Fortune Tellers in Kentucky, Early 1900sThis entry is a very small sample of the names, locations, and activities of the African American fortune tellers in Kentucky during the early 1900s. There are more. Should there be future publications about fortune tellers in the United States, it is hoped that those in Kentucky will now be included.
Dianna Reynolds was one of the first African Americans in Kentucky to be listed in the U.S. Census with the occupation of fortune teller. A fortune teller practices forecasting future events, revealing past events, and making predictions about the present. Dianna Reynolds was enumerated in the 1870 Census; she was born in Kentucky around 1815. She lived in the community of Buckeye with Morton and Mary Ray and their five children. Dianna Reynolds was one of about six African American fortune tellers noted in the 1870 Census. Others were in Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. Kentucky is not a state that is known for its African American fortune tellers and their occupations will not be found in city directories. At first glance, it could easily be assumed that there were very few African American fortune tellers in Kentucky during the first half of the 20th Century and perhaps the listing of Dianna Reynolds' occupation was something rare and unusual. But that assumption would not begin to tell of the African American fortune teller's influence in Kentucky communities.
FORTUNE TELLING AND AFRICAN AMERICANS
Fortune telling in the early 1900s meant different things to members of the various cities and towns. Fortune tellers were grouped with soothsayers, spiritualists, prophets, healers, root workers, conjurers, black magic workers, witches, scammers, and many others. For African Americans, it has been speculated that the practice of fortune telling originated in Africa and came to the United States with those who were enslaved. Too often, the enslaved, and later free persons, the believers in fortune telling, were considered less intelligent, culpable, and paranoid persons rife with superstitions. Fortune tellers were sometimes feared and accused of instigating acts of rebellion and resistance among the enslaved. It has also been said that persons who sought the services of fortune tellers were worshiping outside traditional Christian doctrines. Fortune telling has also been viewed as a harmless form of entertainment at tent shows, festivals, and other celebratory events. For others, fortune tellers were as practical as ministers, preachers, and anyone delivering the sacred word and spiritual guidance. Fortune telling is not unique to Africa, Africans, or African Americans. There have been fortune tellers all around the world for as long as there have been people.
Within this entry are references to local newspaper articles on the various ways that fortune telling influenced the lives of African Americans in Kentucky. For some, it was their occupation as a fortune teller. For others, it was the role that fortune telling played in the arrest of a suspect. There were also city officials who consulted an African American fortune teller about the outcome of a local wet/dry vote. All are confirmation that African Americans in Kentucky are very much a part of the overall history of fortune telling. Thanks to the articles in local newspapers in Kentucky, the knowledge of African American fortune tellers/telling has not been lost. A huge thank you to all who make it possible for researchers to have free access to these articles in online collections such as Chronicling America and the Kentucky Digital Newspaper Program (KDNP) at the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Sources: S. Lane, "Black Thunder's Call for a conjure response to American Negro Slavery," in the African American Review, v.37, no.4, (Winter 2003), pp.583-598; J. E. Anderson, ""Early Acquired Superstition" Conjure and the attempted redefinition of racial honor" a chapter in the book The Field of Honor: essays on southern character and American identity by J. Mayfield and T. Hagsette; Black Magic: religion and the African American conjuring tradition by Y. P. Chireau; Looking Forward: prediction and uncertainty in modern America by J. L. Pietruska; and C. Delistraty, "The Surprising historical significance of fortune-telling," Jstor Daily, Education and Society, 10/26/2016 (online).
Advertisements for the services of fortune tellers began to appear in African American newspapers in the 1870s and had become more sparse by the 1950s. The 1870s was the period that the fortune tellers' advertisements began to appear in newspapers in general, according to Tammy Stone-Gordon's dissertation "Fifty-cent Sybils: occult workers and the symbolic marketplace in the urban U.S., 1850-1930. Most of what has been written about African American fortune tellers in the United States, and there hasn't been much, the literature does not include those who were in Kentucky. But they were here, along with many others in rural areas throughout the United States.
Sources: Advertisements in African American newspapers: "Astrologer" in the Elevator, 06/01/1872, p.3; "Madam Smith, Fortune Teller and Astrologist," Savannah Tribune, 06/01/1876, p.2; "Call and See the Wonderful Fortune-Teller," Herald of Kansas, 06/11/1880, p.3; "Fortune Teller," Richmond Planet, 08/25/1888, front page; and "Strange Power," New York Age, 12/05/1953, p.12.
