Mrs. Williams the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Astrologer and Fortune-Teller

Mrs. Williams the eighteenth and nineteenth-century astrologer and fortune-teller was born on 28 May 1759 and supposedly descended from an ancient, wealthy, and respectable family in Wales. Unfortunately, her father experienced a great falling out with his family and any wealth that he might have been entitled to was lost. This also meant that Mrs. Williams, described as being of middle stature, possessing elegant manners, having an expressive countenance, and being “very handsome though somewhat dark,”[1] soon realized she had to make her own way in the world.

Mrs. Williams. Author’s collection.

Having enjoyed a “liberal education” and having received opportunities to meet and converse with some of the most “scientific men” of the times, people soon noticed that she had developed unique skills. She was extremely talented in observing people and making “pertinent remarks” about them. In addition, because she continually took advantage of every opportunity for observation, her skills improved over time.

Before long Mrs. Williams was cited as the “renowned castor of nativities, … teller of fortunes,”[2] and an astrologist extraordinaire. However, she also sold tooth powders, cosmetics, and Nervous Batavian tincture. Still she enjoyed an exalted reputation among those who visited her, and as word spread of her astrological and fortune-telling skills, the public began to demand that she “evince,” or in other words, demonstrate her skills fully. Thus, at the age of twenty-one she began to publicly receive visitors.

Her goals as a fortune-teller were mentioned by eighteenth-century author Benjamin Crosby, who claimed:

“[H]er whole study has been to render service (by her advice) to her fellow creatures to reconcile the unfortunate to their situations, to guard the unprotected from the snare of vice, and to make those, whose situation in life is more exalted and happy, know themselves.”[3]

This was reiterated in a poem originally written by physician Francis Moore but published by Mrs. Williams a couple of years later and dated Bath 20 January 1797 that appeared in the Gloucester Journal

  • “Bright Jove and Hermes now assist my pains,
  • And put a stop to all malicious brains,
  • That spit their venom on so pure an art,
  • That they from that or it may soon depart;
  • But if not so, what must we expect,
  • When on our art and us Zoile does reflect?
  • But what need I consider such as those,
  • Who everything but Wrong strives to oppose —
  • The way that’s left such to befriend my fate,
  • Is still to prove more constant to their fate,
  • Is still to prove more constant to their hate;
  • ‘Tis only those that are true Friends to art,
  • I study still to serve with all my heart.”[4]

Despite Mrs. Williams supposed abilities, sometimes she needed nothing more than common sense. That is what happened in September of 1787 when a silk mercer in Cheapside named Mr. Arnott learned a large quantity of silk was missing from his house. He tried everything to determine who the thief was and finally settled on it being one of two people: his man or a maid servant. He then spoke to his wife telling her his suspicions. Mrs. Arnott however refused to believe that any of their servants would do such a thing and decided to consult Mrs. Williams.

“On Mrs. Arnott’s application, Mrs. Williams desired her to call again the next day, and she would inform her who the person was that had stolen the silk. – Mrs. A – called the day following, and was told that the thief was neither of her servants, but a young Lady, who had sold the silk to a piece-broker behind St. Clement’s.”[5]

Mrs. Arnott did not believe Mrs. Williams but she told the story to her husband. He decided to investigate and went to piece-broker’s shop. There he found the last piece of silk missing from his home and when he inquired of the piece-broker as to the person who had brought it in, he was told:

“[A] young lady, who had frequently sold him similar articles; indeed so often did she bring him goods to sell that he had some suspicion whether she came by them honestly; and one day he followed her home, and found her to be Miss —, of — street, who lived in much credit; this he thought sufficient to authorize his buying any goods of her.”[6]

Mr. Arnott knowing the identity of the thief then applied to Sir Sampson Wright for a warrant. The young lady was apprehended, taken into custody, but then released because of a lack of evidence. She supposedly had been living in her apartment thanks to a small independent fortune. However, when her apartment was searched various articles were found that appeared to have been obtained in the same manner as Mr. Arnott’s silk, although none of silk belonging to him was discovered there.

