The Warner Files: Fortune Tellers Banned!

Image of “Fortune Teller” by Albert Anker: Wikimedia Commons

Willis Warner was an Orange County Supervisor for 24 years, from 1939 to 1963. During those decades, the county changed dramatically–from the Great Depression, through World War II, the Korean War, the Civil Rights Era and the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Many people, some prominent businessmen and land developers while others were just poor people trying to get work, wrote to Supervisor Warner. Much of that correspondence thanked Warner for his work, including a curious letter written exactly 76 years ago today.

On Sept. 20, 1943, Cora Nichols of Orange wrote to Warner in her capacity as chair of the “women’s class” at the First Methodist Church, which was also in Orange. In her letter, she said that her class had recently “voted unanimously their approval of the supervisors’ action in keeping fortune tellers out of the county.”

Fortune tellers.

“The class feels that such people only prey upon the public, and that the practice of their so-called profession in our county is utterly without any redeeming feature,” Nichols wrote. “Therefore, in the name of the class, I am expressing their and my gratitude at your wise and sensible action.”

Willis Warner photo courtesy City of Huntington Beach

While it may seem odd that during Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese Americans, rationing and the largest and most violent war in history a group of church ladies were scandalized by fortune tellers, but in fact, the fortune telling profession was very controversial throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, according to the scholar Charles McCrary’s 2018 article “Fortune Telling and American Religious Freedom,” which was published in the Summer 2018 issue of the journal Religion and American Culture. There were anti-fortune telling laws all over the country, and some fortune tellers were even arrested.

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of people who were arrested for pretending telling fortunes appealed their convictions on religious freedom grounds,” states McCrary’s paper. “These accused fortune tellers, mostly white spiritualist women, were arrested for violating state statutes across the United States, from New York to Georgia to Oklahoma to Washington.”

A quick scan of Los Angeles Times articles from 1943 show a variety of anti-fortune telling actions (at least one marked by racist hostility) throughout Southern California:

Jan. 22, 1943: The Times reports that the City of Santa Monica has banned “Gypsy fortune tellers” from the premises of the popular Ocean Park.

Mar. 20, 1943: After local businessmen in Corona say fortune tellers “lower the tone of the community” and are a “detriment to legitimate business,” the City Council there considers increasing their business license fees from $100 to an astonishing $300 a month.

Mar. 31, 1943: The Los Angeles City Council follows the lead of the LA County Board of Supervisors and considers banning fortune tellers from the city.

Even the popular syndicated comic strip Mary Worth’s Family, which has run in major newspapers since the early 1930s, got into the act. In strips that ran in the spring and summer of 1943, Mary Worth referred to fortune telling as a “vile, contemptible business” and fortune tellers as “greedy, heartless.”

In any case, I couldn’t locate a response to Nichols’ letter in Warner’s papers. Here’s Nichols’ Sept. 20., 1943 letter:

The Warner Files is an irregular history feature based on the papers of former Orange County Supervisor Willis Warner, which are currently housed at UC Irvine’s Department of Special Collections and Archives

Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.

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