Fortune-telling in Britain was formerly included under the
crime of witchcraft and was made punishable by death under
the Statute of 1563. This act was repealed by George II
(1683–1760), who ordained that no prosecution should thereafter
be made on a charge of witchcraft and that all persons
professing to occult skill or undertaking to tell fortunes might
be sentenced to imprisonment for one year, made to stand pillory,
and pledge future good behavior.
Punishment by pillory was later abolished. Under George IV
(1762–1830) fortune-tellers were included along with other vagrants
under the general category of ‘‘rogues and vagabonds’’
and were liable to imprisonment for three months. This provision
was made applicable to Scotland also and provided that
‘‘every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes or using
any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise to
deceive, and impose on any of His Majesty’s Subjects’’ would be
deemed a vagabond and rogue and be punished accordingly.
The first case to be prosecuted under this law was the Smith
case. A woman named Jone Lee Smith was charged in the police
court at Glasgow with a violation of the enactment. She was
convicted of the violation and drew a suspension. The court
overturned the conviction, on the grounds that the complaint
was irrelevant in that it did not set forth that the accused had
pretended to tell fortunes with intent to deceive anyone. Lord
Young, one of the judges, said,
‘‘It has never been imagined, so far as I have ever heard, or
thought, that writing, publishing, or selling books on the lines
of the hand, or even on astrology—the position of the stars at
birth and the rules upon which astrologers proceed in telling
fortunes therefrom. I say that I have never heard of publishing,
or selling such books is an offence, or that reading such books,
and telling fortunes therefrom is an offence. Roguery and
knavery might be committed that way, but it would be a special
case. I am not in any way suggesting that a spae wife or anyone
else may not through that means commit knavery and deception,
and so be liable to punishment.’’
It thus appears that fortune-telling was of itself no offense
unless accompanied by fraud. While it might be an offense for
the palmist or fortune-teller to knowingly accept payment from
a foolish or ignorant person, it could hardly be said that the ordinary
person who consulted and then paid a professional fortune-teller
or crystal gazer should feel imposed upon if the
character delineations were faulty or the forecast inaccurate.
British Spiritualists continued to be harassed under the Vagrancy
Act of 1824 throughout the first half of the twentieth
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fortune-Telling
century. Psychical research might be quite respectable, but
until as recently as 1951 a medium could be prosecuted under
sections of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of
1824. In a 1921 case a judge stated, ‘‘I cannot reverse the decision
on the claim that the intention to deceive was not necessarily
to be proved. The act of fortune-telling is an offence in itself.’’
Perhaps the most deplorable type of prosecution was that in
which undercover agents were employed by the police to obtain
evidence. Disguised policewomen posing as bereaved parents
would approach a medium, begging for some consolatory message.
A small sum of money would be proffered as a ‘‘love offering,’’
and if this was accepted the medium could be prosecuted—often
for as little as the equivalent of a 25-cent ‘‘donation’’
to the Spiritualist church. Unsympathetic magistrates, convinced
that all Spiritualists were frauds, often imposed a fine,
or a sentence of up to three months’ imprisonment.
As late as 1944 the medium Helen Duncan was prosecuted
for ‘‘pretending to communicate with spirits.’’ Duncan was
found guilty and served a sentence of nine months’ imprisonment.
After her release she resumed mediumistic activities and
in October 1956 was seized by police at a séance in Nottingham.
She became ill and died five weeks later. This case stimulated
efforts by Spiritualists to get the old punitive legislation
repealed, since it could theoretically make any séance illegal.
In 1951 the old witchcraft and vagrancy legislation was finally
repealed by the new Fraudulent Mediums Act, which, although
not wholly satisfactory, at least implicitly acknowledged
that there might be genuine mediumship. In New York comparable
outdated legislation had been amended in 1929 to exempt
ministers and mediums of Spiritualist associations acting
in good faith without personal fees.
The dropping of the old witchcraft law had a second, and
unplanned, effect the revival of a new form of witchcraft. Following
the repeal of the anti-witchcraft legislation, Gerald
Gardner published several books announcing the continued
existence of witchcraft followers in England.
Gardner, Gerald. Witchcraft Today. London Rider, 1954.

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