Good Fortune: How Empress Bonaparte Popularized the Tarot Card Trend and Made Her Cartomancer a Household Name

Chronicle / Alamy
Chronicle / Alamy / Chronicle / Alamy

On April 21, 1794, during the Reign of Terror, Madame de Beauharnais was taken to Carmes Prison in Paris. Her arrest followed that of her husband, Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais, a month prior. They were both charged as enemies of the French Revolution.

Madame de Beauharnais, who would become known to history as Joséphine, knew it was incredibly unlikely she would ever walk out of Carmes—over the course of the Terror, which lasted a little over a year, more than 16,000 people were officially executed. Naturally, she was beside herself. At 30, she was the mother of two and had been trapped in a miserable, 15-year arranged marriage. To face the guillotine alongside her husband must have felt like a particularly grave injustice.

Around the same time, a 22-year-old Parisian cartomancer named Marie-Anne Lenormand was jailed at La Force. Her alleged crime? Conspiring to break Queen Marie Antoinette out of prison. It’s unclear whether this is truth or myth; though some sources name Lenormand's alleged conspirator, Princesse de Lamballe—the Queen’s dearest confidante—as one of her early clients, making collusion possible, others also note that the psychic was arrested for illegal fortune-telling multiple times during her career. This may have been one of those less sensational incidents. Either way, while in custody, Lenormand was reportedly "unfrightened," quite certain that her life was safe and her sentence short.

Joséphine had her fortune read once as a child, and now facing almost certain death, she was desperate to have that earlier prediction of an advantageous marriage and prosperous life confirmed. She heard about Lenormand from other prisoners and managed to send her a letter—and was not disappointed with the response.

Lenormand informed an anxious Joséphine that her husband was not going to make it out of the prison with his head; however, Joséphine would not only survive, but was destined for far greater glory through her second marriage.

In July of that year, Alexandre de Beauharnais was executed. Joséphine was freed days later. She never forgot Mademoiselle Lenormand, and when Joséphine married an officer named Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796, she took him to meet the clairvoyant.

Portrait of Marie-Anne Lenormand.

Legend has it that in 1779, as a 7-year-old charge at a Benedictine convent in Normandy, Marie-Anne Lenormand informed the Superior that she would soon be removed from her post. She even named the woman’s successor. The nuns were not amused by this impertinent little girl, but soon after, to their astonishment, her prediction came to pass.

Lenormand left the convent around age 14 and found work as a seamstress in Paris. By 17 she was telling fortunes professionally, and by 19 she opened her own shop on the rue de Tournon, which she registered as a bookstore to avoid charges of impropriety. The cover wasn’t entirely fraudulent—Lenormand was an eager reader and diligently studied mathematics and astronomy as part of her practice. Later, she would write and publish at least 15 bestselling books, mostly memoirs and detailed accounts of her various political and personal prophecies.

According to multiple accounts, three men arrived there one evening in 1792 to have their fortunes told. They'd heard of the "sybil" and were prepared to prove her a con. Lenormand looked at their palms, read their cards, and proclaimed they were all destined for violent deaths. They scoffed.

One of those men was Maximilien Robespierre, the architect of the Reign of Terror. His execution by guillotine in July 1794 is what ultimately freed Joséphine de Beauharnais from prison shortly before her own scheduled execution. The other two were prominent revolutionaries Jean-Paul Marat and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, both of whom also met grisly ends.

Portrait of Empress Josephine.

These tales, and others like them, spread quickly through French society circles during and after the Revolution. It was a time of chaos and uncertainty—someone with the power to predict the future could give people from all walks of life a lot of comfort, even those who would never have sought out such services before. Wealthy women, aristocrats, laypeople, and even clergy rushed to Lenormand's Paris salon, where she'd hung a custom wooden sign over the door: Mademoiselle Le Normand, Bookseller. They were willing to wait many hours and pay top dollar for a glimpse of their fate. Curious onlookers reported that there were carriages parked in front of her door every day of the week. At times the crowd outside grew so large that the local police would come to break it up.

Napoleon, however, didn't like or trust her. Lenormand had too much influence over his new wife, for one thing. On top of that, the brazen mystic had gone from predicting his astonishing rise to foreseeing his exile. He didn't necessarily believe in her otherworldly abilities, but the intimate access she had to so many influential people also made him uncomfortable—she certainly had the means to be a spy.

But the Empress protected her friend. Joséphine trusted Mlle Lenormand implicitly, whether told she would marry, divorce (as she and Bonaparte would in 1810), or anything between. The two had a bond, and the Empress became so reliant on her cartomancer that she was unable to make the simplest decisions without consulting the cards first. Lenormand would later recall that Joséphine often said to her: "[I] confess that it is a small folly to believe you. And yet it would be an even greater one to doubt what you say."

When the Empress died suddenly in 1814, Lenormand was devastated—somehow she had missed this one major prediction. In honor of Joséphine's passing, she published a heartfelt ode titled "Anniversary of the Death of Empress Joséphine" in 1815. Of her friend, Lenormand said, "Oh Joséphine! Your praise has been in my heart for a long time. It is a true and deeply felt admiration which brings me, not at the foot of your statue (for you don’t have one yet), but at your tomb, where I dare to bring to your ashes the homage that another hand should maybe be presenting to you."

This was followed by a more detailed biography in two huge volumes: Historical and Secret Memoirs of the Empress Joséphine, first published by Lenormand in 1818. Joséphine’s daughter, Hortense, Queen consort of Holland, called the tomes "absurd."

Two Lenormand deck cards, showing a wise woman and the Fates.
Two Lenormand deck cards, showing a wise woman and the Fates. / Chronicle / Alamy

Mademoiselle Lenormand went on writing and casting fortunes until she left the earthly plane for the astral one in June 1843, which, at age 71, fell rather short of the 108 years she had envisioned for herself. Still, she managed an impressive lifespan (and even more impressive life) for her time.

Within a few years, multiple Lenormand fortune-telling decks were produced in an attempt to capitalize on her fame. Unlike tarot cards, which rely more on personal interpretation of images and are read in relation to the cards around them (in tarot, for instance, a card like the Moon may refer to nighttime, dreams, the unconscious, or even the actual moon), Lenormand decks have concrete symbols like "key," "dog," or "house." Many decks also include traditional playing card suits on them: hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. Each card has a straightforward meaning that doesn't change, whereas in tarot, a card can be read differently depending on the question asked and in some cases even the specific deck.

The Lenormand cards and others like them grew in mainstream popularity as the 19th century progressed and the Spiritualist movement exploded. Through her relationships with some of the most powerful political figures of her time, Mlle Lenormand broke through taboos (and laws) against fortune-telling and made the pastime fashionable.

Her grave at Paris's famed Père Lachaise Cemetery is still tended with flowers and tributes to this day. But if not for a serendipitous prison correspondence with the future Empress of France, it's likely Marie-Anne Lenormand's name would have long ago passed into oblivion.