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The Gypsies’ ‘Great Trick’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 9.1, March 1999

Everyone knows what fortunetelling is supposed to be, but sometimes it might best be defined as “the art of absconding with fortunes.”

For example in 1995 a London gypsy who called herself “Mrs. Marina” persuaded a man to hand over his life’s savings, some £3,000. The 35-year-old postman, whom police described as “intelligent but unsophisticated,” contacted the woman about his severe depression. She informed him his stomach was harboring evil and instructed him to return with a tomato, a photo of his fiancée, and £350 in cash. As reported the Evening Standard:

In the darkened flat, the tomato was swapped for another without the man’s knowledge.

When she cut it open, a hair was extracted-a sign, the frightened man was told, that the evil was still present. By now in a state of near-panic, he promised to return with his entire savings of £3,000. . . .

This time the credulous postman was shown an egg filled with blood, whereupon he fainted. When he revived, the money he had clutched to his stomach was gone. “The evil has been removed,” the soothsayer claimed. “You can go.” When the man later attempted to get his money back, she told him she had burned it and buried the ashes in a cemetery. She later claimed to police that the money was “payment for services” but did eventually return it to avoid facing charges (Delgado 1995).

Typically the practitioners of the egg/tomato trick are gypsies, the term having derived from “Egyptian” due to a mistaken notion of their ancestry. They were actually exiled from northwestern India in the first millennium a.d., and in the Middle Ages sought asylum in Romania, hence their other designation as Romanies or (as they prefer) Roma ("Gypsies” 1960; Popp 1997). They constitute an ethnic group who “essentially live outside the cultures of the countries in which they choose to reside” and who often treat non-gypsies as “fair game for their fortune-telling, curse-lifting and other superstitious ministrations” (Randi 1995). According to William Lindsay Gresham in his fascinating book on carnivals, Monster Midway (1953):

The gypsies call fortunetelling pen dukkerin. It is the traditional trade of gypsy women the world over and throughout history. But along with it goes another art called hokkani boro - the great trick. A credulous patron (usually a housewife), after having her fortune told, is initiated by the gypsy into the magic of making money double itself when the proper spell is chanted over it. The money is wrapped in a handkerchief and must be “dreamed on"-placed under the pillow at night. Next morning, when the gypsy comes again, lo and behold, the sum is twice that which was tied into the handkerchief. This time the housewife takes all her savings, sometimes even borrows from relatives and neighbors, and has the gypsy tie it up and chant over it. So much money must have more time to double itself-usually three weeks, and the gypsy exacts an oath that the owner will not tamper with the bundle until the spell has had a chance to work.

The gypsy never returns and the bundle, when opened, naturally contains a roll of wrapping paper, cut into the size of dollar bills. This is hokkani boro, old when the pyramids were new, and still good for taking off modest scores, although it has landed more than one Romany chi in the staripen (pokey to you) and in frontier days in Tennessee, got one old gypsy woman burned at the stake for pulling this trick.

Continues Gresham:

Another Romany name for this dodge is hakk'ni panki, from which hanky-panky, as a synonym for trickery of any sort, probably stems.1

There is a counting rhyme among English children which goes:

Eckery, ackery, ookery an,

Fillisy, follasy, Nicholas John. . . .

which is pure Romany double-talk:

Ekkeri, akai-ri, u kair-an.

Fillissin, follasy. Nakelas ja'n. . . .

It means, literally:

First, here, you begin.

Castle, gloves; go on, you can’t play!

The interesting thing is that this nonsense rhyme in Romany is the traditional spell uttered over the handkerchief containing the money! Children have retentive memories and a great many of them down the centuries, listening at the keyhole while the gypsy crone enchanted the cash, must have heard this time-honored formula.

Increasingly, fortunetelling is practiced by the gorgio (non-gypsies)-a trespass the true Roma may find hard to forgive (Gresham 1953). In any event “the great trick” remains part of their legacy.

Quite often the hokkani boro is facilitated by use of an egg or tomato-or both-and the techniques are extremely varied. For example, a quite sinister tomato was the device used to bilk one woman of over $20,000. She had visited a soothsayer named “Sister Bella” who duly divined that the credulous woman was threatened by an evil force. To counter it, she was instructed to return the following day with a handkerchief and a fresh tomato. Passing the tomato over the woman’s body, Sister Bella then wrapped it in the handkerchief and instructed the woman to crush it with her foot. Out of the bloody pulp stared an ominous black lizard-a sure sign of the predicted evil.

Sister Bella explained that such evil-perhaps cancer or other disaster-resulted from money that had a lingering curse, possibly from ill-gained dollars passed onto her. “Take all your money except a few hundred dollars out of the bank,” instructed Sister Bella. “This money I will convert from evil to good by special magic venerated for over three thousand years.” The gypsy sewed the money in a pillowcase and instructed her client to place the bag in her safe deposit box for three months. When the bundle was finally opened, it contained not the purified $22,000, but a mere $22 and strips of paper (Rachleff 1971).

In 1997 several instances of the scam were reported in New York state alone. In one case a Romanian native and “psychic astrologer” pled guilty to grand larceny for bilking a Massapequa resident of $2,000 out of an intended $20,000. Police secretly videotaped the “exorcism” that involved candles and chanting, followed by the breaking of an egg which the victim, a widow, had kept under her bed. A “chicken embryo” reportedly emerged, whereupon the psychic screamed, “You have to sacrifice the money. All of the evil that is in your body is in there” ("Jail” 1997).

Later that year an Aurora resident was defrauded of $9,600 and an Elgin woman was cheated of cash and jewelry totaling $14,000. Police warned Hispanic residents about the “group of gypsy con artists posing as Spanish-speaking fortunetellers and palm readers,” who had absconded with almost $30,000 the previous year. Renting an apartment for a week to ten days, the scam artists asked clients to bring an egg or tomato. “When the item is broken or cut open,” a newspaper reported, “either a worm, a skeleton or a spider is found inside, symbolizing bad luck” ("Fortuneteller” 1997). This was a prelude to having the clients bring their valuables to be blessed. Later they would return for them only to find instead an empty apartment or, alternately, the victims would open a bag to find only scraps of paper.

Interestingly, somewhat ironically, and perhaps predictably, while I was working on this historical sketch, a Buffalo, New York, Roma woman using the name “Sister Ana” was arrested for allegedly stealing over $3,600 from a 28-year-old single mother. According to her, the mystic performed a ritual to remove “an evil curse” from her, employing lighted candles and incantations, and passing an egg over her body (Michel 1998). She was then directed to step on the egg and saw therein an ugly mass. It was so repulsive she did not examine it closely, but she told the arresting officer it resembled a mixture of chicken parts, hair, and the like (Rinaldo 1998).

The officer, Detective Tom Rinaldo, a friend of CSICOP, is a fraud expert and author, and a member of the Board of Directors of Professionals Against Confidence Crime. He said of the mystic: “She acted in disbelief when we came to her house. I told her, ‘You're a psychic. You should have known we were coming.'”

Given that it is useful for the fortuneteller to demonstrate and dramatize the "evil” that attends the unsuspecting client, why are eggs and tomatoes specifically employed? One reason is the symbolism and lore associated with them. For example, eggs are obvious symbols of fertility and continuing life. The ancient Greeks and Romans exchanged colored eggs at spring festivals, a custom later appropriated by Christians and-eggs being emblems of resurrection-associated with the Easter season. Many popular superstitions are linked to eggs. For example, small, yolkless eggs supposedly bode ill, especially if brought into the house, whereas two yolks in a single egg represent good luck for the one who received it. And dreaming about spoiled eggs supposedly foretells death in the family.

Eggs have also been used in divination, one approach being to read the shapes of the white dripped into water (much like tea-leaf reading), and in other occult practices. Reportedly the Mayan Indians used the yolk of an egg to undo the spell of an “evil eye.” The medicine man repeatedly passed an egg in front of the bewitched person’s face. He then broke the shell and stared at the yolk as though it were the actual Evil Eye, before burying it in a hidden place (DeLys 1989; Hole 1961).

Tomatoes are also the subject of superstitions. “Some Italians,” reports one treatise, “put a large red tomato on the mantel to bring prosperity to the house. When placed on the window-sill, or in any opening, it wards off evil spirits, and protects the occupants of the house” (DeLys 1989, 249).

Eggs and tomatoes are also common objects that can be brought to a session by the client himself, thereby dispelling any suspicion that the object is specially prepared. Of course, that is exactly what happens. As already indicated, the usual method is to prepare an egg or tomato in advance and then switch it for the client’s, using “misdirection” (as magicians say) or an even simpler method, as I demonstrated for a Discovery Channel special.

Titled “The Science of Magic,” the documentary was hosted by Harry Anderson, star of the TV series Night Court and a magician in his own right. The day before the film crew arrived to tape the segment (which aired on November 30, 1997) I prepared an egg in the small laboratory connected to my office. I used an awl to poke a hole in the end of the egg and then, inserting the tool, scrambled the contents. Through the small opening I worked a hairball, added some ink with an eyedropper, and finally squirted in some theatrical “blood.” I then covered the opening with a small piece of tape, and dabbed over it with some white correction fluid.

With the cameras rolling, I had my “victim"-Center for Inquiry Library director Tim Binga-select an egg from a bowl. I passed the egg over his body, as if to draw out any evil influences, then turned him around to repeat the procedure. As he was facing away, I took the opportunity to place the egg in one of my coat pockets, while simultaneously withdrawing the prepared egg from another. When I broke it into a dish, Tim responded to the repulsive mass with a look that may earn him a nomination for “Best Performance of an Eyebrow.”

Skeptics wishing to make such a demonstration can follow a similar procedure. Alternately, depending on the desired effect, an egg may be emptied by making a hole at each end and blowing out the (scrambled) contents; the shell may then be refilled with blood (as in the London postman case) or other material. Or a tomato can be prepared by making a slit in the bottom and inserting objects (like the rubber lizard “Sister Bella” produced). Magicians can produce these and other effects very convincingly, even without using a prepared egg or tomato or making any switch.

Magical entertainment and pretended soothsaying aside, it seems predictable that “the great trick” will be repeated again and again. It is to be hoped that a detective like Tom Rinaldo will, in each instance, also be in the practitioner’s future.

References

Acknowledgments

In addition to individuals mentioned in the text, I am grateful to Mike Hutchinson for supplying the Evening Standard article.

Note

  1. Other sources suggest the term may derive from hokey-pokey, an alteration of hocus-pocus.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.