On 15 May 1883, a seemingly intoxicated man approached Richard Stevens and his group of friends as they were standing together at 513 N. 17th Street in Richmond’s Church Hill area. The man was James Harris, a fortune teller or maybe just a swindler, who asked if he could tell their fortunes. Most of the group declined, but Richard Stevens agreed, and they went to a nearby passageway after Mr. Harris suggested they find a more private location. To the skeptic’s delight, this fortune teller was not able to see his own unfortunate end coming.
The pair settled in on a bench, but before he would tell Stevens’ fortune, Harris requested payment. Stevens informed him he would give him the money only after he told his fortune, but the fortune teller claimed, “I’ve been bit too often.” James Harris then got up and started backwards, staggering. Richard Stevens provided an eyewitness account of the events that followed:
“He had a stick with a crooked handle which he nearly dropped, and I tried to help him with it by catching hold of the …end. He was intoxicated and was at that time on the edge of the doorsill and seemed to have such a slender hold on to his end of the stick that I aimed to catch [him] by his garments to prevent him from falling, but he fell over with my weight upon him and struck his head against the curbstone, both of our hats rolling out in the street. I caught hold of the man…and tried to lift him when I remarked…, ‘Good God, I believe this man is dead, run and bring some water to throw on him.’” Someone brought a pitcher of water to throw upon him, and John Sweeney, a nearby shop owner, “took the water and bathed his head, but found it was of no use, and walked away.”
On that fateful day in May perhaps fortune teller James Harris should have been more concerned about his own future prospects instead of those of Richard Stevens and his friends. The Richmond (City) Coroners’ Inquisition, 22 May 1883, taken at the city’s almshouse, determined that Harris died from a fracture of the skull, inflicted by an accidental fall. The Richmond (City) Coroners’ Inquisitions are currently closed for processing.
-Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant