Created by Olivia Mastrosimone



Little is known about Chloe Russel, the “free colored female” living in Massachusetts who wrote The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book – a helpful guide to the spiritual and supernatural for 19th-century readers. Russel claimed to have powers that allowed her to “determine the most remarkable events' ' which would affect these readers throughout their lives. Perhaps the most puzzling and mystifying section in Russel’s book is “Of Dreams,” a 10-page treatise offering explanations and predictions based on dream symbols. Russel offers no introduction nor justification for her readings, leaving the minds of 20th-century readers baffled and simultaneously intrigued. In looking at the context of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, it seems that the modern American reader is at a stark disadvantage compared to those of the 19th century in terms of understanding the perplexing nature of this text. 

Recall any recent literary fad–vampire novels, dystopian science-fiction, legal thrillers, political expose. It may be helpful to think of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book as an early-1800s Twilight in both fame and demographics (mainly young women). Scholars argue that fortune-telling and dream books are as old as printing itself, and their early modern popularity is intrinsically tied to the advent of the printing press. 

The public intrigue surrounding dream reading grew so strong that many people took to their local papers to have readers decode their dream symbols and predict their future.

This reader-submitted dream was published in the Middlesex Gazette in April 1788. The dreamer addresses the reader, writing:

"As I am a constant reader of your paper I should be glad if you would insert the following DREAM. It may seem foolish to some, but I should be glad if somebody would give the interpretations, for to me it seems to be of great consequence.”

Submissions like this were published frequently, so often that sometimes readers were so engrossed in these dreams that they would then submit their own responses to other readers’ dreams. Take this response by “A Constant Reader” published in the Freemans Journal, or the North American Intelligencer in August of 1782. It reads:

“... only craving to ask those gentlemen a few questions, which I expect they will answer with precision; as, first, Do you know the horse that brought (you say) the grain? Secondly, who is the identical owner of the horse...” 

However, outside of the 19th-century, there exists a deeply rooted belief in dream interpretation from numerous cultures and religions around the world, and Russel’s Fortune Teller was published during one of the many spikes in the practice’s popularity. It is clear that Russel takes inspiration from ancient traditions, African American folklore, and then-popular themes present in dream interpretation. In doing so, Russel situates herself in the thriving community of early African American spirituality that was born out of slavery and continued to develop and plant roots in primarily Black cities.

Historical Background on Dream Interpretation 

Before diving into Russel’s connection with African and African American folklore and dream reading, explore the map below for a brief look into the rich and expansive history of dream interpretation, from Ancient Egypt to Early Modern Britain.

While these cultures and religions were exploring their own ideologies surrounding dream interpretation, numerous native peoples in Africa were developing numerous religions and belief systems that held divination and dream interpretation at their core. Explore the map below, which focuses on a few specific belief systems of native African peoples, especially in Western Africa where Russel was born. Again, you may notice some similarities between traditional African folklore and Russel's piece as you make your way through this exhibit.

Deeper Dive into Early African American Dream Reading  

Since enslaved peoples were first brought to the Americas in 1619, Black people have been practicing religions brought over and adapted from those found in native African communities. As southern slave states began outlawing traditional practices, early African Americans had to adapt in order to keep their culture and religions alive. What developed in the 18th and 19th century was an expansive and rich southern Black folklore, with certain belief systems grounded in southern culture that still flourish today. 

Hoodoo developed primarily in southern Protestant states and spread across the country during the Great Migration. Slave codes restricted drumming (an integral aspect of many African traditional religions) and group religions outside of Christianity. However, Hoodoo survived through a unique covertness due to the fact that it was not a formal religion–its rituals, practice, and divination were so unfamiliar to the white slave owners that their oppressors “did not understand or recognize” (Mitchen 28). One of the main divinations used in Hoodoo is Oneiromancy, or divination based on dreams. Here are some of the most well-known dream-signs used in southern African American Hoodoo and folklore. It’s important to note, however, that dream signs varied from locality to locality, and each community had its own signs and interpretations.

Vegetables: Well-behaved children.    

Wedding: Indicates a funeral.   

Worms: Indicates losing your mind  

Decoding "Of Dreams"  

Since enslaved peoples were first brought to the Americas in 1619, Black people have been practicing religions brought over and adapted from those found in native African communities.

Adversity: To dream you are engaged in a dispute with a person shows that you will meet with trouble.    

Air: To dream you see the air clear, blue, calm and serene, shews that the point you aim at will be prosperous; if with thick and dark clouds, you will meet with disappointment. 1      

Angels: If you dream of angels, it is a proof that there is one then  near you, and that the rest of your dreams shall prove true; therefore be mindful of it. 2  

Anger: To dream you see another in a passion with you, denote some very unpleasant circumstance that is to happen.   

