Impact Studios

Australia’s no 1 university for research impact

Host:  Dr Tamson Pietsch

Producer: Zoe Ferguson

Executive Producer: Emma Lancaster

Supervising Producer: Sarah Mashman

Executive Story Consultant and Script Editor: Belinda Lopez

Sound Engineer and Composition: Output Media

Collaborating UTS academic:  Dr Alana Piper (Australian Centre for Public History, UTS)

Illustrator: Dinalie Dabarera

Digital media: Benjamin Vozzo

HLAB S03 E02 Final.mp3

Tammy: [00:00:02] I’d like you to firstly, shuffle these for me. And just shuffle, shuffle until one falls out and then just stop shuffling.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:09] You’re listening to History Lab.

Tammy: [00:00:11] I like to call this my inner purpose.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:12] Historian Alana Piper and history lab producer Zoe Ferguson are at a special appointment in Sydney. They’re having their fortunes told. Tarot card reading, to be precise.

Tammy: [00:00:26] I think the next twelve months we’re going to be very challenging.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:00:31] Most people know what fortune-telling is. Whether they’re believers or not. But not many people actually know about the history of it in Australia.

Archival Tape : [00:00:37] Whether there’s a fast woman coming into your life or a slow horse going out of it, fortune telling at home is always great fun.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:00:49] It was described as a fad, but it was prosecuted as a crime.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:52] No way.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:00:53] And it’s actually still banned in some parts of Australia today.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:56] Like where?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:00:57] Your hometown, Adelaide.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:00:59] Really?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:01:01] And the Northern Territory. Yeah. It’s so surprising. But here in Sydney, our fortune teller is allowed to look into the future or at least try to.

Tammy: [00:01:11] Have a lot of responsibilities. Family’s coming through. I feel like. Are your kids quite young?

Alana Piper: [00:01:18] I don’t have kids.

Tammy: [00:01:19] Are you going to have kids?

Alana Piper: [00:01:19] Not planning to.


Alana Piper: [00:01:24] So I’m Dr. Alana Piper from the University of Technology, Sydney, researching criminal justice history.


Zoe Ferguson: [00:01:29] Alana was working in the Queensland State archives where she accidentally stumbled upon stories of female fortune tellers, who were pursued by some of the most powerful policemen in Australia.

Alana Piper: [00:01:40] So I came across this fascinating police correspondence, this huge stack of letters and interdepartmental memos about the need to crack down on fortune telling and missives about how they had gone about it during the Federation period and the First World War. 82 per cent of those prosecuted for fortune telling are women.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:02:03] So why were these female fortune tellers so aggressively pursued by the police? And how did fortune tellers use the law to fight back?

Alana Piper: [00:02:12] It seems like it’s slowly growing in popularity during the 1890s, but then it’s really during the Federation era that it’s professionalised, that it totally explodes into public consciousness, that this is a vogue, this is a trend that’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s a crime. So this becomes problematic. Then as fortune-telling becomes more popular, there’s a lot of pressure on the police to sort of crack down and make an example of these fortune tellers and to enforce the law.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:02:46] And actually, Tamson there’s one Sydney fortune teller who’s still cited in legal judgements today. Mary Scales.

Archival Tape : [00:02:54] Mr Scales was one of the most remarkable figures in the legal history of the state.

Alana Piper: [00:03:01] She was an illiterate laundress turned fortune teller. By all accounts, Mary Scales was quite simply the most famed and successful fortune teller in all of Federation Sydney. Perhaps Federation Australia and by all accounts, a pretty formidable individual.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:03:18] So snippets of Mary’s colourful life are peppered throughout the newspapers of her day. But her beginnings weren’t so fortunate.

Alana Piper: [00:03:25] Her background was actually quite impoverished. She was illiterate. She could only sign her own name. And so she worked in her early life as a washerwoman.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:03:35] But Mary, it seems, had a gift.

Alana Piper: [00:03:39] So eventually Mary comes into contact with an admiral in the Navy and actually sort of does a sort of off the cuff reading for him, which he’s so impressed by. He introduces her to the creme de la creme of Sydney society and starts to promote her as this really gifted clairvoyant.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:04:02] Slowly, she built a reputation for herself. And this is what landed her in the newspapers.

