This story was the basis for scenes in Nellie Bly’s seventh novel, IN LOVE WITH A STRANGER, on sale now!
New York World – Sunday, January 20, 1889
Nellie Bly Has Her Fortune Told by a Mysterious Witch.
A Very Secretive Woman Who Imposes Upon the Superstitious, But Never Allows Her Face to be Seen—Strange Stories of Her Supposed Double Life—Who Is the Mysterious Clairvoyant?
“Holy mother! but she’s the devil himself!” exclaimed the imperious ruler of my kitchen, dropping a potato on the floor and the paring in a pan. I am always meek in her august presence, so I meekly assumed an interest in her story. “Sure, an’ me friends told me about her, an’ so I went to see her me last day out, an’ I belave the very old Nick himself is in her.”
“Is she so wicked?” with a meek show of interest.
“Sure, an’ what else can she be to have such a power?” I nodded my head affirmatively, meanwhile wondering which was the thicker, the potato or the paring. “I went in an’ there she sat, all wrapped in crepe, an’ not a bit of her to be seen, no more nor a bundle of rags with nothing in them, and didn’t she tell me, soft and lady like, without ever waiting to think that I crossed water lately and that me home is not in America, and that I have a dark-haired enemy, who is no one else then that thing in the lower flat, for I’m sure you know your self, miss, that it was only last week she tried to steal the clothesline on my wash day, and when I took her old rags off, didn’t she threaten to push me off the roof? Oh, I knew who the witch meant by me dark-haired enemy, and if she wasn’t the old fellow himself, missed, she couldn’t tell us all these things.”
“How was she wrapped in crepe?” I asked, curiously.
“How? An’ sure it’s more than I can tell. She’s wrapped in black from head to toe, an’ divil a bit of her to be seen but her hand. Sure an’ I think she’s hiding a tail and the cloven feet under all that crape. May I never live to enter her evil presence again,” she concluded piously.
There is a tinge of superstition in everybody, I thought, as I sat down to write. In my case there was an unlimited amount of curiosity, a love for the strange and a desire to see what plan a swindling fortune-teller had originated to mystify the ignorant public. Besides, I was once told a romantic story of the veiled woman, and I have long wished to see her. Unless there are other veiled fortune-tellers I have found her out. I have had my fate foretold by my hand, my head, my planet and by trance-mediums, voudoo doctors, card-shufflers, dream-translators, tea-leaves, coffee-grounds and by birds. I have had experience with humbuggery of this sort, with witches—male and female—and all kinds of witchcraft, and I have yet to hear one original “fortune,” and the only result of the “lucky charms” is the loss of the money I paid for them. Still, I was willing to see the veiled prophetess.
THE ABODE OF THE WITCH.
So one evening, just as the shade of night was creeping forth from darksome corners and draping the city with a misty gloom, I walked quickly along Eighth avenue, past an Italian on the curb who was standing desolate over his fast-cooling, one-cent waffles, past a vendor who was trying to convince a straggling crowd that “this fast-selling patent vegetable-peeler is used in every Fifth avenue mansion kitchen.” Near Thirtieth street I saw, over a little rickety door, which led into a brick building, the number for which I was searching.
The halls had rather a depressing look. They were bare and not surprisingly clean. On the first landing a little oil lamp flickered from a bracket fastened to the wall. The wick being long at one corner had smoked half the globe dark enough for use during an eclipse. By the light which came through the unsmoked half I saw various blue signs for the guidance of visitors to the presence of the veiled prophetess. Following those silent directions I came to a door on which was an old-fashioned knocker. The word “Knock,” printed in inch letters beneath, instructed those used to electric buttons not to push. While I stood there two young girls came out from another door. They were laughing in a half pleased, half frightened manner.
What did she tell you?
Did she tell you anything?
They asked in one breath, and then, giggling and whispering, they went down the dark stairs. I raised the knocker and let it fall with force. Some chairs were shoved about inside, a door banged shut, and then the door was opened to me. A little, stout woman, neatly clad and respectable looking, stood before me.
“Come in, miss. Be seated. Do you wish to see the Madame?”
I replied that I did, and then quickly looked about. There was nothing to see. The room was very barely furnished, and evidently meant only for a waiting-room. From it I found no indication that the “Madame” lived in the house. On a little table between the windows were tossed a number of the veiled prophetess’s cards, which, in a very business-like way, were marked “Hours 10 to 5.” The woman who admitted me sat silently by a door which opened into the hall room.
Presently I again heard a door close. Then a bell rang in the hall room. The silent woman quickly answered it, carefully closing the door behind her. When she made her appearance again she announced in a you-are-honored manner:
THE VEILED FIGURE.
“The Madame will see you.”
“The Madame is kind,” I replied with mock politeness.
