A rag, worn close to the heart, and steeped in a mystic substance imbued with the wisdom of the East. A flame, charring the edges until smoke curls and billows and at last takes shape. What is it that forms in this cloud of shimmering grey? Behold! A man, handsome and kind (and rich); a perfect Valentine for Miss Dora Lyne.
The vision appeared in 1930, in the Yorkshire town of Bridlington. Miss Lyne and her sister Mabel visited Madame Burdett, a palmist who held booths at charity fêtes and told people what they wanted to hear. The sisters became friendly with her and sought a more specific prediction. Both wanted husbands, and Madame Burdett was to be their supernatural matchmaker.
‘Madame Burdett’ was the professional name of Ethel May Wilkinson (b. 1871), who set up as a fortune-teller in Bridlington in 1925 (after a rather eventful history that I have not space to relate here). Unlike most fortune-tellers, however, she did not just predict the future – she also claimed the ability to influence it.
Her power derived from a magical substance that she referred to as ‘Zep’. A Zep reading cost the astonishing sum of £25, but this was a bargain considering that when burnt in methylated spirits, Zep would not only reveal the face of the client’s future beloved, but would also ‘hold’ him so that he could not bestow his affections elsewhere.
The Lyne sisters had reached the ages of 52 and 48 without much luck in love, and were prepared to go to great lengths to change their situation. They were living on their own means, and apparently had money to burn. After the initial palm reading, Wilkinson upsold a more detailed consultation, allegedly telling Dora Lyne:
I think you have known a man for some time. There is a woman stands between you. He cares a great deal for you. The other woman seems to hold him. He is not a very happy man through this. I cannot get you together without help, and that would cost £25. But the affair is worth it.
Both Dora and Mabel Lyne spent their entire savings on Zep readings in the first half of 1930, even selling £150-worth of jewellery to fund the habit. By the time Wilkinson was arrested in June 1932, Dora was living in receipt of out-relief and Mabel had been obliged to go into service. The actual charges against Wilkinson referred to sums of £75 and £50, but the evidence given in court suggested that they had lost more than £600 in total.
It was not, however, just their bank balances that came under threat. When no husband materialised, Dora Lyne asked for her money back, but Wilkinson allegedly frightened her into signing a document to say she had only paid £15. If Miss Lyne didn’t sign, Wilkinson would put Zep on her and she would be cursed forever. Miss Lyne claimed that Wilkinson told her:
If you give me away, I will put a knife into you; not only the blade, but the haft as well.
The fortune-teller challenged Miss Lyne to go out into the street, pick an unsuspecting chap she liked the look of and bring him back to the house, where he would be sprinkled with Zep to ‘stop him from bolting.’ Thankfully, Miss Lyne did not follow this instruction.
The origins of ‘Zep’ were an exotic mystery: according to Dora Lyne, Wilkinson said it was a sacred animal brought from the Far East to Germany and there made into a preparation that was conveyed to London and sold in tubes for £25 and £75. At the trial, however, Wilkinson’s daughter Winnie gave a different story – when in Florida in 1926, she had encountered a substance called ‘zoophite’ used in Native American charms. She sent some to her mother, who she knew would appreciate it. Wilkinson called the powder ‘Z’ for short, and this became ‘Zep’.
Whether it came from East or West, it clearly didn’t work. Dora and Mabel Lyne were now without husbands and without the comfortable financial means they’d started with.
Wilkinson claimed that Zep was so powerful that, when poured onto barristers, it would ensure they won their cases, but she evidently did not put this into practice at her own trial – she was found guilty of false pretences and fraudulent conversion and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour.
The story almost ended with a romantic twist. The widespread reporting of the case prompted a naval petty officer to write to Dora Lyne expressing his interest in a relationship with her. She travelled to Portsmouth to meet him, but any romance was short-lived and he disappeared to Scotland, leaving Miss Lyne with unpaid bills and a still-unclaimed hand in marriage.