Alana Piper: [00:04:07] There’s a number of surviving illustrations in various newspapers at the time, in the 1910s. But the best illustration I think we have of Mary is a photograph from the 1920s where we see quite an ordinary looking woman, in many ways, an older woman. She’s dressed in black. Black hat. She’s got heavy eyebrows and a very sort of clear eyed stare. I sort of think when you look at it there’s something about the eyes that to me just looks very formidable.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:04:35] But in cartoons, Mary was depicted in a much less flattering light.

Alana Piper: [00:04:40] They appeared in newspapers such as the Scandal Rag Truth, which really had a stock in trade, in moral campaigning and inciting moral panics about various behaviours that they saw as incompatible with Australian values, including fortune-telling.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:04:56] So Federation era Australia, modern nation state being made a fool by archaic practices.

Alana Piper: [00:05:05] Yeah, there are letters to the editors in newspapers. Absolutely sort of complaining that are signed things like  a citizen or white Australia saying, you know, ‘we can’t let this continue. If we’re going to be sort of seen as a legitimate nation on the world stage, how can we be associated with this superstitious practice?’

Tamson Pietsch: [00:05:27] So fortune-telling was seen as dangerous?

Alana Piper: [00:05:29] Yes. Newspapers were warning about the repercussions of fortune-telling on, quote, weak minded women. And there was a concern women in the suburbs were frittering away household funds on fortune-telling charlatans.

Alana Piper: [00:05:44] So I think the other reason that it really attracts a lot of negative attention is that the Federation period is all about the era of white men of white Australia. And in particular, this idea that it’s a nation of British men who are part of a forward thinking people. You know, it’s very sort of skeptical and not beholden to certain superstitions of the past. And the sort of criticism of fortune-telling as this low culture practice that’s associated with, you know, women, foreigners and the working classes, which is really a sort of three things that in white Australia of the Federation period you don’t want to be associated with.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:06:32] But it’s not just about these working class women telling fortunes. It’s also about the money they’re making.

Alana Piper: [00:06:38] Mary Scales earned sort of up to what would be the equivalent of five million dollars.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:06:44] Five million bucks!

Zoe Ferguson: [00:06:45] Yeah it was a well-paying job.

Alana Piper: [00:06:47] So fortune-telling is a form of work. It’s a form of labor. It’s something that they can get paid for. There’s also, I think, a feeling against the fact that women are not just doing this, but are doing it well and successfully. There’s so much vitriol about the fact that working class women are leaving behind their sort of respectable occupations as servicewomen, washerwomen. Have decided that this traditional occupation is not good enough for them and there’s lots and lots of stories brought before the courts of women who no longer have husbands to support them. This is a way to support not only themselves, but their children.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:07:34] You’ve been talking a lot about stuff about their lives. How do you know this stuff?

Alana Piper: [00:07:39] So I actually went through all the sort of newspaper reports on fortune-telling prosecutions from 1900 through to 1918 and constructed a table of all the women and men who are prosecuted. We do have enough to know that the average age of women who are coming up before the courts is 43 years old.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:08:02] So these were women in the autumn years of their life?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:08:06] Exactly. In 1901, a woman’s life expectancy was around 60 years old. And these women would have been factory workers or laundressers who were probably unable to continue physically demanding work, but they still needed to make a buck. And fortune-telling was the perfect solution.

Alana Piper: [00:08:24] The typical cost of a psychic reading during the Federation period was two shillings sixpence, and that’s about equivalent to the price of a movie ticket today. One estimate that sort of gets thrown around the newspapers a lot, is that they were earning on average three to five pounds a week, which again is really great in terms of working class conditions for women at the time. And in fact a wage that’s almost sort of double what you might expect to make as a servant or a factory worker. And then there are some women who are earning well in excess of that.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:09:00] In the newspapers they talk about tins of gold. She didn’t trust the banks, so she used to hide her wealth in the backyard. I’m Samadhi Driscoll and I’m the great great granddaughter of Mary Scales.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:09:15] Samadhi is a family historian, and she discovered her infamous ancestor by accident.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:09:20] One day driving with my brother in Randwick. And I was telling him about the book that I was working on and this person who could speak to ghosts and he said, oh, you know, we have a psychic ancestor. And I was like what? Really? He didn’t know too much. He just knew that she was a fortune teller and that she had made a lot of money. And I thought, wow, okay, why didn’t I know about her? So I tried to find a little bit more information from my family and not much was forthcoming.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:09:50] So Samadhi next tried searching Trove.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:09:53] I mean, it’s amazing. It’s kind of like Google for historians.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:09:56] Yeah. And she typed in Mary Scales.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:10:00] All these articles came up.

