Written by Maya Read

From the portrait of Chloe Russell’s life in “The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book”, this page will offer analysis on the authorship of this text through the historical context of the the late 1700’s and early 1800’s (when this text is suspected to have been written). Additionally, comments will be offered on the importance of the authorship, if there is any.

What do we know about Chloe Russell from the narrative in “The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book”?

Through her narrative in the text, Chloe Russell reveals details about her life that are relevant in the determination of the authenticity of the authorship. This section will summarize these aspects of Russell’s identity and tie them to the direct quote from the text.


Chloe Russell was a slave somewhere in Virginia, presumably close to Petersburg, where she entered the country and was purchased in a public auction by a planter named George Russell.

  • “In a few weeks after we were landed in Virginia, where we were sold at a public auction – I was purchased by Mr. George Russel, a Planter, near Petersburg…”

Existence As A Slave In Virginia

During her time as a slave, Chloe Russel was treated harshly by her master’s son, specifically beaten on her back, had bones broken, and was burned for punishment.

  • “…we were compelled to go half fed and cloathed, and had a double portion of work allotted us. For the smallest offence we were most unmercifully whipped and tortured. I was only whipped by a fellow slave, by order of my cruel master, until there was not a piece of skin left on my back or shoulders of the width of my hand – my crime was that of accidentally breaking a stone jug…”

Russell’s Predictions

After being given her unique abilities as seer in a dream that featured her father, Chloe Russell predicted the occurrence of the American Revolution 2 years before it happened.

  • “This was two years previous to the American Revolution, of which remarkable event I dreamed, and predicted as I was ordered, and it came to pass exactly as I prophecied…”

Russell’s Popularity in Virgina

After Chloe Russell successfully predicted the American Revolution and other great events, many people began to come to Russell for information and prophecies.

  • “…great numbers began now to flock for information, what would betide them through life, where to find lost property, &c. which I always told them so correctly, that they at length gave me the name of the ‘Old Witch!’ or ‘Black Interpreter!’”
  • Was coined “Old Witch!” and “Black Interpreter”


A Planter from Winchester commissioned Russell’s unique skills to locate lost property. He paid $400 for her freedom and an additional $500 directly to Russell for her service.

  • “…he came down and paid my master 400 dollars for my freedom, and presented me with 500 dollars more – thus I was fairly rid of one of the most tyrannical masters on earth!”

Property & Entrepreneurship

Russell bought a small house, began her fortune-telling business, and accumulated property of $3,000. She used this to purchase the freedom of her fellow slaves.

  • “With my money I purchased a small house, and devoted my whole time to interpreting of dreams, and predicting the most remarkable events in the course of such persons lives as applied to me…”
  • “I accumulated property to the amount of 3000 dollars almost every cent of which I expended to purchasing the freedom of several of my unfortunate fellow creatures, who were slaves to my late tyrannical master.”

What do we know about Chloe Russell from prior research into historical records?

In Eric Gardner’s essay, “The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book”: An Antebellum Text “By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour”, he references two pieces of evidence of Chloe Russell’s existence in Boston’s historical records. First, the 1820 and 1830 federal consensus lists Chloe Russell as a free person living on Belknap Street, which was located in Black Beacon Hill (Gardner 265). Second, Gardner cited Adelaide Cromwell’s research in historical tax records in which she noted Chloe Russell as one of six black women that were listed as property owners (Gardner 265).

What was the nature of slavery and freedom in Virginia in the late 1700s?

On the nature of slavery and freedom in Virginia, John Henderson Russell writes, “The first negroes brought to Virginia in 1619 were from the very outset regarded and held as slaves for life. They and all Africans who came after them experienced immediately upon entering Virginia a perpetual loss of liberty. Unlike the white servant, whose freedom was only temporarily withheld, the freedom of the negro could only be restored by an act of emancipation” (Russell 16). In 1691, a restrictive act passed that aimed to limit the class of free black people that had either been emancipated themselves or descended from emancipated former slaves. This act declared that “no negro or mulatto was to be set free unless the person so doing should pay the charges for transporting the manumitted negro beyond the limits of the colony” (Russell 51). The law of 1782 loosened these restrictions on manumission but both laws may have important implications of Russell’s narrative. If Russell was freed before 1782, the law may have demanded her relocation to Boston, as her migration isn’t explicitly addressed in the narrative. If she was freed after 1782, she may have remained in Virginia for a short time.

Leading up to the Civil War, Virginia consistently possessed a large percentage of America’s free black population. The narrative doesn’t provide many clear dates for the major events in Russell’s, but estimates can may have been freed around 1790 or earlier. In 1790, free black people made up one-fourth of the black population in Petersburg and were to the white population as 1 to 4.5 (Russell 14). Russell identified Petersburg as a close town to her master’s plantation and these numbers demonstrate that in this section of Virginia, there was a considerable free black population. This bodes well for the credibility of Russell’s narrative.

Who was George Russell? Where exactly was the Russell Plantation?

In Russell’s narrative, she identifies George Russell as a planter that owned a plantation near Petersburg, VA with approximately 300 slaves. Within a short period of her service to George Russell, he passed and she became the slave of his son. Initial research didn’t unveil any clear historical figures that match Chloe Russell’s slave master, George Russell. One candidate of interest was George Russell (1757-1812). This theory assumes that Chloe Russell mistakenly recorded her original slave master, Will Russell, in her narrative with the name of his son. Very few actual dates are provided in the narrative, and there is debate on whether those dates are accurate, but this person’s birth date seems to put them at a sufficient age to inherit his father’s slaves and fits within theories of when Chloe Russell might have been freed (sometime between 1775 and 1795). Another discrepancy with this candidate is that he only inherited half of the labor of his father’s only slave (Will Book 1, 1773-1783, Halifax County, Virginia). In George’s will however, he divides thirds of his slaves to his wife and children, which implies that he owned a greater number than his father (Rolfes). Exactly how many slaves isn’t detailed in the will.

This highlights something important about this search for Russell’s slave owner. In researching potential candidates, it was rare to come across men who owned more than 100 slaves. A plantation with 300 slaves seems to be considerably sized, and it is curious that there is no clear record of it. Of course, there is much more research to be done in this area, but it should be noted that plantations that were much smaller and seemingly more obscure have concrete, visible records.

What was the nature of free blacks in Boston in the early 1800s?


  • According to the 1850 census, only 14% of Boston’s black population was unable to read and write. Illiteracy was higher in southern-born black people and older adults, especially older women.
  • Chloe Russell is thought to have been an older woman at the time of publishing her book. Although there is no clear date for her migration to Boston, it is probable that Chloe Russell was an older, black woman that originated from the south (although the narrative asserts that she wasn’t born in America). Russell hits all of the categories of the least likely groups in the black population to be able to read and white. Writing and publishing the book would prove her to be defying these odds, which, although we have no record of it, could have drawn notice from the black Boston community.


  • Russell’s residence on Belknap Street put her in the Black Beacon Hill neighborhood (Horton 3).
  • Most black people in Boston were from the North, but of those from the South, in 1850, 48% were from Virginia (Horton 6).
  • Chloe Russell’s residence on Belknap Street puts her in the heart of the black community in Boston, which seems like the place a literate, capable black woman might like to own property. Additionally, the data about migration supports earlier mentioned facts about Virginia’s large population of free black people. Further, it helps add some credibility to Russell’s otherwise ambiguous migration from Virginia to Boston.


  • Typically, black workers lived in homes they didn’t own, and “only 1.5% of single black adults and family heads owned real property” (Horton 10).
  • This fact supports Adelaide Cromwell’s findings about the few black women that owned property in Boston around this time, Chloe Russell being one of them. In conjunction, both facts are evidence that property ownership was a considerably unique part of Chloe Russell’s identity and story, as few free black people had the opportunity to do the same. This makes it more questionable that there is not more reference to or record of Chloe Russell’s existence in Boston, as these findings confirm her as a notable figure.

What general conclusions can be drawn about the authorship of this text?

When examining the narrative, the most integral parts of Chloe Russell’s identity relative to the authorship seem to be her existence as a literate, free black women alive between the years of 1797 and 1835 (when this text was believed to have been originated). Confirming these facts about Chloe Russell would prove that she was a real woman that was capable of producing this narrative. Other aspects of her identity provided in the narrative are more difficult to verify, including Russell’s age, presence in Virginia, emancipation, fortune-telling business, and purchase of her fellow slaves. There is much more research to be done in all of these areas, but it is likely that of some details may not ever be able to be confirmed. Therefore, no concrete conclusion can be provided on the authenticity of the authorship at this time.

One final question that seems to follow this conclusion is how much the authenticity of the authorship matters. A majority of the text’s content concerns fortune-telling, and even if Chloe Russell’s identity was to be fully confirmed, her fortune-telling abilities and authority on the subject could never be proved. In that same vein, it seems that this narrative exists as an abolitionist text whether the authorship is authentic or not. Of course, the question of authorship should be pursued for its potential effects on different genres. However, it seems unlikely that any discovery in terms of the authorship would change the narrative’s important message about the cruelty of slavery and black female empowerment. Therefore, the content of the narrative ultimately takes precedence over questions about the authorship.


Works Cited

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, www.jstor.org/stable/30045526.
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life And Community Struggle In the Antebellum North. Rev. ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1999.
Horton, James Oliver., and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. ACLS History E-Book Project, 2005.
Hardesty, Jared Ross. “‘The Negro at the Gate’: Enslaved Labor in Eighteenth-Century Boston.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 1, 2014, pp. 72–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43285054.
Rolfes, Susannah. “George Russell (1757 – 1812).” WikiTree, 6 May 2019, www.wikitree.com/wiki/Russell-4310.
Russell, John H. (John Henderson), 1884-. The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619-1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913.
Will Book 1, 1773-1783, Halifax County, Virginia. Iberian Pub. Co., 1997. US GenWeb Archives, files.usgwarchives.net/va/halifax/wills/willbk01.txt.