The fortune teller who didn’t see it coming…

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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]

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

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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]

An astrologer fails to see his own future in the stars.

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James Wallace was described in court as a 37 year-old astrologer. When he appeared before Mr Bridge at Bow Street he was charged with a violent assault on his wife. The case was fairly straightforward, although some things about Wallace clearly disturbed the magistrate and led him to hand the man a hefty sentence.

Mr and Mrs Wallace lived at Edward Street on the Hampstead Road. The newspaper report gives us no indication whether their marriage was a happy one or whether, instead, Wallace’s abuse of his wife was a regular occurrence. I expect it was the latter because the historical research that has analysed domestic violence in the 1800s reveals that many women put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they felt impelled to take the matter to court.

At Thames court, in the East End, spousal abuse was a weekly if not daily part of the business of the court and Messrs. Lushington and Saunders regularly sent violent men to prison or fined them, for beating this partners. Thomas Holmes, who wrote several article sand books on the Police Courts in the late Victorian and Edwardian period had this to say about domestic abuse before the Police Court magistrates:

These wives will put up with a lot before they complain to the magistrates, and it is only when the wounds are fresh, and pain and resentment have not yet subsided, that they will give evidence against their husbands. Smarting under their wrongs, they rush to our courts and beg for protection, but when the summons has been granted and a week has elapsed before it is heard, their resentment cools, and very little evidence can be obtained from them; in fact, many wives do not appear, and a great number of those that do appear lie unblushingly to the magistrate in order to save their husbands from prison‘.

Thomas Holmes, Pictures and Problems from the London Police Courts (Edward Arnold, London, 1900). p.64

Holmes was a Police Court Missionary, a forerunner of the Probation Officers that were to be created in 1907. PCMs attached themselves to the London courts and offered help and advice to defendants, whilst at the same time seeking to them to append their name to the pledge to refrain from drinking alcohol. These champions of temperance identified the ‘demon drink’ as the ‘curse of the working classes’ and became familiar and largely, it seems, welcome faces at the courts.

Anyway, let us return to James Wallace. He did not fit the usual profile of a ‘wife beater; in late Victorian London. Rather than being a rough manual worker who, on returning from work or the pub late in the evening, took out his frustrations on his life partner. Instead Wallace was an educated man, or so he wanted the magistrate to think. Whilst he was on remand for the attack on his wife he wrote to the magistrate. In his letter he explained that he was a former clerk, but now earned  a living as an astrologer. He spoke of his wife in ‘a very derogatory manner’, trying to excuse his own behaviour in chastising her.

However, Wallace hadn’t simply beaten his wife for her bad behaviour – as was commonly the case with men in the period, or at least was the justification they presented in court. Wallace had dragged his wife through the streets and punched her in the head. This stepped way beyond contemporary views of acceptable ‘chastisement’.

Moreover, James Wallace was, to the magistrate at least, a charlatan and a trickster. As an astrologer he claimed to be able to read peoples’ fortunes and Mr Bridge described him as someone who ‘obtained money by cheating unwily persons’.

It is quite easy to get the impression that Mr Bridge was disgusted by the man he saw before him in the dock. He was squandered an education to peddle false dreams and he undermined any pretence of being a ‘gentleman’ by his cruel treatment of his wife.

In his letter Wallace had apparently asked the magistrate to allow himself and his wife to separate. That at least Bridge was happy to agree to. But he added that the astrologer would have to pay his wife maintenance of 10s a week for the duration of that separation; neither were free to remarry unless they obtained an expensive divorce.

On top of that the justice ordered that Wallace be sent to prison for six months  at hard labour, a serious penalty that reflected his poor opinion of him, his chosen ‘career’ and his behaviour towards his spouse.

I guess James didn’t see that coming…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 14, 1889]