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A Pennsylvania police chief told a tarot card reader they could be jailed under the law
Beck Lawrence provides entertainment. The police say Lawrence could be prosecuted.
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In Pennsylvania, fortune-tellers are criminals.
An obscure (but very real) law, which first went into effect in 1861, says it’s a third degree misdemeanor to make money from pretending to predict the future. You literally cannot, “for gain or lucre,… tell fortunes or predict future events.” Someone found guilty of the crime faces up to a year in prison along with a $2,500 fine. (As far as I can tell, no one’s been prosecuted under this law since 1935.)
It seems like one of those archaic laws that was probably passed for good reason at some point in the past—to prevent con artists from swindling people—but seems downright absurd outside of that context. If someone’s deliberately stealing money from others by pretending to be a psychic, they deserve to be punished. But what about people who do tarot readings for “entertainment purposes only” (and say as much)? Should they also be concerned?
Earlier this month, Beck Lawrence (a.k.a. The Stitching Witch on TikTok) said that a cop visited their store, the Serpent’s Key Shoppe and Sanctuary, with a warning that tarot card readings could be prosecuted under the law if anyone complained.
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To be clear, Police Chief Chad E. Martin didn’t come by to arrest Lawrence. He dropped by the store after seeing an article about the new business in a local publication, essentially to let them know this law existed. Lawrence was obviously frustrated by all this, especially given that there are disclaimers all over the shop saying the tarot readings are just for fun.
Mx. Lawrence said the visit from Chief Martin and another officer was “intimidating.”
“Basically, he didn’t give me any advice or anything,” Mx. Lawrence said, adding that the message was, “Hey, just so you know, this is the law.”
But what the cop didn’t seem to understand was that tarot readings aren’t the same as psychic predictions. Rather than tell people what the future has in store for them, tarot is all about clarifying someone’s decision-making process:
Mx. Lawrence, who has studied tarot and witchcraft for 13 years, said tarot readings are meant to help a person by giving clarity about their path in life.
They do not tell a person what is in store for them, such as whether they will win money, or reveal the whereabouts of missing loved ones, they said.
“I pull my cards and study the symbols,” Mx. Lawrence said. “My job is to string these things together of what I am seeing. It is up to their free will. There is nothing set in stone. I am 26. I don’t know the answers.”
You know who else gives people clarity about their path in life while acknowledging the customer has free will to make their own choices? Doctors. Lawyers. Police officers who give people unsolicited warnings.
It all seems absurd because, obviously, Lawrence isn’t trying to dupe anyone with lofty promises. If a customer finds value in getting a tarot reading, then that should be the end of the matter. It’s no different, if my opinion, from people wasting their money on other frivolous forms of entertainment. The Mega Millions lottery isn’t technically a scam, but an argument could be made that the insurmountable odds make it virtually indistinguishable from one—and far more harmful that a tarot reading.
Lawrence is offering customers an experience, not a promise.
The question that remains up in the air is whether a customer who pays for a tarot reading in the future could be the “competent witness” the law requires for charges to be pressed.
Lawrence mentioned on TikTok that there are four other “metaphysical” stores in the area. It’s not clear why theirs was targeted, except for the fact that it’s new and maybe the police believed they might not be familiar with the law. But while I doubt the cop was trying to scare Lawrence on purpose, Martin made it clear that he would follow this law if he had to:
Upon observing an advertisement for a business in the Borough of Hanover that offered tarot card readings, I engaged in a conversation with two individuals concerning the advertisement and my intent to educate the person, or persons engaged, in the acts about the above listed statute. There was never an investigation, nor was there any threat of arrest in this matter. With that being said, if a complaint was made against someone for engaging in acts qualifying as “fortune telling” in the Borough of Hanover; this department would be obligated to conduct an investigation. Finally, regarding this issue, the only departmental time utilized was mine in an effort to educate someone and to prevent a future complaint or issue.
In other words, the police department would not just ignore a complaint that invoked this particular law even though, in practice, cops routinely decide which “crimes” to prioritize. That is frightening.
What do you do if you’re Lawrence other than increasing the font of every “for entertainment purposes only” sign in the store and having clients sign some paperwork before every reading acknowledging that this isn’t fortune-telling? It’s as absurd as telling a magician she needs to begin every show by telling the audience, “These are all tricks!”
Not only should they already know that, the disclaimer ruins the suspension of disbelief.
The irony of all this, of course, is that plenty of church leaders literally claim to predict the future based off of what the Bible says. They just call it “prophecy” instead of entertainment. They take in money from people who believe the lie. (It’s even more harmful when they perform “faith healing.”) And yet no cop has ever gone to a Pennsylvania church informing pastors that they could be prosecuted under the same law.
Lawrence even pointed out that hypocrisy in a video:
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Lawrence doesn’t seem to be making any big changes to the shop for now… other than selling a new sticker that reads “Legalize fortune-telling in PA.” (Well played.)
Even the York Dispatch published an editorial calling for the police to lay off on “personal warnings” when it comes to absurd laws while also reminding readers that there’s a massive difference between someone like Lawrence (who openly provides entertainment) and a con artist (who perpetuates a lie):
The law is clearly outdated and, if not taken off the books altogether at least needs revising. Tarot-card readings seem harmless enough among willing and knowing participants; it’s defrauding someone through those readings that the law must address. (Recall, that’s what got “Miss Cleo” in trouble.)
So state lawmakers ought to act.
In the meantime, personal warnings when no complaints have been filed should be kept to a minimum by Hanover authorities. They wouldn’t remind local residents, for example, that it’s illegal to ice fish through a hole larger than 10 inches wide or build a home with a child’s bedroom more than 200 feet from a bathroom.
Like the fortune-telling statute, these laws are on the books. And like the fortune-telling statute, they’d be humorous anachronisms if they didn’t occasionally conjure up unnecessary legal concerns.
Lawmakers would be wise to get this law off the books, or at least revise it to punish actual grifters.
UPDATE (1:20p): I had asked Lawrence if she planned to change anything in the wake of this controversy. They told me in an email, “In the future, I plan on instituting a waiver to [ensure] that there is record of informed consent from each of the clients who come in to see me.”
Lawrence added that, despite the genuine concern over their business, “the feedback overall has been overwhelmingly positive. I am so grateful for everyone that has come through, and that has been such a relief.”