By Robyn Annear
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Late on a blustery Tuesday afternoon in July 1932, three customers entered Black’s Café in Bourke Street, Melbourne. Despite the season, the young man ordered ice-cream for himself and his female companions. “With readings?” asked the waitress, indicating a woman seated nearby.
The man settled on two with readings – for an additional charge of sixpence per reading – and one, his own, without. He smoked a cigarette while the two girls had their fortunes told.
Betty Martin went first. “You have a very sensitive hand,” murmured Madame Valda, tracing its mounts and hollows. “You would make a good nurse or manageress. You are easily hurt, and will travel more by land than by water. If you are not married, you will be.” And she added, “Do you know anyone named Arthur?” The sitter replied in the affirmative, and Madame Valda turned to the hand of Lily Smith.
“You will have an operation, but not for some time. You will live until 78, and if you are not married, you will be. You will meet someone who has an aeroplane, and will go exploring and suffer from headaches.”
The ice-creams turned to slush while the plain-clothes officers charged Madame Valda under the Police Offences Act.
She was one of several Bourke Street café clairvoyants caught in a ‘sting’ that day, as police cracked down on a practice that had flourished as the Depression deepened. Cafés like Black’s, which charged a separate fee for readings, made easy targets; less so those that offered readings ‘free’ with a pricey afternoon tea.
Valda Wingrove, married, of North Richmond, testified in court that, although she averaged about 20 readings an afternoon, she made no gain by the practice. Black paid her a paltry 25 shillings a week, the going rate for a waitress. When her husband lost his job, she had taught herself palmistry and crystal-gazing from books.
The question of illegality hinged on whether Madame Valda’s customers were “imposed upon” by her predictions. Indeed, Policewoman Smith looked quite disconcerted during court proceedings after Madame Valda admitted it was impossible to tell exactly how long she would live. But then Valda always warned her customers at the outset not to take her readings seriously. Her counsel pronounced it impossible that the policewomen – or anyone – could have been imposed upon by “the rubbish” his client had told them. “They regarded their ‘reading’ as a joke,” he said, “and received their money’s worth in amusement.”
The same line was tried in subsequent cases. Counsel for Dennes Raftopolous of the Tivoli Café – where the policewomen ordered “pineapple specials” immediately prior to their bust – insisted that his client had “merely provided entertainment”. At this the judge retorted, “Entertainment, indeed! You mean the delusion of poor, unfortunate customers.”
The Chief Secretary shared the view that “the readings reacted adversely on many women” and saw to it that fortune-telling, “free” or otherwise, was explicitly banned the following year. The prohibition against “Fortune Telling and Pretending to Exercise Witchcraft, etc.” would remain on the books in Victoria until repealed as part of the Vagrancy Act in 2005.
Here in 2009, I’d arrived at a prediction of my own: given the decriminalisation of fortune-telling, the proliferation of cafés and the stiffing of the economy, I reckoned that a resurgence of the café clairvoyant was on the cards. Snap! No sooner had I framed the thought than a friend reported seeing a notice, “In-house Psychic”, in the window of a Chapel Street bar. I envisaged a scenario out of a New Yorker cartoon. Barman-psychic: “What can I get you, bud?” Barfly: “You tell me!”
Here was my chance to sample the Madame Valda experience. But when I did a reccy, the notice was gone from the window and no psychic was in evidence. Too embarrassed to ask in person, I emailed the bar about the rumoured psychic presence.
My email must have been forwarded to the psychic herself, for the next day came a reply so spare and cryptic it might have been composed on an ouija board. “Reading” was the subject line, followed by the message: “Suze is available most Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” Not wanting to appear too earthbound, I nevertheless replied: “Any particular time?” (After all, I live two hours’ drive from Chapel Street in Castlemaine.) But I may as well have been talking to Telstra for all the answer I got.
A phone call to the bar, however, ascertained that Suze was usually in attendance from eleven o’clock till four on the days specified, so I dropped the oracle a further email saying that I’d be there on the Wednesday following. Which I was – but Suze was not. “She might be in tomorrow,” said the barman with a shrug that suggested it would take a psychic to tell when the psychic might show up.
Despondent, I slumped in a booth at a wi-fi café and considered invoking an online psychic via my laptop. I quickly discovered that to Google “psychic” is to enter a realm of infinite flakiness. And desperation. The only online psychic I liked the sound of was Jonathan, whose gift for predicting weather and traffic conditions made him sound like an ABC local radio announcer.
My online research did eventually yield a café clairvoyant based in Brisbane. Luke Quadrelli gives readings by tarot, photo and aura at his 1930s-themed Caro Mio Café in suburban Woolloongabba, and has experienced his own Madame Valda-style brush with the law. Until nine years ago fortune-telling was illegal in Queensland, under Section 432 of the Criminal Code. So as a clairvoyant in a central city tearoom in the late 1980s, Quadrelli kept a sign posted by the booth where he gave his readings: “I’m here to entertain, not to foretell the future.” His customers paid $20 for a cup of tea; the entertainment was free. By such means, together with a false name, Aaron, he managed to avoid prosecution when the police visited unannounced. In those days, says Quadrelli, there were several little tearooms tucked away in arcades and back streets, offering clairvoyance in the guise of entertainment. As far as he knows, only one besides his own survives. But demand for Quadrelli’s services has grown steadily over the past year, with his roster for readings at Caro Mio booked up to three weeks in advance.
Still, Brisbane would be a long way to go for a cuppa, even with an aura-reading on the side. I guess I could always consult Jonathan about traffic conditions on the way and make a fully psychic road trip of it. Instead, though, I repair to my neighbourhood café with an antique copy of the Sunlight Year Book, an almanac for housewives and possibly one of the books from which Valda Wingrove learnt her craft. Besides first aid, dog training and directions for roasting a shoulder of mutton, it offers two pages of instruction on palm reading. So my flat white goes cold while I do a ‘Madame Valda’ on myself, revealing “a cunning and faithless spirit” in that ill-formed via lactea and, in the well-defined Girdle of Venus, undoubted indications of “a bad character”. Why, it even seems that my absence of a Hepatica, or liver line, hints at death by decapitation.
Am I sorry I never laid bare my palm to a stranger? No. I thank my lucky stars.
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.