How can you trace the origin of evil? Sometimes it begins with good intentions or a desire to staunch a great sorrow. The Rykell Tarot cards began this way: with actions of love, death, and betrayal. The full story of how this single deck of Tarot cards managed to survive more than 600 years is mystery. Only islands of certainty exist.
We know that Luke John Rykell was born in England around 1400. He went on to become a tregetour, or a juggler and magician, for the royal court in London. John Lydgate, a monk and poet, wrote about Luke Rykell performing for Henry V. Lydgate spoke of Rykell’s keen ability at sleight of hand, earning him the honor of an audience with the king.
Maister John Rykell, sometime tregitour
Of noble Henry kinge of Englonde,
And of France the mighty conqueror;
For all the sleightes, and turnyng of thyne honde,
Thou must come nere this dance, I understonde;
Nought may avail all thy conclusions,
For Dethe shortly, nother on see nor land,
Is not desceyved by no illusions.To this summons the sorrowful juggler replies:–
Death was not deceived by Luke’s parlor tricks and made itself known through the Black plague. The disease whipped through Luke’s troop of performers, killing everyone except Luke and his brother. In the wake of this disaster, the cursed Tarot cards were born.
It is rumored that Luke Rykell, distraught over the death of his only love (an unnamed girl performer in his troop), struck a deal with the Devil.
Luke travelled to Scotland to a plot of land called Clootie’s Croft. This land was left untilled as a gift to the devil. There he agreed to create the Tarot cards with a spirit known as Donald Cloots. The spirit is trapped in the cards and feeds on the souls of the people who use the deck.
The first documented appearance of the cards doesn’t happen again until over 400 years later. Eleanore Bishop came across the cards while traveling in Europe. She brought the deck back to the Philadelphia.
The only photo that survives is one showing her standing next to a chair. The empty seat represents her husband, who vanished mysteriously.
Rumors swirled around his disappearance. Some say he travelled south to fight in the Civil War and was killed in battle. However her husband, Eugene Bishop, was not a fighting man. At the age of sixty-two, the most he could offer the war effort was his bankroll.
Most people assumed that Eleanore disposed of her husband in order to gain access to his fortune. Although this seems plausible, it doesn’t explain why she gave nearly all her time and resources into a church run charity. Was it guilt over possible involvement in her husband’s death?
One detail that evades us is the photo itself. The fingerprints on the front show that someone held the picture a short time after it was taken. (The tintype photos used the wet process of collodion emulsion, which was sensitive to the touch.) Therefore, it must have been held by someone who witnessed the sitting for the photograph. These prints match those found at a crime scene in 1942, eighty years after the photo was taken.
Moreover, several other fingerprints, from the 1960s and 1980s, both match the original prints on the photograph. Could these all belong to the same person? Perhaps Luke Rykell has kept himself alive through the cursed tarot cards.
We do know that shortly after Eugene Bishop’s death, there is no further mention of the Tarot cards. On her death bed, in 1888, a witness remembered and wrote down Eleanore Bishop’s final words.
“My only crime came not from my soul, but the luck of the draw.”