Marie-Anne Lenormand, the Parisian Prophetess


By Jim McKeague

Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1772-1843) was a famous French fortune-teller. The name is sometimes spelled Le Normand, which was her preference when writing letters or authoring books. Born in provincial Alencon, she came to the capital as a teenager and gradually built up her reputation amongst Parisian high society as a “sibyl” or “prophetess”, employing such techniques as cartomancy, astrology, palmistry and “necromancy” (which today would be called “mediumship” or “channelling”). Her fame received a great boost when she was consulted by Josephine de Beauharnais. When Josephine became Napoleon’s Empress, it became quite the fashion to consult Lenormand, and the fortune-teller’s business boomed. She had clients from every strata of society, and her reputation spread throughout Europe. Fortune-telling was illegal in France, and she had several run-ins with the law, but continued in her profession for 50 years.

Lenormand - Ledoux pic small

Portrait of Mlle Lenormand in 1802

In 1814 she began writing self-published books which were chiefly publicity pieces, telling the world of her supposed triumphs of prophecy. Her first book was ridiculed in the Paris newspapers, but she defended herself vigorously in reply. She was a brilliant self-publicist. An English newspaper in 1818 expostulated:

The Prince and Princess of Orange have not only allowed a fortune-teller, Mademoiselle Lenormand, to dedicate one of her works to them, but have specially sent an aide-de-camp to present to her a magnificent ring, set with diamonds. Can we wonder at the superstition of the illiterate, when the great so misapply their patronage? [1]

She called herself a “bookseller” for obvious legal reasons, but the porter who guarded the door at the Paris apartments at 5 Rue de Tournon, a man named Beaubis, once in 1839 had to give evidence in a court in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he revealed that she did not, in fact, carry on trade as a bookseller, but earned her living as a “tireuse de cartes”, a fortune-teller on the cards [2].  Most of her working life was spent at that address.

Professional fortune-tellers live in a shadowy world of many secrets, yet need publicity to attract clients, and the best publicity is to be consulted by the great. Lenormand claimed to have been consulted by such people as the revolutionary leaders Robespierre, Marat and Saint-Just, and to have predicted to their faces their violent deaths. But as she claimed all this only after their deaths, and there is no supporting evidence beyond her own assertions, it remains doubtful. But it seems she did read for the Empress Josephine; she certainly did read for large numbers of ladies of the Bourbon and Napoleonic courts, and for various politicians; and she may have been consulted by Chief of Police Fouche and by Prince Talleyrand, though perhaps not in the ordinary way. Fouche, with his web of spies and informers, could benefit from the information gathering which Lenormand practised so well. The police chief and the fortune-teller could well have made use of each other. Talleyrand made use of fortune-tellers in his devious political dealings. The following extract from a newspaper article, a piece of colourful British propaganda from 1805, should not be believed to be absolutely true, but it shows how Talleyrand’s secret service could make use of fortune-tellers.

At Talleyrand’s entrance into the Ministry, he found that anarchy and ignorance had penetrated into the offices of State, as well as into all other places of the Republic. This was chiefly the case with regard to the secret agency, where imposters of both sexes, without education, usurping the name of patriots, pocketed the Secret Service Money without capacity of serving. He was, therefore, obliged to begin an entirely new organization, in which he was ably assisted by Daunoud, his grand vicaire when a bishop at Autun, but then a Member of the Council of Five Hundred. According to the list left him by his predecessor La Croix, two hundred and five male, and sixty-two female secret agents, were paid, as employed by France in foreign countries and courts. After reading through their correspondence, he dismissed them all, assigning as a reason, “that the French government was determined for the future to act with such frankness, that no secret agents should be necessary to watch foreign states, who would moreover be kept to their duty from the dread of the irresistible power of France.” Men whom he had formerly known when a member of the jacobin propaganda, were then engaged by him to find out able recruits; and within six months, three hundred and fifteen male and eighty-four female agents in his pay, overspread not only Europe, but the other principal parts of the globe. He established a nursery for the secret agency office, by sending to all countries, for education, and to perfect themselves in the languages, children of both sexes between eight and twelve years of age, taken from the foundling or orphan houses. They were chosen from among those who shewed some genius, and possessed beauty of person. The secret agents everywhere inspect their education, and instruct them gradually in what manner best to serve their country. Politics and commerce form the principal part of instruction for the boys, as well as for the girls; but no pains are spared to make their persons as easy and agreeable as their understandings penetrating. The boys, when eighteen, and the girls when fifteen, are to return to France to undergo an examination before the minister; some of the latter, previously to their new mission, as early as 1801, furnished him a tolerably numerous seraglio, and in his boudoir were initiated in the mystery of his political plans.
Some of these female agents are now travelling as governesses, as actresses, as singers, as gypsies, or fortune-tellers; several of the most accomplished assume the names of some of the many extinguished noble families, and travel with a retinue in consequence; but all their servants, and all those about them, are, as well as themselves, attached to the secret agency. [3]

As to Lenormand’s ordinary everyday work, here are two snippets describing the experiences of two clients who consulted her. Taken together, these two accounts illustrate a peculiar fact about fortune-telling: it is an interactive procedure where success depends on the belief and cooperation of the customer. A believer will find marvellous truths in the vaguest of statements by the seer. A sceptic will regard as nonsense a reading which contains (whether by skill or by chance) astonishingly accurate hits. Just like beauty, successful prophecy is in the eye of the beholder.