AFRICAN AMERICAN FORTUNE TELLERS IN KENUCKY
In Kentucky, the number of African American fortune tellers is unknown because there was never an official count. What is known is that fortune tellers who were long term residents were recognized members of communities that accepted their services. Those who were new to a town tended not to get a warm welcome or an invitation to stay. The more respected fortune teller was the one who was known, and these were persons who did not advertise in newspapers or have their names listed in the census records as fortune tellers. When their names did appear in the newspapers, it was usually due to personal misfortune or death, and the articles/notices were worthy of a place on the front page. During the first half of the 20th Century, African American fortune tellers were not hiding. Their names were passed by word of mouth, and contrary to what may have been written in newspaper articles, fortune telling was not an occupation that had generated great wealth for the old or newly deceased African American fortune teller. For most, fortune telling was a side job. Also, the fortune teller was not in competition with the local churches. Among the fortune tellers and their clients were church-going people. In some communities, the fortune tellers' names have been passed down through generations, such as Mrs. Georgia Walker in Madison County, KY [source: Sharyn Mitchell].
CRITTENDEN COUNTY, KENTUCKY
In 1905, Maria Markey died in Crittenden County, KY. Her death was noted with the headline, "Fortune Teller Dead," Crittenden Press, 08/10/1905, front page. "Maria Markey, well known to all lovers of the black art in this part of the United States, died at her home near Rodney, in Belle Mines precinct last week, aged 90 years. ... She embraced the Christian faith a few days previous to her death. ... She is supposed to have had good deal of money, accumulate by her art of fortune telling." She is also referred to as "Aunt Maria Markey" in her death notice on p.173 in Crittenden County, Kentucky Obituaries and Death Notices, Volume V, 1918-1922, Addendum 1904-1907 by S. Eskew. The word "aunt" was often applied to the names of older African American women by white persons, supposedly, it was considered a term of endearment. The exact age of Maria Markey is not known.
A fortune teller who said his name was William Garfield arrived in Danville, KY, in 1893. Garfield was sick and it was thought that he had consumption (tuberculosis). William Garfield appeared to be 25 or 30 years old. He said that he was from Indiana and had been in Stanford, KY. Garfield had some kind of papers that verified he was a professional fortune teller. When he arrived in Boyle County, he was homeless and George Doneghy had picked him up from the road and brought him to Danville. Soon after, William Garfield died at the home of Willis Mason and was buried in the Colored Cemetery. Source: "A colored young man..." the 11th paragraph under the headline "Danville" in the Semi-Weekly Interior Journal, 04/07/1893, p.4.
HARLAN COUNTY, KENTUCKY
There were also African American fortune tellers in the coal regions of Kentucky. In 1930, Dock Johnson from Louisiana, was working as a palmist in the industry of fortune tellers. Johnson lived in District 3 of Harlan County, Kentucky according to the U.S. Census. Dock and his wife Minnie, who was from Alabama, were renting at the boarding house owned by Nellie Wallace who had two sons. Another fortune teller is listed in the 1940 U.S. Census, a woman named Soola Poola. She was temporarily in Sturgis, KY. According to the census record, her race was Gypsy, she was 28 years old and divorced, she was born in New York, she was a member of the traveling carnival troop and they too were listed on the same census sheet. Soola Poola's race was mistakenly given as Black when the census record was transcribed in Ancestry.
*NOTE: There are many articles in Kentucky newspapers that mention Gypsy caravans traveling through the state trading horses and reading fortunes. There are also articles that question the ethnicity and origin of Gypsies, whether they were Indians, Mexicans, or Russians.
In 1914, Blind Mary, a Negro fortune teller from Clarksville, TN, visited Hopkinsville, KY, and she was consulted about the local election. Blind Mary had been to Hopkinsville several times, and it was known that she came to tell fortunes for a price. On a previous visit, Blind Mary had predicted that the Acem Mills in Hopkinsville would fail, and it did, six months after her prediction. For her 1914 visit, she was visited by city officials, and Blind Mary predicted that Hopkinsville would go wet (could sell alcohol). Christian County did go wet, the vote passed by 567 votes, thanks to the African American male voter turnout. It is not known to what degree Blind Mary influenced the African American vote, but her presence was noted on the front page of the local newspaper. Blind Mary did not vote. Women did not get the vote until 1920. African American men could vote. On the day of the election, two African American women were arrested, one had an old warrant out on her, and the other was arrested for fighting. But there was care not to do anything to stir up any animosity, because African American votes were needed. By the end of the day, it was estimated that 3,500 African American men had come out to vote. "The colored vote was thrown almost solidly against prohibition and the majorities in the big colored precincts were overwhelming for the wets." Sources: "Blind Mary's prophecy," Hopkinsville Kentuckian, 09/19/1914, front page. Quote and additional information from "Christian County wet by 567 votes. ... The Colored vote of 3500 thrown almost solidly for the wet side...," Hopkinsville Kentuckian, 09/22/1914, front page. For more on the life and fortune telling career of Blind Mary (Mary Purdue) see The Dark Side of Hopkinsville by T. Poston who was said to be a cousin to Blind Mary.
