Witches of New York is a brilliant and highly entertaining sketch of psychics, astrologers, and fortune-tellers operating within Victorian New York City, written from the perspective of a popular American humorist. Noting that the witches exert an influence too powerful and too wide-spread to be treated with such light regard as has been too long manifested in the community they have swindled for so many years, the author set out to patronize a representative sample of fortune-tellers, and to expose to public scrutiny, in a series of written narratives, the quality of witchcraft which could be bought for a dollar.
The outcome is at once a delightfully entertaining read, and fascinating primary text for the historian of the 19th century occult movement. Doesticks relates many of his encounters in terms of an ill-conceived search for a wife with supernatural powers, but it is fortune-tellers themselves who lend the text its greatest humor value. We meet the mysterious "Gipsy Girl" of No. 207 Third Ave., who delivers her prognostications in a rum-induced slur. Madam Morrow's women-only policy obliges the author to appear in drag, a ruse sufficient to award Doesticks with a glimpse of his future wife. Whereas most female fortune-tellers offer a love charm to their customers, the scientifically-minded Dr. Wilson, by contrast, predicts that Doesticks will poison his future wife, and then offers his own services for the job.
It would be an injustice, however, to present Witches of New York as merely a humorous text, as it contains detailed accounts of sessions with astrologers, mediums, palmists, and other fortune-tellers, with rich description of their methods and devices employed, and the social context of their practices. Often, these are the stories of New York's underclass, of impoverished women who, in many cases, are earning a living in one of the least disreputable ways available to them. Indeed, the most important historical contribution of the text is that it situates fortune-telling within the wider social context of New York's underground economy. Doesticks argues, as best he can in lieu of a possible libel suit, that fortune-tellers are frequently former prostitutes, and/or in the business of recruiting prostitutes, and that their establishments are frequently fronts for brothels, abortionists, and their ilk. Though viewed through the lens of an unsympathetic humorist whose end is to expose and to entertain, Witches of New York retains tremendous importance as a window into an interesting and poorly-documented Victorian subculture. (Cover photograph courtesy of Janice Fletcher)
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Mortimer Q. Thomson was an American journalist and humorist who wrote under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. He was born in Riga, New York and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Wikipedia)
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