New York Fortune Telling
Fortune telling has a long history in New York City. From the early 1900s spiritualists on Coney Island to the neon-lit psychic shops of today, telling fortunes for money has always been a part of the city’s landscape. But did you know that fortune telling is actually illegal in New York?
The Law Against Fortune Telling
New York Penal Law Section 165.35 makes fortune telling a Class B misdemeanor. The law states that telling fortunes or pretending to use occult powers to give advice in exchange for money is illegal. There are exceptions if it is done “solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.”
This law has been on the books since 1967. However, it is rarely enforced on individual fortune tellers. Instead, authorities go after people committing fraud under the guise of fortune telling.
A Thriving Industry
Walk down the streets of New York City and you’ll see neon signs for psychics on nearly every block. By one estimate there are over 200 psychic businesses in New York City alone.
Neighborhoods like the East Village and Coney Island are especially dense with storefront fortune tellers. But they can be found all over the city – from Harlem to Chinatown, Queens to Brooklyn.
New Yorkers from all walks of life visit psychics. They are popular with immigrants and the working class. But upper class New Yorkers quietly visit psychics as well.
As evidence of the industry’s strength, over 10 fortune tellers have been charged under the 1967 law since 2010. And that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg.
New York City has a long history of spiritualism. In the late 1800s, mediums and clairvoyants plied their trade in private parlors. Seances were a popular activity among the upper class.
Coney Island was a hotbed for fortune telling at the turn of the century. Harry Houdini worked there as a psychic debunker. And con artists took advantage of vulnerable people seeking knowledge from dead loved ones.
This spiritualist history laid the groundwork for modern storefront fortune telling. The services offered today use many of the same techniques. Tarot cards, palm reading, crystal gazing and more.
Storefront Fortune Tellers Today
The fortune tellers working today in New York come from a variety of backgrounds. Some claim to have learned the craft from older family members. Others say it is an innate ability.
The services they offer range from simple palm readings for $10 to elaborate rituals costing hundreds or thousands. Crystal balls and tarot cards are common props. But some use candles, charms, or religious imagery.
Many fortune tellers are Romani, coming from a long line of traveling fortune tellers. Others immigrated from Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, or Africa.
Inside their shops you’ll find mystical decor. Bells and beads adorn doorways. Incense burns for ambiance. Dim lighting sets the mood. It’s a sensory experience meant to convince customers of otherworldly powers.
Scams and Fraud
While many fortune tellers likely believe in their own abilities, some are outright con artists. Every few years, local news reports on fortune tellers scamming victims out of thousands.
In these scams, the psychic convinces the victim they are cursed and must pay for rituals to remove it. Or that harm will come to loved ones if they don’t hand over cash.
- In 2018, Psychic Zoe was arrested for defrauding people of $800,000 total.
- Zena Clairvoyant stole $130,000 from two victims and got 5-15 years in prison.
- Celia Mitchell told a client to buy expensive items on credit cards to lift a curse. She got $160,000 before being arrested.
Authorities take fortune telling fraud seriously. Grand larceny, scheme to defraud, and other felony charges often result.
Defenses and Loopholes
When arrested, fortune tellers have tried various defenses. In 1913, one argued fortune telling was protected as part of her religion. But the court ruled talking to spirits wasn’t a protected belief.
Others have claimed the “entertainment only” loophole. As long as they admit it’s for amusement they can avoid conviction. But this can be hard to prove if they took money.
Many fortune tellers plead ignorance of the law. The 1967 ban isn’t widely known even in the industry. But ignorance doesn’t get them off the hook.
Debate Over the Law’s Validity
The ban on fortune telling for profit raises some interesting legal questions. Does it infringe on free speech or religious rights? Why is this specific activity illegal?
Some argue fortune telling is a harmless cultural practice that should be respected. Others see it as fraud that preys on vulnerable people. Debates over the law’s validity continue today.
But so far challenges to overturn the ban have failed. Fortune telling for profit remains illegal, even if the law is unevenly enforced. As long as the ban exists, fortune tellers operate in legal limbo.
The Future of Fortune Telling
What does the future hold for storefront fortune tellers? It’s hard to say, but the industry shows no signs of disappearing.
Young psychics continue to set up shop across the city. Occasionally they get arrested, but most operate freely.
The internet has allowed online fortune telling to flourish as well. Video chat with psychics is popular. Astrology apps generate personalized horoscopes.
But in-person storefront fortune telling retains its mystique. For skeptics and believers alike, the neon-lit shops continue to fascinate. As long as that holds true, New York City will likely remain the fortune telling capital of America.