In the 1850’s the humorist Mortimer Thomson, writing as Q. K. Philander Doesticks, set his sights on the fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and astrologers of New York City. Under the pretense of wanting their services, he visited a cross-section of his local oracles and documented his experiences in a series of newspaper articles that became the 1856 book The Witches of New York; a volume that is one part humor, one part skepticism, and one part anthropology.
Thomson was a colorful figure whose obituary credits him with having been expelled from Michigan University for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” His prose is highly comedic. In one chapter he impersonated a woman in order to obtain an interview at a ladies-only establishment; a “Crinolinic Stratagem,” as he put it, that afforded him the opportunity to glimpse an image of his future husband.
Much of the humor in The Witches of New York plays upon the contrast between expectations and reality. One by one, the mysterious oracles advertising themselves in local newspapers are revealed to be unassuming alcoholics and former prostitutes who recite vague, boilerplate fortunes, employ cheap parlor tricks and make poor attempts at cold reading. Here is typical example in which a well-established sorceress named Madame Prewster attempts to divine the name of Thomson’s true love:
Then she resumed, “If you will tell me the number of letters in the lady’s name, I will tell you what her name is.”
This demand was unexpected, but her cool and collected customer replied at random, “Four.” The she-Falstaff then referred to a book wherein was written a long list of names, of varying lengths from one syllable to six, and selecting the names with four letters, began to ask.
“Is it Emma?” “No.” “Anna?” “No.” Ella?” “No?” “Jane?” “No.” Etta?” “No.” “Lucy?” “No.” “Cora?” “No.” At last, finding that she would run through all the four-letter names in the language and that he must eventually say something, he agreed to let his “true love’s” name be Mary. Then she continued her remarks: “You face up Mary, you love Mary; Mary is a good girl. You will marry Mary at last; but Mary is not now here—Mary is far away; but do not fear, for you shall have Mary.”
Much like Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, Thomson’s comedic take-downs of New York psychics and astrologers were conceived in a spirit of skeptical activism. “The Witches of New York,” he wrote, “exert an influence too powerful and too wide-spread to be treated with such light regard as has been too long been manifested by the community they have swindled for so many years.” He noted with alarm that their advice guided the decisions of not only “ignorant servants” and “unfortunate girls of the town,” but of “men engaged in respectable and influential professions, and many merchants of good credit and repute.” That influential people should seek such poor counsel, however, was only the tip of the iceberg:
People who do not know anything about the subject will perhaps be surprised to hear that most of these humbug sorceresses are now, or have been in more youthful and attractive days, women of the town, and that several of their present dens are vile assignation houses; and that a number of them are professed abortionists, who do as much perhaps in the way of child-murder as others whose names have been more prominently before the world; and they will be astonished to learn that these chaste sibyls have an understood partnership with keepers of houses of prostitution, and that the opportunities for a lucrative playing into each other’s hands are constantly occurring.
In the last case, fortune-tellers were said to employ male confederates in order to inveigle credulous young girls into prostitution; tall, handsome strangers who would materialize according to the dictates of “prophecy.”
Many of the fortune-tellers Thomson visits have specific criminal histories, or are described as engaging in other, more nefarious side-business. The most objectionable example turns out to be one of the only men that Thomson interviewed; an astrologer by the name of Dr. Wilson. After performing a series of calculations on his slate, Wilson predicts, with absolute certainty, that Thomson will poison his wife. This being Fate’s unassailable decree, set in stone for all time, he then advises the journalist that when he does this, he must be very careful to choose a poison that will not be detected by police. Not everyone has the expertise to do this properly. Fortunately, Dr. Wilson is also botanical physician…
That fortune-tellers with addresses in Broome Street and the Bowery should have been engaged in criminal activity is no surprise; these were poor people, living in filthy slums. For an aging, former prostitute, reading palms had to have been one more of the more agreeable ways to scrape out a living. In many ways, The Witches of New York reads much like an extract from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor; or it would, if Mayhew had been in the habit of poking fun at other people’s poverty.
Thomson prefaces each of his encounters with colorful descriptions of the filth and destitution in which he finds his witches dwelling. He says of Madame Morrow’s house on Broome Street that it “cannot be called dirty, simply because that mild word expresses an approximation toward cleanliness which no house in this neighborhood has known for years.” He goes on to describe her parlor, writing:
The room was small, and what few things were in it looked shabby and dirty of course. The principal article of furniture was a huge basketful of soiled linen, which probably had been “taken in” to wash, and from a respectable family, for every single article seemed ashamed to be caught in such company, and tried to burrow down out of sight. Disconsolate shirts elbowed humiliated socks, which in turn kicked against mortified flannels, or hid themselves beneath disconcerted sheets; abashed shirt-collars and humbled dickies tried to shrink out of sight in very shame beneath a dishonored table-cloth, the wine-stains on which showed it to belong in better society. A dejected and cast-down woman was assorting the despairing contents of the basket with a look of desolation.
Oddly, Thomson never comments upon the obvious connection between the conditions in which his witches live, and what they do to survive.
He was probably he was not such a bad guy. During the 1863 draft riots, he sped from his office to rescue a black woman from an angry Irish mob, holding them off at gunpoint. His humor, however, has a decidedly mean edge to it that becomes particularly noxious where it clashes against modern sensibilities; a weakness in style that may have been contributed to his eventual obscurity.
Doesticks, Q. K. Philander (a.k.a. Mortimer Thomson). “The Witches of New York.” 1859.
New York Times. “Mortimer Thomson—’Doesticks’,” June 26, 1875.