When Fortune Telling Could Land You In Jail

by Mimi Matthews

Question to the Cards by Édouard Bisson, 1889

“…every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects…shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.” — Excerpt from The Vagrancy Act of 1824

Crystal gazing, palmistry, and other forms of fortune-telling were quite popular during the 19th century. Husband divination games were heavily featured at Christmas and Halloween parties in the rural countryside. While professional practitioners of the occult laid the cards for tonnish ladies and gentlemen in some of the finest drawing rooms in London. In general, such games were viewed as nothing more than thrilling entertainment. However, there were plenty of individuals – from the highly intelligent to the ridiculously gullible – who truly believed in the supernatural. Their desire to learn the future or to contact the dead gave rise to a seemingly endless parade of fraudsters, charlatans, and outright villains.

In 1807, Joseph Powell was tried and subsequently convicted for fortune-telling under the Vagrancy Act. Described in the court record as a “rogue and a vagabond,” he had not only imposed himself on “credulous persons” and duped servants out of their “last shillings,” he had also taken lascivious advantage of women who had consulted him to find out whether or not they would ever have children. In one such instance, Powell practiced his fraudulent art via correspondence. As the prosecutor in the case relates:

“One of his letters in particular seems to have been addressed to a female, not of the lowest class, (who stated herself to be married, and who wished to be informed whether she should have any children) and the copy of this letter answers, that she is certainly destined to have children if she takes the means, but not by her husband; that it must be by some other person; that he shall be happy himself to be that person, and that he has no doubt their endeavours will be propitious to the object she has at heart. He then goes on to invite her to come the next day, when he promises to have his place clear, as well for comfort as safety.”

Mr. Powell’s prices for his services ranged from half a crown to five guineas, but in the above instance the prosecutor states:

“So strong was his amorous propensity on this occasion, that he tells the lady if she agrees to his proposal, that he will give her as much information as he should charge another person five guineas for, but that he will remit the five guineas in her case!”

Mr. Powell was sentenced to six months imprisonment.


crystal-ball-by-thomas-kennington-1890-1Crystal Ball by Thomas Kennington, 1890

Crystal gazing was another form of fortune-telling during the 19th century. An 1853 edition of the Eclectic Magazine describes crystal gazing (or Crystallomancy) as “the art of divining by figures which appear on the surface of a Crystal Ball.” One of the most famous crystal balls of the era belonged to Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington. In an 1852 letter, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning mentions Lady Blessington’s crystal ball to her friend Mrs. Martin, writing:

“Perhaps you never heard of the crystal ball. The original ball was bought by Lady Blessington from an ‘Egyptian magician,’ and resold at her sale. She never could understand the use of it, but others have looked deeper, or with purer eyes, it is said; and now there is an optician in London who makes and sells these balls, and speaks of a ‘great demand,’ though they are expensive.”

An 1850 article in the Bristol Times and Mirror reports “A Most Extraordinary Circumstance” involving the Countess of Blessington’s crystal ball. According to the article:

“At the sale of the late Countess of Blessington’s effects, a globular crystal ball, stated to have formerly belonged to the Egyptian Magi, was purchased by an old Jew, from whom it passed to Lieutenant H—. A short time since the Lieutenant threw the ball to his little daughter to play with. The child, who had lost its mother, suddenly started, saying, ‘Papa, there’s a lady in the ball’ – ‘It is dear mamma.’ Day after day the child stoutly declared she saw her mother in the ball, until the Lieutenant, being uneasy, gave the crystal to Archdeacon R—.”

After conducting a similar experiment with the crystal ball on his own granddaughter and experiencing similar results, the Archdeacon declared that the crystal ball was “a Satanic agency.”

maguerite-gardiner-countess-of-blessington-by-sir-thomas-lawrence-1821Maguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1821

Lady Blessington’s crystal ball later changed hands, eventually ending up in the possession of Zadkiel, a famous 19th century astrologer whose name features in an equally famous libel suit. Zadkiel’s Almanac achieved a certain level of notoriety in 1861 for having predicted the death of the Prince Consort. According to an article in an 1863 edition of The Times, when Sir Edward Belcher was asked by a contemporary about the identity of the almanac’s author, he responded by letter, stating that:

“…the author and the editor of the almanac in question was a retired lieutenant of the navy named Morrison. He went on to say that Mr. Morrison was the same person who in 1852 had gulled many of the nobility by exhibiting a crystal globe, in which he pretended that various persons saw visions and held converse with the spirits of the Apostles, even our Saviour, with the angels of light as well as of darkness, and could tell what was going on in any part of the world.”

