Parisian fortune-tellers were plentiful in eighteenth century France, and many fortune seekers visited them during the French Revolution hoping to learn if they would keep their head or not. One man wrote that when he visited the Pont Neuf, fortune-tellers regular used a deck of cards to predict a person’s future. However, a deck of cards was not the only way a person discovered his or her future. Some fortune-tellers used a long pipe which had one end placed on the ear of the fortune seeker and the other end near the fortune-teller’s mouth. The fortune-teller then explained in a quiet voice the fortune seeker’s “futurity … [and promised] lavish wealth and prosperity at the moderate price of deux sous.” In addition, fortunes could also be obtained by a fortune-teller reading the dregs of a person’s coffee cup.
Perhaps, what was more interesting than fortune-tellers using cards, pipes, or coffee dregs to predict the future, was how the fortune-tellers were able to accomplish it. Their abilities and success caused more than one curious person to investigate the field of fortune-telling. It also resulted in three stories about Parisian fortune-tellers in the eighteenth century and how they operated.
One interesting tale about how the future was predicted begins with a Parisian clerk in the police office. His interest in fortune-telling was piqued after he was tasked with prosecuting a fortune-teller. The more the clerk learned about the fortune-telling field, the more interested he became, particularly after he “discovered that upon the whole it was merely a calculation of probabilities.” Intrigued, the clerk began to study all the arts associated with fortune-telling. He also acquired a mass of information about the public’s credulity based on sex, marital status, and social position, and he gathered information about the most common types of accidents, while simultaneously studying physiognomy, memorizing names, and seeking out family secrets.
When at last he reached a point where he was “rich in materials, and powerful in means, he opened a cabinet of necromancy.” His predictions were so outstanding, his parlor quickly filled with people from all social backgrounds. He became a fortune-teller to the poorest commoner, as well as the richest nobleman. In addition, all of his hard work paid off monetarily: Daily he raked in gold coins and filled his pockets to overflowing, so that soon he quit his police clerking job.
A second story involves the 50 or so Parisian fortune-tellers that could be readily found between a street located near the Tuileries Garden, known as the rue St. Honorè and the Vieille rue du Temple, which was the street where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were imprisoned at the Temple. You could easily spot the fortune-tellers at their tables because their tables were usually colorful and covered in magical symbols. Many of these fortune-tellers also had near, or on, their tables, wheels with small compartments in them.
For fortune seekers to obtain their fortunes, they asked a question out loud. The fortune-teller then gave them a blank piece of paper that they placed into one of the wheel’s compartments. The wheel was given a spin and the same piece of paper was drawn out, but instead of being blank, miraculously written upon it was an answer that applied to the fortune seeker’s question. So how did the answers miraculously appear? When the wheel was spun it released a certain powder that made the answer visible. Moreover, because the fortune-teller had on hand a variety of answers acquired through “knowledge and some acquaintance with mankind,” he or she could easily pick out an applicable answer to the fortune seeker’s question.
One of the most successful Parisian fortune-tellers once related a story about being awaken in the dead of night by a stranger wearing a large slouch hat over his face. When the fortune-teller asked the stranger what he wanted, he replied, “If you are what you profess to be, you can tell me that.” The fortune-teller got his cards and told the stranger he was an illustrious person, and the stranger agreed. He also told the stranger he wanted to know whether a certain lady was having a boy or girl, and the stranger once again indicated the fortune-teller was correct. When the fortune-teller told the stranger that the child would be a boy, the stranger said, “If that proves true, you shall receive fifty pieces of gold — if false a good cudgeling.”
A few weeks later the stranger reappeared in the same manner and before the stranger could say anything the fortune-teller said, “‘You find I was right.’ ‘I do,’ replied the stranger, ‘and I came to keep my promise.'” He then gave the fortune-teller the promised 50 louis. So, how was the fortune-teller able to answer the stranger’s questions and do so correctly?
The fortune-teller related his secrets saying that while shuffling the cards, he purposely let a few fall on the floor. When he reached down to pick them up, he glanced up at the stranger’s face and discovered the stranger to be the Duke of Orléans, the future Philippe Égalité. This fact the fortune-teller then pretended to acquire from the cards. Knowing who the visitor was allowed the fortune-teller to rely on public knowledge, and it was a well-known at the time that the Duke’s wife was pregnant and nearing her confinement. Thus, he deduced the Duke’s question. The fortune-teller also knew the Duke was anxious for a son, and predicting a boy was more likely to result in the “most liberal pay” from the Duke. So, the fortune-teller predicted a boy.
When the fortune-teller learned the Duchess was in labor, he ran to the Palais-Royal to learn the baby’s sex (just in case he needed to be on guard against a cudgeling). The fortune-teller had barely returned home and settled into bed before the Duke of Orléans appeared. Then the Duke’s faith was “confirmed by the fortune-teller’s anticipation of his intelligence [as the fortune-teller already knew the outcome].”
Although many people patronized Parisian fortune-tellers, some people were opposed to them. Among those who greatly opposed fortune-tellers were the English. It was noted in the early 1800s, “‘fortune-telling’ is a crime of no small magnitude, attended with most alarming and immoral consequences to the less enlightened part of the community.” Another English critic wrote “Fortune tellers, casters of nativities, and all professors of supernatural power, are, by law, ‘Rogues and Vagabonds.'” Hannah More, the famous English religious writer, bluestocking member, and philanthropist agreed. In one of her moralizing tracts, Tawney Rachel: or the Fortune-Teller, she wrote:
“I have thought it my duty to print this little history, as a kind of warning to all you young men and maidens not to have anything to say to CHEATS, IMPOSTORS, CUNNING WOMEN, FORTUNE-TELLERS, CONJURERS, and INTERPRETERS OF DREAMS. Listen to me, your true friend, when I assure you that God never reveals to weak and wicked women those secret designs of his providence, which no human wisdom is able to foresee. To consult these false oracles is not only foolish, but sinful. It is foolish because they are themselves as ignorant as those whom they pretend to teach! … The Bible will direct us what to do, better than any conjuror, and no days are unlucky but those which we make so, by our own vanity, folly, and sin.”
-  Williams, Helen Maria, Williams’s Letters, 1796, p. 20.
-  Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Volume 7, 1839, p. 40.
-  Ibid.
-  Letters from Switzerland and France, Sir Richard Phillips 1821, p. 89.
-  Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, p. 40.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Powell, Joseph and Joseph Gurney, The Trial of Joseph Powell, the Fortune-teller, 1808, p. 27.
-  Rede, William Leman and Leman Thomas Rede, York Castle in the Nineteenth Century, 1831, p. 31.
-  More, Hannah, The Works of Hannah More, Volume 1, 1835, p. 357.