Mrs. Williams made it clear that she did not use any fortune-telling skills to uncover the thief:

“Mrs. Williams, on Mrs. A[rnott]’s application, proved herself a sensible woman, in discovering the thief; as the method she pursued was to make inquiries at different piece-brokers, well knowing, that the stolen articles would immediately be carried there for sale.”[7]

Because of her sensibility and fortune-telling skills, Mrs. Williams soon developed an exclusive clientele and at one time lived and practiced at No. 5 Store-street and then in Holborn. Among her clients was the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, who requested she visit her, which Mrs. Williams did in 1789 and found “the reception she met with was gratifying in the extreme.”[8] That visit also resulted in Mrs. Williams meeting the Princesse de Lamballe, the queen’s friend and her Superintendent of the Household.

Marie Antoinette in 1785. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The princess, who was a well-known patron of the famous French cartomancer, Mademoiselle Lenormand, also supposedly visited Mrs. Williams in 1791. These visits allegedly happened after the princess successfully escaped France in June 1791 when the royal family made their failed attempt and were captured at Varennes. Each time the princess visited, Mrs Williams allegedly advised her not to return to France, but she did not listen, resulting in the following declaration by Crosby:

“Had this unfortunate lady, as well as many others, followed the advice of Mrs. Williams, they would not have met with those disasters, which produce, in addition to their own miseries, the recollection of having slighted prudent counsel.”[9]

Princess de Lamballe by Anton Hickel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Mrs. Williams exemplary reputation as a bona fide fortune-teller, things did not always go smooth. By 1796 the real Mrs. Williams was aware that another woman was impersonate her. Hoping to set the record straight the real Mrs. Williams published an advertisement that read:

“Student of Astrology, Respectfully informs the Nobility, Gentry, and Public, that, at the request of some friends, she has left Cheltenham, and may be consulted at Gloucester for three days only.

Mrs. Williams returns her warmest thanks to that Lady and Gentleman, who did her the honour of a compliment in the Gloucester and London Papers. All letters addressed to her at her house, James-street Bath, at the back of New King-street, will be duly attended to. Her engagement at Bristol Hot Wells will occasion her passing through Gloucester on Monday the 5th … and may be consulted at Mr. Whittick’s, Ladies’ Hair-Dresser and Perfumer, in the Westgate-street.

E.B. Mrs. Williams begs leave to add, she is not the Mrs. Williams from Store-street, who personates her, and whose real name is Ward not Williams.”[10]

Despite the real Mrs. Williams’ newspaper declaration, the faux Mrs. Williams continued to practice using the real Mrs. Williams credentials and success. However, the faux Mrs. Williams’ days  were numbered because in 1797 she was brought before a magistrate named Mr. Nares at Shadwell. The story goes that a young lady had been disappointed in love and decided to visit the faux Mrs. Williams. After paying three shillings, she was escorted upstairs and admitted into her presence. According to the Kentish Gazette, the following then happened:

“‘Let me see the palm of your hand — How long have you been separated from your husband, and when do you expect to be again reconciled to him’ was the question. ‘This is what I came to enquire of you,’ said the lady. ‘Well then, my dear, at the age of 35, if you are not reconciled to your husband, all your troubles will be at an end; but at the age of 44 he will certainly be dead; you will marry again, and the remainder of your days will end happily.’ ‘Thank you Ma’am,’ said the lady, (perceiving at the same time her own folly and the imposition) and went away.”[11]

The young lady’s friends upon hearing the story encouraged her to apply to the local magistrate and tell him how she had been duped. The magistrate was well known for punishing all sorts of rogues that included vagabonds, soothsayers, and beggars and he quickly issued a warrant for the faux Mrs. Williams and was soon in his presence. She was reported to be an elegantly dressed and accompanied by a man named Redhead, who stated that she was his wife.

“The Magistrate indulged her with a chair in which she sat down, and instantly fell into violent hysteric fits, from which she soon, by virtue of her art, recovered herself, and Mr. Nares proceeded to his duty. — He had the evidence against the prisoner, and was about to commit her for further examination, but she fell again into fits at the thoughts of being sent to jail, and on her recovery prayed she might be indulged by sleeping in her own bed, and that matter might be again heard next day. To this the Magistrate humanely consented, on condition that one of the Police Officers slept in the same room. This was agreed upon.”[12]

The next morning the faux Mrs. Williams again presented herself before Mr. Nares but this time she had counsel accompanying her. Her defense was stated, and she was discharged on the condition that she would never again claim to be a fortune-teller. She was also admonished to never advertise her fortune-telling services in newspapers and in fact she had to advertise that she now declined any such business.