A new fortune teller arrived in Paducah in 1899 and he was turned away. M. C. Reeves had attempted to get a license at the Paducah City Hall as a fortune teller and divine healer. An audience gathered and M.C. Reeves was called a "fakir" when he would not take on any of their bets. He was challenged by City Clerk Patterson to cure a case of typhoid fever. The license M. C. Reeves was seeking cost $50, but he was denied the license. M. C. Reeves was said to have come from Kuttawa in Lyons County, KY, but Reeves said that he was from Mississippi. Source: "A Divine healer," The Paducah Sun, 08/03/1899, front page.
There were court cases that involved African Americans and the consulting of fortune tellers. The cases took place before and after the year 1900. The City of Paducah is often mentioned in conjunction with the court cases, and that is not a slight toward the city, but rather a recognition of the documentation and the sometimes negative image of African Americans in newspaper articles. It was the decision of the local newspapers in Paducah to frequently print stories about African American fortune tellers, thus leaving a paper trail that is electronically accessible today. An 1899 headline read, "Tall Tom. He went to jail for conjuring $5 from a fortune teller." Tom Holmes was from Fulton, KY. He was 6ft. 5in. tall. He was in Paducah helping K. Henderson dig wells. Henderson was also a fortune teller. He and Tom Holmes were at a work site, and Henderson had gone down into the well. He left his pants outside and there was a $5 bill in one of the pant pockets. When Henderson came out of the well, his $5 was gone. There was no one else at the work site but Henderson and Holmes. Henderson used his fortune telling skills and got a false lead, before concluding that Tom Holmes was the thief. In court, the judge took notice of the tall Negro man and started the session by inquiring and commenting on Tom Holmes height. Afterward, Holmes was asked to tell his side of the story. Tom Holmes was found guilty of stealing Henderson's $5. He could not pay his bond and was put in jail. Source: "Tall Tom," The Paducah Sun, 09/01/1899, p.3.
In 1902, John Newman, known as "Quickstep" the Negro fortune teller, was thought to be missing when his boat was found in the Ohio River. But Newman was not missing. According to his account, that was told to the newspaper by a friend, Newman had fallen asleep and his boat had gone adrift in the river. When Newman woke up and realized what had happened, he got scared, forgot his shoes, and rowed ashore in his skiff. There were no comments made about Newman or his fortune telling skills. The story was printed on the front page of The Paducah Sun, 02/06/1902. John E. Newman (1843-1914) made his main source of income as a fisherman. He worked on his own account. John E. Newman was born in Maryland, according to the 1880 U.S. Census. His family lived on Broad Street with John's sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Henry Fowler. The Fowlers had four children. John's wife was Melinda, his son was John Jr., and his daughter was Annie. Another sister and her husband also lived in the house, Maggie and Jefferson Lloyd. When he was enumerated in the 1910 U.S. Census, John Newman was a boarder at the home of John and Viola Broyles on 6th Street. John E. Newman is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah.
In 1905, in Paducah, KY, there was a theft of $20 from Tom Bainbridge and his wife Emma. The Bainbridge couple were African Americans and Tom was blind. The couple was away from home when someone broke into their house and stole the money. Tom Bainbridge and his wife consulted a fortune teller, and with her help, the box that had held the money was found under the Bainbridge house. The money was gone. The thief was not identified. The case was closed. The $20 had been hard earned money, Emma Bainbridge supported the family with her work as a laundress. The couple lived at 720 Washington Street, according to the Paducah city directories 1904-1908. Source: "A blind man," The Paducah Sun, 06/27/1905, p.8.
Also, in Paducah in 1905, Ben Taylor was arrested as a suspect in the theft of a watch. The accusation was based on the guidance of a fortune teller. The owner of the watch, Pete Anderson, had consulted the fortune teller to help find his watch and the person who took the watch. Both Taylor and Anderson were African American, and both were working at the Craig Hotel when the watch was taken. With the help of the fortune teller, Anderson became convinced that Taylor was the one who had stolen his watch, and Anderson went to the police. Taylor denied stealing the watch. He was arrested and put in jail. Source: "Arrest of Negro for stealing watch. Result of what fortune teller said." The Paducah Sun, 09/16/1905, front page.
In 1906, there was a disagreement among two African American fortune tellers in Paducah. Charles Prince, the fortune telling man, had been charging $2 per person to read their fortune. Two dollars was a lot of money in 1906. Another fortune teller started charging 50 cents per person, and this too was not a small sum of money, especially for African Americans whose incomes were at the bottom of the earnings scale. The two fortune tellers had a disagreement about the business competition. The disagreement resulted in Charles Prince being arrested for disorderly conduct. He was fined $20 and cost in police court then sentenced to jail. Charles Prince's regular job was that of a cook according to his listing on p.383 in Caron's Directory of the City of Paducah for 1906-7. Source: "In police court," The Paducah Evening Sun, 06/22/1906, p.4.
