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The Strange Life of the Greatest Palm Reader Who Ever Lived

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There is perhaps no more persuasive and widely known method of fortune telling than that of palm reading, also variously called chiromancy, chirosophy, or chirology. Far from the common image as a carnival parlor trick, the practice of divining information and future events through the lines of one’s hand has been practiced in cultures around the world for centuries, using a mind-boggling array of different methods and interpretations. In Europe it became so popular in the 19th century that there was an actual organization called The Chirological Society of Great Britain, with the aim of standardizing the art and weeding out fakers and charlatans. It was during this era when one of the greatest palmists who ever lived would become a groundbreaking force in the field, and leave many mysteries in his wake.

William John Warner was born in 1866 in the small village of Rathdown, outside Dublin, Ireland, and from a young age was apparently gifted with certain psychic abilities such as clairvoyance. Although not much is known of his younger days, it was likely this perceived psychic ability that led him to travel to India when he was a teenager, in order to study esoteric arts with a real mystical guru. In India he met Chitpavan Brahmin, who took him under his wing and purportedly bestowed great wisdom in the magical arts and let him study an ancient and secret magic book on palmistry, astrology, and numerology that was supposedly written on human skin with red ink. Warner would later write of this mystical book:

It may be interesting to describe here, in few words as possible, an extremely ancient and curious book on the markings of hands, which I was allowed to use and examine during my sojourn in India. This book was one of the greatest treasures of the few Brahmans who possessed and understood it, and was jealously guarded in one of those old cave temples that belong to the ruins of ancient Hindustan. This strange book was made of human skin, pieced and put together in the most ingenious manner. It was of enormous size, and contained hundreds of well-drawn illustrations, with records of how, when, and where this or that mark was proved correct. One of the greatest features in connection with it was that it was written in some red liquid which age had failed to spoil or fade. The effect of those vivid red letters on the pages of dull yellow skin was most remarkable. By some compound, probably made of herbs, each page was glazed, as it were, by varnish: but whatever this compound may have been, it seemed to defy time, as the outer covers alone showed the signs of wear and decay…

William John Warner

The book allegedly held ancient secrets that only a very few were privy to, let alone outsiders, so when he returned to Ireland, he did so with vast knowledge that the Western world had never seen before. Warner took to calling himself “Cheiro,” and “Count Louis Hamon,” started his own palmistry practice, and quickly made a name for himself as a colorful eccentric. It was perhaps this eccentricity and his bold claims of having studied ancient Indian divination techniques under his mysterious guru that he would attract a wide following, as well as numerous rich and famous clients. The list of people who came to have their palm read by him reads like a veritable who’s who of the era, including Mark Twain, W. T. Stead, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Oscar Wilde, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, the Prince of Wales, General Kitchener, William Ewart Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, King Edward VII, William Gladstone, Charles Stewart Parnell, Henry Morton Stanley, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Professor Max Muller, Blanche Roosevelt, the Comte de Paris, Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Russell of Killowen, Robert Ingersoll, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Lillie Langtry, W. T. Stead, Richard Croker, and many, many others, all of whom had their handprint taken prior to their readings.

Cheiro was by all accounts quite the showman about it all, very flamboyant and holding his readings in a room decked out in Asian and Indian decorations to emphasize his exotic past. These theatrics made him even more popular, but one of the biggest draws of Cheiro was his alleged eerie accuracy. Nearly everyone he did readings for came away either spooked by how much he could tell about them from just looking at their hand, or were spooked later when his predictions came true. He would give names dates, and even times of events that seemed to invariably come true, as well as major disasters or catastrophes. Some of the more notable predictions he has been associated with are the that the Jews would return to Palestine and the country would again be called Israel, the date of death of Queen Victoria and King Edward the VII, the sinking of the Titanic, and countless others. Even skeptics were impressed, with the very skeptical Mark Twain saying, “Cheiro has exposed my character to me with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do so.” Oscar Wilde was apparently so amazed by what Cheiro had told him that he penned a whole short story, called Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime based on their meeting.

A famous tale involving Cheiro’s accuracy involves a time when he was challenged by a reporter by being presented with random palm prints and asked to make readings of them without even seeing the person it belonged to. All of them he accurately read, although one palm print in particular stood out for him, and he proceeded to make an eerily detailed assessment of its owner. Cheiro would write of this in his book Cheiro’s Language of the Hand, as follows:

I summed up the impressions before me by stating: “Judging from these hands, the owner of them undoubtedly commenced his career in a normal way. He is likely to have been a religious man in his early years”. I thought that it was probable he might have commenced life as a Sunday-school teacher and later become interested in science or medicine. I went on to describe how the man’s entire nature slowly and steadily had changed under the continual urge to acquire wealth at any cost, until he was finally prepared even to commit murder for money. My remarks noted down by the reporters were as follows: “Whether this man has committed one crime or twenty is not the question, as he enters his forty-fourth year he will be found out, arrested, tried and sentenced to death. It will then be proved, that for years he has used his mentality and whatever profession he has followed to obtain money by crime and has stopped at nothing to achieve his ends. This man in his forty-fourth year will pass through some sensational trial, he will be condemned to die, yet his hands show that he will escape this fate and live on for years-but in prison.

