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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gibson, Julia (1872–1953)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Julia Gibson (1872-1953), fortune-teller, was born Julia Glushkova on 7 February 1872, in Odessa, Russia, daughter of Nikita Glushkov, army officer, and his wife Mary, née Morrison. According to Julia's later account, the family became drawn into revolutionary activities and at 16 she was arrested for bomb throwing. Her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment but she fled to England. On 23 May 1890 in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Cardiff, Wales, she married Christian Olsen, an illiterate Norwegian seaman. They had two children. After leaving him she ran a temperance hotel; Olsen stabbed her and died in gaol while serving his sentence.

In 1903 in Warsaw Julia married Henry Gibson, an Australian-born vaudeville artist and circus performer, possibly of Russian extraction, known as 'Zakaree Ermakov'. Julia later claimed that, working for the British Secret Service, she travelled extensively on missions through the Continent and into central Asia and that, although carrying a Cossack bullet in her body, she had the satisfaction of killing a son of the corrupt General Kuropatkin. Her estranged husband was to write to the press in 1922, however, that this was 'all bunkum', he having accidentally shot her during a circus performance in Russia. The Gibsons toured Europe, Russia, central Asia and Turkestan, Julia working as a fortune-teller by day and as Henry's stage assistant by night. They returned to England in 1912, sailed for South Africa in 1916, and arrived in Australia in 1917. After the couple separated, Julia took responsibility for their three children.

Early in 1918 she established herself in Melbourne's Eastern Arcade as a costumier. Operating also as 'Madame Ghurka, phrenologist' she built a sizeable clientele among the gullible and the desperate, anxious to have their fortunes told. Gibson appears to have disliked wine saloon licensee Colin Ross for lowering the tone of the arcade with his criminal and streetwalker patrons. In November 1921 Ross sacked Ivy Matthews, who rented a flat from Gibson and was encouraged by her to testify against Ross. As a result, he was charged with the murder of a child Alma Tirtschke. During the trial, Crown witnesses were under police protection at Gibson's house, and after Ross was convicted and hanged, she shared the rewards distributed by the government and the Herald newspaper.

In July 1922, giving evidence in a divorce case involving her son, and speaking with a heavy accent underlined by gestures, she displayed an agile mind, but Judge (Sir) William McArthur described her as 'the sort of woman who would say a thing if it was true or untrue' and as 'a bitter, vengeful woman'. Stung by the barrister T. C. Brennan's criticism of the Crown case against Ross and of her role in fabricating it, she replied by publishing The Murder of Alma Tirtschke (1923). In 1925, when Melbourne Truth journalists wrote that she had not been called as a witness in the Ross case for fear of discrediting the Crown's case, she sued for libel and was awarded £100 damages. She also won £100 for being slandered in 1932.

Her business suffered from the continuing controversy. Advertising as a phrenologist, character reader and business adviser, Gibson took the precaution of having clients sign statements that she did not engage in fortune telling or palmistry. Yet in August 1929 she was fined on two charges of having 'by subtle craft, including palmistry, imposed upon and deceived' two plain-clothed policewomen, and in September she failed in her appeal against police refusal to renew the registration of her revolver. In 1933 she was convicted again and fined £20, and in 1937 another charge was dismissed. In 1951 she sued the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd for defamation after the Herald described her as 'the notorious fortune teller'. Despite her reputation and earlier convictions, the jury awarded her £1000 damages.

Gibson was a widow with four living sons when she died on 14 September 1953 at North Carlton. After a service at the Russian Orthodox Church, Fitzroy, she was buried in Fawkner cemetery. Truth, which since 1925 had cautiously described her as 'a character reader', now hailed 'Madame Ghurka' as the 'Queen of fortune tellers'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. C. Brennan, The Gun Alley Tragedy (Melb, 1922)
  • N. Ghurka, Graft (Melb, 1930?)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Feb 1922, p 7, 20 July 1922, p 8, 29 July 1922, p 23, 7 Aug 1929, p 15, 24 Feb 1932, p 5, 11 May 1951, p 5
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1929, p 4, 8 May 1951, p 3, 10 May 1951, p 3, 11 May 1951, p 7, 16 Sept 1953, p 10
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 15 July 1922, p 10
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Aug 1929, p 11
  • Sun News- Pictorial (Melbourne), 9 May 1951, p 8
  • Truth (Melbourne), 22 July 1922, p 3, 5 Aug 1922, p 2, 6 June 1925, p 7, 20 June 1925, p 9, 21 Nov 1925, p 10, 27 Feb 1932, p 14, 30 July 1932, p 4, 12 May 1951, p 8, 19 Sept 1953, p 3
  • B741/3, item V/74 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

John Lack, 'Gibson, Julia (1872–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Glushkova, Julia
  • Ghurka, Madame

7 February 1872
Odessa, Ukraine


14 September 1953
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence