Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/Mary Louise Fickling

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Overview[edit]

Mary Louise Fickling (b. 13 Dec, 1896, d. 21 Nov, 1979) was a fortune teller from Charleston, South Carolina. She was also known as “the Coffee Grounds Woman.” Her life history was recorded in 1938 by Muriel Mann, a member of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), as a part of the New Deal program during the Great Depression.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Born in Boston as Mary Louise Emerson, the daughter of a Bostonian streetcar conductor, William Stimpson Emerson (b. 6 Apr, 1873, d. 24 Oct, 1904) and Georgian laundrywoman, Francis Rosalie Johns (b. 14 May, 1876, d. 26 Jul, 1941), was one of fourteen children. Fickling moved to South Carolina when she was two years old. After her father died of typhoid fever, her mother remarried. Because there were so many children in the family, young Fickling was sent to an Orphan Home. During her time there, she suffered from tuberculosis of the knee, which affected her education. From age 14 to 17, Fickling worked in a cigar factory.

Adulthood[edit]

Fickling married a railroad worker (Charles Bowman Fickling, b. 21 May, 1889, d. 25 Sep, 1967) at seventeen years old and had her first child one year later. In total, she had nine children, three miscarriages, and four grandchildren. When her stepfather died, she started caring for her mother. The size of her family forced Fickling and relatives to frequently move to bigger houses, which caused them financial difficulty.

At twenty-three, she began reading coffee cups for friends, churches, and schools. Her husband was laid off as a result of the Great Depression. During this time, she had a vision: She could financially support her large family by charging money for readings. So, Fickling turned her hobby into a business. People from all over South Carolina traveled to Charleston to have their fortunes read.

Social Issues[edit]

Orphanages during the Great Depression[edit]

During the Great Depression, “hundreds of thousands of homeless children” sought work and shelter. Those who stayed at home had to live with “the demoralizing effects of poverty that drove their parents to illness, alcoholism, desertion, and death.” While some orphaned or abandoned their children, many poverty-stricken families sent them away in hopes of being reunited at a later time. "Since most dependent children were not available for adoption, they failed to attract applicants with free homes who were seeking sons and daughters to call their own."[1]

“By the mid-1930s the orphanage population had swelled to 144,000, the highest capacity ever. In order to stretch their already meager resources, they crowded two or three residents into each bed, cut services, dug into their own capital funds and begged contributions for food and fuel. When the crisis abated, however, orphanages found themselves worse off financially than before the Depression.”[2]

Charleston Orphan Home (1944).

The Charleston Orphan House, the oldest municipal orphanage in the United States, was established by act of City Council on 18 October 1790, "for the purpose of supporting and educating poor orphan children, and those of poor, distressed and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them." The Orphan house was primarily funded by public donations. Today, the center continues to serve children through residential and outreach programs.[3]

The Charleston Orphan House attracted full orphans and half orphans, as well as children whose families could no longer take care of them. “Because so many children of poor families wanted to enter the orphanage, an admissions protocol for prospective residents was created in which poverty was the standard requirement.”[4] Separating families meant leaving children with adults other than their parents. Children without parents or immediate relatives posed a problem for the community as they had no place to go. As a result, the city built the Charleston Orphan House. “Children who were admitted to the Charleston Orphan House came from families with little experience of formal education. The orphanage not only took care of children until they were old enough to get out of the institution, it also offered them education and training in hopes of making their adult life easier than that of their parents.”[5]

Spiritualism in the South[edit]

Spiritualism involves communication with the dead through mediums. This religious movement became increasingly popular during the second half of the 19th century. [6] Spiritualism in the South was heavily concentrated in New Orleans, where not only white but also African Americans partook in both spiritual gatherings and served as mediums. [7]

“For Spiritualists, the medium, who functioned as a sort of religious leader, was most often a woman, and frequently a very young woman. For believers, the medium’s […] lack of education underscored the authenticity of the communications. Young women were not expected to be able to deliver long discourses on politics, science, and philosophy, and when they did so as mediums, this was taken as “proof” of the presence of the dead.”[8] Because spiritualism gained recognition and fortune telling proved to be a successful business, many were able to make a profit by pretending to contact the dead. [9]

This supernatural ability was often associated with witchcraft. In 17th-century America, most people believed their world was filled with kind and evil spirits, which could influence different aspects of their lives, such as health or financial status.[10] It was thought that witches acted on behalf of the Devil. They personified evil and caused uneasiness within the general population. [11] "While witchcraft was often feared, it was punished only infrequently. In the first 70 years of the New England settlements, about 100 people were formally charged with being witches; fewer than two dozen were convicted and fewer still were executed."[12]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Lori Askeland, "Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care: A Historical Handbook and Guide" (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p. 32-33
  2. Lori Askeland, "Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care: A Historical Handbook and Guide" (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p. 33
  3. "Records of the Commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House, 1790-1951," accessed October 8, 2015, http://www.ccpl.org/content.asp?action=detail&catid=10364&id=56693&parentid=5402
  4. John E. Murray, "The Charleston Orphan House: Children's Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America" (The University of Chicago Press, 2013), Ch. 4
  5. John E. Murray, "The Charleston Orphan House: Children's Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America" (The University of Chicago Press, 2013), Ch. 2
  6. Cathy Gutierrez, "Religion and American Cultures: Tradition, Diversity, and Popular Expression" (ABC-CLIO, 2014), p. 398
  7. Geoffrey K. Nelson, "Spiritualism and Society" (Routledge, 2013), p. 16-17
  8. Cathy Gutierrez, "Religion and American Cultures: Tradition, Diversity, and Popular Expression" (ABC-CLIO, 2014) p. 389
  9. Geoffrey K. Nelson, "Spiritualism and Society" (Routledge, 2013), p. 23
  10. "They Called It Witchcraft," accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/31/opinion/they-called-it-witchcraft.html
  11. Robert Rapley, "Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2007)
  12. "They Called It Witchcraft," accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/31/opinion/they-called-it-witchcraft.html