Dos Equis might have “The Most Interesting Man in the World” doing beer ads today. But in 1904, a colorful contender for that title came to the U.S. from Russia. Are you ready for a glimpse into one of Indianapolis’s weirdest — and at times, funniest — Russian connections?
When he sailed into the port of Tacoma, Washington, Count Alexander Mikhailovitch Lochwitzky certainly had a wild story to tell U.S. immigration officials. Born in St. Petersburg in 1871, he claimed to be the son of General Mikhail Lokhvitsky, a Russian war minister. According to his testimony, he had also been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Imperial Russian Army in Finland and was married to a Countess Anastasia of Luxembourg, with whom he had three children.
In May 1897, the man’s luck changed. After opening up a private school on his country estate, Lochwitzky ran afoul of the Russian authorities. Suspecting him of harboring anarchists and socialists, the Tsar’s secret police nabbed the 26-year-old and tossed him into the mouldering dungeons of a St. Petersburg fortress. Later he found himself packed off to Russia’s remote Pacific Coast — to Sakhalin Island, one of Siberia’s most infamous penal colonies.
Sakhalin Island was the subject of a book by the great playwright Anton Chekhov, who traveled out there in 1890, purportedly to interview Siberian settlers and convicts for a Russian census. Chekhov lied. He was actually interested in prison reform. The only piece of non-fiction he is remembered for, Chekhov’s book about the island touched on the misery of life there. He did meet some interesting folks on Sakhalin, though, like Sonya Golden Hand, Russia’s Robin Hood.
After four years in a labor camp — and required by the Tsar to spend another twelve in Siberia before he could come home to St. Petersburg — multilingual Count Lochwitzky got a job with the British consul in Vladivostok. He also knew the American consul and great Siberian explorer George Kennan. Working as a foreman in a mine, he again got accused of being a Socialist after sparring with Cossacks. According to one version of the colorful tale, to escape, he had himself nailed inside a wooden box for 40 hours. With the help of a friendly Japanese ship captain, the box was then smuggled into Japan. Yet when the brutal Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, the Japanese accused of him being a Russian spy. Lochwitzky fled to Puget Sound via China.
It’s hard to say how much of the story is actually true. On the surface, it’s definitely plausible — this is all the classic stuff of Russian literature and political intrigue. Photos of his wife and children appeared in an issue of the San Francisco Chronicle in December 1904, but there seems to be nothing in English about Lochwitzky’s Russian years except what he told to thousands of American audiences and newspapers. Aristocratic Russians did sometimes get into hot water for having radical opinions. Often they were inspired by Leo Tolstoy, a nobleman and novelist who gave up most of his wealth, lived with peasants and tried to restore a back-to-the-land Christianity. “Count” Lochwitzky insisted that he was no radical, but he could certainly have been inspired by the real Count Tolstoy’s example.
Once he got to the U.S., enemies challenged the man’s tale, but for about a decade, A.M. Lochwitzky captivated Americans with lurid stories of his harrowing imprisonment and escape from darkest Russia.
Immediately, he became an American citizen. Like many exiles — composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who fled the Russian Revolution, was one — the former nobleman had lost all his financial resources and had to support himself in America basically as an entertainer. One story, however, claimed that he lost everything he owned in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
His ticket to success came when he got connected to the Chautauqua lecture circuit. Chautauqua assemblies were an adult education movement that brought speakers, musicians, and entertainers mostly to rural America. Founded in 1874 by a Methodist minister at Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York, the movement had its roots in educational summer camps. Reaching their peak in the 1920s, Chautauquas sometimes had permanent buildings, but many were housed in tents. In a fascinating parallel to today’s popular Ted Talks, speakers would roll into small towns, give prepared speeches, then move on to the next town or state. Unlike Ted Talks, they went to towns like Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, and Leavenworth, Kansas.
By the mid-’20s, Chautauquas — which Theodore Roosevelt called “the most American thing about America” — had come to 10,000 communities. The great orator William Jennings Bryan was the most famous Chautauqua speaker of his time, though women like American prison reformer Maud Ballington Booth also gave rousing talks. Chicago labor activist Jane Addams, who traveled to Russia in 1896, spoke about Tolstoy. In the 1920s, Chautauquas became more and more associated with Christian Fundamentalism, yet they always had — and still have — a secular component.
Lochwitzky joined this great lecture circuit around 1905. Thanks to the miracle of digital libraries, we can get some idea of the towns that he spoke in before World War I. He shows up in ads, press reports, and high-school yearbooks for talks in places like Wayne, Nebraska; Attica High School in Attica, Indiana; Mount Vernon, Iowa; Jacksonville, Florida… the list goes on.
