I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As far back as 1799, New Jersey had a law on the books that stated “All persons who shall use or pretend to use or have a skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science” were guilty of disorderly conduct. In some American jurisdictions, fortune telling in exchange for money is still illegal.
Harmless Entertainment or a Swindle?
In 1929, a woman walked into Mikette Cuba’s Gypsy Tea Room and asked for a reading of her tea leaves. Ms. Cuba stared into the cup and pronounced the woman was about to meet a “tall, dark man” and that there would be “a trip across water” in her future.
No amount of money is too much to pay for such an insightful reading and 25 cents changed hands. That’s when the trouble started for Ms. Cuba because her client was a policewoman on a mission to close psychic fortune tellers.
The fortune teller was fined $100; that’s almost $1,500 in today’s money.
Ms. Cuba’s misfortune was all part of a campaign against what the New York City Police grandly described as “tea rooms of occult nomenclature.”
Despite the disapproval of the city pooh-bahs, most people going to a reading did so just to have a bit of a giggle. But, some crystal-ball-gazers crossed the line with extravagant promises about how their expert knowledge could help clients solve the problems that were bedeviling their lives.
Fortune-Telling Tea Rooms
The craze for fortune telling began in America in the 1920s. Storefront operations sprang up in cities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Chicago.
A Roma theme was especially popular, trading on the myth that Romany people had some special gift for divination; if the fortune teller could conjure up a name beginning with the letter “Z” preceded by “Princess” or “Madame” so much the better.
Bright colours, staff wearing gypsy costumes, with hoop earrings, and bandanna headdresses completed the illusion.
The New York Herald Tribune told its readers what to expect: “A peep into the future is offered as inducement toward purchase of tuna fish salad with mayonnaise dressing, nut bread and pimento sandwiches, a dill pickle, ice cream, tea, and angel cake.”
The deal was that the telling of a fortune was thrown in for free with every ham and Swiss on rye purchased. However, the subterfuge of appearing not to charge for readings still offended the ordinances banning soothsaying.
Police Officer Mary Sullivan
At the sharp end of the police enforcement was Mary Sullivan, the first woman to join the homicide squad in New York and head of the female division of the city police force.
She told a Herald Tribune reporter in 1931 “it is common practice of these fortune tellers to tell a woman that her husband is friendly with a mysterious blonde.” Naturally, this would trigger complaints to the police force and officers such as Mary Shanley and her colleagues would be sent on a swoop.
Officer Shanley would go undercover and ask for a palm reading or whatever the specialty of the fortune teller might be. As money changed hands, she would pull out her detective shield and make the arrest. In the first six months of 1931, the team got more than 100 convictions.
But, Mary Sullivan was realistic about the campaign: “We’ve done pretty well, though we’ve no hope of actually stamping out fortune-telling until that distant day when all human beings acquire common sense.”
She also pointed out that the clairvoyants did not possess special powers because if they did they would have figured out they were dealing with undercover police officers. Not one of them did.
But, the raids began to take a toll and when World War Two broke out it seems there might have been an outbreak of commons sense. Defeating Germany and Japan dealt blows to the frivolity of the gypsy tea room industry. But, you can’t keep a money-making venture down for long.
Today’s Fortune Tellers
The prognosticating business is thriving in New York City. Yelp has more than 800 “psychic reading” listings serving the metropolitan area. The gypsy connection seems to have faded out of fashion somewhat and to have been replaced by practitioners offering East Indian mysticism.
But, there’s plenty of other exotica on offer. Kau cim is a Chinese guide to the future by studying how a bunch of flat sticks fall on a table top. Hoodoo is a form of African American folk magic that’s also sometimes called “rootwork” or “conjure.” There’s Psychic Michaela who specializes “in palm readings, tarot cards, aura, and crystal readings.” Or, there’s Prem Jyotish who “has undergone years of study in Hindu Vedic Astrology and Numerology.”
Some of the Yelp listings carry reviews from clients using unkind words such as “scam” and “fraud.”
The fact is that fortune telling is still a misdemeanour in New York State. Practitioners of the dark arts evade prosecution by invoking a clause in the statute that the trade is okay if it’s “part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.”
But, the authorities have better things to do with their time than chase down Madame Zelda or Swami Zashil. There are the business practices of certain prominent real estate developers to be looked into for starters.
However, the cops do still swoop from time to time. Psychic Zoe (aka Ann Thompson) was raided in 2018 and arrested for scamming more than $800,000 from two trusting clients.
Preying on naïve and vulnerable people was Psychic Zoe’s stock in trade. She convinced a broken-hearted woman that she would never find love again unless she bought the psychic a ring with a honking big diamond in it. Money, lots of it, was needed to exorcise demons that were ruining the woman’s life.
As seems so often the case, Psychic Zoe did not see her impending conviction on charges of fraud coming. Which leads to the obvious question “If these people possess a special gift for seeing into the future, why are they peddling their services for as little as $10 a pop when they could be buying and selling stocks or hitting the trifecta every day at the race track?”
Where to Go for the Most Accurate Predictions
- Fortune telling through the reading of tea leaves is called tasseomancy, tassology, or tasseography.
- According to Real Time Research, one in three Americans believe they have had a psychic experience, and one in four believe some people possess the gift of being able to see into the future.
- In 249 BCE, Publius Claudius Pulcher was the commander of a Roman fleet about to take on the Carthaginians. As was customary before battle, chickens were consulted as to how the combat would turn out. Apparently, the poultry predicted a negative outcome, so Pulcher tossed the birds overboard. Of course, the Roman fleet suffered a catastrophic defeat.
- “The Psychic Tea Rooms of 1930s New York Didn’t Predict All the Police Raids.” Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura, December 7, 2017.
- “1938: My Double Life (Biography) by Mary Sullivan.” Stanford University, undated.
- “Reading the Tea Leaves.” Jan Whitaker, Restaurant-ing Through History, September 5, 2017.
- “She Didn’t See it Coming: Psychic Arrested for $800,000 Fraud.” Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian, May 18, 2018.
- “Parshat Shofetim—When Birds Speak.” David Sedley, Times of Israel, September 6, 2019.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor