An Edwardian trial used legislation from larceny to witchcraft to prosecute a husband and wife palm-reading team…
In 1904, an ordinary looking, middle-aged couple appeared in court to answer various charges. Charles Yates Stephenson and his wife, Martha, were well-dressed, literate and well-spoken. They were also two of the targets of a concerted effort by the Metropolitan Police to clamp down on a surfeit of fraudulent clairvoyants and spiritualists who were flocking the capital, advertising their services in the press, and encouraging the vulnerable, the grieving, and the unhappy residents of the capital to pay good money to hear platitudes – voices of their dead loved ones, allegedly speaking beyond the grave.
Charles was born in 1858 in Southwark, the son of a commercial traveller and grandson of a wealthy shipowner. He grew up in Camberwell and in Brighton, initially working in the latter place as a journalist. He knew how to conjure up a good story, and this would later include a series of exaggerated job titles.
In the censuses, he variously described himself as a ‘medical masseur’, a ‘medical electrician’, and, finally, a doctor of medicine, despite having never gone to university or medical school. He moved around frequently; in 1888, when he was working as a reporter in Southport, he married Martha Faircloth, one of ten children, and the daughter of a Cambridgeshire corn miller.
The Stephensons moved around the country, but after a spell in Sussex – where Charles was convicted of two offences, from the minor (failing to muzzle his dog) to the major (getting drunk and beating Martha up in the street) – they moved to London. By the turn of the century, they had established a partnership as Professor and Madame Keiro. This was a permutation of the name Cheiro – which was an abbreviation of cheiromancy, another word for palmistry.
Another palmist who used the name was the Dublin-born William Warner, known as Cheiro; he was a popular figure in London at around the same time. Although using a form of the word cheiromancy was logical in the Stephensons’ line of work, it is also possible that they wanted to create a link between themselves and the well-known ‘society palmist’ by using a similar name.
The fin de siècle had seen a resurgence of interest in spiritualism and the ‘other world’, following a similar passion amongst individuals earlier in the 19th century. Academics sought to rationalise spiritualism whilst others embraced it and founded societies aimed at exploring the supernatural. Students investigated the occult illicitly, scaring themselves with ouija boards and other activities designed to communicate with the dead.
An increasing number of palmists and fortune tellers set up in business across Britain, some working from their kitchens or living rooms, inviting strangers into their homes to tell them what they wanted to hear. Others, like the Stephensons, aimed higher, renting properties that could act as business premises.
The press and government were concerned at this resurgent interest in the supernatural, and the authorities sought to clamp down on it. They invoked three main pieces of legislation – the Larceny Act, the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and the Vagrancy Act. Under the old vagrancy laws, it was illegal to engage in fortune telling for money – something originally linked to suspicion about gypsies – and there were also issues regarding fraud, with it being increasingly recognised that these fortune tellers were fraudulent, and that their motive was obtaining money for false services.
It was made clear, with the Stephensons, that they ‘were not of the class of vagrant fortune tellers, who wandered from house to house, but would probably claim to belong to the innermost hierarchy of that class’. Therefore, despite the laws against vagrancy, there was also a kind of romantic perception of the itinerant, gypsy fortune teller – one that the Stephensons were keen to exploit.
The police awareness of fortune-telling scams had been helped by disgruntled former clients, who made efforts to discredit individuals such as the Keiros, both by reporting them to police, and by writing anonymous cards, placed publicly, warning others.
The Keiros were so concerned about these notes that they took the risk of placing an advert in the Morning Post in January 1901, describing themselves as ‘Professor and Madame Keiro, scientific palmists’ (Charles was no professor, and neither had scientific credentials). They stressed that they held daily consultations at Regent Street, but then added: ‘The writer of the anonymous cards to Prof. Keiro and others has been traced. Their communications are treated with the contempt they deserve.’
It was on10 October 1904 that Charles and Martha Stephenson appeared before the magistrates at the Clerkenwell Sessions House in London. They both pleaded not guilty to fraud. The prosecution mocked Charles’ description of himself as ‘the leading and oldest established palmist in the world’, and made clear that money was at the heart of the business – ‘he had carried on a highly remunerative business for many years.’
Although every customer who visited him received a note declaring that he would never deceive them, and that they could choose whether or not to believe his predictions of the future, it was noted in court that this did not offer Charles any protection legally – not even the ‘smallest possible protection’.
Customers using the Stephensons’ services often wanted to know information such as when they would get married, how many children they would have, or how long they would live. Other services were also sought, such as in the case of one young man who was panicking about his forthcoming exams, and who asked Charles to hypnotise him into better revision habits.
As part of their evidence gathering for the case, the police had employed ex-Scotland Yard inspector Charles Richards, now working as a private detective. Keiro had boasted to him that he had read the hands of President McKinley and that he had also foretold the death of Queen Victoria. Another witness detailed a reading she had received from Keiro, in which he told her that her husband would be asked to build a big asylum. When questioned further, she said this was unlikely, given that her husband was ‘really a clerk in the works department of the Stores’.
In summing up, the prosecution stated that ‘this was a gross, impudent fraud, this getting of a guinea or two from credulous, foolish, stupid people who had an extraordinary capacity for believing any form of rubbish, no matter how outrageous, offered to them.’
The case also had important connotations in terms of class, for it was noted that there had been many prosecutions of poorer fortune-tellers – those genuinely from traveller backgrounds, or otherwise from the lower echelons of society – and that it would not look good to convict these people, but not middle-class frauds such as the Stephensons. At the conclusion of the case, both Charles and Martha were found guilty of attempted fraud, as well as of pretending to tell fortunes. They escaped jail, instead being bound over to come up for sentencing if called on – and they were ordered not to practice palmistry again.
The 1904 case was part of a concerted effort by the authorities to clamp down on unscrupulous and fraudulent fortune tellers, but in the case of the Keiros, the same authorities were not completely successful. ‘Madame Keiro’ continued to work for another decade, and it was only in 1917 – after the now 61-year-old was sentenced to two months in prison, bursting into tears in court on hearing her punishment – that she appears to have stopped practicing palmistry. She now started to sell a hair remover for 6s 6d a go.
Charles, meanwhile, wrote an ‘apology’ in the form of a book on palmistry, followed by another book – the ‘autobiography’ of his tabby cat. After telling other people’s fortunes for so many years, one wonders if they foresaw what their own fortunes would now be: a gentle fade into obscurity.
This article originally appeared in the Discover Your Ancestors online magazine, and is reproduced with permission. To subscribe to this monthly history magazine, or to find out more, visit the DYA website here. All illustrations taken from newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive.