How do you license a fortune teller?

In Mass., we leave checking scrying qualifications to municipalities

IT’S ONLY NATURAL this time of year that we turn our attention to ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump in the night. Jack-o-lanterns, trick or treaters, funny costumes, and pranks are a staple of life everywhere in the US and especially here in New England. What is the intersection of Halloween and the occult with government and politics, you might ask?

In Massachusetts, we regulate and license fortune tellers. That’s right, fortune tellers, right along with barbers, hairdressers, doctors, dentists, embalmers, real estate brokers, and salespeople. However, under Massachusetts General Laws, that licensing activity is left to the cities and towns. That statute provides that:

“No person shall tell fortunes for money unless a license therefor has been issued by the local licensing authority. Said license shall be granted only to applicants who have resided continuously in the city or town in which the license is sought for at least twelve months immediately preceding the date of the application. No such license shall be transferred or assigned. Unless otherwise established in a town by town meeting action and in a city by city council action, and in a town with no town meeting by town council action, by adoption of appropriate by-laws and ordinances to set such fees, the fee for each license granted under this section shall be two dollars, but in no event shall any such fee be greater than fifty dollars. Whoever tells fortunes for money unless licensed under this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

How cool would that be to have a fortune tellers license? But then I started to wonder how the licensing process would work. Is there a written examination? Do they hand you a blank piece of paper and expect you to divine the questions and then answer them? Is the test multiple choice or essay? Who grades the essays? Other fortune tellers – kind of like bar exam? Is there a road test? Is reading tea leaves or your palm akin to parallel parking?

Several years ago, I called a licensing board of a nearby city and asked why they license fortune tellers? The clerk responded, with all sincerity, that they wanted to make sure that only qualified people told fortunes. I then asked the clerk to repeat that last sentence and she hung up on me!

But if the truth be told, municipalities do spend a considerable about of time on this matter. The city of Salem, which I’m sure is the mother ship for this type of business enterprise, defines fortune telling as:

“The telling of fortunes, forecasting of futures, or reading the past by means of any occult, psychic power, faculty, force, clairvoyance, cartomancy, psychometry, phrenology, spirits, tea leaves, tarot cards, scrying, coins, sticks, dice, sand, coffee grounds, crystal gazing or other such reading or through mediumship, seership, prophecy, augury, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, mindreading, telepathy or other craft, art, science, talisman, charm, potion, magnetism, magnetized article or substance, or by any such similar thing or act.”

Scrying? Augury? People can read coffee grounds? Who knew? But, obviously, the city of Salem did have to devote considerable staff and elected official time to arrive at this rather precise definition.

And they are not alone. Earlier this year, the Amesbury City Council unanimously voted to lift the cap on the “one license for ‘The Telling of Fortunes for Money’” per 50,000 residents.”

The Somerville City Council passed a fortune teller licensing statute in April of 2012. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the council copied wholesale sections from the city of Salem ordinance (and without a footnote!) from the definitions section including augury, scrying, and reading coffee grounds.

I love to poke fun at municipalities with their penchant for overregulation almost every day. The bottled-water ban in Concord, the emergency shade tree ordinance in Lexington, and the illegality of silly string and squirt guns in Marlborough are prime examples of what some would call regulatory overreach. And while we can joke around about the wording and provisions of these ordinances, they exist for valid reasons: to protect the public.

Meet the Author

Paul DeBole

Assistant professor of political science, Lasell University
There are, probably, some bona fide fortune tellers out their (I’m trying not to laugh). But I am sure that there are some unscrupulous individuals that may be practicing that trade as well. That fact, coupled with the existence of “true believers” who may be susceptible to inappropriate suggestions “from the great beyond,” gives our local government officials and police departments that legal authority to deal with those who might prey on such people.

Paul DeBole is an assistant professor of political science at Lasell College in Newton.