The Language of the Hand

Many years ago, I worked as a ghost tour guide in New Orleans and struck up a deal with one of the palm-readers who set up tables along the periphery of Jackson Square. I led my group to his table at the beginning of my tour, and he would choose a volunteer and read the shape of his or her hand: the spread of the fingers, the shape of the palm, the angle of the thumb. If he had time, he would ask everyone in the group to hold out their hands for a thumb reading. It was a good deal for both of us: by the time the palm reader was through, my group was completely in thrall to the spooky atmosphere of the French Quarter at night and ready to hear my tales of wandering spirits. To the palm-reader’s benefit, some of my tour guests would return to him after my tour for a more personal reading.

I mentioned this story to my colleagues when we were planning our Halloween party, and our librarian Elizabeth Fuller remembered seeing a book about palmistry–or cheiromancy–in Marianne Moore’s library. Moore’s collection includes a handful of books on the arcane arts, including the 14th edition of Cheiro’s Language of the Hand, an illustrated volume by the celebrated clairvoyant Cheiro. The 15th edition is online; I used this version to research a palm-reading station for our party.

Cheiro’s language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p.78.

Intriguingly, Cheiro’s biography is entangled with literary connections. Born William John Warner in Ireland, Cheiro purportedly learned the clairvoyant and arcane arts while traveling in India as a teenager. When he returned to London at the end of the 19th century, he gradually rose to fame telling fortunes and reading palms for the celebrities of his era. The book’s appendix, which includes testimonials from satisfied customers (p. 199 in the 15th edition), reads like a transatlantic Who’s Who of page and stage:

Indeed, Cheiro, the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. – Oscar Wilde

Your palm-reading is so startlingly true that your possession of this mysterious skill or faculty might well inspire fear, were it accompanied by less of perfect trust and discretion. – Mrs. Frank Leslie a New Orleanian author and publisher who was briefly married to Oscar Wilde’s brother Willie

Cheiro has exposed my character with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do it. – Mark Twain

Other clients included the “Divine Sarah” Bernhardt, a famous actress who played the lead in the London production of Wilde’s Salomé; Madame Nellie Melba, an opera singer after whom Melba toast and peach Melba were named; and Thomas Edison. What a time that must have been: during the belle époque before World War I, when both artistic production and scientific innovation were flourishing, a stylish salon might have included both the mystical Cheiro and the inventor Edison.

One hundred years after the peak of Cheiro’s career, I paged through the 15th edition of Cheiro’s Language of the Hand and realized that it’s very similar to the readings I observed in New Orleans. Like my palm reader, Cheiro paid close attention to the shape of the palm and the fingers:

Cheiro’s language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p. 29.

He interprets the angle of the thumb:

Cheiro’s language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p. 44.

But if you want to learn more about what these shapes mean, you’ll have to visit us tomorrow night for a reading.