Now, this is a departure from Estelle's approach. She didn't print testimonials, but several accounts tell us that she did travel with a trunk full of endorsements, news clippings, and letters singing her praises

[00:07:37] Narrator: Both Estelle and Caroline offered to send prospective customers a printed circular. Caroline's was a 32-page book, which later expanded to 40 pages. It was yours upon written request with two 2-cent stamps.

[00:07:52] Narrator: Like Estelle, Caroline Wilcus also sold patent medicines. She sold preparations by C. Janes and Dr. R. Janes, including St. Vincent's Powdered Tea, a sure cure for nervousness, biliousness, and pains of any kind. It regulated the bowels and purified the blood and benefited old ladies who were troubled with the change of life.

[00:08:14] Narrator: She offered Hot Springs Hair Restorative, Eye Salve, Liver Pads, Red Drops for cramps and pains, and a world-renowned solution to remove freckles, roughness, pimples, and all blemishes peculiar to the face. She claimed to cure asthma, consumption, wrinkles, fevers, colds and coughs, ringworm, rheumatism, torpid liver, sunburns, and “female complaints.”

[00:08:36] Narrator: Caroline and Estelle certainly seem to have a lot of parallels, but are they the same person? The plot thickens, next time on How to Be Estelle.

Next: Mrs. Wilcus, Part 2