PRETENDING TO TELL FORTUNES

L De Winter

(Investigator 18, 1991 May)


During the height of the titanic struggle of the Second World War an Adelaide (South Australian) woman was convicted of fortune-telling.

Mary Arriola was the minister and medium of St. Mary’s Spiritualist Church in the Adelaide suburb of Brompton. The telling of fortunes was an integral part of a Spiritualist religious service wherein Mary Arriola employed clairvoyance, clairaudience or psychometry.

The law making the telling of fortunes illegal had its genesis in the Imperial (i.e. British) Witchcraft Act of 1735 which was enacted:

"for the more effectual preventing and punishing of any pretences to such arts or powers at witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, whereby ignorant persons are frequently deluded and defrauded."

This was the law in the United Kingdom until it was repealed in the early 1950s by the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

The philosophy of the Witchcraft Act was incorporated into the law of South Australia following settlement in 1836. In 1936 the Police Act was passed which provided that, "every person pretending to tell fortunes shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond."

This was the offence of which Mary Arriola was convicted in June 1943.

Arriola appealed her conviction to the South Australian Supreme Court. That judgement can be found in the 1943 Volume of the State Reports (South Australia) pages 175-191.

The appeal Court upheld the decision of the Magistrate who had convicted Arriola but decided that no penalty would be inflicted upon her. However, her legal expenses of the appeal would have been considerable.

The decision of the Supreme Court was not unanimous.

One judge, Mr Justice Mayo, dissented arguing that the word "pretending" requires an intent to deceive, which was absent in this case. The majority verdict equated "pretending" with "professing" and, as such, the intent to deceive was irrelevant.

In 1953 the Summary Offences Act replaced the Police Act. Fortune Telling was still an offence but a fortune teller was no longer a "rogue and a vagabond". In the mid 1980s the provisions against fortune telling were repealed.

However, witchcraft and its use in fortune telling is still a crime in South Australia. It carries a maximum gaol term of two years. The reason for there never being any prosecutions – despite articles about witches appearing from time to time in popular magazines – is that the government is committed to religious pluralism and in addition does not want to make itself appear foolish.

The reason why witchcraft is still a crime is that the government fears losing some of the Christian vote if witchcraft is legalised.

Witchcraft is probably taken more seriously in America and Britain than in Australia. For example, in 1984 a builder, Bernard Pratt, submitted plans for construction of two houses in Exeter (Britain) to the Council. Elizabeth Oakland, a self proclaimed witch, objected that the houses would block her flight path when taking off on her broomstick. Pratt wanted the broomstick modified for vertical take-off. Oakland’s objection was accepted on grounds that witches are a "maligned minority group".

Mary Arriola returned to her role of minister at St Mary's and – as far as I could find out – continued until her death in the 1970s.

Mary Arriola's prosecution for fortune telling is the nearest South Australia has come to a witch hunt. The figure of those who died in the European witch craze of previous centuries is unknown – estimates vary from tens of thousands to millions. These dark shades from our past have perhaps not yet been laid to rest.


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