The Wizard of Graphology: Rafael Schermann

A dramatic portrait of the Wizard of Graphology

A dramatic portrait of the Wizard of Graphology

Today we look at the amazing feats of “the Vienna Wizard of Graphology,” Rafael Schermann. You’ll have to disregard the notion of “X-ray eyes,” which is journalistic hyperbole for his gift, if supernatural gift it was.


The greatest psychic mystery of the old world today is the man with the X-ray eyes. In Vienna, his home, they also speak of him as the man for whom there are no secrets. He is the wonder of scientists, the talk of the newspapers, the white hope of all agencies engaged in ferreting out and prosecuting crime, the terror of the underworld. For Rafael Schermann—by this name that astonishing personage is known in his everyday relationships—has very firm convictions on the subject of social obligations. He believes that he holds his marvelous gift of second sight as a sort of trusteeship and that he must put its benefit at the disposal of the commonwealth. His exploits are verified by the rigorously scientific testimony of a number of experts, psychologists of established repute. The noted Prof. Benedickt of the University of Vienna has written a book about him. [Experiemente mit Rafael Schermann] These scientists, however, confine themselves to stating the facts of the case. They frankly admit that explanation is beyond them.

Rafael Schermann’s latest triumph was achieved with a 4,000,000 kronen forgery that occurred in one of the leading banks of the Austrian metropolis, an establishment on the fashionable Schottenring, well known to visiting Americans. The following account describes the case exactly as it appears on the police records, but with fictitious names substituted for those of the characters.

One day, a few weeks ago, the manager of the bank summoned his secretary.

“Fraulein Schwarz,” he said, “will you bring me the cashier’s duplicate of that Goldenwasser deposit receipt for 40.000.000 Czechoslovak kronen?” (about $13,500 at present exchange rate). “There seems to be some little mistake about his initials. I can’t make out the signature on his letter here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Half an hour later the manager was confronted by the perplexed girl.

“Awfully sorry, sir; they can’t find it. Herr Kraus wishes to speak to you about it.”

“Tell him to come in.”

The cashier entered, excited and apologetic.

“Funny,” he said. “We cannot find that confounded receipt. None of the receiving tellers knows anything about it. We have searched the whole office; there isn’t a trace anywhere. And still the money must have been received. It is entered on the ledger as it should be. This man Goldenwasser—who is he, anyway? The 40,000,000 Czechoslovak kronen was his first deposit with us, and now he withdraws it after two weeks. Very queer.”

There was a consultation, a renewed search and another consultation. This latter brought more clearness than satisfaction to the directors. There seemed to be no room for doubt The bank had been defrauded. Herr Goldenwasser’s deposit sure enough, appeared on the books in the most impeccably regular fashion. And there was nothing intrinsically suspicious about his letter, either–one which, a few days before, had directed the bank to transfer the 40,000,000 to the Anglo-Austrian Bank. The sum was remitted, acknowledgment was received. And now it developed that the original entry was fictitious. The deposit had never been received. Perhaps Mr. Goldenwasser did not exist at all.

There was but one thing to do. The detectives arrived from headquarters and began their inquiry with the usual aplomb. They looked at Herr Goldenwasser’s letter and shook their heads. They also looked at the entry in the ledger and shook their heads some more. One of them was dispatched to find Herr Goldenwasser.

“There is no such person as Herr Goldenwasser, leather merchant, at the address stated on the letterhead,” he reported on his return.

* * *

Meanwhile his colleagues had better luck They examined the entry on the ledger. The manager said it was in the handwriting of Miss F., the head bookkeeper. The cashier agreed. So did several other officials. Miss F., an elderly lady of eminently respectable appearance was forthwith put through a highly professional grilling in the manager’s private office.

She was punctual, conscientious, unassuming, a model clerk, trusted by her superiors, liked by her fellow-employees. She had been with the bank for twelve years. And now, confronted with the forged entry, she could only declare most emphatically that she had not written it and protest with tearful vehemence against the accusation. Yet there was the testimony of the handwriting. It had been examined minutely by an expert from headquarters, who said, on comparing it with numerous other samples of Miss F.’s hand, that the identity was obvious.