Mr. Morrison (a.k.a Zadkiel) brought an action for libel against Sir Edward Belcher and, at the trial, the crystal globe in question was exhibited. An 1863 edition of the Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser reports:

“It came out in the course of the trial, which took place in one of our law courts during the present week, that several noblemen and gentlemen, and ladies of the highest distinction, had applied to Lieutenant Morrison for the privilege of seeing a certain crystal globe, by means of which the most astounding wonders had been wrought.”

Though the crystal globe excited a great deal of public interest, not everyone was impressed by its supposed powers. The Louth and North Lincolnshire Daily Advertiser states:

“Now, it is obvious that this Zadkiel’s Almanack [sic] and globe-seeing is to all intents and purposes a delusion and a sham. The only wonder is, as the Lord Chief Justice remarked, that people can be found who will pay sixpence for the book on the one hand, or a larger sum for the privilege of looking in the globe on the other.”

Mr. Morrison ultimately won his libel suit against Sir Edward Belcher on the grounds that he had never received money for having exhibited the crystal ball. The jury award him a paltry 20s. damages.

the fortune teller by adele kindt 1835The Fortune Teller by Adele Kindt, 1835

One of the most common forms of fortune-telling during the 19th century was done with a deck of playing cards. Known as cartomancy, it involved assigning attributes to each of the cards in the deck and using those cards, when dealt in a particular fashion or when chosen at random, to foretell the future. In her 1851 book The Fortune-Teller, author Louisa Lawford explains the meaning of each of the cards in the deck and gives several methods of dealing. I have included her basic explanations for some of the cards below.

the fortune teller 1861 1The Fortune Teller by Louisa Lawford, 1851

Fortune-telling and divination with playing cards was both a harmless party game and a profitable criminal enterprise. An 1878 edition of the Grantham Journal reports the arrest of forty-nine-year-old Susan Bridges, writing:

“She had been driving an extensive and lucrative business in pretending to tell fortunes, and had by her extraordinary revelations created a great deal of mischief amongst servant girls and persons of weak mind.”

The police employed two females to visit Bridges at her home. There, Bridges “read their fortunes by means of cards and then demanded a fee.” Bridges was arrested and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labor.

Palmistry was another common method of fortune-telling in the 19th century. And one did not have to be a gifted occultist to indulge. Charts and diagrams of hands with the meanings of various lines were readily available. The 1886 book Social Amusements even includes palmistry in their “choice collection of parlor games.” Still, there were many who truly believed in the practice. In his aptly titled 1806 book A Handy Guide to Palmistry, author Langdon Taylor writes:

“The lines of the hand, being formed by nature, show conclusively and physiologically the temperament and nature of the possessor.”

the handbook of palmistry illustration 1885The Handbook of Palmistry, Illustration, 1885

As with any facet of the supernatural, when it came to palmistry, there were frauds and charlatans aplenty. An 1893 issue of the Gloucester Citizen reports the case of Clair St. Clair, alias Professor Francisca. St. Clair was arrested and charged with:

“…unlawfully using a certain subtle craft, to wit, palmistry, to deceive and impose upon her Majesty’s subjects contrary to the Vagrant Act.”

As St. Clair was led away from her dwelling, she reportedly “called upon the Deity to send down fire and damnation upon the Metropolitan Police for robbing her of her means of living.” Later, in a seemingly calmer state of mind, she defended her chosen profession, declaring:

“I simply expound what many learned and eminent men have written about. Their works are high priced, but I give the public the benefit of my study of them for 1s.”

St. Clair was remanded to Holloway Prison pending a doctor’s report on her sanity.

the teller by ernst hanfstaengl 1871The Teller by Ernst Hanfstaengl, 1871

For the middle and upper classes, crystal gazing, cartomancy, and palmistry were diverting drawing room entertainments. For the fraudsters and charlatans – and all too frequently for the poor — the same practices could end with the perpetrator being prosecuted for fortune-telling under the Vagrancy Act. While charismatic fortune-tellers like the famous astrologer Zadkiel might manage to enthrall the nobility, thereby skirting the law, less-sophisticated individuals were at constant risk of being sentenced to prison, hard labor, or transportation. 

This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com. It is reprinted here with permission.

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