Frederick ‘Professor’ Wilson was either a man possessed with the ability to see into the future or a charlatan; it all rather depends on your view of fortune telling. In the late 1800s fortune telling and other mystic practices (such as spiritualism) were in vogue. We’ve seen elsewhere in this blog series that Victorians, women in particular, were keen to find out what the future held and so were happy to part with money to consult a side-show gypsy or answer advertisements in the paper promising enlightenment.
Professor Wilson operated from his home in Wilton Road, Pimlico, placing ads in the newspapers to entice the curious and unwary to find out what lay ahead of them. While women often wanted to know whom they might marry and when, men were more likely to be tempted by offers of wealth or advancement.
On such, printed in The Morning Post in June 1888 read:
‘KNOW THYSELF – Your CHARACTER correctly DESCRIBED by HANDWRITING or PHOTOGRAPHY; complete description, containing 42 characteristics, six stamps and stamped addressed envelope – Professor Wilson , 30, Abingdon-road, London, W. Over 1,200 testimonials’.
In late May 1891 a ‘Mr Mallett’ answered one of Wilson’s ads and waited to see what response he got.
He described himself as a sailor who was ‘anxious to learn his prospects in life’. Wilson wrote back enclosing one page leaflets – ‘circulars’ – on character signs, an invitation to enter ‘an easy counting competition’, and series of questions that could be used to determine his astrological profile. All the flyers required a small sum of money to enter and when he had submitted payment the sailor received by return a letter that promised:
‘that prosperity and certain success were before if , and that he would rise beyond his present position in life’. The missive added that ‘it would be greatly to his advantage to go abroad and that Wednesdays and the 27th of the month were his luckiest days’.
Of course Mallett was no sailor at all, he’d acted as he had to catch Wilson out. In fact he was detective sergeant Edward Tallin of B Division, Metropolitan Police and he visited the so-called professor and arrested him for fraud. Brought before the Westminster Police court Wilson was now accused of trying to cheat Tallin, along with other members of the general public.
The fortune-teller was represented by a lawyer (J B Matthews) and denied the charges against him. Mr Matthews suggested that since the police were paid on Wednesdays his client was accurate in stating that those were his ‘luckiest’ days. This brought laughter to Mr De Rutzen’s court and perhaps some colour to the detective’s cheeks.
Undeterred however, DS Tallin said that he had uncovered an operation that involved two men and one woman and a considerable amount of fraudulent activity. He’d presented this to the Commissioner of Police and a prosecution was now ongoing. De Rutzen complied with the police request to remand Wilson but agreed to release him on his own recognizances of £20.
A week later he was back in court charged formally with ‘practising astrology’. HE again denied the charge and said he was a ‘professor of graphology and physiognomy’ and that his adverts were innocent and legitimate. His solicitor declared that he ‘had thousands of letters from people of good position testifying to his ability. His correspondents included clergymen and many ladies, and it was strange that the police could not bring forward one person to complain’.
Mr De Rutzen was not surprised and didn’t mince his words:
‘The people who write to such men as the defendant are, to say the least, weak-minded, and ashamed to let their folly be known’.
He convicted Wilson of a ‘gross imposition’ and fined him £5 or 14 days imprisonment. The fortune teller may have seen that coming because he had the money in his pocket ready, and so paid up and was discharged.
1891 saw the very last murder that was associated with the unknown serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ by the late Victorian press, that of Frances Coles. On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) was published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London.
The book is available to order on Amazon here
[from The Standard, Friday, June 19, 1891; The Morning Post, Friday, June 22, 1888]