“I am afraid we will have to make an arrest,” whispered the commissioner of detectives to the bewildered manager.

There was a slight but ominous move toward the bookkeeper, but at this moment a little bearded man burst into the room. He was dressed with as much neatness as the extreme age of his well brushed clothes would permit. His sharp features contrasted strangely with the kind, somewhat absent-minded expression of his blue eyes. The manager of the bank greeted him eagerly, almost exuberantly.

“So glad you’ve come, Herr Schermann. You are the only person in the world who can straighten out this mess.”

Succinctly the facts were laid before the newcomer. He was shown the letter in which the alleged Herr Goldenwasser instructed the bank to transfer his deposit to the Anglo-Austrian. He was shown the ledger with the fictitious entry. He looked at the two documents with an intensity that increased perceptibly until his face assumed the expression of acute pain. His mouth twitched, heavy drops of perspiration rolled down his forehead. At last he closed his eyes and stood silent for a few moments, covering his brow with a trembling hand. Suddenly he grabbed the arm of the detective commissioner, who, with the others in the room, had been watching the performance in dumb wonderment.

“Stop,” shouted Schermann in a strained voice. “Leave that woman alone. She has nothing to do with the forgery.

The little man sat down, crossed his legs and began to talk, frowning heavily, his eyes still closed as if turned inward, penetrating unknown vistas of the fourth dimension.

“The forgery was perpetrated,” Schermann said, “by a man. He imitated this lady’s handwriting. It is a clumsy imitation, too. I can’t see how he could deceive any of you. It follows, more or less, the curves of this lady’s hand—there is a superficial resemblance—but the spirit, the abstract image of it, is entirely different. I’ll tell you about it in a minute—it’s the man who forged the entry who is the principal in this crime. The man who wrote the letter is a dummy. I can see him. He is a stout, clumsy fellow with a fleshy nose and bleary eyes. He is irresolute—he has no will of his own. I wonder what his trade is. It’s one requiring much sitting and great attention and precision. He may be an optician or a watchmaker. I don’t know. But you don’t want him anyway—not in the first place.

“You see, he participated in the fraud unwillingly. He first declined to do it, but he could not resist the personality of the real criminal. Him I don’t quite see—not yet. But you must hurry to get him. He plans to escape tomorrow. One moment! I do see him now. He is young and handsome and slim. He has clever dark eyes. He is of good family. My God! I see his family now—his old father and mother—they are sitting in their shabby little flat, in tears, wringing their hands. They talk of suicide. They know what their son has done. Get him, quick! You must rescue the poor old couple! I’ll single him out for you. He is in this office. But you can’t nail down the forgery on him—you must make him confess—you must promise him immunity if he restores the money.”

* * *

Immediately a line-up of all the employes of the bank was ordered. Herr Schermann sat down at a desk and the clerks were asked to pass one by one. Each had to write down the sentence. “I have nothing to do with the forty millions,” and sign his name. Suddenly Schermann seized the hand of a young man and shouted: “You are the forger!”

The man jumped back as if hit in the face. And Schermann, still holding his hand, addressed him: “Your name is Ludwig Neumann. You have just signed yourself Louis Neumann. You have a passport—you just got it—on which your name appears as Louis Nauheim. Don’t try to deny it. I have seen it. You want to go to France. And I see your poor parents, heartbroken by your crime. They want to die rather than to live in shame. For their sake we’ll let you go if you restore the money. Come.”

But the young man had fainted dead away. When he was restored to consciousness he gulped down a drink of water and said: “There’s no use. I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll return the money.”

He did tell all about it, including the name of his confederate, and added:

“Don’t hurt him, poor ass. He did not want to do it. He has no will. I made him write the letter.”

A detective brought in the accomplice. He was a stout, clumsy fellow, with a fleshy nose and bleary eyes, and he actually was a watchmaker.

