The origins of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and a woman named Chloe Russell, but scholars still have many questions surrounding what appears to be Russell’s only text. While Chloe Russell is confirmed to have been an African American woman living in Boston around the time of the text’s publication, her authorship is sometimes challenged due to four somewhat conflicting versions of the text. 

 By examining critical reviews of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book from both the time of its publication and modern times, we can not only gain an understanding of the literary and cultural atmosphere of Russell’s time, but also analyze how our interpretation of literature changes over time. Additionally, a bigger-picture perspective of how fortune-telling was received in other cultures and different parts of the world allows for direct comparison with Russell and, thus, underlying implications of Early African American literature.

Reactions to Russell’s Work at the Time of Its Publication

Old Aunt Dinah’s Policy Dream Book

Published in New York in 1850, this work was garishly racist in both its insulting caricature and its excessive nomenclature: Comprising A Brief Collection of Dreams, Which Have Been Interpreted and Played with Wonderful Success to the Dreamer. Clearly aiming to undermine black fortune-tellers as a whole, the work’s mockery of Chloe Russell in particular is clarified by similarly referring to the author as the “Old Witch or Black Interpreter.”

Multiple Editions

The earliest version of Russell’s dream book is incomplete and unique, dating back to Boston in 1815 and allegedly leaving out Russell’s name. Later, two pamphlets that do portray Russell’s authorship are discovered, one published in Boston in 1822 and the other in Exeter in 1824, both entitled The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book. Comparison between one of these dream books and the earlier 1815 text reveals that the works do indeed match, thus exposing the prejudiced intent of the publisher and, unsurprisingly, joining the tradition of purposely hiding “black attribution” to literary works (The Library Company 22). However, although the 1822 and 1824 editions at least included Russell’s name, the former includes a “crude woodcut portrait” of Russell and describes her as “a woman of colour of the state of Massachusetts,” emphasizing her race (The Library Company 22). Meanwhile, the latter also labels her with a degrading yet now widely-known byline: the “Old Witch or Black Interpreter.”

Boston Version - 1822
Exeter Version - 1824

Reactions to Russell’s Work in Modern Times

Eric Gardner's Literary Criticism

In 2005, Dr. Eric Gardner of Saginaw Valley State University published an article in The New England Quarterly entitled “The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book: An Antebellum Text “By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.”’ Inside, he details not only the multiple editions of Rusell’s text, but also offers commentary on the validity of her autobiography as a means to analyze the controversy of her authorship. 

Gardner claims that, while much of Russell’s autobiography seems plausible, factual mistakes are made. Among elements that are fitting, Gardner analyzes that Russell’s reference to “the Fuller nation” could be linked to the Fulani people of West Africa and that “the fear of whites being monsters … echoes many early texts, including Olaudah Equiano’s” (Gardner 263). On the other hand, he maintains that it is nonsensical for Russell’s birthplace to be “three hundred miles south west” of Sierra Leone and that the “Tygers” she references are “a figment of Euro-American images of Africa” (Gardner 264). He also contends that the George Russels differed from Chloe Russell’s depiction and that none had died in the 1750s. He finds it particularly far-fetched that Russell did not attract more notice as a “free black woman in Virginia who spent thousands of dollars to liberate other slaves” (Gardner 263-4). These questionable details caused people to speculate that “‘Chloe Russel’ was invented by a publisher hoping to capitalize on the stereotype of the African American fortune-teller” (Gardner 264). However, Gardner concludes that Russell was most likely a real author due to evidence from census records and Boston directories; “eleven of the thirteen Boston directories from 1821 through 1833 list a Chloe Russell … living on Belknap Street, at the heart of Boston’s lively black community” (Gardner 264-5).

Compared to 19th century perspectives, rather than entirely dismissing black works and trying to hide affiliations with black authors, Gardner and the general public recognize Russell’s work, but still take the time to be quite critical of it. Although Russell is no longer being disregarded, her authoritative authenticity and entire personal identity is questioned, revealing how authorship is still considerably harder for black authors than white ones. Thus, although present-day society holds less racial prejudice than that of the 19th century, there is still significant potential for improvement.

