A Psychic Labor Primer

A Psychic Labor Primer

by Grace Kredell


I started giving psychic readings for money after a professional psychic told me I could make it my living. While I found it hard to believe in myself as “psychic,” I was aware of myself as extremely sensitive and perhaps overly empathetic; loved ones, in particular, can feel like extensions of my body. Psychic work acknowledges the porous boundaries between what we perceive as “inside” and “outside” of us. It can also make links across spacetime, making the dead, other points in time, and far-off places accessible as felt connections and/or impressions in the mind’s eye. These connections can happen unintentionally or spontaneously but also purposefully, as in the case of psychic work. As much as I can facilitate these connections in a call-and-response way, I don’t feel in charge of what flows through me. 

As I came out as a psychic, I reached out to others who professionally identify as psychics, intuitives, healers, mystics, occultists, witches, brujas/brujxs, tarot readers, astrologers, clairvoyants, and mediums (as just some examples of the professional monikers within my community). We bonded over the misunderstood aspects of this work and the stigma surrounding it. We also often commiserated about how people treat us, eyeing us with suspicion and demanding “proof” in the form of free labor. As I officially made this my work, the biased questioning and pointed silences from people in my own social circles were especially hurtful. My fight or flight instinct would kick in anytime anybody asked me the “What do you do?” question. Although I fundamentally do not feel safe embodying this out loud, I also can’t let it go. I have to stand up for this work because I believe psychic-ness is a key part of being human. 

In 2019, I went to graduate school in Womxn’s History to foreground psychic work as work with an incredibly long history that’s largely been marginalized, despite the centrality of “magic” broadly speaking to our culture. I researched the Victorian occult revival as it played out in New York City, where I live and practice. I felt haunted by this era, likely due to my ancestral connection with Spiritualism, a white-dominated mass movement with mediumship (communication with the dead) at its center. 

Below are five tarot cards I’m handing you, takeaways from my thesis, and the labor activism I’m attempting to do. These sources get at the challenge of historical recovery work in this arena and the potential fruits when we pay attention and dig in.

  1. Asher Hartman Reading a House

Asher Hartman is one of my favorite working psychics. I watch this video now and again to remind myself of the beauty of this work and its potential. Asher, at one point, while tuning into the site, says, “This is where the limits of language come in.” It can be extremely challenging when giving a reading to translate all that you’re experiencing and receiving—to make sense of the “nonsense.” Sometimes I think about psychic work in terms of Gertrude Stein’s famous comment, “there is no there there,” from her 1937 autobiography Everybody’s Autobiography. These words refer to the disappearance of her childhood home in Oakland, CA. The no-there there haunts us. 

  1. “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”

I have to say this to avoid being struck with a Class B misdemeanor for performing my work. Anti-divination laws in the United States are rooted in British “rogue and vagabond statutes” that historically targeted the poor. Occult work is essentially outlawed labor. Today there is a lot of nomadism in the community, and many psychic workers struggle with feelings of unbelonging, which can be connected back to our historical classification as vagrants. To my fellow workers who have had difficulty with root-level issues (employment, secure housing, etc.), I want to tell you it’s not your fault. We’re coming from a traumatized professional lineage. For more information on this legal background, see Faith or Fraud: Fortune-Telling, Spirituality, and the Law by Jeremy Patrick and Law and Magic: A Collection of Essays, edited by Christine A. Corcos.  

  1. “Do Black Ghosts Matter?” 

This moving academic article by Erin E. Forbes on African American writer Harriet Jacobs’s connections to Spiritualism is just one corrective to the growing body of scholarly discourse on Spiritualism, which has primarily neglected non-white actors. Spiritualism, in general, tends to dominate the conversation on occult labor in the United States. This lopsidedness is not surprising as Spiritualism was historically white-centered and counted many nationally prominent political and intellectual leaders amongst its ranks, including the scandalous Victoria Woodhull, a working clairvoyant and the first woman to run for president. Her mother incidentally worked as a fortune teller at local fairs. While scholars tend to separate “common fortune-telling” from high-brow Spiritualism, my analysis of the occult scene at the time reveals their deep interconnection. Another piece of scholarship that inspired my recovery work and re-framing of this period is Shane White’s “The Gold Diggers of 1833: African American Dreams, Fortune-Telling, Treasure-Seeking, and Policy in Antebellum New York City,” which he based on his extensive digging through old court cases and newspapers. The discipline of history is painfully reliant on documents, making occult workers a frustrating subject for study as these communities are largely rooted in an oral culture. The people who left behind extensive paper trials have received the lion’s share of attention. Historically, many occult workers used aliases and or practiced on the down low. You had to be in the know to access these workers, and they were careful to cover their tracks. In that sense, you can conceptualize occult laborers as a secret workforce.

  1. The Hidden World of Tenement Fortune Tellers in 19th Century Manhattan

This article arose from the discovery by Tenement Museum workers of a 19th-century handbill advertising the services of Professor Dora Meltzer, who claimed to be an “unexcelled Palmist.” It’s in English and Yiddish; you can see this document yourself when you visit the museum. Shane White describes occult workers as “cultural brokers” because they functioned as clearinghouses for underground information and could get stuff done through their extensive social networks. A popular service of Dora Meltzer’s was locating missing husbands, and it’s documented that she did so successfully. As this article speculates, “It’s possible that fortune tellers, with their broad connections and constant stream of local stories actually did have a solid insight into what was most likely to happen in the local future.” In my research, I found that Victorian women went to fortune tellers for abortion services, referrals for divorce lawyers, and to dispose of unwanted babies (sold on the black market).  

These unadvertised services continue to this day. For example, I’m a good person to talk to if you’re trying to find an apartment in New York City. I also do a lot of matchmaking, another service historically performed by fortune tellers. It makes sense when you think about it. Psychics interact with tons of people from everywhere (thanks to the telephone/virtual platforms) on a regular basis. This connectedness makes us dangerous. In my community, I’ve heard stories of psychics in D.C. needing to leave town because they know too much. Ronald Reagan famously had an astrologer… patronage of psychic workers crosses race, gender, class, and political lines. Occult work creates opportunities for social mixing. It’s why we’ve historically been accused of fomenting social disorder. 

  1. Psychic Carrie Mae King of Bogalusa, LA, 1930s

During The Great Depression, the WPA funded oral history work, and as a result, this document exists. “When I was young in Bogalusa, there was a woman called Carrie Mae King, who was a fortune teller. She could locate things, buried treasure and other things. She was very good at this and everybody trusted her.” These lines honestly make me want to cry. Oral history work is fundamental to recovering these lost histories (along with mediumship!). If you know older psychic workers or have practitioners in your family line, please interview them. Historians of the future will thank you for it. 

A collage of book covers and film posters for the texts mentioned in the following list.

Some Suggested Reading/Watching for Further Background:

  • A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine Albanese
  • Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy by LaShawn Harris
  • Occult America by Mitch Horowitz
  • The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
  • The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge by Jeffrey J. Kripal
  • Something for Nothing: Luck in America by Jackson Lears
  • Company of Prophets: African American Psychics, Healers & Visionaries by Joyce Elaine Noll
  • Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America by Jamie L. Pietruska
  • Call Me Miss Cleo, dirs. Celia Aniskovich, Jennifer Brea
  • The Seer and the Unseen, dir. Sara Dosa