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 young lady that placed her faith in a fortune teller, and got thumped for her pains

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Mrs Maria Grace was taking tea at home in Rotherhithe in May 1845 when there was a caller at the door. She opened the door and admitted a fashionably dressed pretty young woman.  It all seemed very normal until the visitor stepped forward, seized a cup of tea from the table and threw it in Maria’s face!

This assault was followed by more violence as the young woman attacked, scratching Maria’s face and then stuck her baby (who was sat in her lap) causing its mouth to bleed.  Then, without any explanation the girl departed leaving the chaos she had caused behind her.

Some days later Maria and the mysterious visitor appeared before Mr Grove, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court. Mr Evans conducted the prosecution case and Mr May represented the defendant whose named was Mrs Headlewick. Mr May cross-examined Maria and soon discovered that some time ago she had lost a valuable gold ring and had taken an unusual course of action to retrieve it. Maria told the solicitor that she had paid 2sto a fortuneteller to ascertain its whereabouts. This had revealed (if that the teller was to be believed) that:

‘the person who had taken the ring was a fair young woman, who was now gone into the country either by steam-boat or railway, and would remain away some time’.

While this might apply to quite a lot of people (as is often the case with fortune telling) Maria was sure that this applied to the person that had visited her. She explained that she was convinced that her assailant had not only taken her jewelry but had stolen from her own aunt, and she made a point of telling the young woman’s relatives this.

The court heard that for the last three months Mrs Headlewick had indeed been away, in Burton-upon-Trent, and it was only when she returned with her husband to London that she got wind of Maria’s accusation that she was a thief. So now the assault makes sense. Mrs Headlewick was angry that Maria was defaming her to her family and had gone round to confront her.

The magistrate was clear that an assault had occurred even if there had been  understandable provocation. However the more serious crime of robbery was harder to resolve. He told Mrs Headlewick that she would have to pay a fine of 5or go to prison. Given that both ladies were able to hire lawyers to represent them there was never any danger that the defendant was going inside for the assault. The fine was paid and the two women left court but neither were satisfied with the outcome. The fine was paltry and the accusation of theft was left unresolved.

For me it is a reminder that in the mid Victorian age people were prepared to place their trust in charlatans who promised to tell their future and solve mysteries in the present. Then again, do we actually live in a much more enlightened time ourselves?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 25, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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]