One riveting detail of his life in the U.S. that he regaled crowds and reporters with was this: he feared for his life here. Spies were following him, he insisted. Shots had been fired. A bullet pierced his hat and grazed his head. A sympathizer of the Russian government tried to push him out of the window of a YMCA in Philadelphia. For his own safety, he toted a gun wherever he went.
Lochwitzky’s lectures probably involved a grueling amount of travel. A synopsis of them was compiled and published in 1912 by an admirer in Indianapolis named I.E. Oakland (“P.O. Box 8”), who did all the summarizing. Oakland sounds a bit preachy and might have been a member of the Evangelical groups that Lochwitzky rubbed shoulders with at Chautauquas as he crossed America from sea to shining sea. Having left the Orthodox Church and become a member simply of “the Christian Church,” Count L. was, in fact, delivering standard Chautauqua fare: “The Little Brown Man of the East,” “Missions in China and Japan,” “What Christ Means to an Exile.” Oddly, however, a 1931 article in the Spanish-language La Prensa of San Antonio, Texas, claims that he had fought alongside the nationalists during the Boxer Rebellion, a Chinese revolt against foreigners and missionaries.
Perhaps his knowledge of Christian missions in Asia was what brought him to Indianapolis around 1910. Late that year, he lived at 217 East Vermont Street, just across from Roberts Park United Methodist Church, a stone’s throw from Massachusetts Avenue. Sensationally, in October 1910, Lochwitzky claimed that a Russian spy had tried to kill him in Indianapolis. Or so he told students gathered at Butler University.
Butler was then still located in Irvington and affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. A well-heeled and resoundingly Protestant corner of town, alcohol-free and full of overseas missionaries-in-training, Irvington was a bit hyper-American — and a far cry from Sakhalin Island. Butler, it seems, had welcomed the exile with open arms. But for a spy to be running around Irvington firing bullets seemed too bizarre for the Indianapolis Star to take seriously. The newspaper sounded skeptical when a reporter picked up the story on October 22:
Again, it’s hard to chase down the truth today, but Lochwitzky probably relied on this kind of sensational narrative to reel in audiences, whom he relied on for a living.
The political firebrand even got married while he was in Indianapolis, though his encounter with holy matrimony proved incredibly shortlived. His previous marriage, so he claimed — the one to Countess Anastasia of Luxembourg, daughter of a Count Waldemar — had been annulled by the Tsar as part of his punishment. His Indiana marriage — to 19-year-old Edith DuBose, his stenographer — failed for a quite different reason:
Marion County records confirm that Edith and Alex were married here in 1911, and that Edith was from Columbiana, Alabama. The Indianapolis Star also reported on April 20 that she was the great-granddaughter of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and a niece of Presbyterian missionary Hampden Coit DuBose, founder of the Anti-Opium League in China. Edith had been living in Indianapolis for several months.
Though a popular speaker, Lochwitzky quickly found enemies in America. Imperial Russian consuls in New York and California — including one with the unforgettable name Baron Schlippenbach — publicly called him an impostor. Lochwitzky had to fall back on endorsements from the likes of ichthyologist David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University. Jordan’s first academic position had been as a science professor at Butler University when it was still on College Avenue. He then moved on to become president of Indiana University before moving out to the West Coast to teach at Stanford. Jordan, however, admitted that he could not vouch for the Count “unqualifiedly.” Stanford University itself issued a statement of support, as did the Department of Comparative Philology at Indiana University when Lochwitzky spoke at the Bloomington YMCA.
Comedy really starts to creep in. After the “Count” gave a talk in Rushville, Indiana, Hyman Schatz, a Jewish junk dealer and fur buyer who had immigrated from Russia “directly to Indianapolis,” swore to a reporter for the Daily Republican that he, too, could give a lecture about life under the Tsar. Schatz, “who buys practically all the junk in Rush County,” said that “I wouldn’t pay out the money to hear that fellow… Why, a fellow right here” — pointing to a small man at his right — “Max Goldstein has seen more experiences in Russia than Lochwitzky ever hoped to have. Why, I would talk about it for a week for $25. All I lack is the education.” Hyman Schatz died in 1921 and was buried in the Hebrew Cemetery on the Southside of Indianapolis.
