Fortune-telling in Britain was formerly included under the crime of witchcraft and was made punishable by death under the Statute of 1563. This act was repealed by George II (1683-1760), who ordained that no prosecution should thereafter be made on a charge of witchcraft and that all persons professing to occult skill or undertaking to tell fortunes might be sentenced to imprisonment for one year, made to stand pillory, and pledge future good behavior.
Punishment by pillory was later abolished. Under George IV (1762-1830) fortune-tellers were included along with other vagrants under the general category of "rogues and vagabonds" and were liable to imprisonment for three months. This provision was made applicable to Scotland also and provided that "every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise to deceive, and impose on any of His Majesty's Subjects" would be deemed a vagabond and rogue and be punished accordingly.
The first case to be prosecuted under this law was the Smith case. A woman named Jone Lee Smith was charged in the police court at Glasgow with a violation of the enactment. She was convicted of the violation and drew a suspension. The court overturned the conviction, on the grounds that the complaint was irrelevant in that it did not set forth that the accused had pretended to tell fortunes with intent to deceive anyone. Lord Young, one of the judges, said,
"It has never been imagined, so far as I have ever heard, or thought, that writing, publishing, or selling books on the lines of the hand, or even on astrology—the position of the stars at birth and the rules upon which astrologers proceed in telling fortunes therefrom. I say that I have never heard of publishing, or selling such books is an offence, or that reading such books, and telling fortunes therefrom is an offence. Roguery and knavery might be committed that way, but it would be a special case. I am not in any way suggesting that a spae wife or anyone else may not through that means commit knavery and deception, and so be liable to punishment."
It thus appears that fortune-telling was of itself no offense unless accompanied by fraud. While it might be an offense for the palmist or fortune-teller to knowingly accept payment from a foolish or ignorant person, it could hardly be said that the ordinary person who consulted and then paid a professional fortune-teller or crystal gazer should feel imposed upon if the character delineations were faulty or the forecast inaccurate.
British Spiritualists continued to be harassed under the Vagrancy Act of 1824 throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Psychical research might be quite respectable, but until as recently as 1951 a medium could be prosecuted under sections of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824. In a 1921 case a judge stated, "I cannot reverse the decision on the claim that the intention to deceive was not necessarily to be proved. The act of fortune-telling is an offence in itself."
Perhaps the most deplorable type of prosecution was that in which undercover agents were employed by the police to obtain evidence. Disguised policewomen posing as bereaved parents would approach a medium, begging for some consolatory message. A small sum of money would be proffered as a "love offering," and if this was accepted the medium could be prosecuted—often for as little as the equivalent of a 25-cent "donation" to the Spiritualist church. Unsympathetic magistrates, convinced that all Spiritualists were frauds, often imposed a fine, or a sentence of up to three months' imprisonment.
As late as 1944 the medium Helen Duncan was prosecuted for "pretending to communicate with spirits." Duncan was found guilty and served a sentence of nine months' imprisonment. After her release she resumed mediumistic activities and in October 1956 was seized by police at a séance in Nottingham. She became ill and died five weeks later. This case stimulated efforts by Spiritualists to get the old punitive legislation repealed, since it could theoretically make any séance illegal.
In 1951 the old witchcraft and vagrancy legislation was finally repealed by the new Fraudulent Mediums Act, which, although not wholly satisfactory, at least implicitly acknowledged that there might be genuine mediumship. In New York comparable outdated legislation had been amended in 1929 to exempt ministers and mediums of Spiritualist associations acting in good faith without personal fees.
The dropping of the old witchcraft law had a second, and unplanned, effect: the revival of a new form of witchcraft. Following the repeal of the anti-witchcraft legislation, Gerald Gardner published several books announcing the continued existence of witchcraft followers in England.
Gardner, Gerald. Witchcraft Today. London: Rider, 1954.