The hall room was very dark, and at first I could not see whence the voice came which said:
“Please come in and be seated.”
The only object I could see at all distinctly in the room was a chair and I sat down on it. There was a lamp before me; it was shaded like a dark lantern, the side from me being completely dark and that towards me open so that it threw a single ray of light on the chair which I soon occupied. To keep from being effectually blinded with the lamp-light I turned my head partially towards the dark. I was soon able to distinguish objects, and before many seconds I knew that the single window in the room was totally darkened, that a table was before me on which the lamp stood. On this table was a wooden box and two packs of cards. Directly opposite, on a slightly elevated chair, sat one of the most peculiar figures I ever saw.
It was black and it was shapeless. The figure was wrapped in a black gown, more shapeless than a nun’s cloak. The bonnet, which covered the head completely, was not unlike the poke peculiar to some religious orders, excepting that it was of more alarming proportions. To the edge of this immense poke was fastened a thick veil—a very Jane Hading in bagginess, shabbiness and blackness—which was death to any idea of seeing the features of the veiled prophetess. But there was a voice and two hands!
“What is this” (I misquoted to myself),
“So wither’d and so wild and its attire,
That looks not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet is ‘on it?”
“Have you ever been here before?” she asked in a well-modulated voice. Her pronunciation was clear and distinct.
“No, I have not,” I replied.
“Were you recommended?”
“Yes,” I answered, faintly, as I recalled the recommendation.
“I can tell you some few facts for 25 cents, or everything for 50. Which will you have?”
“Fifty cents’ worth.” Determined to buy fate by the wholesale.
“Don’t hand the money to me. Lay it on the table. If you have not the change I can make it for you.”
“I have change,” I answered, taking the amount from my purse.
“Cut the cards once without wishing,” she said, shoving a very soiled pack, back up, towards me. I looked at the hand. It matched the voice. Fair, plump, but slender and smooth. Still, a hand is never a sure indication of birth and station. Women of the bluest blood oftimes have ugly hands, while women who never had a grandfather will have hands like artists’ models. While the veiled prophetess’s hand was all that could be desired, there was yet something in it that seemed to tell me if I saw the face it would be that of a middle-aged woman.
“You cut the cards well,” she said as she picked them up and looked them over. “All the blacks you have put back of you. There is no death near you, but your health is failing. Ah! you are in business. Do you wish me to cut the business cards for you?”
“Certainly,” I replied. She took up a smaller deck of unusual pattern, shuffled them and placed them before me, with the single word “Cut.”
“Your business is good. You cut very lucky. You are bright. You have never known failure, but you have an enemy”—
THE SAME OLD STORY.
“You do not realize it; you would laugh if she were pointed out to you. She is dark complexioned. Jealousy! jealousy! She is trying to work you harm with one you esteem. She is wary, but you will meet her face to face Saturday and then you will know your bitterest enemy.”
“Oh, does she mean to murder”— I began, in deep tones, smothering a laugh.
“Don’t speak now. Hush! There is a fair man”—
“Wonderful!” with intense surprise at such news.
“Hush! He has a good heart for you, but he is jealous. You always awaken jealousy. Do not drive this man too far. You will never marry him. Do you want to marry?”
“Certainly,” I replied, with the seriousness the question merited.
“Then cut the cards again, making a wish concerning the man you wish to wed.”
“O man, whose like was never seen or known,” I said to myself, as I held my hand on the magic cards, “not even in poets’ rhapsodies or novelists’ dreams, if your home is not in heaven, and you can becomingly hide your crown ‘neath a silk hat and fold your wings ‘neath a dress suit, appear!”
“Did you wish?” the veiled prophetess asked, apprehensively.
“I did,” very earnestly, but I did not tell her I had not time to “wish” as to the color of his hair, the exact curl of his mustache, the shape of his eyes, the size of his neck, his religion and the size of his bank account. Especially did I want to state that my husband must be able to ride without framing landscapes for those back of him. If one can get a husband by wishing, one might as well state all that one desires.
“It is well. You will marry one with whom you are not acquainted at the present time”—
“Oh, ho! He is coming to earth,” I thought.
“He is dark and wealthy. You will be very happy and will have a large family, only two of which will live. Let me see your hand. Yes, there are the trouble lines almost past. You will soon wed. Do you wish me to work for you?”
“Work for me!” feigning ignorance. “I would you might.”
SHE DEALS IN CHARMS.
“I’ll sell you a charm,” she explained, “for $2, and while you wear it I will bring you and this man together.”
“I haven’t $2 with me,” I said, pleading poverty.
“How much have you?”
“Give me, sixty then,” she had the grace to leave me a car-fare, “and I will give you the charm. You can bring the $1.40 when next you come.”
I handed her the money and in return she gave me a small thing done up in a red muslin rag about an inch long and a quarter wide.