Rafael Schermann, the little man…who thus solved the mystery of the 40,000,000 kronen forgery in the Schottenring Bank, is the most remarkable case of “second sight” that has come to the notice of continental scientists in a generation or two. The psychologists who have examined him have returned the unanimous verdict that his performances are absolutely genuine, also absolutely beyond rational explanation. These scientists are willing to testify under oath as to his results, but they confess they have no idea as to how he achieves them.

Rafael Schermann is the most astounding phenomenon of our time. He is not a handwriting expert in the accepted sense of the term. He is not “scientific,” he has no system. But a person’s handwriting seems to fire him with an uncanny, supernatural second sight. He seems to be able to search out with deadly precision not only the character of the person whose writing he may see, but also the unexpressed desires and intentions which lie deep in their minds.

When Schermann was in Zurich, a year or so ago, public interest was aroused to the fever point by the trial of a certain Frau Buchmann, who was accused of having poisoned her husband. It was a mystifying case. Frau Buchmann was a mystifying woman. The public prosecutor, Dr. Brunner, asked Schermann to pass an opinion on Frau Buchmann’s handwriting. Schermann too one of the letters written by the woman and read it swiftly.

“This woman fears paragraphs,” he said. “In her mind, as she wrote this, was a dread of certain articles in the penal code. You see here, clearly, as suggestive of the mark we use to designate paragraphs. She is afraid of being arrested and punished for a terrible crime she has committed. Yes! There can be no doubt. She is guilty. She poisoned her husband.” [Does anyone understand the allusion to paragraphs? I don’t.]

Dr. Brunner was hesitant and embarrassed.

“I am sorry, sir,” he said. “That letter I showed you was written three years ago. She was not even married to Buchmann then.”

“Impossible. The woman who wrote this letter was married.”

“Married, yes. But to her first husband.”

“Is Herr Hanhardt living?”

“No, he isn’t. He—I recall it now—he died suddenly.”

“I should like to meet Frau Buchmann,” said the little wizard quietly.

Next day in Brunner’s office Schermann was introduced to the woman. She bowed to him with perfect self-possession.

“Would you mind writing two sentences that I will dictate?” asked Schermann.

“No, certainly,” she replied.

Schermann gave her paper and pen. “First, please write: “I have poisoned my husband,’” She did so calmly with a perfectly steady hand. “Now write: “’I have not poisoned my husband.’” She obeyed as before. “And sign your name.”

Schermann took the paper and studied it. Then he looked directly at the woman.

“You are the murderess, and you will confess,” he said.

Frau Buchmann lost her poise instantly. She sprang to her feet and passionately denied the accusation. Schermann bowed ad left the office. He started that day for Vienna. On his arrival there found this telegram: “The woman has confessed. She poisoned both husbands.”

* * *

Schermann is an insurance clerk by profession and was employed as such by the Phoenix Insurance Company of Vienna. His first case, which established his fame as a psychic expert of transcendental power, grew out of a burglary in a leather factory. He was assigned to the job as a loss appraiser. The burglary was a most mysterious affair, with apparently not a single clue to work on. Schermann entered the shop and looked it over. At once he shuddered. People in the room were horrified to see the whites of his eyes turn up, his body convulse, his knees tremble. He stood there in a trance for a few seconds; then he walked to the head of the firm who was watching from a corner.

“Mr. X,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “I know who committed the burglary. Look at that young man near the last cabinet. He is one of your employes. I can’t tell the police, because there is no evidence to convict him, and if he denies the crime I’d be liable for false prosecution. But show me a piece of his handwriting and I’ll tell you whether he will confess or not.”

The manager was astonished and incredulous, but he was willing to try. He called the suspected clerk into his office and dictate to him a few lines which he was to take down in longhand. Schermann stood by and watched the handwriting. Suddenly he spoke to the clerk.

“You are the burglar,” he said calmly. “And I know now that you will confess. Now, come across, won’t you?” The young man dropped his pen, stammered incoherently, sank into a chair—and confessed.

