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

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.


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.


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.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.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14


Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140


Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48


Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30


The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19


Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25


This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70


Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120


What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24


Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14


Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.