Archival Tape : [00:10:06] Psychic Mrs. Scales, a strange story. Alleged fortune teller Mary Scale’s before the court. Scales of justice. Clairvoyant’s dramatic rise from poverty to affluence.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:10:19] It blew my mind. I mean, she rose from poverty to absolute wealth and she fought the system and she operated outside of society’s norms and she succeeded.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:10:31] Samadhi learned that Mary’s fortune-telling clients were Sydney’s A-listers.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:10:36] Mark Foy, who’s a very eccentric businessman. He was very successful in creating shopping centres in Australia. The stories go he doesn’t make a decision unless he consults Mary first. And there are stories that actually Lady Carrington comes to her and gets her fortunes, told.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:10:54] Lady Carrington? She’s the wife of the governor of New South Wales! And what’s the governor’s wife doing getting her fortune told. Wasn’t it illegal?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:11:03] Yeah, it was. But it was also really popular parties and in boardrooms.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:11:07] This sort of catapults her into this new class of society. It turns into this incredibly lucrative business. But of course, not everybody was such a fan of fortune telling.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:11:20] It’s about 1903, and this is the first encounter with the law.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:11:24] For Mary, this would be the first of many.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:11:28] A police officer comes to her shop to arrest her for false fortune-telling.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:11:34] So Mary had a shop at the Sydney Arcade in King Street where her husband George was her receptionist.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:11:39] And so she lifts up her skirt and underneath her skirt in her stocking, she’s got this pouch of money full of gold coins. And she just takes it and goes, ‘well, George you better have this then’. And passes it over to George. And the police officer is dumbfounded. Probably has never seen that much money in his life and just looks to George. And George says, ‘what do you think of a woman like that?’

Tamson Pietsch: [00:12:09] Hang on a second. How does Samadhi know this? I mean, is it some sort of family law that’s been passed down?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:12:16] No. So she only found out this story and what her great great grandfather, George, said, because it was reported in the newspaper The Truth. In 1922.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:12:25] Yeah. The truth was a pretty notorious scandal sheet, as I recall. I’m not sure I’d believe everything it says.And anyway, wasn’t Mary arrested in 1903? Why is it being reported almost 20 years later?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:12:39] Well, that’s because Mary brought an appeal to the high court.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:12:42] Really? Go Mary!

Zoe Ferguson: [00:12:43] I know. And we’ll come back to that. But Mary first took on the police after she was arrested a second time.

Alana Piper: [00:12:48] So I think her most important legacy to the profession, at the time, but also to law in Australia into this day, is that she challenges one of the fortune-telling prosecutions that’s made against her in 1907. She has the money, so she engages legal representation and they challenge the legality of the law. The statute being used to prosecute all the fortune tellers.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:13:18] What was she arguing?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:13:19] So she argued that even though Australia had inherited an English law that criminalised fortune-telling conditions in Australia were quite different to those in England, where fortune-telling was associated with vagrancy and the Romani people, so-called ‘gypsies’.

Alana Piper: [00:13:34] It’s ruled that this was not received law in the Australian colonies. And based on that judgement, the prosecution against Mary is rendered mute and the police try to appeal the decision. They take it all the way to the High Court of Australia, which has only been information for a few years at this point, and the High Court rules in Mary’s favour.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:01] Wow. So she won.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:14:02] Yeah, but it was a short lived victory.

Alana Piper: [00:14:05] Because next year New South Wales, in its Police Offences Act includes a provision against fortune-telling. So it continues to be prosecuted. But a big win at the time for fortunetellers.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:20] So actually, in a way, because of Mary’s case, the law against fortune tellers became even harsher.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:14:29] Mary was a woman who didn’t give up. And years later, she would use her first fortune telling arrest to her benefit.

