On the morning of May 16, 1936, a clear-skied Saturday, a tall, hand- some, and charismatic man left his stylish brick home on 122 South Howard Street in the somnolent college town of Moscow, Idaho, to drive four blocks to the three-story brick federal building that housed the town’s post office and courtroom. Not yet fifty, the man was immaculately dressed in a single-breasted worsted suit, pressed shirt, and gleaming silk tie. His hair—blondish-silver—was expertly combed like a movie star’s. The car in which he motored the four short blocks was much like the man himself: ostentatious and larger than life. It was a 1932 Duesenberg. It was the car Daddy Warbucks owned and bragged about in Annie. It was driven only by the most elite figures in the world, many of them Hollywood celebrities, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin.
The man arrived at the federal building minutes later like a one-man parade. Throngs of people lined the streets and sidewalks, waiting for him. A born showman, he exited his sleek Duesenberg, waved to the crowd, and smiled for pictures. A gaggle of pressmen fired questions to the man, who was about to go on trial. The charge: passport fraud. In that charge, though, lurked the very serious contention that the man was not who he had claimed to be. Prosecutors charged that he was an imposter and asserted that they had the evidence to prove it. Hecklers gathered near the courthouse steps to bark insults amid the flashing cameras.
Reporters asked if he thought he would be found guilty. The man scanned his audience and smiled. “This is not a prosecution. It’s a persecution,” he said, adding that he would be found perfectly innocent. The man glad-handed a few well-wishers as he made his way up the stone steps to the red brick courthouse and the trial that awaited him.
The man’s name was Frank Bruce Robinson. He had risen out of the ashes of the Great Depression by creating—six weeks after the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday in 1929—a self-help religion he called Psychiana. The first and only mail-order, “money-back-guarantee” religion, had, by that morning in May 1936, swept across America and spread to some sixty-seven countries. Or so Robinson liked to claim. That Psychiana was well known at the time of his trial cannot be disputed. Newsweek reported that Robinson’s ads reached “into between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 homes annually” in America alone. As a result, this small-town trial had caught the attention of the nation, making headlines across the country.
“Court[room] Jammed,” read one newspaper headline.4 Prosecutors summoned witnesses from Canada, New York, Washington, DC, Portland, and Seattle. Also present that day were the two federal agents whose hot and cold investigation had led them, after six long years, to this legal battleground: Stephen H. Morse, inspector of the U.S. Postal Office, and Sherwin H. Stewart, inspector of the U.S. Immigrations Bureau. Assigned to study the trial, University of Idaho law students sat at attention in their wooden seats.
While the trial was getting underway, a hive of postal workers two floors below sorted the day’s mail, the majority of which was addressed to or sent from Psychiana. Upstairs, the courtroom crowd—mostly suited men and uniformed officials—waited quietly in the brightly-lit wood-paneled chamber.
When Frank and his lawyers pushed through the courtroom doors, everyone stirred, and a commotion rippled across the crowd. Two temperamentally different but equally effective attorneys spearheaded Robinson’s defense team: A.L. Morgan, a bespectacled and reserved local attorney, and the stocky Ed Robertson, of Spokane, Washington. A tenacious, high-profile lawyer with a baritone southern drawl, Robertson was well-known—famous, almost—as the son of a Louisiana congressman. He never took a case he did not think he could win, and he charged handsomely for his services.
With tension hanging thick in the air, Frank Robinson maintained the composure of someone who appeared to be attending the theater, rather than his own trial. He had, after all, been outstepping the law most of his life and had come to regard this succession of narrow escapes as an elaborate shell game. But his outward optimism spoke to something more than just the thrill that came from such a cat-and-mouse game. For however damaging the charges seemed that day (and indeed they were damning), Frank saw the entire spectacle as free advertising for Psychiana. Robinson’s son, Alfred, later described his father as a man with “an insatiable appetite for publicity.” For Robinson, even bad news was still good news. “My father needed to draw attention—either positive or negative—in whatever activities he engaged in.” For Frank, “bigger was better.” His impulse was “to overwhelm” the room in whatever scenario he found himself in. It was a philosophy he applied to all aspects of his life as evidenced, Alfred added, “by his [lavish] dress style, advertising methods, accumulation of goods, and sports cars.” If ever he paled by comparison, Robinson fictionalized. He consistently inflated or totally invented numbers about his income, assets, insurance, the size of his workforce, the reach of his religion, or the volume of advertisements Psychiana placed. “He combined a little fantasy with reality, but always with consequences,” Alfred wrote. “Strict adherence to the ‘minor details’ of truth was unnecessary” in Frank’s worldview. But it was this loose relationship with facts that had landed him in the defendant’s chair that morning.
In the courtroom, a reporter sized up Robinson, commenting on his “deep-set blue eyes, a pleasant smile, and an assured voice.” Noting his distinctive traits, the reporter added how Frank wore “the mannerisms of the successful super-salesman, the easy unaffected bearing of the individual at home in any company.” Here was a seasoned confidence man: comfortable even as his world started to founder. Unaffected even as he looked at the judge, and pleaded “Not guilty.”
What the reporters and publicity did not reveal, however, was Frank’s inner turmoil and darkest fears. The previous evening, Robinson had paced the length of his home, chain-smoking and snapping at his lawyers. Serving as a makeshift trial headquarters, Robinson’s living room teemed with boxes of documents and exhibits, the evidentiary trail from a lifetime of misdeeds, lies, and secrets—his history laid bare. As the clocks ticked off every aggravating minute, Frank Robinson’s past was fast on his heels, threatening to catch up with him and take everything away.
While the white-hot attention of the trial may or may not have been a boon for the Psychiana brand, the attendant pressures surrounding the spectacle were too much for his family to bear. Frank’s wife, Pearl—the thirty-seven- year-old daughter of an Oregon judge—had long been her husband’s stalwart supporter even though she did not believe in Psychiana itself. (She took their two children, Alfred and Florence, to the Presbyterian Church across town.) But Moscow, Idaho, was a small town, the kind of place where neighbors knew who made the best huckleberry pie, and whose garden produced the largest pumpkins. But they also knew the mother who kept gin in the washroom, and the father who abused his children. Like any small town, it had its secrets, and people were often given to talk. But now, to face neighbors, friends, and acquaintances in the grocery store, church, or post office in such a tightknit community was too much for her to bear.
Staying in Moscow, she and Frank came to see, would not do.
To ease matters, Robinson leased a luxurious furnished home in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Palos Verdes Estates. There, Pearl, Alfred, Florence, and their maid, Ingrid, lived amid the palm trees, renowned golf course, and elite tennis club during the federal trial. While Alf and Florence passed languorous afternoons playing in the courtyard gardens, Pearl fretted in the quiet recesses of the luxury home—cigarette in hand—while surf broke on the rocks outside.
In Moscow, the trial continued apace; in Palos Verdes, Pearl’s worries deepened. “There were many anxious days [then],” Pearl recalled. “We did not know if a good husband and father would be ruthlessly snatched from us either to be put in some federal penitentiary or deported to some land—we knew not where.”8 And so Pearl paced the floors, tended her children, watched the ocean roll in and out, and waited for the phone to ring with news of her husband’s fate: prison, deportation, or exoneration.