Is it real? Or a bunch of baloney? It’s a question New Yorkers and visitors to the city may ask themselves when they pass any of the seemingly countless storefront fortunetellers.
Celia Mitchell, 38, was pointedly asked that exact question last year: “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?”
She answered, “It’s a scam, sir.”
“The whole thing is a scam?”
Ms. Mitchell would know. She herself was a psychic. But after making a living portraying herself as a vessel of supernatural powers, she was coming clean.
She worked out of shops on Ninth Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. In 2009, Ms. Mitchell told a client that a dark spirit was keeping happiness at bay. She asked the client for an $11,450 Rolex watch and a lot of candles and cash to clean the spirits. In all, the client paid her $159,205, according to a criminal complaint.
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Ms. Mitchell was arrested and convicted of grand larceny and sent to prison, which is where, on March 4, 2014, she came to be questioned about her work. In the process, she joined a very specific group: convicted psychics who, seeking an early release from prison, sit for interviews before the parole board.
That number may soon grow. One psychic, Sylvia Mitchell, 41, who worked in Greenwich Village, is serving a prison term of five to 15 years after a grand larceny conviction in 2013. She will be eligible for a parole hearing in 2017. And this summer, a Times Square psychic, Priscilla Kelly Delmaro, 26, was charged with taking $713,975 from a marketing professional from Brooklyn after promising to reunite him with a woman he loved, even after the man discovered that the woman had died. Ms. Delmaro is in jail awaiting trial.
Reviews of transcripts from several parole hearings in recent years shine a light behind the hanging beads of the psychic parlor. The inmates’ reflections on their careers may give pause to the passer-by willing to pay $20 or $50 or more for a promised peek at the future.
“I regret it,” said another fortuneteller, Sylvia S. Mitchell, then 40, at a 2006 parole hearing. “I’m sorry. I regret it and I have no explanation for it; that is just corruption. I look back at it and I can’t believe that I did all these things.”
Sylvia S. Mitchell, who lived in Chelsea, is no apparent relation to the woman of the same name who worked in Greenwich Village. She was convicted of manslaughter after the death of her 85-year-old husband of three months in Manhattan in 1993. She had met him only months before, and admitted to killing him with an overdose of barbiturates to get his money.