First came the Brooklyn, N.Y., widow who complained to "Sister Mary" Ephraim that neighbors were trying to poison her. Then the widow's sister, whose doctors had told her she had multiple sclerosis, sought help from what she thought was a curse. A pregnant woman blamed her fainting spells on the supernatural, and another woman thought she would die from a curse.
Sister Mary met with them all, according to St. Mary's County court records, and for fees ranging from $2,600 to $3,700 she handed out her "medicine." But her remedies -- in which the self-styled "gypsy queen" typically stirred eggs in a bowl, rubbed them on a customer's stomach and then displayed small rubber worms she described as snakes from inside their bodies -- did not work, the women said later in criminal and civil proceedings.
Despite fines, judgments and penalties in the past two years totaling $33,600 and her continued claims of innocence and protestations that the latest judge "threw the book at me" last month, the good luck of Gardinia Mary Kathryn Ann Ephraim, 38, has not completely run out.
While she says her business has suffered from the adverse publicity attending her legal troubles, Sister Mary is still duly licensed to read palms and tarot cards. But, under the terms of her three-year supervised probation on a guilty plea to one felony count of theft, she is prohibited from precticing healing "therapy."
At her roadside residence here, its yard decorated with leprechaun statues, the heavy-set, dark-haired woman who professes a deep-seated belief in God meets with her "clients" in a room filled with pictures and figurines of Christ.
"If I'm so bad," she said in an interview, "why am I not out of town? Why didn't they just tell me to pack up and leave? Why did they give me my license?"
District Court Judge Robert C. Nalley, in imposing the suspended sentence on top of a $1,000 fine and restitution Sept. 19, said he wished he "had the power or authority to prevent you from engaging in palm reading or fortunetelling," according to a local newspaper account.
On Wednesday, the Lexington Park "Enterprise" editorially urged passage of legislation to prevent the issuance of what is officially known as the "Gypsies, Book, Magazine and Peddler's License" to anyone convicted of felonies resulting from fortunetelling.
"I issue the license; I don't have the power to revoke it," said St. Mary's County Sheriff Wayne L. Pettit.
"The law should be changed," the St. Mary's County paper said. "What is the point of licensing an occupation if the license cannot be revoked for someone convicted of a felony while pursuing that occupation?"
Said Ephraim: "I feel that someone is trying to destroy me."
The woman, who claims a special gift to tell the future and says the charges against her are fake, grew up in Hyattsville, one of seven children. A mother of six who is married to a hydraulic engineer, she said she was instructed in her craft by an aged blind woman in Hagerstown who is now dead. She says she became a professional seer in the late 1960s.
Twice in the 1970s, she said, she did benefits for handicapped children, telling 250 fortunes in two days, and, except for her psychic powers, was a normal wife and mother. "I wasn't the witch of the neighborhood," she said.
Court records reveal she made a good living from her fortunetelling. She was able to lease a $40,880 black 1981 Mercedes at $844 a month and said she made $35,000 a year at her craft. "I have big clientele," she testified. "Important people, doctors, lawyers . . . gamblers, investors . . . everyone."
Her troubles began after a March 1981 visit from Francine Morse, the Brooklyn widow whom a Washington, D.C., friend referred to Ephraim. Morse said she suffered from bladder infections, vomiting and headaches that she believed stemmed from an effort by neighbors to poison her.
She testified in court that the seer rubbed eggs on her, crushed them on her stomach and then produced three Jamaican "snakes" -- one male, one female and their offspring, that looked like three "little worms" -- Ephraim said were from Morse's stomach.
"She said with these snakes coming out of me," Morse testified, "I would have to give her the money in 24 hours or they would enter my body again." Further, the woman said she was told, "it had to be cash." Ephraim told her to bring $3,700 in $100 bills taped together in the shape of a cross and strapped to her stomach, Morse added.
Morse, and the other complainants, could show no receipts, Ephraim noted.
Morse said she also was directed to rub cat's oil on herself, to read biblical psalms and to sprinkle blue powder around her windows. "That did nothing for me, just dirtied my windows," she testified.
"You believe in all that kind of stuff?" asked District Court Judge Larry D. Lamson. "I mean, why did you go to her to begin with?"
Morse said Sister Mary came highly recommended. "I didn't know I was going to lose a lot of money and not get any help for it."
Morse won a $9,950 judgment against the fortuneteller in January 1983.
Morse testified that after receiving the "cure," she did not get better. "And once a week I would call her and I would say nothing is happening. I'm still sick. My stomach is still bothering . . . . I kept calling her but nothing is happening. I'm still sick and my people are still bothering me."
Lucy Morse, her Washington, D.C., sister in the District who suffered from multiple sclerosis, also sent to Ephraim for help, she said in another court suit that resulted in a $10,000 judgment against Ephraim in May. The seer had charged Lucy Morse $2,700 and allegedly said her problems were curable with her special gift.
Said Lamson, "Why anybody would pay somebody thousands for advice on investments or gambling from a palm reader is beyond me, although people in Hollywood do crazy things all the time. But certainly to have extracted money from two relatively socially, economically deprived persons is not the thing that society would like to encourage."
Ephraim was ordered in July to pay $9,999 ($3,000 restitution, $6,999 punitive damages) to Portia Parker, of Abell in St. Mary's County, who was pregnant. Parker, according to the civil suit she later filed, paid Ephraim $3,000 in April 1983 to end her fainting and dizzy spells.
Ephraim, the suit alleged, told Parker that Parker had been "tricked" but that she could help. After receiving Parker's money, the suit said, Ephraim "spoke several prayers, and gave her two bags on strings to wear around her chest." Later, it was discovered that Parker's ailments were pregnancy-related.
The fortuneteller paid the Francine Morse judgment in March 22, the same day, according to court records, that she received $2,600 from 22-year-old Theresa Ann Henderson of Avenue in St. Mary's County, who feared that she was going to die from a curse. Henderson received the whipped egg treatment purporting to remove snakes from her stomach.
Ephraim was a first offender, according to State's Attorney Walter P. Dorsey, who allowed her to plead guilty to one theft count, dropped another charge stemming from her expired license and recommended that she not be incarcerated.
Dorsey said he agreed to the plea bargain because a trial would have required him to prove that the alleged victim was not cursed and that Ephraim did not actually remove snakes from her stomach.
So Sister Mary remains in business, although she says her appointments are down from 20 or 22 to three or four a day. In her office, along with a crystal ball, two stuffed chairs and her religious icons, are fliers asserting:
"One visit will convince you that this is the healer who can help you when all others have failed . . . . Don't Classify Her with Other Readers." CAPTION: Picture, "Sister Mary" Ephraim has faced judgements and penalties totaling $33,600 in the past two years; Map, Mechaniesville. By Dave Cook--The Washington Post