On that day Schermann’s career as an insurance appraiser ended and his new one as amateur private detective began. But he is more than that—a reader of minds, crystal gazer, sooth-sayer.

The prodigious Herr Schermann is not difficult of approach. Every afternoon between 3 and 5 o’clock there is a pilgrimage of troubled folk in his humble abode on Untere Weiss garberstrasse, where he presides among his books and papers, thrown all over the place in a disorder not unlike that of Sherlock Holmes’ celebrated apartment in Baker street. The wealthy callers Schermann makes a charge; to those without means he extends the use of his marvelous gift free if he discerns any merit in their cases.

* * *

One day I called at his apartment and asked him to explain his gift of second sight.

“I have no explanation,” he said. “All I know is that my gift was born with me. When I was still a baby, I was irresistibly interested in anything written. I picked up thrown away envelopes and searched scrap baskets for letters. I found a peculiar pleasure in gazing at these things even before I could read and write. I looked at a written character as a kind of mysterious image. When I was nine years old someone put a slip of paper in my pocket on which was written: “Teacher is an ass.’ I studied the writing and I decided which of the boys wrote it. When I approached him he was so perplexed that he admitted it.

“Later on, to my real astonishment, I discovered that when I looked at a sample of writing, any writing, I could see its author—not only his face and figure, but his whole life, his background, his destiny. I could not describe just exactly what form this sight took with me until I went to a motion picture theater for the first time. Then I had the term. I saw the lives of people whose handwriting I studied in long reels of mental motion pictures, as it were. But it was not necessary for me to see handwriting. If a person touches a piece of paper before I get it, it works the same way. The important thing is that this relation between me and other people—a relation that I cannot understand any more than you—is transmitted by paper.

“When I touch of piece of paper like that I can tell whether the person who touched it before me was in good or bad humor. I feel what he has been doing and what he is going to do next.

“Don’t ask me who gave me my power. I don’t know. All I know is that I have it. You may say it was bestowed on me by God or by some mysterious cosmic force. But there is something in me that keeps on telling me that I must utilize this gift of mine for the public good.”

It is a fascinating experience to talk to Schermann. It is also rather disconcerting. For he looks into your eyes and tells you what you are thinking. More than that, he tells you all about your past—things which you have forgotten yourself and which are conjured up from oblivion by this unique magician.

The Sunday Star [Washington DC] 17 December 1922: p. 77-78

In 1923 Schermann came to the United States for a lecture tour and demonstrations of his gifts. The somewhat sceptical articles in the US papers tell of him being given letters from patients (as well as a glimpse of the actual person) and diagnosing their illnesses for a panel of doctors. Not all found him compelling.

Schermann Reads Roosevelt’s Character in Writing at Test

Graphologist Also Demonstrates Psychic Powers Before Gathering in Coffee Club—Gives Diagnoses of Illness

Rafael Schermann, who came to this country from Vienna two days ago, widely heralded as the possessor of phenomenal psychic gifts of mind and character reading, gave a demonstration of his powers before a group of prominent men in the Coffee House Club, West 45th Street, last evening. Mr. Schermann did some accurate character reading. Without having seen the signature, he successfully analyzed the character of Theodore Roosevelt from a letter written by him.

Any psychic gifts he may possess were not prominently displayed, however.

James B. Pond, who brought Herr Schermann to this country, ascribed this to the fact that the visitor was extremely fatigued from a busy day of audiences and interviews.

The gathering in the Coffee House Club included Eugene S. Bagger, Will Irwin, C. Malcolm Bird. Hereward Carrington, George Palmer Putnam, Walter Franklin Prince, Ralph Pulitzer, William Beebe, Jesse Lynch Williams, Dr. A. A. Brill, Dr. S. Ward Crampton, Frederick Peterson. Loring Pickering, Paul Kennedy. James B. Pond. John R. Colter, Wallace Irwin and Kent Cooper.