Reactions to the Practice of Fortune-Telling in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Fortune-Telling as Women’s Work in 20th Century Australia

In Australia during the 1900s, fortune-telling was a female-dominated business, thus drawing many forms of criticism and disdain. Female fortune-tellers were referred to as “hordes of harpies” who made their business from “members of the weaker sex” (Piper 38). Working-class women commonly saw fortune-tellers as a “psychological outlet” for emotional concerns or simply “an amusing diversion from everyday life” (Piper 39). As a byproduct of the misogynistic social climate, men often condemned the practice and simply viewed fortune-telling as a fraud. Their real issue lied in the idea that “frivolous” women paid “dishonest” women money that was supposed “to have been under the sensible control of men” (Piper 39).

Easily combined with domestic duties, fortune-telling provided the perfect business opportunity for women. Thus, the practice quickly shifted from an economical pastime to a full-time profession; divination manuals were produced, newspaper advertisements for palmists and clairvoyants gained popularity, and fortune-tellers shifted from the domestic realm of households to public retail outlets and street stalls. This integration of fortune-telling into the professional world was met with contempt as media outlets saw fortune-telling as having “invaded the city’s business places” (Piper 42).

Fortune-telling soon became technically illegalized, but from a social standpoint, women engaging in the practice were typically respected, and authoritative figures often ignored violation of the law, making the legality of the practice unclear. However, British legislation pushed fortune-telling as a legal offense, and those who engaged in it were quickly criminalized by journalists and the broader public. Prosecutions were soon enacted against famed fortune-tellers by police across the country.

The Cultural Climate for 20th Century Women Fortune-Tellers in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, fortune-telling was slightly more socially acceptable, but not without its fair share of conflicts. Similar to in Australia, fortune-telling was predominantly practiced by women for women, typically surrounding topics of love and marriage. However, besides the obvious gender divisions, the practice was also divided by class and geography. It was generally frowned upon for upper-middle class clients to utilize fortune-telling services, revealing the “bourgeois norms of the time” (Blécourt and Usbourne 389). As such, lower-class women made up the main clientele for fortune-tellers. Geographically, fortune-telling nearly only existed in urban areas, where “the independent type of woman entrepreneur” was appreciated and embraced (Blécourt and Usbourne 387). To quantify the popularity of women engaging in the practice, the three main Dutch cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague had at least 300 fortune-tellers in the 1920s, while in 1925, there were only 184 female doctors in all of the Netherlands (Blécourt and Usbourne 387). This statistic implies that fortune-telling was a competitive realm with a specific role in society.

Significance to Russell's Work

While certainly part of vastly different cultural and racial atmospheres, women in the Netherlands and in Australia, in particular, experienced different forms of social oppression motivated by gender. Even with the restrictions associated with being a woman in the early 20th century, we can see certain privileges from being a part of white society that Chloe Russell most likely would not have had access to, two examples being the authorities in Australia allowing women to break the law and the Netherlands' attitude towards the acceptance of independent female entrepreneurship. 

Works Cited

Chireau, Yvonne Patricia, and Boston Athenaeum. “Chloe Russell, The Compleat Fortuneteller.” Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, University of California Press, 2006. 

De Blécourt, Willem, and Cornelie Usborne. “Women's Medicine, Women's Culture: Abortion and Fortune-Telling in Early Twentieth-Century Germany and The Netherlands.” Medical History, vol. 43, no. 3, 1999, pp. 376–392., doi:10.1017/S0025727300065418.

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

“Old Aunt Dinah's Policy Dream Book.” Omeka RSS,

Piper, Alana. “Women's Work: The Professionalisation and Policing of Fortune-Telling in Australia.” Labour History, no. 108, 2015, pp. 37–52. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

The Library Company of Philadelphia, 2007, pp. 21–22, The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the Year 2007