1. $2 in the year 1906 is equivalent to $56.98 in the year 2020.
2. $.50 in the year 1906 is equivalent to $14.24 in the year 2020.
3. $20 in the year 1906 is equivalent to $569.75 in the year 2020.
In 1909, the well-known fortune teller Nan Grogan Townley died from Bright's Disease at her home at 816 North Eight Street. She was known locally as Nan Grogan and had lived in Paducah for 35 years. She had been telling fortunes since she was a child. It was speculated in the newspaper article that she had accumulated a degree of wealth from her fortune telling. Nan Grogan's customers included middle class white women who had learned of Nan Grogan's fortune telling services from the African American women who were employed in their homes as domestic servants. Sources: Paragraph 5 in the column "Observations at random," The Paducah Sun, 01/05/1901, p.2; and "Nan Grogan, colored fortune teller, died," The Paducah Evening Sun, 06/26/1909, front page.
In 1919 a fortune teller went on the run after convincing a woman to give her $310 in exchange for future good fortune. The transaction took place in Vanceburg, KY. The victim was an African American woman named Sallie Barnes (1881-1929). The fortune teller was said to be French or Gypsy, and both she and her teenage daughter quickly left Vanceburg and were soon captured and put in jail in Maysville, KY. They were later released after returning $301.50 to Sallie Barnes. The money had been saved over the many years that Sallie Barnes was a cook and servant for a private family. She is enumerated in the 1900 and 1920 U.S. Census records. Sallie Barnes was single when she died of pneumonia in Weirton, WV according to her West Virginia death certificate #2845. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Jane Hite and Peter Barnes. Sallie Barnes is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Vanceburg, KY. Source: "Alleged fortune telling swindler under arrest," The Public Ledger, 03/26/1919, front page; and "Alleged fortune telling faker is released," The Public Ledger, 04/03/1919, front page.
*NOTE: The term "Gypsy" will be found in the "Race" column for persons enumerated in the U.S. Census records.
Two years prior to the 1914 wet/dry election in Hopkinsville, an article ran in the Hopkinsville Kentuckian in support of fortune telling, see "Fortune Telling" on p.6, December 10, 1912. While in Maysville, KY, an ordinance was created that required fortune tellers to have a license that cost $5 per day. [Source: "An ordinance," The Public Ledger, 11/30/1919, p.3.] By 1920, there was an ordinance (license and tax) in Richmond, Kentucky. Fortune tellers, and those who practiced clairvoyance and palmistry, were to pay $10 per day or $250 per year. The governing body over all Richmond City ordinances was the Board of Council of the City of Richmond. Fees were to be paid to the Chief of Police. [Source: "An ordinance," Richmond Daily Register, 06/08/1920, p.5.] Fortune telling had become a taxable business in some Kentucky cities. The cost of the license/tax was a large amount of money for each fortune teller. Perhaps the intent was to discourage fortune telling as a practice and as a business. It is not known how many fortune tellers were licensed or paid the fee in Maysville and Richmond.
KENTUCKY HOUSE BILL NO.502 IN 1920
Not everyone agreed on the good of fortune telling or the legality of the practice in Kentucky. For the first two decades of the 1900s, there was not a unanimous statewide opinion one way or the other concerning fortune telling. In 1920, Representative Charles M. Ciarlo (1889-1939) from Newport, KY, put forth House Bill No.502: "An Act prohibiting the practice of spirit mediumship, palmistry, card reading, astrology, seership, fortune telling, and providing a penalty therefor." It would take a few years for Kentucky lawmakers to better define the legal boundaries of fortune telling. But long before that took place, if a situation called for an African American fortune teller, and there was not one in the immediate community, then one would be found elsewhere. Source: House Bill No. 502, Feb. 23 on p.1169 in the Journal of the Regular Session of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, v.2, 1920.
HIGHTOWER THEODORE KEALING IN AUSTIN, TX
In other regions of the country, persons who considered themselves African American leaders would sometimes take it to be their duty to dissuade others from primitive practices such as fortune telling. In 1900, Hightower Theodore Kealing wrote the book Fortune-telling in History. Kealing was the editor of the A.M.E. Review [African Methodist Episcopal Church], and he was a member of the American Negro Academy (BlackPast.org), a group of Negro intellectuals. H. T. Kealing was a writer and educator from Austin, TX, and he helped establish the education system for African Americans in Austin. Kealing's thoughts on fortune telling were expressed on p.10 of his book. "... that foolish pretense to prophetic power which is claimed for Gypsies, seventh sons, and fakirs who make their living by humbugging foolish men and simple women." See also H. T. Kealing, a Wikipedia page.