When Dewey Deavers died at 73, his short obituary noted only that he’d introduced hypnotism to Western Pennsylvania. Perhaps the same obituary scribe would identify Leonardo da Vinci as an engineer.
Dewey emerged into the world in the year 1901 in Paducah, Ky. He was a scrawny kid, targeted by schoolyard bullies. So he jumped in the nearby Tennessee River and taught himself to swim, then learned to wrestle and box and weight lift. He mastered jiu-jitsu from a Japanese instructor. A French dude schooled him in hands-and-feet fighting. Dewey went from 100-pound-weakling to 150-pound tough guy.
Swimming became a passion. Dewey was in the water every day, in all seasons. He claimed he once swam up the Ohio River from Paducah to Cairo, Ill., a distance of 50 miles.
Perhaps influenced by Harry Houdini, who at the time was making news by wriggling out of chains while suspended underwater, Dewey became something of an aquatic showman. He asked friends to tie him securely to a chair, then used a “back harness” to manipulate his body so he could pull a launch filled with 65 people across the Ohio.
The stage suited Dewey. He traveled the country in a “strong man” act. A fellow performer used a sledgehammer to break rocks over Dewey’s head and stomach. This lasted a few years. Then, around 1927, Dewey tired of brushing rock dust out of his hair and moved with his wife Mattie and young daughter Rose to Pittsburgh, a promising place for a man looking for steady work.
He hoped to become a boilermaker, but instead landed a dishwashing job. He became a cook, then a laboratory assistant. He never did become a boilermaker. He had more interesting things to do.
Like hypnotism. Dewey taught himself how to put people in a sort of trance and, in the process, envisioned a future for himself. Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s (newspaper accounts differ), he introduced hypnosis to Pittsburgh. Within a few years, the city’s newspapers were peppered with notices alerting readers to demonstrations at Deavers’ hypnotism studio at 118 Sixth St. The studio also served as Dewey’s’ jiu-jitsu club. In addition, Dewey taught swimming. He was a busy guy.
But he got people’s attention by combining showmanship with his trance-inducing abilities. In February 1950, he hypnotized a 22-year-old ex-paratrooper named Columbo Bencevenga. He then put a noose around the Columbo’s neck and kicked away a box the fellow was standing on.
Hypnosis saved Columbo, the Post-Gazette reported. It helped that Columbo had massive neck muscles (he wore a size 17 collar). The act was a hit. Dewey hanged the poor man three times in one week. “I’m unemployed right now,” said Columbo, “and I don’t have anything better to do.”
The Post-Gazette was quick to warn readers against attempting this at home.
Dewey’s hypnosis school churned out hundreds of trained hypnotists and helped turn Pittsburgh into a “hotbed of hypnosis.” For newspaper reporters, Dewey was always good copy. One PG columnist wrote that Dewey helped him kick the smoking habit. Another story detailed Dewey’s successful hypnosis of a World War II veteran trying to recall memories of Pearl Harbor. And in 1961, Dewey hypnotized a chicken. Of course that one made the papers.
In 1963, one thousand hypnotists gathered in Pittsburgh for a “Hypnotic Rally at the Hilton Hotel.” Dewey was scheduled to speak about his self-induced hypnotic sleeps, which he said were so effective that he required only one hour of shuteye each day.
To alert its readers of the gathering, The Pittsburgh Press used language certainly appreciated by the man who once hanged the same poor soul three times in one week and then put a domestic fowl in a trance: “If a stranger stares at you Downtown next Friday through Sunday, don’t stare back.”
— Steve Mellon