Written and curated by Matt Yan

ENGL 2296 Final Project


Sometime in the 1820s, a text by an unknown Black woman named Chloe Russel, described as “a woman of colour, in the State of Massachusetts,” was released (Gardner 259). Titled The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, it is presented as a book full of fortunes, rituals, and methods for one to reach their goals or aspirations. Originally from Africa, Russel was seemingly taken against her will and enslaved, which she describes a “fatal day” where she was “dragged from [her] parents and country” (Gardner 269). Her narrative, as compiled and edited by Eric Gardner for The New England Quarterly, takes readers through her arduous journey of enslavement to finding hope and light through a mysterious mechanism: fortune-telling and dreams.

Later, she emancipates herself using her divination and fortune telling skills to find money, taking her practice public in Boston (272). Because it’s unclear how, why, and what context this text was written in, her text is still shrouded in mystery. Was Russel an actual person who could interpret dreams and tell fortunes or was she completely made up? For these purposes and in this exhibit, she will be treated as a real person, who wrote these texts to fit a society who sought them out. Her text echoes themes of domesticity, matrimony, and femininity, which all were the norms of society at the time. Rather than rejecting these themes, Russel seemingly embraces them, potentially providing a larger indication what societal norms were of the time. In any time period, newspapers and articles serve as the best way to look at the past and see what was relevant to a society at a time because what was covered was carefully chosen to fit what society would have appreciated at this time. More specifically, historically Black newspapers or those with an African American publisher would provide even better context to decipher who Russel’s audience was. By looking closely at parallels between themes of womanhood, domesticity, and matrimony in Russel’s text and expectations of women insinuated in these newspaper articles, it will be clearer for whom Russel wrote her dream book for and why she chose to frame it as she did. 

“... I dreamed that I saw my father, who told me that he had just come from the world of spirits, where there was nothing but joy and happiness-he informed me that he was killed by the fire of the Baccaranas, twenty moons after I was captured by them, in attempting to rescue my mother, whom they had taken––he said that he had been made acquainted with my resolve to destroy myself, and had come to persuade me not to do it, as it would soon be well with me, and I should be free from my master. This singular dream made such a deep impression upon my mind, as to deter me from committing suicide the succeeding day…” –– From The Complete Fortune Teller (Gardner 271). 

Screenshot of Gardner, Eric "The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book": An Antebellum Text "By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour," page 260, taken 17 December 2020.

What did Chloe Russel write?

“A Method by which a Young Lady May Know Whether She is Ever to Marry” 

“IN the full of the moon, write the name of any man on a piece of clean paper, fold it in the form of a heart, get a gill of red wine and dip it in it, then drink the wine in three draughs just as you are going to bed, put the paper under your pillow and let matrimony be your thoughts until you fall asleep––if you dream you are in company with a young man, whose person and conversation is pleasing to you, you may depend that you will one day become the wife of some agreeable companion––but if you dream that you are disgusted with the appearance and conversation of the young man, you may safely calculate on dying an old maid.” (Gardner 273-4)


Whether a maid shall have him she loves.

  1. Be not too coy, he is thy own,

But through delay he may be gone.

  1. He of your wishes does not know,

He'd soon comply if it were so.

  1. Come set thy heart at rest I say,

He will but plunder and away.

  1. Fear not, thy neighbour is the man,

And he will have thee if he can.

  1. Shew him more kindness, he will speak,

His heart with silence else will break.

  1. Sigh thou no more, he does relent,

And of his inconstancy (Gardner 287)





In the collection compiled by Gardner, the content spanned from information about moles,  dreams, and methods. The complete dream book included most of this information, providing readers with multiple ways to interpret their future and other things in their life. A common thread within the book and as alluded to above is how Russel often draws back, almost relies upon, themes relevant to the times: marriage, expectations of womanhood, and domesticity (Gardner 277-81).  The following are two excerpts from Russel’s dream book, where she explicitly deals with issues of matrimony and the domestic space. 

In these two examples to the right, Russel’s intention is abundantly clear: If a woman seeks marriage, do these things in order to fulfill one’s wishes and desires. It’s simple, yet so complex –– Russel instructs her readers to do these things in order to fulfill an aspiration of marriage, which is essentially the norm of society. But what are the implications of that? Why does Russel focus explicitly on marriage?  Russel herself is not submitting to what the expectations of women which are built by society; instead, she embraces it –– she presents a text and a method to have women find their purpose. She presents women with a life of marriage, which ultimately leads into the realm of domesticity and this cult of true womanhood, or the established norm of domesticity as a hallmark of what it meant to be a woman at this time. In the first text, she advises against not getting married, because as she indicates in “A method…” it will result in “dying an old maid” (274). Although it seems a bit comical, her inclusion and choice of language seems intentional, as if she warns against the danger of not getting married at all and the implications of not doing so. The second text, akin to a poem, instructs boldness in order for a woman to get the man she desires. However, in a similar fashion to the first, Russel instructs women to show “kindness” and put their heart on the table in order to get their wish. Still, though, the goal was marriage, further illuminating that marriage and the eventual entrance into the domestic space was the ultimate goal. In essence, Russel’s text insinuates that she is enthralled in these ideas of marriage and domesticity, possibly because that is all she knew, but more so because of what societal norms were of the time.

Freedom’s Journal & the ongoing themes of domesticity

Founded in 1827 and operated for two years, Freedom’s Journal was the first African American newspaper circulated in the U.S. and based out of New York City, eventually circulating in 11 states (Freedom’s Journal). Although it’s based outside of Boston, its circulation and relatively close distance indicates that what was relevant to readers of Freedom’s Journal were similarly just as important to readers of Russel’s text. Moreover, as an entirely African American newspaper, news and content featured within Freedom's Journal was generally suited for African Americans, as it was created by African Americans to counter the outward racism in the general press (Ibid). Along with sections in the newspaper that featured news, a subsection titled “Varieties” included information outside of the realm of typical news coverage. Similar to commentary or an opinion section, stories from this section were less involved with what was happening in society, focusing instead on other, more broad subjects.

Screenshot of "Varieties: Female Temper" from Freedom's Journal. Internet Archive. Taken 17  December 2020.                                

Screenshot of "Varieties: Conscience" from Freedom's Journal. Internet Archive. Taken 17 December 2020.

Screenshot of "Domestic News: Husband's Rights" from Freedom's Journal. Internet Archive. Taken 17 December 2020.

In this first piece, titled “Female Temper,” it is important to consider that this type of article was published in the first place, especially in the way that it portrays women equating women to a certain temper. The unknown writer describes it as “particularly necessary for girls to acquire command of their temper,” implying that it is almost within their best interest and showing what society, more specifically Black society, expects of women. The piece imposes unreasonable expectations on women and even explicitly states how they should react in comparison to men. In the second paragraph, the article says, “A man in a furious passion, is terrible to his enemies; but a woman, in a passion, is disgusting to her friends; she loses all respect due to her sex, and she has not masculine strength and courage to enforce any other kind of respect” (Varieties: Female Temper). Here, the stark difference between expectations and societal views of men and women are at the forefront of the article. The writer removes all validity from the female identity, portraying it instead as a lack of strength, to which the writer genders as well, deeming it “masculine strength.” Happiness, instead, is attributed to being a wife and a mother, yet the main issue at hand, the article indicates, is the idea of temper, reiterated in the piece through the constant framing of women as difference –– both in their very existence but also in their attitude as well. Ultimately, from the angle of this particular article, the attitude toward women and the female identity is structured upon the idea that women cannot speak up, silencing women of this time in a way. 

The second piece from the “Varieties” section deals with a sermon, but the portrayal of women is less obvious and more implicit than in the first piece from this section. In particular, the article deals with a sermon against “unchaste” women (Varieties: Conscience). This article reiterates the idea that women are supposed to be coy, meek, and not be too improper. By including this type of article about a sermon that seemingly has no relevance other than the ending is a bit of a coincidence, the article shows how certain expectations of women are ingrained within society’s fabric. Moreover, it makes a point to tell this story –– when the women also stoop low as was done in the sermon –– illustrating that perhaps this was something of interest to the general public. Its inclusion is misogynistic in a way, as the women, once again, have submitted to society’s expectations. Although a piece from “Varieties” like “Female Temper” was more explicit in its portrayal of women as lesser, this article shows that a coy, nurturing, and gentle woman was preferred over an unchaste or seemingly improper one. 


Also from Freedom’s Journal, this article titled “Husband’s Rights” from their domestic news section dealt with themes of domesticity: a trial regarding spousal abuse and subsequent acquittal. Here, this article provides an interesting perspective of marriage, even going as far to add an aside at the conclusion of the article. Unlike some of the other excerpts from Freedom’s Journal, the article sides with the woman, as the aside says about the husband following his acquittal, “He should have been tarred and feathered.” (Domestic News: Husband’s Rights) However, the headline is still problematic. “Husband’s Rights” indicated that the case, and the subsequent news coverage and reporters, grappled with whether the husband had rights to abuse his wife, with absolutely no say as to how the wife felt about the situation. By doing so, it is clear that still, the man took priority in the news coverage, no matter if he was at fault. Ultimately, this inclusion of this news shows that spousal matters like this one were the type of news covered and reported in this period, showing what society deemed imported.   


To situate Russel in this news coverage, each of these articles from Freedom’s Journal were published in 1827 –– the same time when Russel published her dream book. Therefore, the audiences would likely be the same, and each article echoes themes found in Russel’s text. In the aforementioned excerpts, she presents marriage as aspirational –– a concept which all women can aspire to. She writes, “If you dream you are in company with a young man, whose person and conversation is pleasing to you, you may depend that you will one day become the wife of some agreeable companion.” (Gardner 273). Here, the dream functions not only as a reoccurring thing when one sleeps, it implies longing and a prolonged need for something out of reach. She presents marriage as a dream for women to aspire to as if their purpose is to get married, which is also a point found in these articles. In “Female Temper,” happiness is equated with entrance into the domestic space and is even something defined as “domestic happiness.” (Varieties: Female Temper). Russel’s text finds solace in similar ideals by presenting marriage as something akin to aspiration and the norm. The coverage presented above presents women as secondary to the man, illustrating that society saw women as fit only for the domestic space and only for marriage. By actively including and alluding to these societal norms within her text, Russel follows what is expected of women in this time period; however, she seemingly does so fitting the dream-like aspect.

Satirical themes in The Women’s Era & its relevance with Russel

A different Boston-based publication, published monthly toward the end of the 19th century, was The Women’s Era with prominent African American women’s rights leader Josephine Ruffin as its publisher (Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin). Although the articles regarding domestic spaces and womanhood are primarily satirical, they present Russel’s ideas through a completely different lens, almost challenging her ideas and the larger societal expectations of women in a way.

“Men long ago learned that better work was done by division of labor. This lesson housewives will be forced to learn if they do not want to sink beneath a mountain of toil and trouble and become mere stolid, patient drudges. It is a law of nature that there is a corresponding loss for every gain, and the gain in mental culture to the inhabitants of cities has been attended by a loss in physical strength” (“Domestic Science”).


“Women live too largely and broadly in this time, to be bound down to every change of sleeve or skirt, besides this, sensible women will not long consent to give up at the command of unknown rulers, fashions which are sensible and comfortable ... It is to be hoped however, that whatever the future brings us, it will let us keep blouse waists, loose outside garments and short skirts. These all have the true beauty, the beauty of appropriativeness” (“Women at Home: Beginnings”)

Titled “Domestic Science” this article takes the angle of domesticity from a different perspective, looking at it from a satirical standpoint. The unknown writer implies that a hierarchy between men and women in the working field, deeming it a “division of labor.” ("Domestic Science") Moreover, this division is implied to be one a housewife must learn, or else. Because the audience for The Women’s Era was likely women who digested the news within a radical or feminist context, the satire presented here would be clear, indicating that the writer finds it ridiculous that women are subjected to such a division in society. The writer strips down the societal expectation that women are supposed to be domestic and to be housewives. Different from Freedom’s Era, this article was published in 1894, so perhaps society’s view of women and this cult of womanhood, especially within women themselves, has shifted and evolved. Unlike Freedom’s Era which portrayed this difference between men and women with utmost certainty, this article seems to play with society’s rules a bit, bending them in a way to show that the domestic space isn’t the woman’s only place. 


In this article, titled “Women at Home: Beginnings,” it appeals to the interest and norms of women at the time, while still being satirical. It breaks down the norms for what women’s fashion is supposed to be by describing that being well-dressed can sometimes be a “terrible burden.” (citation) The writer, editor Elizabeth Johnson, implies that style and being well-dressed has ultimately become too complicated, almost instructing readers to wear what they want. Fashion is completely based on expectations for what is popular or trending, and Johnson seems to be completely against that notion, arguing that women are bound by the changes in fashion (citation). Once again, Johnson presents the idea of audience and who this type of article would be for as well as who would have read it. She strikes down the idea of a cult of true womanhood by providing a new definition for style –– she sees style and fashion as something a woman can choose, not as something that restricts their means of choice. Ultimately, this article serves as a glimpse into a society that is defined by expectations of women, seen through this requirement to fit into a trend, style, or fashion. 

To put the two together, Russel’s text and her attachment to ideals of matrimony, domesticity, and femininity completely contrast those found in these excerpts from The Women’s Era. In a certain manner, The Women’s Era seems to go against those ideas of domesticity in its very nature, as it is created by women’s rights activists like Ruffin. Yet, this may just be a sign of the times; the publication dates are separated by almost 70 years. However, The Women’s Era not only goes against these ideas and societal expectations of women, but it also challenges and strikes them down in a way. By having satirical elements, it’s clear that these ideals were so deeply embedded within society’s framework to the point where they found their way into texts like Russel’s and publications like the Freedom’s Journal. While coverage in Freedom’s Journal echoes themes in Russel’s text, The Women’s Era perhaps seeks to shut those themes down, reiterating that parallels existed between society’s expectations and attitude toward women with Russel herself ultimately contributing to that.


In Russel’s text, she constantly draws back on marriage, putting it at the forefront of some of these practices she lays out in her books. Marriage implies domesticity or the ability to be a true woman, also known as the cult of true womanhood. By having these themes at the forefront of her dream book, Russel’s text is a clear indicator that domesticity and matrimony were a norm in this early 19th century, Black society. Through a closer look at publications, it was even more evident that Russel fit this mold, as newspapers are often the perfect picture of what a society is like and what it appreciates. Newspapers typically only publish information of relevance to the public, and in its coverage, women are obviously treated as inferior, seen as only worthy for the domestic space or for marriage. While this point was more obvious in Freedom’s Journal than The Women’s Era, each provides a glimpse of society, which either seeks to uphold these values or challenge them. With Russel, it's clear that her text fits into society’s values of womanhood, and truly, how society saw women. Because these publications and Russel’s text echo off of one another in their themes, it’s even more evident how newspapers serve as both primary source and contextual element, allowing Russel’s text to be understood as fit for a society that really needed it.


“Domestic News: Husband’s Rights.” Freedom’s Journal. May 11, 1827, p. 35. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/FreedomsJournalVol.1/page/n33/mode/2up

“Domestic Science.” The Women’s Era. March 24, 1894. Emory Women Writers Resource Project, womenwriters.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/content.php?level=div&id=era1_01.04&document=era1.

“Freedom’s Journal.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 10 November 2020, britannica.com/topic/Freedoms-Journal

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. 

Johnson, Elizabeth. “Women at Home: Beginnings.” The Women’s Era. March 24, 1894. Emory Women Writers Resource Project, womenwriters.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/content.php?level=div&id=era1_01.10&document=era1.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Freedom’s Journal.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 10 November 2020, britannica.com/topic/Freedoms-Journal

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 27 August 2020, britannica.com/topic/Freedoms-Journal

“Varieties: Conscience.” Freedom’s Journal. April 27, 1827, p. 28. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/FreedomsJournalVol.1/page/n27/mode/2up.

“Varieties: Female Temper.” Freedom’s Journal. April 20, 1827, p. 24. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/FreedomsJournalVol.1/page/n23/mode/2up