May 08, 2021

Chloe Russell: "The Old Witch or Black Interpreter" and Her Dream Book

Chloe Russell was born in 1745, about three hundred miles southwest of Sierra Leone. At the age of nine she captured by slave traders, brought across the Atlantic, and sold to a Virginia plantation owner named George Russel. When Russel died his cruel and violent son inherited the plantation. He was incredibly abusive towards Chloe, and she contemplated suicide:

Such a cruel treatment at length drove me to the resolution of destroying myself!... But the night previous, I dreamed that I saw my father, who told me that he had just come from the world of spirits, where there was nothing but joy and happiness. He informed me that he was killed by the fire of the Baccaranas (white slavers) twenty moons after I was captured by them, in attempting to rescue my mother, whom they had taken. 

He said that he had been made acquainted with my resolve to destroy myself, and had come to persuade me not to do it, as it would soon be well with me, and I should be free from my master. This singular dream made such a deep impression upon my mind, as to deter me from committing suicide the succeeding day... (Chloe Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, 1827)

Things didn't improve for Chloe though, so she once again contemplated suicide. Her father appeared to her again in a dream, this time accompanied by a spirit clad in purple who gave Chloe the ability to foretell the future:

Young woman, stay thy hand and raise it not against thy own life, for thy afflictions shall shortly cease. Thy unjust punishments have enkindled the the wrath of the Most High, who has commissioned me to unrivet thy chains, and to vest thee with power to foretell remarkable events, and prophecy things that that shall surely come to pass, whereby thou shalt gain thy freedom, and be ranked among the most extraordinary of thy fellow-creatures... (Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller, 1827)

When she awoke from the dream, Chloe Russell had the power to predict future events. She supposedly foretold the American Revolution and many other major occurrences. Her reputation spread through Virginia, and eventually a neighboring plantation owner asked for her help. His uncle had died after hiding a fortune worth $60,000 and hadn't told anyone where it was. Using her powers, Chloe told the plantation owner it was hidden inside a wall in the uncle's house. He found the hidden money, and used part of it to purchase Chloe's freedom. He also paid her $500, with which she purchased a house and started working as a professional fortune teller. She was quite successful, and eventually spent $3,000 purchasing the freedom of other slaves from her violent former master. 

That story appears in the 1827 edition of a small book called The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, whose author was "Chloe Russell, a woman of colour in the state Massachusetts, commonly termed the Old Witch or Black Interpreter." The book was first published in Boston around 1798. There were several other editions, but Chloe Russell's biography only appears in the 1827 edition, which seems to have been the last. 

Her biography seems almost unbelievable, and there are some aspects of it that are clearly not true. She mentions that tigers live in Africa (they don't), and says she spent her childhood 300 miles southwest of Sierra Leone (which would be in the middle of the ocean). On the other hand, she was sold into slavery at the age of nine, so her memory of her childhood home may understandably have been faint. However, many readers may also be skeptical of her claims to psychic powers, and recall that other well-known fortune-tellers, like Lynn's Moll Pitcher, also supposedly predicted the American Revolution. 

On the other hand, records indicate that a free Black woman named Chloe Russell did indeed live in Boston in the early 19th century. Censuses from 1820 - 1833 indicate that she lived on Belknap Street, which was in Beacon Hill's historic Black neighborhood. Her occupation is described either as a washerwoman or a cook. She also owned a building which she may have operated as a rooming house.

It seems very likely that Chloe Russell also worked as a fortune teller. As I mentioned in my recent post about treasure digging, after the Puritan era many people worked as dream interpreters, fortune-tellers, and magical consultants. These people often came from the society's lower echelons, and it was a good way to earn some extra income if you had the talent.

The contents of The Complete Fortune Teller vary by edition. Some contain lists of dream interpretations. For example:

Cards - If you dream you are playing at cards, it denotes you will soon be married.

Cattle - To dream of driving cattle, is a sign you that you will be prosperous through life. 

Cat - Should you dream of a cat, you must expect trouble. 

I don't know much about cards or cattle, but I do know that cats are trouble, so maybe there is validity to these interpretations! Some editions contain instructions on palm reading, and on how to determine a person's character by the moles on their body.  

Love spells are included as well. For a man who is romantically interested in a woman, Russell counsels him to soak flowers in musk and cinnamon oil and wear them on his body for three days, bathing them each day with the aforementioned fragrances. After three days, he should send half the flowers to the woman in a small packet with a note, and keep the other half of the flowers on his person. True love will result. 

Scholars question who actually wrote The Complete Fortune Teller. Its contents are very similar to other popular fortune-telling books of the time, and it seems likely that an enterprising publisher simply repackaged older material under a new title. Little is known about Chloe Russell's life beyond the book, but I suspect the publisher attached her name to The Complete Fortune Teller in order to capitalize on her reputation. Hopefully Russell got a portion of the profits. 

There are lots of questions. When and how did Russell get from Virginia to Boston? Did Russell write her own biography, and how much of it is true? Nicole Aljoe, the director of Northeastern University's Africana Studies program, is working with her students to find out more about Russell's life. You can see a presentation by Professor Aljoe on the topic here. Hopefully she'll publish a book or article on the topic.

Other than Professor Aljoe's presentation, I got most of my information from Eric Gardner's article, "The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book: An Antebellum Text by "Chloe Russel, A Woman of Color," The New England Quarterly, June 2005, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2005), pp. 259 - 288. 

One last note: if you're into Tarot cards, Chloe Russell is represented on a card in the Hoodoo Tarot Deck.

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