SALEM, Mass. — Lawyers have the bar exam. Accountants have the CPA exam.
Should Salem’s fortunetellers have to pass a test of their own to prove they’re psychic?
City councilors, hoping to crack down on fraudulent fortunetellers, are trying to define exactly how a psychic can become licensed to set up shop in the Witch City. They want candidates to undergo a criminal background check and to either live or run a business in Salem for at least a year.
But many psychics want the city to go a step further — make sure they’re actually qualified to predict the future.
“It’s become a free-for-all,” said Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem. “Anyone who says they’re psychic can come into the city. We don’t even know where they come from. We don’t know their qualifications.”
For more than three hours this week, city councilors listened to two dozen witches and psychics — many clad in black and wearing pentacles — as they explained the tools of their trade.
“There has to be criteria or you’re going to get garbage coming here,” Barbara Szafranski, the owner of Angelica of the Angels, predicted. “Everybody here is a legitimate person who’s worked for years and years. … When you do a reading, you hold a person’s life right in your hands. We have people come to us who are willing to commit suicide, who won’t go to a psychiatrist, so they come to us.”
“What are the criteria?” asked a baffled Councilor-at-large Joan Lovely. “Is there schooling?”
“No one under the age of 20 should be doing readings, because they don’t have the life experience,” said Szafranski, who suggested creating a committee that would screen prospective psychics.
When Cabot became the first person in Salem to be granted a fortuneteller’s license decades ago, she said she first had to perform a legitimate reading in front of a police officer.
“He sat down with me, I did a psychic reading, he was pleased with the reading, and I got my license,” Cabot said.
Some city councilors seemed to agree that psychics should have to provide more than just a business plan and a crystal ball before setting up shop.
“I’m completely unqualified to be a reader, but by these criteria I could make it by the Licensing Board,” Ward 2 Councilor Michael Sosnowski said.
Councilors are considering requiring pyschics to submit a five-year employment history and their educational background before their license is granted.
“Every reader in this room is legitimate,” said Doug Johnson, a psychic at Pyramid Books who wants candidates to show their experience and training before becoming licensed. “But there are nuts out there — people that are not mentally there.”
The city took up the issue almost a year ago, mainly to prevent fortunetellers from blatantly ripping off consumers by demanding lucrative payments in return for lifting a curse or removing a “black cloud.”
One woman paid more than $2,000 for readings at a Salem shop, where she was told she had a black aura around her, according to Szafranski.
“Then one day she came into my shop crying,” Szafranski told city councilors. “I said, ‘You don’t have a black aura. Sit down and I’ll show you your aura on my machine.’ And it was blue and wonderful.”
City councilors modeled the regulations after those used by San Francisco, which licenses between 30 and 40 fortunetellers.
But they ran into trouble trying to define the practice of fortunetelling and opted to scrap a line referring to it as casting spells, removing curses, and administering potions to “recover property, stop bad luck, give good luck, put bad luck on a person or animal … shorten a person’s life … make one person marry or divorce another, induce a person to make or alter a will, (or) tell where money or property is hidden.”
“Fortunetelling is divination,” Amy Ravish said. “It’s the use of skills and tools to do psychic counseling. What you’re talking about really sounds strange.”
Councilors are expected to revisit the topic. Among the other issues, councilors plan to limit to 10 the number of licensed psychics that can read at psychic fairs and to allow shop owners to set up their own fairs.
“We don’t portray ourselves in a horrific way,” Cabot said. “We don’t bilk people or try to take advantage of people. We’re hard workers.”
Sidebar: WHAT IS FORTUNETELLING?
According to a draft of the city’s proposed regulations for psychics, fortunetelling would be defined 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.”