From the entry for Tuesday, April 14, 1835, in the Journal of Thomas Raikes:

The Duchesse de Guiche mentioned this evening the curious prediction made to her by Mademoiselle Lenormand, the noted fortune-teller, in 1827. Having arranged with Lady Combermere to visit Mademoiselle L., every precaution was taken to prevent their being known. The Duchess disguised herself in a black wig, with a large hat, and thick lace veil. They went in a hired carriage, without servants, to the Luxembourg, and walked from thence to the Rue Tournon, where she resided. It was impossible that any suspicion could exist of their name or rank. After the usual preliminaries of asking the day of her birth, consulting the palm of her hand, and dealing out cards, &c., Mademoiselle L. first told her various circumstances of her past life, which were wonderfully correct. She then asked the Duchess what animal she liked best, what animal she most disliked, and what flower she preferred beyond any other? Her answer was, the horse, the spider, the lily of the valley. She next gave her the description of her own character, as well as that of her husband, both of which were so exactly depicted, particularly that of the Duke, that she actually discovered traits in each which had previously escaped her own observation, and now appeared very evident to herself. But when Mademoiselle L. began to touch upon the future, she told her that her present prosperity was coming to an end, and that the most serious misfortunes awaited her, and that all her prospects would be suddenly destroyed on the 30th July, 1830, a cause d’un favori dechu (because of a deposed favourite); that from that period she would suffer much adversity and exile, with the above favourite, that in three years she would return to her own country, and in July, 183- (a footnote here says: The last number is unintelligible in the MSS), she would regain her prosperity, from the circumstance of a prince succeeding to a rich inheritance.
This prediction was so extraordinary and so precise, even as to dates, that Madame de Guiche expressed a wish to have the details committed to paper, which was complied with; and on the following day she sent her femme de chamber to the Rue Tournon, who brought back this singular warning, in the handwriting of Mademoiselle Lenormand, with the date, and her signature. How far the first part has been fulfilled, by the three days of revolution in July, and the subsequent flight of the Bourbons from France, every one must know. The second point, of her return to France in three years, was not less singularly verified, as she was at that period at Prague with Charles X., and so little expecting to quit it, that ten days before the circumstances occurred which brought on their resignation of their places, she had been saying to the Duke, “Here Mademoiselle Lenormand must fail, as we have no chance of seeing France again for many years;” but still it came to pass as predicted.
It now only remains to be seen how the conclusion is to wind up; in the meantime, there is the written paper, as undeniable evidence of what has happened.
These things are in themselves so unaccountable that no opinion can be given on the subject. [4]

Raikes’ marvellous advertisement for Mademoiselle Lenormand’s abilities is in stark contrast to the opinion of Louis Constant Wairy, valet to Napoleon, who writes of a consultation in his Memoirs. (N.B. When Constant writes here of “Mademoiselle L.” he is referring to one of the ladies who accompanied him, not to Miss Lenormand herself):

One day, when I was dining with the Colonel and his wife, the General sent for his aide-de-camp, and I was left alone with the ladies, who pressed me to accompany them to Mademoiselle Lenormand’s. It would have been ungracious of me to refuse. We took a carriage, and drove to the Rue de Tournon. Mademoiselle L.B. went first into the sibyl’s grotto, and stopped there a long while, being discreetly silent as to all that had been told her. Mademoiselle L. ingenuously declared that she had heard good news, and was soon going to marry the one she loved. This, in fact, happened not long afterwards. The ladies then begged me to consult the prophetess in my turn, and I soon saw that I was known, for Mademoiselle Lenormand, looking at my hand, at once said that I had the good fortune to be near a great man, who was attached to me. Then she added a deal of other nonsense in the same strain, for which I thanked her as quickly as possible, being bored by such stuff. [5]

Lenormand once wrote of hearing a voice which proclaimed: “No one is excused for lacking courage: cowardice must be punished; perseverance alone is entitled to the reward which should be the portion of a sincere friend of his government” [6]. This expresses very well her own personal philosophy, for she was bold, audacious, daring in the extreme, and could never be accused of being faint-hearted. She also encouraged boldness in others. She likened herself to the ancient Sibyls and Prophets, regarding herself as a voice of wisdom guiding the lives of her clients. But she let herself down badly by failing to uphold the standards of truth and honesty required of a prophet. In one of her “Edinburgh Letters” dated February 4, 1839 (which will be found elsewhere on this website), advising a client who found himself opposed by the full force of the British government, she wrote: “In a struggle so unequal, all means are fair.” That was terrible advice which brought the unfortunate client undone in spectacular fashion.