“Put that in a silken bag and wear it on your left side for a week,” she said, “and every morning when you get up repeat three times the name of the man you wish to marry. In a week come back, bring the $1.40 due on the charm and I’ll exchange another for this, and in a short time you will be married. What is the name of the man?”
“Oh, must I tell?” I exclaimed in order to get time to think of one.
“James Vandergrift,” I said. She wrote it in the large, firm hand which is very popular at the present time.
“What is your name?”
“Oh!” With a gasp, then softly, “Jane Brown.”
She folded the paper and put it in the wooden box.
“Put your face down on the table,” she said. Much amused at her foolery, I concluded to see it out, so I leaned my head sideways on the table.
“Straight down!” she commanded. I turned over, very curious as to whether her purpose was to pick my pocket or play some trick on me.
She placed a firm hand on the back of my head so that I could not move. My nose, being of more pliable material than the table, began to flatten from the pressure. I heard her fumbling in the little wooden box, and my curiosity began to divide strength with surprise. Then I heard the unmistakable clink of steel, and I faintly wondered how only yesterday I could so lightly quote:
“What a strange, delicious amusement is death,
To be without body and breathe without breath.”
THERE MUST BE PLEASURE IN DYING.
Somehow little cold chills went down the ridges of my back as a boy slides down stairs on a board. “The woman may be mad,” I thought, “and intends to stab me in the back,” and I felt indignant at myself for putting down my head.
Clink! went the steel again and off went a lock of my hair, which in a jiffy, before I could even breathe my relief, was resting in the wooden box.
“At 12 to-night I shall work spells for you and before a week you will meet the man you are destined to marry. Go out this way, please,” pointing to a door which led to the hall, “and please close the door after you.”
As I went out I heard the little bell ring for the next believer.
The first thing I did when I reached home was to cut open the magic charm. The same old humbug. There was nothing inside excepting a scrap of dirty paper, on which, in the “Madame’s” angular script, was written, “Thomas,” “Ellen.”
MANY STRANGE TALES OF THE PROPHETESS.
Many stories are told about this woman, all highly flavored with romance. The most quiet one is that under the guise of mystery she makes enough from the superstitious to live in as comfortable style as she did before the death of her husband, who left her nothing but his name. On Sunday she is a devout worshiper in a church where poorly-clad people are not admitted, and she takes airings in the park in her own carriage. Another story is that she has a husband who is a failure as a businessman, and she supports her family in this disreputable way, and at the same time is able to pose as a woman of leisure and property.
Another story, which was told me some time ago, seems to fit in with this, as if it were the same person. I have no means by which to prove if it is or it is not, but it is romantic enough to bear repetition.
A woman well born, but certainly not well bred, fell in love with her father’s coachman or butler, I have forgotten which. She was very romantic and very headstrong, and so she deserted friends and home and ran away, leaving the same sickly, sentimental note behind that all such weak creatures do. The father would not and did not forgive her, and, unlike the heroine in the story-book, she was not taken back, and the fatted pet calf still gleefully kicked its heels against the stall. Her “castle on the shrine” of love was built of straw, and when the one-time menial found the money not forthcoming, he blew it down with rude words, and with a combination of the natural and artificial languages he conveyed to her that she would do well to support herself. A child was born, and only then did the willful girl pray the aid of a former friend. It was given, and the baby girl was transferred to a more luxurious home, where she was to be raised in ignorance as to her parentage. The mother had the false pride—which is death to respectability—that would not permit her to do honest labor where there was any possibility of her being recognized by scoffing or pitiful acquaintances. So she concocted a scheme to live by fortune-telling. To further interest the credulous and superstitious and at the same time have her desire of secrecy, she would veil her face. This was all told to the woman who took the baby girl.
Then the veiled prophetess became a thing of the past. The baby girl grew to womanhood, willful, frivolous, and of ordinary desires and abilities, showing both of the nature of the father and mother from which she sprang. She died one night from an overdose of medicine, so it was proven. One night before burial the foster mother had a strange desire to rise from her bed and go down into the room where the body lay. Pulling on a dressing-gown she went softly downstairs, when she was frightened to find some one bending over the corpse. She did not scream for I think she felt who it was. It was the girl’s mother, and with her was a servant of the household. The servant then confessed to taking the girl to see the veiled prophetess, as the girl had been willful in love as her mother before her and her lover had deserted her when most she needed him. The veiled prophetess was the girl’s own mother, and she knew it was her daughter who was confessing her sad story. She did not make herself known, so she told the adopted mother, but she was to aid the girl in every way. The sudden death put an end to it all. She went away, the adopted mother crept softly to bed and the servant turned down the light.
Whether this veiled prophetess and the veiled prophetess who told my fortune is the same, I know not.