Regulating Fantasy: The Psychics of Salem

I love the North Shore of Massachusetts. When I lived in Boston, I'd often ride my bike to the train station and hop a random train heading north. I'd get out at the end of the line and ride as far back towards Boston as I could make it before night fell. There were quiet beaches to stop and stretch out on and dingy dive bars in fishing villages where I could re- (or de-) hydrate.

And of course there was Salem, a picaresque town between Manchester and Marblehead that could have grown into a similar haven for wealthy lovers of the sea, had it not been the place best known for a government that prosecuted and murdered 20 innocent people for the crime of witchcraft three centuries ago.

An interesting side note: other nearby towns in the area held trials and executions at the same time. For instance, the Salem witchcraft trial of 1878took place in what is now known as Ipswich, yet Ipswich is best known today for having a lovely reservoir protected by the Audubon Society.

The Salem Witch Trials were a tragedy of mass hysteria fueled by bigotry. They are an extreme result of what happens when faith and fantasy trump science and reason.

So what better way to honor that history than by continuing to appeal to faith and fantasy?

Today, Salem is overrun with psychics who seem to assume that the lesson to be learned from the Salem Witch Trials is that witches are real but instead of killing them we should give them money to cleanse our auras, which exist, or in some cases to save ourselves from evil hexes, which also exist.

The psychics of Salem are so plentiful that there's a special fortunetelling license you can get for $50 provided you meet the licensing board's standards for fortune tellers. According to the Fortunetelling Ordinance, this is to prevent fraud.

The most important standard appears to be having $50 to give to the licensing board for a license. This part is non-negotiable.

Sec. 14-74. - License requirement and qualifications. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business of palmistry, fortunetelling, phrenology, card reading, astrology or any like enterprise in the city without a valid license issued by the licensing board.

The second requirement is that you must live in Salem for 12 months prior to giving the board $50.

The board will also take into consideration any consumer complaints or criminal background you may have and decide whether or not to approve the application. They will have already cashed your $50 check by the time this decision is made.

They also retain the right to revoke a license after a complaint is made against you. Or, in the case of Fatima's Psychic Studio, after dozens of complaints, including at least one from a man who handed the psychic $16,800:

On July 18, Sgt. Conrad Prosniewski took a report from a Farmington, N.H., woman who said she was told by a psychic at Fatima's that she was cursed and needed to pay $100 to have it removed. On Sept. 16, officer Dennis Luti took a report from a Pepperell, Mass., woman who told police a psychic at Fatima's told her she was "full of evil and for $500 she could rid her of it." On Oct. 1, Salem detective Dennis Gaudet was assigned an investigation into a complaint from a Henrietta, N.Y., man who told police the reader convinced him that he needed to have a shield placed over him to protect him and "channel angels" were needed as well. Over the next few weeks he reportedly paid a psychic at Fatima's $16,800. On Oct. 3, a customer reported being told that a psychic would remove a curse from him for $50. On Oct. 7, Salem detective Brian St. Pierre was assigned to investigate an incident during which a customer was told he could have a curse removed for $500. The man said he declined the offer and received a phone call several days later from a psychic at Fatima's asking again if he wanted to have the curse removed.

You'd think those people would have checked the place out on Yelp before going. One and a half stars! Things are similarly grim over on TripAdvisor. Reading negative reviews of psychics is my new favorite pastime:

I thought the big sign saying psychic seemed pretty legit. I was wrong.

She told me I was having a baby !!!! I had a hysterectamy 12 years ago!!!!!

she then told my friend she was going to get stabbed ! NOT COOL!

And then of course there are reviews from years back talking about Fatima's "removing a curse" scam, like the very first review from 2005:

My mother and I went here and we got ripped off. This woman told us that our family had someone in it who did something bad and now we are paying for it through karma, she wanted $300. to fix it. It has been almost a month now and I have not heard anything back from her and I have called there 3 times. I would not recommend anyone go there. Please feel free to email me about my expierence.

One wonders how a board set up to prevent fraud has allowed a "psychic" to defraud so many people over so many years without doing anything. One stops wondering when one realizes that the board's job is to separate fraudulent people who claim to speak to the dead from honest people who claim to speak to the dead. This task is nearly impossible.

In the book Psychic Mafia, M. Lamar Keene exposes the secrets of what it's like to work as a paid psychic. Keene points out that many people think they have psychic powers, and give readings to friends and family for fun. Those who go on to start a business, though, eventually must come to the realization that they are doing nothing more than magic tricks like cold reading (the practice of making general statements and allowing your mark to fill in details and guide the conversation). Keene explains that eventually, all professional psychics must make a decision – to continue to give readings, knowing they are frauds, or to drop out. He chose the latter.

So how does a licensing board – one that offers a specific license to psychics – determine what is and is not fraud? Which of the following complaints would denote a fraud?

1. She asked me for $100 to remove a curse.

2. She asked me for $50 to tell me my grandfather liked boats and watches.

3. He asked me for $70 to speak to a ghost whose name started with a "G," like "Gladys" or "Gary."

4. He asked me for $10 to show me my aura, by taking a photo of me . . .

5. . . . with my clothes off.

In Salem, I assume the answer would be #1, and maybe #5 if enough complaints were made.

The next step for the licensing board is clear: create a new license for Hex Removal. It's an extra $50 processing fee, but the holder of the license would be able to help those poor people being plagued by hexes. Which definitely exist.