In her lifetime, Lenormand made a fortune. Her obituary in L’Illustration for July 8, 1843, says she had already given a dowry of 300,000 francs to one of her nieces and that she left 500,000 francs in landholdings. (The exact figures are disputed in other writings.) Her heir was her nephew, Lieutenant Alexandre Hugo of the French African Army. Her funeral was magnificent. The church of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas was hung with white. In the choir was a sumptuous catafalque, silver strips gleaming in the light of the candles. The funeral car was drawn by four white horses, richly caparisoned in silver harness and flying streamers. It moved slowly to the Pere-Lachaise followed by mourners and women in large numbers.

Because she left a fortune, it was inevitable that the heir would face claims against Lenormand’s estate. The most interesting of these, the Flammermont court case, has its own page on this website. But here is an amusing report of another claim which appeared in an English newspaper. It suggests, as a lawyer in the Flammermont case observed, that Lenormand’s financial affairs were always in a mess:

THE PLEASURES OF A LAWSUIT. – A curious suit was heard by the Civil Tribunal of Paris on Tuesday. The plaintiffs were the heirs of a person named Menu, and the defendants the heirs of the celebrated fortune-teller, Mdlle. Lenormand. The plaintiffs demanded payment, with arrears, of an annuity of 9f. granted by Mdlle. Lenormand, under what circumstances did not appear to M. Menu, and which had been refused by her heirs on the ground that they had not found in her papers anything indicating that she had contracted such an obligation to M. Menu. The plaintiffs, in support of their claim, produced a letter from Mdlle. Lenormand to M. Menu, dated in 1823, enclosing an order for 45f., the amount of the annuity for the preceding five years, and expressing her wish to get rid of future payments by discharging the capital, which, however, it seems, was never done. The court did not hold this letter to be a binding document on the heirs of Mdlle. Lenormand, and the plaintiffs were nonsuited. The expense of this suit must have been five times greater than the whole of the arrears or of the capital in dispute. [7]

After her death Marie-Anne Lenormand became the stuff of myth and legend, and her own books became the chief source of material for biographers. Consequently, utterly fantastic tales are told about her. As well, many a journalist and fiction writer who invented a tale about fortune-telling would put her name to the chief character in the story, and she gradually became thought of as a genius who was never wrong in her predictions. The documents on this website show that that is far from the truth. Her name was used shamelessly by publishers of fortune-telling cards. Various “Lenormand decks” which are still on sale even today bear her name but are not cards she used.

In their well-researched book, A Wicked Pack of Cards [8], the authors reveal how difficult it is to uncover the truth about Marie-Anne Lenormand. To grasp something of her real story, we need to look at documents from her era which are not coloured by her own publicity. On this website are given extracts from old books, newspaper reports, and law-court reports which tell a great deal about her operations. But as well, presented here are some actual readings, letters of advice, etc., which Lenormand wrote herself. These give a great insight into her personality and her business methods.

AAAAAAAAAPierre-Yves Beaudouin

Photo : Pierre-Yves Beaudouin/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Photos of Lenormand’s grave can be found in quite a few places on the internet, and invariably the grave is shown decorated with flowers. Even today, 200 years after her heyday, she is remembered with love and respect, and some regard her as a saint. But Marie-Anne Lenormand was no saint. She could be kind and generous to those close to her, but she was a hard-headed business woman, and capable of real roguery as a soothsayer.

Let no-one be disappointed when reading these old documents which reveal her craftiness and her audacity, because her real story is even more interesting than the myths that have grown up around her.

© Jim McKeague 2014

References:

[1] Cheltenham Chronicle, Thursday, December 31, 1818

[2] Swinton, Archibald, Report of the Trial of Alexander Humphreys Or Alexander, Claiming the Title Earl of Stirling, &c., Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1839, p. 155

[3] Morning Post, October 11, 1805

[4] A Portion of the Journal kept by Thomas Raikes Esq. from 1831 to 1847, Vol. 1, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1858, pp. 243-4

[5] Memoirs of Constant, the Emperor Napoleon’s Head Valet, Vol. 2, translated by Percy Pinkerton, London, H.S. Nichols, 1896, pp. 48-9

[6] Lenormand, Mlle M.A., Arret Supreme Des Dieux De L’Olympe, &c., Paris: Author’s publication, 1833, page 22

[7] Lloyd’s Weekly, Sunday, December 15, 1844

[8] Decker, R., Depaulis, T., & Dummett, M., A Wicked Pack of Cards, London: Duckworth, 1996

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