Looking Back: Fickle Fortune

It was inevitable, considering the sheer volume and variety of people who joined the Klondike Gold Rush, that a few people with connections to the occult made it up to Dawson City—psychics were in the crowd.

On February 2, 1901, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) visited the locales of four practising fortunetellers to alert them that they must take down their signs and remove all newspaper advertisements for their services, or risk being charged and prosecuted.

The catalyst for the crackdown was the actions of a certain Madame Renio.

Renio had been a palm reader in Dawson City since her arrival in town in 1899. She operated out of a cabin on Second Avenue with a sign out front reading “MADAME RENIO, Palmistry, Card Reading, Astrology.”

There are several documented cases of gold-seekers being directed toward their claims based onRenio’s advice. Her success did not go unnoticed.

In January of 1901, Renio read the fortune of Marie Battie, a Dawson housekeeper who was concerned about the disappearance of her jewelry. Renio was able to successfully describe several pieces of the missing valuables, and predicted that Battie would recover the jewelry within three weeks or else not at all.

While Renio’s prediction might seem like a safe bet to most people trying to recover lost or stolen property, for Battie, it was affirmation of a theory. It turns out that she was already deeply suspicious of Mr. Elihu Baker, for whom she kept house.

When Renio offered her theory, Battie took it, along with her own beliefs, directly to CorporalMcPhail at the NWMP.

Things didn’t quite work out the way Battie had expected. Rather than take her claims seriously, McPhail ordered the aforementioned fortune teller crackdown. Three out of four threatened ladies immediately complied.

Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Lowe and Mme. Harvey all withdrew their advertisements and took down their signs as requested.

Renio, on the other hand, was not so eager to accept the lawman’s judgment. Renio refused to remove her sign on the basis that palmistry, which she practised, was a science, and therefore not against the law.

The NWMP disagreed, and Renio was accused that March of “practicing witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration” as well as “undertaking to tell fortunes,” which violates Section 365 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

At the trial, the first exhibit was an advertisement that read, “Prophetess Profound: fickle fortune foretold by Madame Renio.”

Renio denied ever having written the ad and objected to the wording, saying that her practice of palm-reading had nothing to do with the occult or the supernatural.

To counter her claims, five NWMP officers were called as witnesses. Each of them testified that she had told their fortunes. However, they also acknowledged that her fortunes were often wildly inaccurate.

Minnie White, a magnetic healer who lived with Renio, was also called as a witness. Evidently the prosecution believed that White, whose practice included the use of magnets to cure diseases, would help to put away her friend and roommate.

There is no evidence that her testimony had any notable impact on the outcome of the trial.

Mme. Renio was acquitted in the end, and allowed to continue her practice, which thrived with the publicity that came in the aftermath of the trial.

There is precious little documentation about Renio after her brief time in the spotlight. Thankfully, the story does not completely end here. Two years later, Renio’s name appeared in the 1903 directory listing as one of the first recorded residents of Dawson’s notorious Westminster Hotel. Her listed profession was “palmist”.

Three years later, Renio, like so many others, moved on from Dawson. In 1906, using the name Cora Madole, she partnered with a fellow going by the name “Doc” Overgaard, to open a bathhouse in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The building still stands in Fairbanks today at 815 First Avenue. Overgaard, who was not a doctor, despite the colorful name, operated a room on the lower floor, facing First Avenue as a “health clinic” which specialized in the treatment of hangovers.

The rest of the building was devoted to Renio’s bathhouse.

Sadly, a set of frozen pipes in the winter of 1909 to 1910 spelled the death of the bathhouse. The Klondike’s most famous fortune-teller passed out of the public record shortly thereafter.

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