Alana Piper: [00:14:34] In 1920, George Scales dies and he leaves a will that does not please Mary at all.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:45] Okay. What did it say?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:14:47] It bequeathed his money to Mary. But there were two things wrong with this. Firstly, it was her money to begin with. And secondly, it was going to be drip fed to her in a weekly allowance.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:58] So what did she do?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:14:59] She contested the will, of course.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:15:01] Of course.

Alana Piper: [00:15:02] She challenges it all the way to the Privy Council in England. So she goes on a six week sailing journey over England.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:15:10] This is astonishing. This woman has lost her case in the New South Wales Supreme Court. Lost it at the High Court of Australia. And she’s a grandmother. And she gets on a boat and goes to England to contest it at the Privy Council. I mean, the stakes are high.

Alana Piper: [00:15:25] She’s fighting this battle to be recognised as the true amasser of this fortune. There has been accrued by the couple. And one of the most fascinating things about that case is that she wins the case based on evidence from police officers who have arrested her. And what those police officers had witnessed is the fact that she has made huge amounts of money from this business.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:15:53] Is that the story of the coin purse under her skirt?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:15:56] Exactly.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:15:57] It’s a big deal. It’s a huge court case. There’s eleven men in wigs, as I’ve read. And she wins.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:16:05] Well, kind of. The Privy Council upheld the Australian court’s decision, but they threw Mary a bone and gave her four thousand pounds.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:16:13] This is much more than throwing Mary a bone. I mean, the Privy Council ruled in favor of one of her claims.

Alana Piper: [00:16:21] Yes, and Mary actually ended up with £20000. The Privy Council ruled that the initial 4000 pounds had been invested, quite savily, on her behalf.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:16:32] A substantial amount of money. She sails back to Australia and the money’s due to be released on a particular day just after she sails back. And the night before she’s to get the money, she died.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:16:50] Now, the death certificate, which I’ve obtained says it’s through a cardiac arrest. This is sort of interesting. It seems like she had no heart problems before that. Quite possibly she did die from a cardiac arrest or a heart attack. But pretty strange. It’s a day before she was due to get that money.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:17:10] But that’s not the end of the story. Before she died, she’d made a will, and that will put some of her family offside.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:17:17] When she passed in 1926, she left the entire fortune to the females of the family. So I believe her sons inherit some money. But the ongoing fortune is only through the female lineage for three generations. So the money was put in a trust account and could only be used for medical bills, education and fashion.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:17:42] What else do you need?

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:17:43] I know, right? I meant that my grandmother and great aunties went to the best boarding schools (and also the other females in that lineage). Dance lessons, anything that was of betterment for the woman they were able to tap into and use and of course, the fantastic fashion

Zoe Ferguson: [00:18:03] So the Scales women lived in Manly and they were always impeccably dressed. Gorgeous fabrics and fabulous hats.

Alana Piper: [00:18:10] They were the envy of the Manly ferries apparently. .

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:13] If she left all this money to these women, would you describe her will as a feminist?

Alana Piper: [00:18:20] Yes, definitely. I think perhaps some feminist acknowledgement that she’s had it tough and had to battle first against the police, against her and family. And that made her eager to ensure future generations of women and her family wouldn’t have to go through something similar.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:46] So one thing’s been puzzling me. If fortune-telling is a crime because it’s a form of fraud. What if fortune tellers really, really, really believed that what they were saying was true? I mean, isn’t there a good faith defense?

