Fortune-telling, family history and feminism

Family historian Samadhi Driscoll reveals the fascinating story of her fortune-telling great great grandmother, and the unknown impact this ancestor’s tenacious battles for her legal and economic rights had on future generations of women in their family.    

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A fortune-teller reads a young woman’s future by looking at tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. Engraving by Sharpe after Crowley, 1842. Image via Wellcome Images.

It was only a few years ago when my brother told me he had heard that we had a famous long lost ancestor that was ‘apparently a psychic’. Intrigued, I started to do some research. To my amazement I found that many newspaper articles featuring my fortune-telling family member had been published across Australia, and even overseas, spanning from the late 1800s until well after her death in 1928.

However, my most shocking discovery was that I was in fact a direct descendant of the woman in question – my great great grandmother, Mary Scales. Despite only a few generations between Mary and myself, and despite Mary being regarded by many newspapers upon her death as ‘the most remarkable person in the state’s legal history’, I had never heard about her.

Following the stories through the newspapers and various other sources I uncovered, I was lured into a romantic story of how an illiterate woman born into poverty in Tasmania would one day acquire properties all over Sydney, and become a very wealthy woman. A famous clairvoyant, Mary would fall into dramatic psychic trances in which she would foretell the future. She apparently foretold everything from the Boer war to the winners of the Melbourne Cup. Then there were her highly-publicised and victorious court appearances in both criminal and civil trials – one of them at the High Court of England, where Mary’s eccentric antics captured the imaginations of the media worldwide.

Lastly, there were the unusual terms of Mary’s Will, which left her great wealth in trust for her female descendants, in her attempt to allow them the education and privilege that she was not afforded. There are too many fascinating episodes about Mary’s life to recount here. Instead, I will just try to tell you a few of the details of her history that had personal meaning or impact for me.

The Stylish Grandmother & Great Aunts

While my grandmother had never told me about Mary prior to my research, she had told me about the weekly allowance that her and her sisters inherited from a female ancestor. The money had been left to her unmarried female heirs only, with directions that it be used for clothing, education and healthcare. I had heard many beautiful stories of their stunning custom-made hats, worth the equivalent of an average weekly wage, and how the tailored dresses and suits that they wore to work were the envy of every woman on Sydney’s Manly Ferry.

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‘At the Fortune Teller’s’ by Alma Erdmann, 1900. A card-reading is being performed for young woman while her friend looks on. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When you grow up with strong and glamourous female role models all your life, it is easy to assume that all women are like that. But as I got older, I came to understand that the exceptional health, strength and style of my 91-year-old grandmother, and her 92 and 86-year-old sisters, is very unique. When I realised that many of the early opportunities afforded to my grandmother had come from Mary’s inheritance, I became incredibly curious to understand why a woman in the early 1900s would do such an outrageous and unusual act for her time.

Stories passed down in my family suggested that she did it because she hated men. However, when I first started my research into Mary I was writing Gender Equality strategies and programs, and could clearly see that this act was more profound. It showed Mary understood the power of educational and financial advantages, especially for someone who – as a woman – had little privilege in her day. I realised that my famous great great grandmother– who I had never heard of – in her own way had started fighting the same gender equality cause that I was part of, nearly 100 years before my time.

The Psychic & the Counsellor

Mary was only able to leave this legacy due to her success as a businesswoman, psychic and counselor. Regardless of whether you believe in the ability to see the future, or the telling of fortunes, what astounds me is the profitability of the business run by Mary and her husband George. It demonstrates that they were providing a valued service to her clientele. From 1897 they had a shop in the upmarket Sydney Arcade in which George took the bookings and payments to see Mary for clairvoyance and faith healing. The duo proved a winning partnership, drawing clients from every social class in society, including the ‘wealthy and fashionable’, such as Lady Carrington, wife of the New South Wales Governor’s wife, as well as Naval officers, Members of Parliament and their families.

Alana Piper, in an article on fortune-telling as women’s work in Federation Australia, suggests that historically, in the absence of modern-day therapists, fortune-tellers perhaps acted as unofficial counselors, providing a place for people to discuss personal problems. Whether their clients just wanted to peek into the future, or were seeking some greater meaning or guidance in their lives, George and Mary had tapped into a need that was so great that soon they were able to invest their earnings into properties all across Sydney. By the time of George’s death in 1920, Mary and George’s total worth was considerable, equating to what would be approximately $5 million today.

The International Litigator

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Cartoon of undercover police officer having palm read, Western Mail, 23 March 1907, 29. Image via National Library Australia.

One of my favorite stories of Mary and George was during an arrest in 1903 for fortune-telling, which at the time was a criminal offence. In the arresting policeman’s statement in court he describes that when he came to take Mary to the police station, she took out a large bag of gold and bundled notes from under her skirt, and passed them to George. George then turned to the policeman and said ‘What do you think of a woman like that?’. Decades later, this innocently theatrical act would hold much greater significance, helping her win her last and biggest court battle.

