When I wrote about ‘Looking into Futurity‘ and the case of Charles Paddon’s enthusiastic use of astrology to assist young ladies with knowledge of their future, the law of England was not in agreement with his motives and branded him a vagabond, insisting his future was one of imprisonment (http://wp.me/p8yqmi-op).
That was in 1836 and forty-seven years later, in 1883, another such criminal case emerged in Birmingham (England) that makes Charles Paddon’s activities shrink into insignificance compared to the claims and career of a certain John Hartwell.
Mr. Hartwell preferred to be known by two very ostentatious aliases. He felt he was a true seer, indeed a ‘Merlin’ – able to tap into supernatural insight and provide visions of the complex labyrinth of a person’s future by operating as both a male seer and a female seer as well as an astrologer. Seemingly as a kind of hermaphrodite futurity reader, he claimed he was both Methratton – The Great Seer of England, and simultaneously, Anna Ross – The Seeress of New York. He also claimed to be, not only ‘The Great Seer of England’, but,‘ a philosopher, astrologer and grand master of the mysteries and secret of the seals.’ (see Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination, Magic & Modernity in modern England, 1780-1914, Cambridge, 2012, p.161)
This, he said, gave him powers to enter the spirit world on a client’s behalf embarking upon complex journeys into deep spiritual labyrinths.
Unlike Charles Paddon, however, ‘The Birmingham Seer’ as he tended to be called, never met any of his many hundreds of clients. He was a benefactor of the modern growth of advertising and a very efficient Birmingham postal service. Being a spiritual kind of man/woman, he only needed certain limited information about you to deliver your futurity – indeed he only needed the price of his advertised service paid in stamps!
“The great prophet will reveal your future seven years, 7d.; marriage and other particulars, 2s 6d.; wonderful supernatural records, 1s 8d and 5s. – METHRATTON, 137 Miller Street, Birmingham .”
A spiritual step too far, however, upset a local Yorkshire vicar when ‘The Birmingham Seer’ promised. “News from the invisible world for twenty stamps.” (Source: Pall Mall Gazette, January 15th, 1883)
So, it seems, this particular seer has previous convictions – probably seen as par for the course given the financial gain his tricks were making, but this time his future was a little more seriously threatened with bail refused and a Yorkshire vicar in hot spiritual pursuit for a trial.
Under the headline, “The Great Seer of England” Again! The Citizen (Gloucester, England), reported ‘Methratton’s’ appearance at Birmingham Police Court on Monday January 16th, when John Hartwell of 137 Miller Street, Birmingham was charged with obtaining various sums of money from women and girls through the kingdom by means of advertising frauds. (p.3)
The court heard that when Hartwell was arrested by Detective Ashby at Miller Street, he was in possession of around 300 letters requesting various spiritual or magical assistance and containing money in the form of post-office orders or stamps which – at that time – acted as transferable into cash. Indeed, as he was leaving his house in the company of Detective Ashby, the postman arrived and cheerfully handed some more such letters addressed to METHRATTON, 137 Miller Street, Birmingham directly to Hartwell to be immediately confiscated by Ashby.
The Birmingham Police court hearing remanded Hartwell in custody for one week with recommended hard labour. It was at this hearing that a certain headline catch-phrase began and was even taken up by the national newspapers such as The Times. Mr. Hebbert, the Magistrate’s Clerk indicated that the Bench was surprised at the credulity of the women and girls who had been victimized. Hebbert could not have imagined that his passing comment about Hartwell’s clients, i.e.that he did not think “so many fools could be found in the country as was indicated by the letters to the prisoner” would be turned into a popular media headline “Astounding Credulity“
In fact, it was the complicatedly titled, The Cheltenham Chronicle and Parish Register and General Advertiser for Gloucester, that ratcheted this popular headline into,“Extraordinary Credulity,” and ran a piece called, “The Profits of Prophecy,” (January 23rd, 1883 p.6)*
For the first time this paper put together what was indeed an extraordinary list of services claimed by Mr. Hartwell that ranged from seven pence to fifty pounds. Fifty pounds bought you “The elixir and tree of life secrets,” but aside from that extravagance he had a warehouse of spiritual and magical goodies to suit all;
A big problem for the police was to encourage victims to come forward and testify in court. The headlines to date had made people caught up in Hartwell’s scam feel foolish and reluctant to appear in public to further insults of stupidity. One brave witness, however, did give evidence at a further hearing at the end of January, that did result in Hartwell being sent to trial as an ‘incorrigible rogue and vagabond‘.