Jeremy Patrick: [00:19:03] So this has been, I think, the biggest issue in the history of fortune-telling regulation across England and Australia and Canada and the United States.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:19:11] That’s Jeremy Patrick. He’s a legal historian at the University of Southern Queensland. And he’s interested in fortune-telling, witchcraft, spirituality and their interaction with the law.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:19:22] This issue of whether there is a sort of good faith defense, an affirmative defense, that the fortune teller really believes that they have the power to do what they’re doing, because from that perspective, we might say they’re not defrauding anybody if they really think they can do what they’re doing. But courts have unanimously held that, no, that’s not a defense.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:19:43] Except for when they did. There was a short time in England when the good-faith defense could be used.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:19:50] In that three year period between roughly 1918 and 1921. That defence did exist. And the courts held that someone who sincerely believed they had the ability to do something by that nature wasn’t defrauding someone. They might have been mistaken. But that’s different than intentional fraud.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:20:09] But then the courts changed their mind again, and this fortune-telling loophole was closed and the law reverted back to the idea that.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:20:16] It doesn’t matter whether the fortune teller believes they can do what they can do. Nobody can do what they can do. And anybody who says they can, or whether they believe it or not, is defrauding people.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:20:27] Okay, so the courts thought fortune tellers were frauds, but we also know they were really popular in Australia. Were the police officers also among their fans?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:20:36] The short answer is yes. But fortune tellers had to be really smart about how they dealt with police and no one was smarter than Madam Reprah.

Alana Piper: [00:20:45] So Alice Harper, aka Madam Reprah, was a fortune teller who practiced for many years through the 1890s and early nineteen hundreds. Sort of travelling around Australia to various cities and regional towns.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:20:59] Then in 1914, she wanted a permanent base.

Alana Piper: [00:21:03] And so she decided to set up premises in South Yarra in Chapel Street, and decides to take the initiative of actually getting in touch with the Chief Police Commissioner, Alfred Sainsbury, and ask him to sort of judge whether her business is legitimate or not.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:21:24] What? So she willingly went to the police?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:21:27] Yeah. And Alfred Sainsbury seemed to have quite liked her.

Alana Piper: [00:21:31] So Sainsbury visits with Madam Reprah, Alice Harper, and finds her charming, well educated, and he’s sort of tempted to be lenient with her, but he’s a bit concerned. So he makes a bargain with her. He’s going to send an undercover detective to visit her premises and to see the way that she conducts her business.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:21:56] But Madam Reprah had a plan.

Alana Piper: [00:21:58] What Alice Harper was relying on was a sort of skirting around the laws around fortune-telling. She was suggesting that character reading actually wasn’t about telling the future. So she might look at someone and sort of intuit things about their character and based on that, might give them advice about the future of things that they should do or should not do based on their inner character.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:22:25] So a detective was sent along to Madam Reprah’s shop.

Alana Piper: [00:22:28] She spots straightaway that he’s a detective has been sent and tells him lots of things about his character.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:22:34] She did a stellar reading on him.

Alana Piper: [00:22:37] Madam Reprah absolutely knocks it out of the park with the character reading. So Sainsbury then writes to Madam Reprah to say that her business is within the law, and more than that, she’s been credited as being an absolute genius.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:22:55] But she had another move up her sleeve.

Alana Piper: [00:22:57] So Madam Reprah then puts this letter up in the window of her shop as sort of the best advertisement that she’s probably had at this point from the Chief Commissioner of Police himself.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:07] I can guess this public display kind of upset the police.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:23:11] Hugely.

Alana Piper: [00:23:12] Police ask her to take that down after a couple of weeks, which she complies with.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:17] But she kept the letter, right?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:23:19] Yeah. You would not get rid of a letter like that. And just a year later, in 1915, there was a police crackdown on fortune tellers. So when Madam Reprah got a hearing in court, her defence lawyer stood up.

Alana Piper: [00:23:31] And, of course, what does he produced in evidence? But the letter from the police commissioner himself saying that her business is within the law because she’s doing character readings

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:42] Well, maybe she could see into the future, after all.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:23:45] Tamson that’s embarrassing, but it’s also embarrassing for Sainsbury, the chief police commissioner, when he heads to the stand.

Alana Piper: [00:23:53] Sainsbury is not happy at all at this point. He actually refuses to face the bench the entire time he is being questioned. But Sainsbury is forced to acknowledge that he did write this letter that he had sent this detective in who had given Madam Reprah a wonderful testimonial. As a result of this, the police are very embarrassed. Sainsbury’s reprimanded by the bench.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:21] So Madam Reprah, a.k.a. Alice Harper, got off?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:24:26] Sadly, no. She was still fined seven pounds, ten shillings, which would be around $800 today.

