19th Century Fortune-Telling: From the Drawing Room to the Court Room

“…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.)

Question to the Cards by Édouard Bisson, 1889.

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.

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, 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, 1835.
The 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
The 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.

The Handbook of Palmistry, Illustration, 1885.
The Handbook of Palmistry, Illustration, 1885.

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.”

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, 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.  If you would like to learn more about the Vagrancy Act of 1824, you can read the legislation in its entirety HERE.

*Palm reading, crystal gazing, and casting the cards were not the only forms of fortune-telling in the 19th century.  Séances and automatic writing with the use of a planchette were hugely popular during the Victorian era.  They are also subjects that deserve articles all their own.  I hope to address them at a later date.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

 Baughan, Rosa.  The Handbook of Palmistry.  London: George Redway, 1885.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett.  The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  New York: MacMillan Co., 1899.

“Divination, Witchcraft, and Mesmerism.”  The Eclectic Magazine.  New York: Eclectic Magazine Publishing, 1853.

“Fortune-Telling.”  Grantham Journal.  March 9, 1878.

Gurney, Joseph.  The Trial of J. Powell, the Fortune Teller.  London: The Society for the Prevention of Vice, 1808.

Lawford, Louisa.  The Fortune Teller; or Peeps into Futurity.  London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1851.

“A Most Extraordinary Circumstance.”  Bristol Times and Mirror.  May, 25, 1850.

Public Opinion.  Vol. 3.  London: G. Cole, 1863.

“The Practice of Palmistry.”  Gloucester Citizen.  July 20, 1893

Social Amusements: A Choice Collection of Parlor Games, Tricks, Charades, Tableux, Parlor Theatricals, Pantomimes, and Palmistry.  Pennsylvania Co., 1886.

Taylor, Langdon.  A Handy Guide to Palmistry.  London: The Roxburghe Press, 1806.

The Times.  July 1, 1863.

“Zadkiel’s Almanac and the Crystal Globe Seer.”  Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser.  July 4, 1863.


Coming September 19

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England, 1860. An impoverished beauty is unexpectedly reunited with the beastly earl who jilted her three years before. Will they finally find their happily ever after? Or are some fairy-tale endings simply not meant to be? Find out more…

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21 Comments on "19th Century Fortune-Telling: From the Drawing Room to the Court Room"

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Sarah Waldock
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There are numerous tales of fraudulent witches and fortune tellers in the newspapers, I had a marvellously detailed story of a witch who needed people to put gold in special places to be able to divine, which unfortunately was eaten in my great data loss; some time between 1806 and 1810, I think. I will doubtless come across it again. What always does amaze me is the level of credulity even in this day and age. I drink kefir-milk for the probiotics in it, and sent for a kit to grow my own which I gave up on because of… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

The level of credulity amazes me, too, Sarah. But think of how little those in the 19th century knew about science. And they were just beginning to come to terms with electricity, too. So much must have seemed possible to them – even in regard to communing with spirits and looking into crystal balls to divine the future.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Indeed, and I can find some excuse for many of them because of that [though I must say instructions to hide all your savings in a hole by the roots of a certain tree would, one would have thought, been enough to enlighten anyone but a complete idiot]; it’s the belief nowadays that astounds me, especially in tarot cards which were a 18th century French invention from ordinary playing cards, and taken on by the Masons to represent the Book of Thoth. Oh, and Ouija boards, which were a Victorian parlour game. I fear that the human race is generally… Read more »
paper doll
Guest

Excellent article as always . What is fascinating about history is how little humans change from age to age. That’s our connection to much earlier times. Custom and dress change, but in large measure , humans don’t! I suppose that’s why history repeats itself !

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much :) And I agree. No matter how much time passes, on a fundamental level, human beings seem to change very little.

Candy Korman
Guest

Fascinating piece!
The spiritualist movement in the U.S. coincided with the terribly bloody Civil War—leading to wives, mothers, lovers, etc. seeking to connect with lost loved ones. Some less-than-scrupulous seers took the parlor games and turned them into abusive scams. A shameful time and, not unlike scams today.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Candy :) So glad you enjoyed it. Very true about the losses during the civil war. Grieving friends and family were ripe pickings for predatory spiritualists!

Vickie
Guest

The yearning for loved ones gone on certainly makes us want to believe there is a way to reach them – thank you Mimi for this excellent article

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) And you’re so right about wanting to reach lost loved ones. It was powerful motivation for 19th century folks to seek out a fortune-teller.

Lucy
Guest
I became interested in the history of tarot cards and their meanings, as opposed to actually believing them to be capable to telling the future, and people are always asking me to read cards for them, and if invited to a party I’m always asked to bring them. I always preface a reading with ‘I don’t believe in Tarot, this is just a bit of fun’ but people still hang on my every word, and sometimes even get emotional, reading their own specific, deep meanings into even the most generalised meanings of the cards. As the earlier comment said, people… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I think the notion that there is a way to predict the future or speak to the dead has always been very enticing. It’s hard to accept that there are some things we have no control over and that some things, like death, are permanent (depending on your religious beliefs, of course). But I know what you mean about Tarot cards. The bit of fun you mentioned always seems to evolve into a serious contemplation of what the cards are saying. We all want to believe in magic, I suppose!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Here’s a good fortune telling game if you have people getting too serious. Tell them to sit on the floor and put the cards out in a circle around them, and then you will tell their past, their present and their future. Once the cards are set out, study them as though in deep thought and then say “Your past is that you laid these cards out. Your present is that you are sitting surrounded by them. Your future is that you are going to gather them up again and give back to me.”

Mimi Matthews
Guest

That sounds like the kind of fortune-telling games older siblings would play with younger sisters and brothers. I can just imagine the younger children’s collective groan!

Angelyn
Guest

I couldn’t help chuckling over “propitious endeavors.” And I’m glad you included that key to the meaning of the cards. Very handy!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Ha! That guy certainly had a lot of nerve. There is no evidence about whether the woman took him up on his seedy offer, but I really hope she had more common sense.

oconnorlysaght
Guest
I wonder if any of you have read the Grossmith brothers’ book ‘The Diary of a Nobody’? There is a sequence in it in which a friend of the eponymous author’s wife introduces her to the practice of seances.(This was particularly popular at the end of c19 due to the publicity given to the current occult practices, Golden Dawn, theosophy,etc.) It ended when a sceptical friend asked the medium to ask the spirits to answer a written question sealed in an envelope. The spirits gave the answer ‘Roses, Lillies and Cows’. However, when opened, the envelope revealed that the question… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I have not read it myself. Thanks for the recommendation!

tammayauthor
Guest

It’s so interesting how the Victorians took magic and the paranormal much more seriously than we do today. A backlash from the Age of Reason of the 18th century, perhaps.

Tam

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Interesting theory, Tam. I feel that fortune-telling is just as prevalent in this age, though perhaps not as sensational. For example, when Ronald Reagan was president, his wife regularly consulted astrologers.

jdellevsen
Guest

It’s surprising how many people believed in fortune telling and palmistry. Oscar Wilde consulted such an oracle on the outcome of his trial and mistakenly took heart from the prediction, which was false. Another palmist told him he had the hand of a king who would send himself into exile, which was closer to the truth.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Poor Oscar Wilde! There were definitely those in the 19th century who sought out fortune tellers because they were anxious to about their future. There were also many who had lost a loved one and wished to communicate. Unfortunately, desperation and grief made easy pickings for crooks and charlatans.

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