The palm print in question happened to belong to a Dr. Henry Meyer, who had ruthlessly poisoned two wives and several wealthy patients in order to gain their insurance money, and who was awaiting trial at the time his palm print was read, none of which Cheiro had known at the time of the reading as it was a random print. When the trial happened he was convicted of murder and given the death sentence by electric chair, yet this was appealed against and after three trials the death penalty prevailed. Meyer had apparently gotten word that his palm had been read and actually requested to meet Cheiro, who colorfully writes of what happened next:

A week before his execution, he requested that I should go and see him. I was taken to his cell in Sing Sing prison. As long as I live, I shall never forget the interview. “Cheiro,” gasped the now completely broken man, “at that interview you gave the reporters, what you said about my early life was true. But you also said that although I should be sentenced to the electric chair, I should live on for years-but in prison. “I have lost my third and last appeal-in a few days I am to be executed. For God’s sake, tell me if you stand by your words-that I shall escape ‘the chair’” Even if I had not seen his line of life going on clear and distinct well past his forty-fourth year, I believe I would have tried to give him hope. To me it was torture to see that poor wretch before me, to feel his cold clammy hands touching mine, and see his hollow eyes hungry for a word of comfort.

Although I could hardly believe what I saw, I pointed out that his line of life showed no signs of any break, and so I left him, giving the hope that some miracle could still happen that would save him from the dreaded “chair”. Day after day went pass, with no news to relieve the tension. Mentally I suffered almost as much as the poor man in the condemned cell. The evening papers, full of details of the preparations for the execution fixed for the next morning were eagerly bought up. I bought one and read every line. Midnight came. Suddenly boys rushed through the streets screaming “Special Edition.” I read across the front page, “MEYER ESCAPES THE CHAIR, SUPREME COURT FINDS FLAW IN INDICTMENT”. The miracle had happened. The sentence was altered to imprisonment for life. Meyer lived for fifteen years. When the end did come, he died peacefully in the prison hospital.

All things considered, Cheiro had been more or less spot on, and when this hit the papers his legend only grew even more. He gave lectures on palmistry to packed audiences, was booked solid for readings, went on tours all over Europe and America, and wrote several well-received books, getting very rich in the process. He would marry the Countess Lena Hamon and eventually move to America, living in Hollywood tending to celebrity clients and doing a bit of screenwriting as well up to his death in 1936. Many of his books on palmistry have been printed up to this day, and his autobiography Cheiro’s Memoirs: The Reminiscences of a Society Palmist, has remained popular among certain circles. There are many who believe he was perhaps not only the greatest palm reader, but perhaps even the greatest psychic who ever lived, with his skill at palmistry perhaps boosted by his other abilities. One palmistry expert has explained of this:

Cheiro’s ability as a predictive palmist is legendary and with such a range of respectable and eminent people to attest to it, it cannot seriously be doubted. However from a consideration of his written works alone it is hard to see how he managed to be able to be so accurate in making any predictions from the hand.   Certainly, nobody could learn how to read hands in the way that Cheiro did from a study of his books as they contain nothing which point to such ‘predictive powers’.   The system of hand analysis he advocates deviates little from the writings of Messrs. D’Arpentigny and Desbarolles, so it can be inferred that his predictive ability was not gleaned from anything that he saw in the hands themselves. As he was also an adept at astrology and numerology, it may have been through these arts, rather than from the hand, that he managed to make such accurate predictions in particular cases. The hand does not really provide such scope for prediction in the way that the more fatalistic arts of astrology and numerology can.

However, it is undoubtedly true that he was actually something of a psychic or clairvoyant. he describes this intuitive process in several places within his written works, freely admitting to using numerology and astrology as a means of making such predictions.  In his autobiography he also relays incidents in which ‘premonitions’ came to him and from which he made such predictions as Lord Kitchener’s death.  From these, it is clear that he is not actually ‘seeing’ anything from the lines and features of the hands at all.

Of course, skeptics say that Cheiro was nothing but a fraud and trickster using his charm, showmanship, and a mixture of mentalism and cold reading to rip of the gullible rich and famous. Indeed, palmistry in general has been seen as a pseudoscience with its share of critics. Skeptic and psychologist Ray Hyman has said of it:

I started reading palms in my teens as a way to supplement my income from doing magic and mental shows. When I started I did not believe in palmistry. But I knew that to “sell” it I had to act as if I did. After a few years I became a firm believer in palmistry. One day the late Stanley Jaks, who was a professional mentalist and a man I respected, tactfully suggested that it would make an interesting experiment if I deliberately gave readings opposite to what the lines indicated. I tried this out with a few clients. To my surprise and horror my readings were just as successful as ever. Ever since then I have been interested in the powerful forces that convince us, reader and client alike, that something is so when it really isn’t.

It is really hard to know what to make of Cheiro’s purported abilities. He certainly had his fans and many willing to vouch for his accuracy, but was this due to honest ability or tricks? Was he truly able to make these amazing predictions, and if so was it due to palm reading or perhaps some other psychic ability? Whatever the case may be, his is a truly unique and fascinating historical oddity, and whether he could do these things or not he has managed to cement his place in the annals of great historical psychics and seers.

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