Ants: When you dream of ants, if you see them busy in making their provision, it is a sign your industry will be crowned with success; if they appear to be injured you may be certain that some secret enemy is trying your ruin 3  

Apparel: Should you chance to dream that you are very genteely drest, and in good company, it declares that you will be advanced considerably higher in rank than you have been hitherto.  

Bees: If you see bees at work in your dream, it signifies that your industry will be prosperous. 4  

Cards: If you dream you are playing at cards, it denotes you will soon be married.  5        

Cattle: To dream of driving cattle, is a sign that you will be prosperous through life.   

Cat: Should you dream of a cat, you must expect trouble  6   

Children: To see children in your dream, promises peace and happiness in this life.  

Church: To dream you are in a church, you will be disappointed in your expectations. 7   

Climbing: To dream you are ascending a very steep place, and find great difficulty, denotes sickness.  8  

Combat: To dream of combatting, signifies that you have enemies who will strive to injure you.  

Death: To dream you see a corpse, is a sign that you will either be married or assist at a wedding; if you dream you are dead yourself, is sign of success in all your undertaking.  9  

Feast: To dream that you are at a feast denotes extraordinary satisfaction  

Fields: To dream you are crossing ploughed fields it denotes misfortune; if green grass appears, it denotes prosperity.  

Finger: If you dream you cut your finger and it bleeds, you will get money where you least expect it.   

Fire: If you dream of eating fire, you will have a connexion that will ruin you.   

Fish: To dream you are a [sic] fishing and catch none; you will never be married to the person you court, if you catch them you will be successful in love, and enjoy many happy days 10  

Fruit: The gathering of green fruit denotes sickness; ripe, mellow and red, is a token of peace, health, and prosperity.  

Funeral: A funeral with a relation on, or attending it, imports that the person so seen will lose a near friend; if there is no friend with the funeral, you will be married yourself or assist at the wedding of some kinsman.  11  

Grave: To dream you see a grave, denotes sickness or disappointment if you go into the grave, you will suffer; if you come out, you will rise to enjoy a prosperous state of life.  

Serpents: To dream of serpents, signifies private enemies. 12  

Sores: If you dream you are troubled with bad sores you will rise by patronage or legacy. 13     

Sea: If you dream of walking on the sea, or swimming without danger, you will enjoy the person you love.  

Sheep: To dream of sheep denotes respect being paid to you. 

Silver: Should you dream of picking up small pieces of silver, fore- shows distress for money.  

Soldiers: To see armed soldiers, foreshews you will be persecuted . 

Teeth: To dream your teeth drop out, is a token of losing some near relation.   

Treasure: Should you find a treasure in your dream you will be exposed to the treachery of a person you confide in.  

Wedding: To dream you are at a wedding, portends sickness, or the death of a near relation.  


Russel’s “Of Dreams” not only takes inspiration and meaning from Southern African American folklore but ancient dream lore as well. Thus, shedding light on the connections Russel has to ancient dream lore, African and African American tradition, and 19th-century popular culture. 

Works Cited 

"Advertisement." Middlesex Gazette, vol. III, no. 127, 7 Apr. 1788, p. [3]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers

A.H. Gardiner, 'Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 3rd Series: Chester Beatty Gift' I (London, 1935), 9-27, pls. 5-12

Artemidorus, Daldianus.The interpretation of dreams digested into five books by that ancient and excellent philosopher, Artimedorus. London: Printed by Bernard Alsop, 1644. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011.

Chireau, Yvonne Patricia. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press, 2003.

Lerner, Gerda. Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press. HeinOnline,

Middleton, Laura. Dreams and their Interpretations: Compilation of dream interpretations contributed by African Americans of Edisto Island, South Carolina. 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project Papers. USC South Caroliniana Lib., Columbia, SC. <>

Mitchem, Stephanie. African American Folk Healing. NYU Press, 2007.

"[Mr. Bailey; Dream]." The Freeman's Journal: or, The North-American Intelligencer, vol. II, no. LXIX, 14 Aug. 1782, p. [1]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers.

Partridge and Flamstead. Dr. Flamstead's and Mr. Patridge's new fortune-book: containing, I. Their new-invented method of knowing one's fortune by a pack of cards; ... V. A treatise of moles, .... London, 1730.

Pick, Daniel, and Roper, Lyndal, ed. Dreams and History: The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis. Taylor & Francis Group. 2004 ProQuest Ebook Central,

Puckett, Newbury Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. New York, Negro Universities Press. 1975, c1926.

Real and extraordinary dreams and visions, with their interpretations; tending to shew that the great and wonderful events of the present crisis, will usher in the glorious revolution spoken of by the prophets. With a preparatory address and solemn call To Methodists, Quakers, Dissenters, Catholics, Churchmen, Jews, Deists, And The Preachers In Particular; Also to kings, orators, patriots, judges, nobles, politicians, and the public in general. London,  [1795?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Northeastern University. 9 Dec. 2020