Alana Piper: [00:24:33] And that’s actually double the normal amount that fortune tellers were usually fined in those circumstances. But that is because that Madam Reprah was so successful and so good at what she did that she was charging double the usual fee of fortune tellers, so they doubled her fine.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:54] So you’ve taught me lots of stories of female fortune tellers being prosecuted, but there were some men doing this work, too. Right?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:25:02] There were. But they saw themselves differently. Jeremy Patrick can explain.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:25:06] Often male fortune tellers words style themselves as professional scientific astrologers. They would give themselves titles like Professor of the Sidereal Sciences and try and purport that what they were doing was not involved in the occult or didn’t involve the supernatural.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:25:26] So they argued that what they were doing was science.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:25:30] Yeah, they called it an inquiry into the stars. But remember, at this time, it wasn’t exactly clear what science was.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:25:38] And how the stars magnetically pull on our brain chemistry and thus affect what we as individuals will do in the future.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:25:47] And this explanation, it was, well, you know, quite different to how women saw their fortune telling.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:25:53] Women labeled their abilities as either gifts from God or as inherited supernatural abilities from ancestors long ago. And they then weren’t able to claim the sort of protections as scientists that male fortune tellers often did.

Tammy: [00:26:12] So it sounds like some ways of knowing those that claimed the emerging authority of science were seen as legitimate by the law. But other ways of knowing, well, they really weren’t.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:26:25] Yeah. Men and women drew on different kinds of defenses and men and women were also different kinds of clients.

Jeremy Patrick: [00:26:32] So men usually went to fortunetellers for concrete insights on something in the near future. And often this involved something related to money. So it might be. Am I going to get that job I applied for? What sort of investment should I make in the stock market? Should I gamble on a specific course in an upcoming race? Very specific concrete things that would have a result in the near future, whereas women often weren’t interested in that sort of specific concrete advice. My fortune teller, they often engaged in more of a relationship for emotional and spiritual support, and they would get insights into maybe how to deal with a difficult marriage, how to deal with kids who were, you know, rebelling, perhaps how to to navigate difficult economic times in a sense of emotional support, not ‘go spend your money at the horse race in your whim’. So it was a very different type of relationship and a very different type of practice that male and female customers wanted out of fortune-telling.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:27:46] Sounds closer to what we would today think of as therapy or having a counsellor or best friend you can talk to.

Alana Piper: [00:27:53] Yeah, I really think that was one of the big attractions of fortune-telling for people was that it was a place to discuss your life and what’s going on in your life problems that you might have where you’re trying to work out what’s going to happen, what you should be doing. And this is a way of sort of seeking advice about those things. So I think perhaps fortune telling for some women is a form of therapy that they can talk it out.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:28:24] So men were mostly escaping prosecution while the women were getting into trouble.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:28:31] And the police crackdowns only increased. But soon enough, the women fortune tellers wised up to the fact that it was male undercover detectives who were catching them out.

Alana Piper: [00:28:40] Some of them even start to say that they’ll only to fortune-telling readings for women because they see this as a foolproof way. No policeman is going to get evidence against me. So police start thinking outside the box and there’s this pressure from the newspapers to do something about this trade.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:28:59] So what did they do?

Zoe Ferguson: [00:29:01] The police came up with an idea for a new kind of sting. They had women go undercover.

Alana Piper: [00:29:04] In 1903 at the Redfern Police Station. There’s a woman who’s employed as a charwoman, which is an old fashioned term for cleaner. And so the police actually ask her to go and start getting her fortune raped by various fortune tellers so that they can then take that as evidence into court.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:29:25] So poor women are informing against other poor women who have gone outside the traditional economy and earned a bunch of money. That means they’re seen as rising above their class.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:29:37] Exactly. All in order to get evidence for the courts.

Alana Piper: [00:29:40] And then during the First World War, there’s a mounting amount of pressure to really crack down on fortune-telling because of concerns about preying on the wives and mothers of soldiers. That these women are being duped and being made even more fearful about their loved ones fates. And that this is going to have a negative effect on the sort of morale of the country during this horrific time in Australia’s history.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:30:15] And one of the unexpected results of these undercover stings to bust Federation fortune tellers was that it gave Australia its first female police officers.

