Abstract: From Business Mediums to Economic Forecasters: The Rise of Commercial and Market Astrology in the Fin-De-Siècle U.S.

Dan Graham


In 1905 the United States Supreme Court oversaw Chicago Board of Trade v. Christie Grain which upheld sales of American grain for future delivery provided for by the rules of the Chicago Board of Trade of the state of Illinois. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. delivered the majority opinion of the court, saying “in a modern market contracts are not confined to sales for immediate delivery. People will endeavor to forecast the future and to make agreements according to their prophecy. Speculation of this kind by competent men is the self-adjustment of society to the probable.” The court’s protection of “competent men … to forecast the future” would have signaled an ironic blow to the Spiritualist business mediums and fortunetellers whose professions had been inordinately criminalized in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

Since the Hydesville, NY spirit rappings inaugurated modern American Spiritualism in 1848, its practitioners had come under attack in the press and public as frauds who lacked competence and civilization. As time progressed, however, the evolving speculative economy fostered cultural anxieties for which Spiritualism offered a panacea. Just as new fields of scientific judgment – such as market, crop, and weather forecasting – were on the rise, fortunetelling seers offered similar services to clients as “business mediums.” And when acting or advertising as a fortunetelling business medium was markedly made illegal under vagrancy codes and statutes in the 1880s, “commercial astrologers” began to sprout up in their stead.

In evaluating Spiritualism’s ties to cultural and professional interests in market astrology and, consequently, to economic forecasts and speculations, I contribute to recent studies of market forecasting and capitalism by business and economic historians including Walter Friedman and Jonathan Levy. I highlight Spiritualism’s role in influencing new methods by which individuals sought both to forecast and to protect themselves from the forecasts of financial markets and agricultural production in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.