Wide Reputation as Psychic

Mr. Schermann has a wide European reputation as a psychic. He is said to possess wonderful powers of insight into the human mind: powers not attributable to his expert knowledge of the science of graphology. He calls himself a psychic graphologist.

He is a gentle, kindly man, and in appearance rather the business man than the mystic. He seemed somewhat frightened by the formidable array of critics, among whom were a dozen reporters, and he repeatedly complained of being tired.

William Beebe, who was a close friend of Col. Roosevelt, showed Mr. Schermann a Roosevelt letter owned by George Palmer Putnam, veiling the signature.

“This was a man of many struggles (he spoke of Roosevelt as a man who ‘was’) but none of them ever broke him. When he failed, he went on strenuously In many ways he led a sad life. He interested in books—a clear thinker—in his old ago retained a youthful outlook—inspired faith in others and stimulated them.”

He analyzed two reporters’ characters from their handwriting, and hit about 80 per cent. Jesse Lynch Williams, author, had his handwriting read by Mr. Schermann, and said he was “more than 70 per cent right.”

Mainly he dealt in generalities, excepting once, when he told George Palos Putnam something he could not possibly have got from Mr. Putnam’s handwriting. This was that Mr. Putnam had undergone two operations. He gave a history and diagnosis of an illness of Mr. Putnam that corresponded in all essentials to the diagnosis of Mr. Putnam’s physician, Dr. Crampton, who was present.

He was shown a letter of Edgar Allan Poe, but missed fire when he described the writer as a man “who had lived a life of ease.”

Writes Artists’ Signatures

The signatures of artists of several pictures hanging in the room where the demonstration took place were veiled and the names then repeated to Mr. Schermann. He looked at the picture a moment and then reproduced the signatures of the artists as he conceived they would write them. It seemed to the reporter for “The World” that he reproduced these signatures well, particularly in the case of Frueh of “The World.”

Mr. Pond said that yesterday morning Mr. Schermann had examined a specimen of the handwriting of a suspect in the Hall-Mills murder case, and immediately said he “heard the ringing of church bells.” Then Mr. Pond said he drew a picture of a church that corresponded roughly to the church that figured in this murder mystery .—The Evening World.

Psychic Power 10 December 1923

A photograph of Schermann in the 1930s.

A photograph of Schermann in the 1930s.

In various online sources Schermann is primarily described as a famous graphologist. He seems to have reinforced the idea that hand-writing analysis was an accurate determinant of character with his detailed analyses. Reading easily between the lines it seems as though he would more accurately have been called a psychometrist, although his psychometrized objects were always papers. I wonder if there wasn’t also quite a bit of bluff, cold-reading or muscle reading in his work. When Schermann took the hand of Ludwig Neumann, the man’s twitches could have told the Wizard everything he wanted to know. He also may have just been a keen observer or student of human psychology. Subtle aspects of a suspect’s demeanor might have suggested whether they would confess or not. Or he might have just tried to provoke the suspect, as he did with Frau Buchmann, to see a reaction.

Schermann was hailed as a wizard in the European press and by his advocates, but one wonders what kind of impression he made on U.S. investigators. Eugene Bagger, who was in the audience at the Coffee House Club wrote a book about him called Psycho-Graphology, A Study of Raphael Schermann. The blurb read: “A little man with a gathering of critics around him, read visions from handwriting. He was Raphael Schermann, the Vienna wizard of Graphology, the science of script.” Despite the disclaimer in the first article above, in esoteric publications and news stories about his medical diagnoses there was an attempt to describe his gifts as  scientific rather than mystical.  His heyday–the 1920s–was a time of popular mystical wonders, often linked to practical self-help. It was the era of Theosophists, healers, mahatmas, thought-readers, healthy-living advocates, and self-improvement men like Émile Coué.  It wasn’t enough to bring messages from Summerland in the old-fashioned Spiritualist way; any supernatural gifts had to have a useful application like crime-solving.

Schermann seems to have died some time after 1940, perhaps in the chaos of the European war. Other tales from the little wizard?

Write what I dictate and send to chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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