Born into humble beginnings, French fortune teller Marie Anne Lenormand (1772–1843) became a celebrity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, extending from the French Revolution through the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte and ending during the restored monarchy. She made her own fortune serving the rich and powerful, who bestowed their confidences when they sought her uncannily accurate predictions.
Adialogue related by French novelist Alexandre Dumas in his 1894 novel The First Republic; or, The Whites and the Blues captures the unique ability which rocketed French psychic Marie Anne Lenormand to fame and riches between the 1790s and the 1830s. “Madame,” she said, “I do not know your name, I do not know your rank, but I know your future. Madame, remember me when you are—empress.”
Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand was born on May 27, 1772, in Alenĉon, in the Normandy region of France. The eldest child of draper Jean Louis Antoine Lenormand and his wife, Marie Anne Guilbert Lenormand, she was soon joined by a younger sister and brother. When Jean Louis died five years later, his widow remarried, only to die soon after. Although the orphaned children's stepfather soon remarried, he sent his three stepchildren away in preparation to start a new family. While supporting them financially, he left their upbringing to others and Lenormand and her younger sister were housed and educated at a series of Benedictine convents. Their brother, placed elsewhere, eventually joined the French military.
Perhaps reacting to the instability of her situation, the young Lenormand inspired concern among the nuns caring for her. She was given to predicting which of her schoolmates would get in trouble, and one report asserts that she accurately foretold who would replace the abbess in charge of a local convent. The abbess had been dismissed, but her replacement, an appointment to be made by the king, was being delayed. When Lenormand accurately revealed the name of the high-born lady chosen, she cemented her early reputation for clairvoyance—the ability to foretell the future. The nuns were so impressed with their young prodigy that they mentioned her particular talents to the local bishop and suggested that she was supernaturally gifted.
Meanwhile, Lenormand was most concerned with her own future and she was determined that it not play out in her provincial hometown or resign her to life as a nun of the Catholic Church. In 1786, now age 14, the pudgy and plain young woman begged the nuns to send her to Paris, where her stepfather now lived. The man agreed and found his oldest stepdaughter a job at a milliner's shop. Beginning with simple sewing tasks required in creating the highly decorated hats worn by women of the period, Lenormand showed herself to be ambitious as well as intelligent. While endearing herself to her employer and coworkers she learned basic math and the rudiments of bookkeeping, skills she would later use in running her own business.
In addition to being somewhat heavy-set, Lenormand was short of stature and nondescript and, as a pragmatic young woman, she decided not to depend on marriage as a way to support herself. Recognizing her natural talent for divination, she began to cultivate it by studying the craft of prophecy. With access to libraries during her convent years, she had read about the history of divination, including the Greek and Roman oracles, the early prophets of the Babylonians, the Druids of Europe, and various miracle workers. Dream interpretation, horoscopes, and the Jewish Kabbalah (mystic teachings) now became worthy of exploration. The ancient philosophers such as Plato and Socrates also fascinated her because they often foretold events and interpreted dreams. While she made a point of learning palm-reading, or chiromancy, she rejected such current fads as reading coffee grounds and egg whites as well as the reading of occult cards, such as the tarot. Instead, Lenormand developed several eclectic methods that complemented her native “second sight”: an ability to discern hidden truths and foretell events.
Channeling her experiences, learning, and native talent, Lenormand now set up her own business as a “seeress,” living and working in rooms on the Rue de Tournon. Although the sign on her door read “Bookseller,” she did not deal in books. Her reputation, even as a girl, had preceded her to Paris, and she soon catered to clients from a range of social classes. The turbulence of the times, and the downfall of the monarchy and the church as pillars of society, caused significant anxiety for citizens both rich and poor, and people came to her looking for something to believe in and trust.
Visitors to Mlle. Lenormand's salon found themselves in a comfortable waiting room containing chairs, tables, and reading material. Upon entering her working space, they encountered something much more unusual: bookshelves full of occult manuals and philosophy, paintings, musical instruments, stuffed animals, snakes and lizards preserved in bottles, and other items filling every corner. She worked, seated, at a table on which was placed an unusual deck of cards. Unlike the Tarot and other occult decks, this deck of cards was designed for use in playing a game currently popular at the French Court. After seating her client across the table, Lenormand would ask them a series of questions while shuffling these cards; then she would hand the deck to her client and ask them to spread out the cards in a particular pattern. Referencing the images on individual cards (for example, a man riding a horse, a sword, trees, or animals), Lenormand would deduce the client's object in coming. She often furnished intimate details about her client's past that she could not have known before sharing her predictions regarding their future.
