Murder on the cards

In June 1883 Madame Pasaz was called as a witness in the assize court of the Basses-Pyrénées in southwestern France. In her testimony, she lifted the veil on a type of encounter that I have been struggling to study in detail: divination using cards.

Here is what she told the court, as reported in several newspapers, including Le Temps 11th June 1883:

A few days after the crime [in question], Bernard Barthaburu came to my house with one of his friends, Dominique Dermit, around midnight. He asked me to read his cards and tell his fortune.

I was struck by their air of dejection and sadness.

I guessed that a bereavement was the cause of this. So, as I read his cards, I began by saying “I see a death.”

“What death?” Bernard Barthaburu immediately asked, deeply distressed.

“The death of a close family member,” I went on.

“It’s true”, cried out Dermit, “We killed the old man!”

“What old man?” I said in turn.

“His father,” replied Dermit, pointing at Bernard.

At these words, Barthabru was beside himself and leapt from his chair, lunging towards me, seizing my shoulders. He saw two sleeping children in the back of the room and forced me to kneel by their bed.

“Swear to me,” he said, “on their heads that you will never divulge what you have just heard.”

Reassured by my oath, Bernard Barthaburu decided to admit everything.

“Alas,” he told me, “it is only too true. One evening, upon spying my father leaving a tavern, I followed behind him, I dragged him into a sunken track, I grabbed his neck and I squeezed too hard… Then we took the body onto the main road, I missed a step and fell down.”

When he finished telling his tale, regret awoke in his soul, and he burst out in tears, tearing at his hair and rolling on the ground.

I was reminded of this story last week in a question and answer session where I was discussing playing cards and fortune telling in France across the nineteenth century.

As is often the case, my recollections of the story were a bit hazy, but I was not mistaken about the reason that the murderer and his accomplice went to the fortune-teller. Here is how she remembered it:

“But what do you want from me?” I replied. “How can I help you?”

“We are scared of being found out,” replied Dermit [the accomplice]. “We can’t stay in the area. We must leave for America. We have come to ask your advice.”

I pointed out to them that to flee was to admit their guilt. Finally, around three in the morning they left to return to their village before daybreak.


Cartomancers like Madame Pasaz normally did their best to avoid ending up in court. Although enforcement was inconsistent, divination with cards was illegal across the whole of the nineteenth century. And those who claimed to be able to reveal hidden fortunes, or prevent terrible accidents and deaths were also liable to be prosecuted for fraud.

One of the consequences of this legal prohibition is that it is frustratingly difficult to find out what actually took place during card-readings. Fortune-tellers did their best to keep their operations covert, and their clients often colluded in this, whether out of loyalty, or because they feared being laughed at in court.

Which is why this murder case provides an unusually direct window into what fortune-telling with cards involved. But what this reveals fits with broader patterns I have found in other cases, which challenge some of the assumptions we might have about cartomancy.

An example of a card from the ‘Major Arcana’: ‘Le Diable’ from a Tarot deck, probably printed in the 1790s.

First: of the cards themselves, we learn nothing. This was, in fact, the subject of the paper I was giving last week, where I pointed out that in the very few cases where I can work out which cards were used, there is no indication fortune-tellers used anything more complex than ordinary playing cards. None mentioned any of the so-called ‘Major Arcana’ of Tarot cards, or any other complex imagery from divination decks such as the ‘Lenormand deck’.

It is possible that Madame Pasaz meant to indicate that she used Tarot for this session when she told the court that the men asked for le grand jeu rather than le petit jeu. But the main distinctions between these two categories of cartomancy throughout the period seem to have been price and complexity, rather than choice of deck.

But if her testimony is frustratingly silent on issues of the cards themselves, what it does reveal a great deal about is the situations of fortune-telling, and its purposes. To start, let me note how many people were present. Images and fiction about cartomancy often focuses on the individual querent (client) in a tête-à-tête with a fortune-teller. But in the cases I have studied, it is very common for clients to visit with friends (as in this case), lovers, or even, in one case I have seen, a rival.

This sketch by Fortuny y Carbos suggests a casual card-reading, with at least three participants, perhaps in a tavern. It was probably drawn when he was in Paris in the 1860s.

And beyond the two clients, there were at least two other people in the room at the time: the children. Reports about cartomancy sessions are filled with these sudden revelations, as it turns out the reading was being done in a room full of other drinkers, or – as here – in a family residence.


What, then, of the functions this cartomancy played for the clients?

The anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada has argued – based on fieldwork with a cartomancer in western France – that cartomancy operated like a kind of therapy, an idea echoed in the recent work the historian Thomas Waters has done on witchcraft and unwitching in Britain.

The evidence from this encounter is hardly subtle: the parricide and his friend claim to have gone to the cartomancer to find out what to do, but surely they must have realised that they would need to tell her what had happened before they could get advice? The relief and sorrow Bernard expressed after getting his secret off his chest is clear. The violence and terror that seize him immediately afterwards are no doubt a sign of the conflicting emotions he feels about his own actions, and his inability to come to terms with what he has done, and its consequences.

And yet the role of the cartomancer is not just as confidant. As in so many of the cases I have researched, the men don’t really need her to reveal the future, but for some good old fashioned sound advice. Will they enjoy success and riches if they follow so many of their southwestern French compatriots to America? The fortune teller has nothing to say on this question. What she can say is that fleeing would be the most obvious sign of their guilt. There’s no need to look into the future to predict how flight would be interpreted.


The final thing I want to say about this story is about the way we understand it today.

It’s quite easy to tell this with a wry smile, even to laugh at the case.

I wonder who we are laughing at, and why? One of the issues I return to time and again with these materials is how – much as the world has changed since the early nineteenth century – some aspects of these encounters with magic stay the same.

And if you think that is a bit of a stretch, consider the case of a killer in Brighton in 2016 who confessed his crime to… a Tarot reader.

I find these cases fascinating, but also difficult. They are not, after all, very funny: there are real victims. And I continue to wonder how funny it really is that killers are naive enough to tell fortune-tellers what they have done. Perhaps, if anything, it is a reminder that – at least for some people – telling fortunes is more than just a bit of fun: a matter of life and death.

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