From 1917 to 1919, Lochwitzky served in the U.S. Army, either as a Captain or Major. During World War I, General Nikolai Lokhvitsky, likely a cousin of his, commanded the Russian Expeditionary Force in France. General Lokhvitsky later battled the Bolsheviks in Siberia while fighting in the White Army and died in exile in Paris in 1933.
Alexander M. Lochwitzky was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio during World War I. His wife Antonette — whom he married in Chicago in 1917 (like Edith DuBose, she was about 20 years younger) — served as a Red Cross army nurse in Mexico during John Pershing’s expedition against Pancho Villa, so it’s likely that he also fought on the Mexican border. San Antonio’s La Prensa in December 1931 claimed that he’d helped uncover a German spy during the war. The spy liked to dance with “las damas de edad avanzada y no con las jovencitas” — in other words, not with young ladies, but with colonels’ and captains’ wives, whom he was mining for military information.
Like many exiles, Lochwitzky might have been getting desperate for a good job. Sympathy for the Russian Revolution cooled once the Soviets sank Russia into a bloodbath, and there was even nostalgia for the Tsar, who was executed with his whole family in 1918. The former count’s lecture tours might have suffered from the bad press the Communists stirred up — and with Pancho Villa on the border, Americans were sick of revolutions. To support themselves, he and Antonette were moving around almost every year.
Their Texas years must have been really something else. Public records show that in April 1920 he got a job with the IRS as a Federal Prohibition Agent. His identification card survives. Incredibly, online records from the Texas State Archives show that he also got taken on as a special investigator with the Texas Rangers in 1919, the same year he was teaching French at Austin High School. After passage of the Volstead Act in January 1920, the Rangers were mostly tied up with stopping tequila smugglers coming in from Mexico and ferreting out all kinds of illegal hooch, but were also known for everything from investigating theft of cattle and sheep to terrorizing Hispanic “bandits.” Often, they served as a blanket for the Ku Klux Klan. Lochwitzky’s involvement with the Rangers probably never went beyond liquor-law enforcement, though. New Orleans newspapers mention that he was tracking down rum-runners in the Louisiana marshes and around Gulfport, Mississippi, where he captained a speedboat on the Gulf of Mexico. His enlistment notice with the Rangers says he was 5-feet 3-inches tall.
When he wasn’t rooting around for illicit whiskey stills, “Loikewhisky” turned his hands to invention, designing an item of clothing that outdoorsmen might have found handy — though perhaps not in arid central Texas. Identifying himself on a patent application as “I, Alexander Michel Lochwitzky, resident of the city of Austin, in the county of Travis and State of Texas,” the Federal Prohibition Agent presented a design to the U.S. Patent Office in February 1920 for a snow shoe. The shoe clearly evoked the years he spent in Russia’s frozen Wild East and was meant for use by lumbermen and persons working on ice. The “Siberian snow shoe” would help prevent frost bite and amputation of toes. He patented it in Canada as a chaussure d’hiver.
Though the former nobleman’s renown as a circuit lecturer vanished in the 1920’s, hundreds of newspaper clips and city directories prior to the ’30s track his whereabouts. In 1922, syndicated papers reported that Lochwitzky “had sent an appeal to the New York American Legion asking that a job be found for him ‘doing anything.’ He speaks eight languages fluently. Everything he had was lost in the San Antonio flood” of September 1921.
One of the more interesting — and baffling — gigs that he had secured “doing anything” was as military drill instructor at the Western Kentucky State Hospital for the Insane back in 1915. Later, during the height of the Jazz Age in America, the man who had once lost all his property in Russia, then again in the San Francisco earthquake, then again in the San Antonio flood, worked as a translator for the Office of the Alien Property Custodian in Washington, D.C., which oversaw property belonging to U.S. enemies.
Two articles from the New York Times mention that he was working as a Deputy Sheriff in Dutchess and Westchester Counties in the Hudson Valley. The composer Rachmaninov was buried in Westchester County in 1943 — as was Hungarian composer and exile Béla Bartók. Did Lochwitzky and Rachmaninov ever meet?
U.S. Army records show that Lochwitzky retired with the rank of Captain in 1928 but was kept on the reserve list of the New York State Militia into the early ’30s. His permanent address was in the D.C. area.
His final demise is uncertain, but he was definitely still alive on July 23, 1953. The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) carried a story about his involvement in a larceny case. Aged 83, “Alexander M. Lochwitzky de Luxembourg” decided not to prosecute a New York art dealer, David Ulman, whom he had given a bust of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza to sell on the market. The bust was valued at $150,000. Lochwitzky wanted to get $50,000. Ulman, however, “neither sold nor returned it.”