In 1915, the Victorian police, under direction of Chief Commissioner Sainsbury, launched an undercover operation against Melbourne’s fortune telling industry. There'd been a number of recent complaints in regard to clairvoyants, palm readers, spiritualists and others who profited financially by claiming to predict the future. It was seen by the law at the time that such industries were fraudulent and made money by imposing on vulnerable people.
The operation revolved around the employment of 2 female agents who were assigned to collect evidence by posing as customers. The regular detectives from the Criminal Investigation Branch had experienced difficulty infiltrating the fortune telling networks as the mystics were always on their guard. Most of their customers were female and all police were male which meant that any strange male customers were immediately treated with suspicion.
Police Agents Georgina Daniell and Eva Asplin, were each paid £2.10 per week and were employed for a term of 16 weeks. Over this period they obtained substantial evidence against fortune tellers in Melbourne, Port Melbourne, South Yarra, Prahran, St Kilda, Caulfield, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Carlton and Yarraville.
The evidence culminated in 23 convictions and a return of £105 in fines.
Included on the list of convicted persons were such intriguing names as Madam Zingalle, Madam Zephey, Madam Orion, Madam Le Green and - the one and only Madam Reprah.
Alice Harper had adopted the pseudonym Madam Reprah back in the 1890's, 'Reprah' simply being the letters of Harper placed in reverse.
She specialised in 'character assessments': the reading of a person’s character “by a series of mind-pictures which are formed on the brain of each subject by the various influences that have affected the life of the individual.” Much of her career had been spent on the road, travelling from town to town, advertising her arrival in the newspapers and giving lectures at local halls. Her lectures on psychology, physiognomy (face reading), and phrenology (character reading by shape of the head), were free apart from a collection to cover travel and accommodation expenses. She would then remain in town for 7 days to give locals an opportunity to visit her for private, paid consultations. She had many happy customers, including those in influential circles, and held a loyal following throughout Australia. She had lately been showing signs of wanting to settle down and had just done a stint in a bricks and mortar store in Western Australia. Work must have been slowing down in the West so it was next stop Melbourne.
Whilst In the process of setting up her shop at 352 Chapel St, South Yarra, Madam Reprah thought it pertinent to visit Chief Commissioner Sainsbury to enquire as to whether her business would be permitted under law by the Melbourne police. She was known to be an engaging conversationalist and to have a charming educated, air. Sainsbury, a former head of detectives, obviously enjoyed the meeting but hesitated when it came to granting specific police permission to conduct a business which pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in Australia at the time. Madam Reprah, a character reader by trade, sensed his hesitation and countered it by inviting him to send an undercover detective for a surprise consultation. This way a truthful representation of her services could be ascertained.
Three weeks later Detective Bell was sent on a visit to her shop. He pretended to be a customer from the street and felt confident that his cover had not been blown, even though Madam Reprah remarked that the shape of his feet would have made him good for chasing criminals. He returned to the detective office with his written character reading and handed it to the head of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Sub Inspector O'Donnell. O'Donnell studied the reading before passing it on to the Chief Commissioner together with a report that gave his opinion of its contents. The Chief Commissioner then penned Madam Reprah a letter on Victoria Police letterhead:
Chief Commissioner’s Office
In reply to your verbal query I have to inform you that the manner in which you conduct your business is within the law.
You may be pleased to hear the result of the test I subjected you to per medium of Detective Bell.
The officer who has charge of the detectives in submitting his report to me says:
“This lady seems to be a genius. Her deliberation of the character, disposition and peculiarities of Bell is fairly correct”,
and in this I concur,
I am, yours faithfully,
A G Sainsbury CCP.
When the Chief Commissioner sent this letter he did not expect that Madame Reprah would put it up for display in her shop front window. After news that she had done so filtered back, Chief Commissioner Sainsbury hurriedly wrote the following memo:
“It has been reported to me that Madam Harper of 352 Chapel Street has exhibited in a window a copy or extract of a communication sent her from this office some months ago. As this is not the purpose for which Madame Harper was communicated with, cause her to be notified that the document will have to be withdrawn from the view of the public at once.”
On the reverse of the memo, Constable R Halpin replied:
“I have to report that I interviewed Madam Harper (otherwise Madam Reprah) on the 3rd inst., and when requested she at once removed the communication from the window, and said that she will not exhibit it again.”
Although Madame Reprah removed the letter from display, she didn't throw it away. She felt that it would come in handy one day and this it did. The following year she was caught up in the aforementioned raids of 1915 and used the letter in court as evidence that she had been trading in goodwill. This was a very embarrassing time for the Chief Commissioner. He was subpoenaed to appear at her trial and faced questions as to why he had given her permission to conduct a business that she was now being prosecuted for. When called to the witness stand he refused to turn to face the Bench of Justices even when directed by them to do so. This earned him a rebuke from the Chair. Another of the magistrates reprimanded him for handing out written testimonials to business-keepers of her type. His boss in parliament, the Chief Secretary, was not impressed either, saying that he thought the Chief Commissioner had “made a great mistake.”
Police blunder or not, Madame Reprah was convicted of 'Imposition by subtle craft' and fined £7 10/ with £5 5/ costs . She would continue to conduct her career in other locations, including New Zealand where she was also fined for fortune telling in 1921. By 1926, still trading under the name Madam Reprah, she was teaching piano and music theory in Sydney.
Chief Commissioner Sainsbury would remain at the helm of the Victoria Police until his retirement in 1919.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
*Alice Harper alias Madame Reprah was a woman of many exceptional talents and lived an amazing life. She was a public speaker, elocutionist, artist’s model, actress, musician, piano teacher, school teacher, hypnotist and an encyclopedia on psychology, phrenology and physiognomy. She also put herself in trances and gave demonstrations during which she claimed to be communicating with the dead. She was mother to the famous poet Anna Wickham.
Further reading: Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life
By Jennifer Vaughan Jones
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Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.