A Starving Fortune-Teller, who was convicted by the Middlesex Magistrates of being a Rogue and Vagabond, 1807
THOUGH the offence committed by this unfortunate was neither of great magnitude nor fraught with contumacy against the penal laws of the land, yet there is in his fate something so singularly curious, so strongly tinctured with eccentricity, that we have deemed it fit subject-matter for the pages of our criminal chronology. It is, however, merely the contemptible case of one of those petty deceptive cheats, yclept "fortune-tellers"; but, as the prisoner deemed himself -- an "astrologer."
This "seer," Robert Powell, was charged before the Middlesex magistrates, in terms extremely degrading to the high and mysterious dignity of a sideral professor, with being a rogue, vagabond and impostor, and obtaining money under false and fraudulent pretences from one Thomas Barnes, a footman in the service of Surgeon Blair, of Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, and taking from him two shillings and sixpence under pretences of telling him the destinies of a female fellow-servant, by means of his skill in astrological divination.
The nature of the offence and the pia fraus, or ingenious trap, by which the disciple of Zoroaster was caught in the midst of his sorceries were briefly as follows. This descendant of the Magi, born to illuminate the world by promulgating the will of the stars and the high behests of fate, had of course no wish to conceal his person, his avocations or his residence: on the contrary, he resolved to announce his qualifications in the form of a printed handbill, and to distribute the manifesto for the information of the world.
One of those bills was dropped down the area of Mr Blair's house, in Great Russell Street; it was found by his footman, or factotum, and laid on the breakfast-table, with the newspapers of the morning, as a morceau of novelty, for his amusement; of which, as is sometimes said in an august assembly, to prevent mistakes, we have obtained the following copy:
PROFESSOR OF THE SIDERAL SCIENCE
No. 5 SUTTON STREET, SOHO SQUARE
Teaches Astrology and Calculating Nativities, with the most Precise Accuracy, at 2s. 6d. per Lesson
APPLICATION TO THE COURTEOUS READER
WHO will not praise and admire the glory of the sun and stars, and the frame of heaven, and not wish to know their influence and operation upon earth? For fear of the ridicule of revilers and vilifiers of the science, who understand it not, and so deem it fraud and iniquity. Oh, happy world! if they were not a hundred thousand times more hurt by the baits of pleasure, honour, pride, authority, arrogance, extortion, envy, covetousness and cruelty! and thereby make or ruin themselves, by grasping and wantonness; and others by deception, craft, fraud and villainy! but that is all gilded over, and so such pass for good respectable people. Some may start and rave at this, but who can confute the truth of it?
Can any suppose that the stars, the celestial bodies, are designed for no other purpose than for us to look at heedlessly, as being of no worth, nor having any effect on us? Daily experience, and the most learned of all ages, have proved it, and testified it to us that they have, and in a great degree do determine our fate; which I and all other professors have experienced and proved in thousands of different nativities. Who then, by means of such a noble and inestimable science, would not wish for a precognition of the events of their most sanguine hopes and fears, which alternately alleviate or depress their minds? Is the praising and magnifying a work a wrong to the workman? Is knowing, manifesting and experiencing, the power and operations of the created, wronging or dishonouring the Creator? Though this be a persecuted science, yet happy world I how blest a state, if nothing worse was practised in it!
No letters, unless post paid, will be taken in.
Mr Blair concerted, with some of the agents of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a stratagem to entrap the sideral professor; in the furtherance of which he dictated to his footman a letter to the "seer" expressive of a wish to know the future destinies of his fellow-servant, the cook-maid, and what sort of husband the constellations had, in their benign influence, assigned her. With this letter the footman set out for No. 5 Sutton Street, Soho, where he found the "seer" had, for the convenience of prompt intercourse, chosen his habitation as near the stars as the roof of the mansion would admit. In fact, he found him in that part of the house which Juvenal facetiously describes "Ubi reddunt, ova Columbae," otherwise "the attic storey," by some termed "the roost of genius," or "the first floor down the chimney." Here the footman announced the object of his embassy, delivered his credentials, and was told by the "seer" that he could certainly give him an answer now, "by word of mouth"; but if he would call next day he should be better prepared, as in the meantime he could consult the stars, and have for him a written answer.
The footman retired, and returned next morning, received a written response, gave to the "seer" the usual donation of half-a-crown, previously marked, which sum he figured upon the answer, and the receipt of which the unsuspecting sage acknowledged by his signature.
With this proof of his diligence he returned to his master, and was further directed to go and state the matter in due form to the magistrates. The vigilant Trott was, in consequence, sent tripping after the prophet. He set out at a canter, and soon arrived, at full gallop, at this attic mansion, where he found the sage absorbed in profound cogitation, casting the nativities of two plump and prurient damsels, and consulting the dispositions of the stars as to the disposition of the lasses, and the kind of sweethearts or husbands they were destined to have. Not only were the planets consulted, but all the eminent authorities, from Moore's Almanack up to the Ptolemies, which composed the "seer's" library, were shrewdly scanned on the subject. All the conjunctions of course were found to be copulative, and the omens propitious; but the unrelenting Trott entered, and proceeded to fulfil his mission.
On searching the unfortunate sage, the identical half-crown paid him by Barnes was found, accompanied by two other pieces of similar value, in his pocket, where such coins had long been strangers; and the cabalistical chattels of his profession accompanied him, as the lawful spoil of the captor.
The magistrates, before whom, it seemed, the prisoner had been more than once cited upon similar charges, observed that it was extremely reprehensible for a man like him, who possessed abilities which, by honest exertion, might obtain for him a creditable livelihood, thus to degrade himself to a trade of imposture and fraud upon the ignorant and unsuspicious orders of society.
The wretched prisoner stood motionless and self-convicted. Aged, tall, meagre, ragged, filthy and careworn, his squalid looks expressed the various features of want and sorrow. Every line of his countenance seemed a furrow of grief and anguish; and, his eyes gushing with tears, in faint and trembling accents he addressed the magistrates. He acknowledged the truth of the charge against him, but he said that nothing save want and the miseries of a wretched family had driven him to adopt such a mode of procuring them food. If he had been able to labour he would gladly have swept the streets to obtain them food, but he was too feeble to gain employment, even in that way; he had tried every other within the scope of his capacity, but in vain. He could not dig, to beg he was ashamed; and even if begging, either by private solicitation or openly in the streets, had promised him a casual resource in the charity of the passing crowd, he was afraid he should thereby incur prosecution as a rogue and vagabond, and be consigned to imprisonment in Bridewell. Parish settlement he had none; and what was to be done with a miserable lunatic wife (for the moon was still worse to him than the stars) and three naked, famishing children? He had no choice but famine, theft or imposture.
The magistrates, obviously affected by this scene, said that they felt themselves obliged to commit the prisoner, as he had not only been repeatedly warned of the consequences of his way of life, but had once before been convicted of a similar offence. He was therefore convicted under the Vagrant Act.