Lenormand's early career took place during a period in French history known as the Reign of Terror, and anyone who questioned the ideals of the revolution, or who where part of the old ruling class, might suddenly find themselves dragged to the guillotine, where crowds frequently gathered to watch public beheadings. Socialites and revolutionaries alike would visit or write to her, desperate for assurance about their future. Among those who survived to tell about it, at least, Lenormand made accurate predictions about their chance of surviving the terror.
Lenormand often received letters from prisons, the best known being the Bastille-Saint-Antoine, a medieval fortress still standing in Paris that was now used to store political prisoners. One of the earliest of these letters, sent some time between April 21 and July 28, 1794, was from Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of a general who had come under suspicion during the reign of terror and was now imprisoned in Paris. Lenormand wrote back to the woman stating that she would suffer terrible calamity but would survive. She also hinted that she had a brilliant future with a future husband. Joséphine was surprised, but also mystified, as she had received a similar prediction from a fortune teller in Martinique many years before. Although her husband was guillotined on July 23, the Reign of Terror ended days later with the execution of its chief architect, Maximilien Robespierre, and the widow de Beauharnais was released from prison.
Determined to test Lenormand's prediction, Joséphine and a friend disguised themselves as ladies' maids and visited the salon on the Rue de Tournon. According to contemporary sources, the fortune teller knew of their deception and predicted Josephine's rise to empress before the shocked young widow left the room. Supposedly, an artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte visited Lenormand's salon soon after, and she told him that he would be a conqueror but ultimately die in exile. If such contemporary sources can be believed, several skeptical government officials attempted to prove her a fraud by asking her to predict their futures. After a long silence, the young seeress announced their fates; although the men scoffed and she was threatened with arrest, her predictions soon came true.
News of Lenormand's abilities quickly spread through the French court, and her fortunes substantially improved as Napoleon strategically took control of France. After marrying Joséphine in 1796, he rose rapidly through the ranks, and was appointed First Consul of France three years later. By 1804 he had declared himself emperor, and as a friend of the empress, Lenormand was frequently sought out by courtiers. She acquired wealth and properties while continuing to ply her trade, and her position as a favorite of the empress enabled her to negotiate an advantageous marriage for her sister and guarantee her brother a desirable posting in the military.
Ironically, with the fall of Napoleon in April of 1814, Lenormand retained her celebrity status within the French court because she had publicly predicted several facts about his final years. When Tsar Alexander I of Russia visited Paris in the wake of Napoleon's defeat, he became a great admirer of Lenormand. Also in 1814, the fortune teller published the first of several books she would write: they included treatises on the occult, a two-volume account of her friendship with Empress Joséphine, and a memoir.
Lenormand kept her rooms on the Rue de Tournon for many years, greeting clients while wearing a wig and a fashionable turban. The collection of books on her shelves grew to include the dozens of volumes she authored. And her collection of art included several portraits of herself by the great artists of the day. At the end of her life, Lenormand's fortune was estimated at 500,000 francs, making her a very wealthy woman.
Although Lenormand was able to identify trusted allies in times of political and social turmoil, her predictions regarding the date of her own death proved untrue. Although she was sure she would live until age 124, she died in Paris on June 25, 1843, at age 71. Her only surviving relative, a nephew, inherited her estate. A devout Catholic with a military career, he kept her wealth but burned her collection of occult items, including her card decks. Drawing on the fame of the famous fortune teller, the Petit Lenormand, a deck of 36 divination cards was produced and continues to be available.
Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, Gerald Duckworth, 1996.
Dumas, Alexandre, The First Republic; or, The Whites and the Blues, two volumes, Estes & Laureat, 1894.
Goodrich, Frank B., and Jules Champagne, The Court of Napoleon; or, Society under the First Empire with Portraits of Its Beauties, Wits, and Heroines, 3rd edition, Derby & Jackson, 1857.
Remarkable Women of Different Nations and Ages, John P. Jewett & Company, 1858.
Trionfi Tarot and Its History, http://www.autorbis.net/marie-anne-adelaide-lenormand (February 12, 2008), Mary K. Greer, “Mlle. Lenormand, the Most Famous Card Reader of All Time.”□