Following Mary’s 1903 arrest (resulting in a conviction but release on a good behavior bond), Mary’s triumph at her next court appearance would see her quoted in legal histories into the present day. Arrested again for fortune-telling in 1907, she appealed and had her charges dismissed at the Supreme Court, in a decision later upheld by the High Court of Australia, by proving that the inherited English Act upon which the prosecution had been based did not form part of New South Wales received law at the time the colony had been granted self-government of its court system in 1828.

The next time George and Mary made newspaper headlines, the story was not as triumphant. Mary’s ‘romantic rise from poverty to affluence’ took a darker turn just before George’s death in 1920. While in George’s initial Will he left his estate to his wife, a year before his death he apparently rewrote it, denying Mary financial control by leaving his estate in a trust that was to pay her a weekly allowance. This was despite him acknowledging in his Will ‘that whatever property I am (at present) possessed of is the result of money earned and saved by my present wife and which she has given me’.

The reasons for this sudden change in the Will are not known, although speculation became rife when Mary contested the Will. Her first legal attempt was unsuccessful, as was her appeal to the Full Court. Mary being Mary though, the case did not rest there. The 64-year-old grandmother decided to muster the strength to sail 6 weeks to England and fight the case in the Privy Council. Not only did the Trustees of George’s Will fight hard to demonstrate that George and Mary had a strained relationship, the conflicting statements about the nature of their relationships were widely publicised in papers throughout England and Australia.

In the court papers, Mary stated that ‘nothing that her husband did was not known to her, and that everything that was hers was his, and that everything that was his was hers, and that he would ask her advice upon everything’, and that his change of Will was caused by the influence of others. However, newspapers also report that other evidence during the trial suggested that George had been ‘keeping two other women’, was rarely at home, and was troubled with reckless gambling. After finding these newspaper articles, I suddenly felt pretty angry at my great great grandfather. Why, after achieving so much success together, would George commit the ultimate betrayal of not leaving his wife control of the money he knew that they had earned together?

The Advocate for Gender Equality

I would later learn that Mary had strained relationships with many men in my family, and this had led to her reputation as someone who hated men. On the other hand, the problem may not have been with her, but the times. Mary gained both social and economic power through her business dealings, and in upsetting traditional gender roles, she may have threatened the men around her, including her husband.

To add further insult, Mary and George made their fortune through some very contentious dealings. Fortune-telling was criminalised because many viewed it as a form of fraud or exploitation. It had also gained connections with darker criminal activity including theft, prostitution, white slavery, abortion, suicide and murder. Mary was not only an illiterate woman who became more wealthy than her educated male counterparts, she had made part of her fortune from the shameful profession of a fortune-teller.

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Photograph of Mary Scales, Newcastle Sun, 13 March 1926, 1. Image via National Library Australia.

Mary then had the audacity to blast this shamefulness all over the newspapers in very public international court cases, revealing intimate, and potentially embarrassing, details of our family’s personal life. Taken all together, it becomes clear why some family members had not been fond of Mary, and why I had never heard about her. In fact, the expurgation of Mary from the family history was so great that there appears to be no surviving photos of her. We only have a vague idea of what Mary looked like from a court case drawing and a photo taken in London.

In the end her resourcefulness and tenacity allowed her to partly win in the High Court of England. Remember the police officer who saw Mary pull bags of money from her skirt in 1903? This evidence against Mary ended up supporting her suit in 1926. The judges of the Privy Council accepted this as evidence that some of Mary’s money was merely entrusted to her husband, not given to him.

Mary’s Dream

Bringing together all the little threads of Mary and George’s life together has been really exciting for me. I came to realise that the stories that had been passed onto my grandmother had some truth, but also that essential parts of the story missing. Mary was pretty wild in her nature, but I came to believe that she had not hated men as some might have thought. She was merely aware of the power imbalances in a society in which women had little opportunity for change and social mobility. She realised that to rebalance the inequalities, you must provide more opportunities to those that are disadvantaged. This is why she left the money in her Will to only her females heirs. From a modern feminist perspective, this act today makes sense, but in Mary’s day these were radical ideas. She showed incredible strength to continue to fight for what she believed was right, regardless of what anyone else – even her loved ones – thought.

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Was steht in den Karten?’ or ‘What’s on the cards?’ by Paul Spangenberg, 1911. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary had firmly stated that ‘her sole object for instituting the proceedings was in order to protect the rights of her children and grandchildren’. The exceptional health and beauty of my still-living grandmothers and great aunties can be partly attributed to her sacrifices and her determination, and I can proudly say that Mary actualised her dream. I am pretty sure that fight in me for gender equality is a gift from Mary too, even though I did not know it until I started my journey of uncovering this story.

There are so many more chapters to this story, and I know I have not uncovered them all yet. I feel that the only way to give it justice is to write a book about her adventures! However the journey so far has helped my family move past a time of shame, into a time now where all of Mary and George’s heirs, both male and female, can openly talk about and feel proud about their incredible life.


Samadhi Driscoll develops strategies, social policies and workplace training to improve outcomes for diverse groups that have experienced inequality, for example women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in leadership roles. She contracts to Government agencies, Universities and private companies. Her interest in history started with researching her family tree, but has grown as she found her professional interests and family history intertwined. 

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