She was Miss Elizabeth Grant who Mr. Hartwell had persuaded was a real life Cinderella. Miss Grant said that she had heard of the powers of this astrologer from other girls who had written to him. She said she had sent ‘Methratton’ two shillings and sixpence for ‘marriage and other particulars‘ as listed in his advertisement next to ‘how to cause lover’s visits‘ and ‘wonderful supernatural records.‘
The Magistrate, after reading out the advertisements, asked Miss Grant. “Did you order, ‘wonderful supernatural records’ or ‘lover’s visits’ “? Unfortunately for Miss Grant, laughter then erupted around the court. She replied to renewed laughter, “Marriage and other particulars.”
“Did you have an answer?” asked the magistrate.
“Yes sir,” she answered.
“What was it?” he asked.
“I burnt it,” replied Miss Grant looking sheepish.
“Why?” he asked.
“He advised me not to get married at present.” she replied to more laughter from the court.
“Was it because you did not like the advice that you burnt the letter?” asked Mr. Hebbert, the Magistrate’s Clerk to even more laughter in the court room. The magistrate adding rather presumptuously, “It was very good advice.”
Miss Grant agreed it was good advice, adding, “Yes and he said if I went and got married just yet, everything would go wrong and go against me. He said if I did do it everything would cross me in every direction. But he said I should be wealthy.”
“That was if you had patience,” suggested Mr. Hebbert.
“Yes,” agreed Miss Grant.
“But how were you to be wealthy?” questioned Mr. Hebbert.
Miss Grant was now more relaxed and explained, “I cannot remember it all, but I know he said I should marry a rich husband and then to much more raucous laughter came the so-called, ‘Cinderella moment’;
Now came a most extraordinary warning to the court, indeed, the whole country. When asked how he pleaded to the charges against him, Hartwell said, “Not Guilty.” The court was then reminded by Inspector Hall that, to date, Hartwell had served three months imprisonment last May for ‘fortune telling’ in Birmingham as well as serving eighteen months imprisonment for selling indecent literature in London three years earlier. The prisoner said he had provided his defence to this present case in writing and asked if the Inspector would kindly give it to the magistrate.
The Inspector took two sheets of foolscap and handed them to Mr. Kynnersley, the stipendiary magistrate.As he did so, the Inspector said, “This is his defence, and if it is true, the consequences are going to be something awful to some of us here.”
Laughter followed, and then Hartwell was permitted to read his ‘defence’ out to the court;
“To the Town clerk and Magistrates: January 20th, 1883. Gentlemen I have been illegally arrested, without warrant or other instrument whatsoever, and the ‘dreadful’ will rest upon the parties concerned, or rather I would say, the ‘dreadful consequences of such an illegal and most wicked and sacrilegious act. In addition I was stripped of all I had.”
It was a very long defence letter speaking in detail of his visions and abilities to understand the “regeneration of nature and universal baptism” as well as “the restoration of all kings.” In summary, it was reported thus:
Hartwell was ordered once more to be put to hard labour until his trial date was fixed.
The Times newspaper broke ranks on the day of Hartwell’s appearance at Birmingham Quarter Sessions on Wednesday March 28th with the non-nonsense headline; “CONVICTION OF A FORTUNE TELLER” (The Times, March 29th, 1883, p.4). Brave Miss Grant appeared again to tell her story, she was now used to the rather cruel laughter in the court room. The Recorder spent some time reading out to the court many of the letters sent to Anna Ross and Methratton, together with the replies that had been sent by Hartwell in lieu of witnesses coming forward in person.
In response, Hartwell claimed he was far from being a vagabond and owned a shop full of jewellry and works of art in London but declined to say exactly where it was. Patience began to wear thin when he embarked upon outlining his prestigious ancestry, claiming he had descended from the male side of Lord Lovell.
The Recorder ended Hartwell’s trip around his claimed heritage by sentencing him to nine months imprisonment.
I have tried to follow Hartwell’s progress after this trial, but he seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Maybe he’s on a long visit to the invisible world.
I have no picture of Hartwell to show you, but were he here (maybe he is!) I feel he would like to adopt this one from the brilliant artist Douglas Baulch.(1)