The ‘wise woman from Leicester’ who cheated the ‘credulous young women’ of Chelsea.

tireuse

I wonder how many of us have had our fortunes told? Perhaps you’ve had your palm read at a fair, or been to see a tarot reader, or have paid to have your astrological birth chart created? You may just read your horoscope in a daily paper. The reality is many people would like to know what the future holds even if they are a bit skeptical of authenticity or reliability of these sources of information.

Fortunetellers have always existed, from the ancients to the present but while today we tend to regard them as mostly purveyors of harmless fun, in the past they were sometimes seen as witches and/or charlatans. In 1736 the laws that allowed the hanging of people for witchcraft were repealed but it remained a crime to try and trick others into believing you had magical powers. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 remained on the statute until 1951 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which allowed for the prosecution of individuals who claimed to be psychic, replaced it. This law was repealed in 2008 under legislation that brought Britain in line with EU regulations regarding ‘unfair sales and marketing practices’. Perhaps after March 2019 we will need a new law to protect us from people who say they can predict the future.

The Witchcraft Act (1736) was rarely deployed but magistrates and the police had another weapon with which to act against gypsy fortunetellers and fairground charlatans. This was the catch-all Vagrancy Act of 1824 which allowed the police to hoover up and prosecute pretty much anyone they liked found in a public place asking for money without good cause. It was also possible that fraudulent fortune tellers could have been prosecuted under the laws that prohibited the selling of goods or the obtaining of money by false pretenses, and perhaps it was this that brought Charlotte Elizabeth Priscilla Veasey before Mr. D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court in late July 1883.

Charlotte Elizabeth was 68 years of age and was accused of ‘obtaining money by pretending to “tell fortunes”’. Several women had complained about her behaviour to the police and they had set up an investigation that involved the planting of two police witnesses. Detectives Scott and Wilson (B Division) set up a watch on Veasey’s house in White Lion Street, Chelsea.  They also employed an out of work serving girl named Reed and the widow of a policeman (Mrs Gregory) to act as planted clients.

As they staked out the house the detectives saw 13 women come and go during just two hours. On the same day a further five clients called at the house in the afternoon. When Mrs Gregory and Miss Reed had been in and out they quizzed them as to their experiences.

The servant told them she been told that:

she had five sweethearts, none of whom would marry her – that a dark young man had left her for a fair woman, but that a very “nice young gentleman” had honourable intentions, and would ask to go out on evening walks’.

Miss Reed had paid sixpence for this information and some of this, it seems, was true. But then again, it wasn’t unusual and was suitably vague (as many predictions like this are).

Mrs Gregory paid 8to be told that she would, at last, find a new husband. However Veasey was wrong about the number of children she had and told her that one of her sons was stepping out with a fair haired girl, which she was sure was false, but later turned out to be true. Again, Veasey had been pretty vague and her guesswork was combined with telling her clients what they wanted to believe.

In her defense Veasey insisted that she did no harm. As a ‘sixteenth child’ she claimed she could interpret dreams, always gave ‘good advice’ and never charged a fixed sum for her services. She’d charged Miss Reed less for example, because she was unemployed. She’d been doing this for almost 40 years and was know as the ‘wise woman from Leicester’.

She made the court laugh when she told Mr. D’Eyncourt that all Mrs Gregory was concerned about was whether she would get another husband.

She seems harmless enough and I imagine that is how she would be seen today. An old lady who mixed homespun advice with a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and charged a not unreasonable amount for reassuring people that everything would ‘be ok’. Not surprisingly Mr. D’Eyncourt didn’t see it that way. He ‘told her that she got her living by cheating credulous young women’ and sent her to prison for three weeks at hard labour, not even countenancing the alternative of a fine.

She hadn’t seen that coming.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1883]

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