In the meantime, the real Mrs. Williams continued with her fortune-telling activities undaunted. One famous person who visited Mrs. Williams was Lord Byron’s mother, Catherine. It happened in 1801 when Catherine and her 13-year-old son were visiting in Cheltenham. It was a time when Byron maintains his thoughts were on poetry, and Catherine having heard of the celebrated Mrs. Williams and her ability to predict the future, decided to make her first visit to the well-regarded fortune-teller.

“Mrs. Byron … endeavoured to pass herself off as a maiden lady. The Sibyl, however, was not so easily deceived; — she pronounced her wise consulter to be not only a married woman, but the mother of the son who was lame, and to whom, among other events which she read in the stars, it was predestined that his life should be in danger from poison before he was of age, and that he should be twice married, — the second time, to a foreign lady. About two years afterwards he himself mentioned these particulars … and said that he thought the first part of the prophecy … occurred to him. The latter part, however, seems to have been the nearer guess of the two.”[13]

Catherine Gordon, Byron’s mother, by Thomas Stewardson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mrs. Byron was not the only woman who attempted to deceive Mrs. Williams. An unnamed Countess tried to prove Mrs. Williams was a fraud. It began when Mrs. Williams began her regularly round of visiting Bath, Clifton, Bristol Hotwells, Wells, and Brighton. At each of these stops she was besieged primarily by female visitors wishing to have a consultation and hear what the future held:

“The late Countess of — conceived it possible, by simple artifice to puzzle the conjurer, and accordingly attired herself in humble garb, taking with her a well dressed governess, on whose finger her Ladyship had placed her own wedding ring. A guinea was tended by Miss —, whilst her mistress, trying to assume a rusticity of manner, dropped in a curtsey, and offered a crown piece. Their separate palms were scrutinized by Mrs. W., who, after a brief investigation, turned to the matron, saying, ‘Why do you suffer that woman to wear your ring? It is enough that she has already usurped your rights? — aye, blush and tremble, girl.’ — Mrs. W. was right.”[14]

Another visitor to see Mrs. Williams was the Prince of Wales. According to the Clare Journal, and Enis Advertiser the visit happened years earlier but was reported in 1836. Unfortunately, in this case, Mrs. Williams was pronounced a fake:

“[A]lthough his Royal highness endeavoured to preserve a strict incognito, he was hailed by his title on entering the abode of astrological research. The Prince did not scruple to tell the result of his visit. — ‘The lady informs me that I shall live to be a King, although my stars decree that I am not to be crowned.’ … [Thus, on the day of his coronation] no sooner was the crown placed upon the head of George IVth, than turning to an old and faithful servant, he said, exulting … ‘Mrs. Williams was a false prophet.’”[15]

Miniature of the Prince of Wales in 1792 by Richard Cosway, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Exactly what happened to Mrs. Williams remains a mystery. It is not known when she stopped her fortune-telling activities or when she died. For some patrons she appeared to be a fortune-teller of great power and to others her prophecies failed to come true. However, Mrs. Williams seems to the fit the bill described by one reporter of a French fortune-teller of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

“Like all fortune tellers, a large share of natural shrewdness, private knowledge of facts, and a desire to please her customers, formed the ‘sole witchcraft’ which she … used.”[16]

References:

  • [1] B. Crosby, Crosby’s Royal Fortune-telling Almanack; Or, Ladies Universal Pocket-book, for the Year 1796 (London: B.Crosby, 1795), 142
  • [2] Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser, “The Prince of Wales and the Female Astrologer,” January 28, 1836, 4
  • [3] B. Crosby. 1795, 142–43
  • [4] Gloucester Journal, “Bright Jove,” January 23, 1797, 3
  • [5] The New Lady’s Magazine, Or, Polite and Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex v. 2 (London: Alexander Hogg, 1787)
  • [6] Ibid., 501
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] B. Crosby. 1795, 143
  • [9] B. Crosby. 1795, 143
  • [10] Gloucester Journal, “M. Williams,” 3
  • [11] Kentish Gazette, “A Fortune Teller,” February 24, 1797, 2
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] G.G.B. Byron, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life v. 2 (Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1830), 14
  • [14] Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser, 4
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, “The Old Fortune-Teller,” April 25, 1840, 4

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