Alana Piper: [00:30:25] By the end of World War One, basically, every state apart from Queensland has female police employed part of the workforce. Best publicised during this period that they’re most known for is the fortune-telling prosecutions. And this really gets them a lot of public support for this idea of having women on the police force.

Alana Piper: [00:30:51] Fortune-telling for many years is a crime, a crime that sort of only sporadically prosecuted and a crime that, although it is a crime, is being widely practiced in society because there is a demand by people who want this sort of service and who obviously don’t sort of think of it in criminal terms.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:31:12] What does it tell us about how we think about what criminality is?

Alana Piper: [00:31:16] I think it really exposes the funny sort of difference between crime and criminality. A quotation that I really love from Victorian Detective Alfred Stephen [Burvette…inaudible] that he wrote in his memoirs, is that it must be remembered that it is not always criminals who commit offences or crimes. And I think there’s lots of different attitudes around fortune-telling from people who sort of see it as a sign of insanity to those who sort of see it as just a sort of afternoon’s amusement to those who see it as a way of earning some money. Those who treat it as therapy and to those who just sort of see it as pure fraud.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:32:00] You’ve been listening to History Lab.This is the second episode of our four-part series, The Law’s Way of Knowing, where we look at the intersection of History and the Law.

Zoe Ferguson: [00:32:09] Head to our website to see the record of an Australian fortune teller from 1898.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:32:15] And next time on History Lab, how a mother’s thumbprint became a sure sign. Dropping February 18. History Lab is made on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose land was never ceded. Thanks to our collaborating historian, Dr. Alana Piper. This episode was made by producer Zoe Ferguson. The executive producer was Emma Lancaster, supervising producer was Sarah Mashman and sound engineering and mixing was by Output Media. Our story consultant and script editor was Belinda Lopez. Thanks also to those we spoke with Jeremy Patrick, Samadhi Driscoll, and our modern day fortune teller. Thank you. Also to our voice actor, Rod Chambers. And thank you also to our wonderful GLAM friends at the National Library of Australia and the New South Wales State Archives. History Lab is made by the Australian Centre for Public History and Impact Studios at UTS and in collaboration with our media partner to 2SER 107.3FM.


Podcast playlist


A close match

March 11 · 34 MIN


Three days before Spain’s general elections in 2004 a series of bombs exploded on crowded Madrid commuter trains, killing almost 200 people.


The Spanish authorities found a plastic bag a few blocks away from one of the bomb sites with a single, incomplete fingerprint.


This was the trace linked to a man living 9000 kms away, a US Attorney in Oregon by the name of Brandon Mayfield.


We’ve been told that every fingerprint is unique to every finger, but what if this is the wrong question to ask?


Forensic Science was founded on the principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ but history shows we can’t always rely on one trace alone.




Reading the signs

February 17 · 38 MIN


When was the last time you were asked to sign something and did you stop to think how the strange squiggly mark you make on a page could be used?


The signature is a performative act, crucial to the law’s way of knowing, but it’s also been used as an instrument of power and control.


In this episode of History Lab we hear from a boy who was stolen, the man who took him away and the Judge who was asked to decide if a mother’s thumbprint was a sign of consent.


The presence or absence of a signature on a legal document can speak volumes and throughout history Aboriginal people have been reclaiming this marker of individual identity to represent the many and speak back to an empire.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this episode contains the voices and names of deceased persons.



Bonus Cast – The Law’s Way of Knowing?

December 18 · 31 MIN

History Lab host Dr Tamson Pietsch hands over the mic to Dr Alecia Simmonds, an interdisciplinary scholar of law and history at the University of Technology Sydney. In this bonus episode they dissect how it is the law ‘knows’ and discuss how both history and the law rely on traces from the past to draw conclusions in the present. If truth is uncertain in historical archives – is it even harder to find in the courtroom?


Season 3 of History Lab will be taking a short break returning February 4 2020.

Episode two ‘Making a fortune’ is dropping in the new year with Dr Alana Piper from the Australian Centre for Public History.