This is an extract from "Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself," which was published in 1849. The entire work is quite lengthy and can be accessed in its entirety elsewhere on the internet, as noted below. The material archived here consists of some background on Henry Bibb's own life, followed by his extensive comments on conjuration, tricking, and witchcraft in Kentucky during the era of slavery. Because this author used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].
From Chapter One
I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged
down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.
My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection.
The first time I was separated from my mother, I was young and small. I knew nothing of my condition then as a slave. I was living with Mr. White, whose wife died and left him a widower with one little girl, who was said to be the legitimate owner of my mother, and all her children. This girl was also my playmate when we were children.
I was taken away from my mother, and hired out to labor for various persons, eight or ten years in succession; and all my wages were expended for the education of Harriet White, my playmate. It was then my sorrows and sufferings commenced. It was then I first commenced seeing and feeling that I was a wretched slave, compelled to work under the lash without wages and often, without
clothes enough to hide my nakedness. I have often worked without half enough to eat, both late and, early, by day and by night. I have often laid my wearied limbs down at night to rest upon a dirt floor, or a bench, without any covering at all, be- cause I had no where else to rest my wearied body, after having worked hard all the day. I have also been compelled in early life, to go at the bidding of a tyrant, through all kinds of weather, hot or cold, wet or dry, and without shoes frequently, until the month of December, with my bare feet on the cold frosty ground, cracked open and bleeding as I walked. Reader, believe me when I say that no tongue, nor pen ever has or can express the horrors of American Slavery. Consequently I despair in finding language to express adequately the deep feeling of my soul, as I contemplate the past history of my life. But although I have suffered much from the lash, and for want of food and raiment; I confess that it was no disadvantage to be passed through, the hands of so many families, as the only source of information that I had to enlighten my mind, consisted in what I could see and hear from others. Slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper to improve their minds. But it seems to me now, that I was particularly observing, and apt to retain what came under my observation. But more especially, all that I heard about liberty and freedom to the slaves, I never forgot. Among other good trades I learned the art of running away to perfection. I made a regular business of it, and never gave it up, until I had broken the bands of slavery,
and landed myself safely in Canada, where I was regarded as a man, and not as a thing.
There is much superstition among the slaves. Many of them believe in what they call "conjuration," tricking, and witchcraft; and some of them pretend to understand the art, and say that by it they can prevent their masters from exercising their will over their slaves.
[The terms conjuration, tricking, and witchcraft were more common than the terms hoodoo and rootwork in the first part of the 19th century. Even as late as the 1930s, many old people still preferred the old-time term cunjure or witchcrafting to the term hoodoo.]
Such are often applied to by others, to give them power to prevent their masters from flogging them. The remedy is most generally some kind of bitter root; they are directed to chew it and spit towards their masters when they are angry with their slaves. At other times they prepare certain kinds of powders, to sprinkle about their masters dwellings. This is all done for the
purpose of defending themselves in some Peaceable manner, although I am satisfied that there is no virtue at all in it. I have tried it to perfection when I was a slave at the South. I was then a young man, full of life and vigor, and was very fond of visiting our neighbors slaves, but had no time to visit only Sundays, when I could get a permit to go, or after night, when I could slip off without being seen. If it was found out, the next morning I was called up to give an account of myself for going off without permission; and would very often get a flogging for it.
I got myself into a scrape at a certain times, by going off in this way, and I expected to be severely punished for it. I had a strong notion of running off, to escape being flogged, but was advised by a friend to go to one of those conjurers, who could prevent me from being flogged. I went and informed him of the difficulty. He said if I would pay him a small sum, he would prevent my being flogged. After I had paid him, he mixed up some alum, salt and other stuff into a powder, and said I must sprinkle it about my master, if he should offer to strike me; this would prevent him.
["Alum, salt, and other stuff" seems to be a partially forgotten formula for a three-ingredient sprinkling powder of the kind commonly prescribed for spiritual cleansing and protection. The third ingredient may have been epsom salts, red pepper, ammonia, graveyard dirt or any of a dozen or so commonly used ingredients in such mixtures.]
He also gave me some kind of bitter root to chew, and spit towards him, which would certainly prevent my being flogged. According to order I used his remedy, and for some cause I was let pass without being flogged that time.
[It is a shame that Bibb did not identify the "bitter root" that was chewed and spit to prevent being flogged. The chewing and spitting of roots persists in hoodoo to the present time, with various roots prescribed for differing conditions. The most often used at this time is Little John to Chew, also known as the Court Case Root, which is chewed and spit toward a judge to obtain victory or at least leniency in a court case]
I had then great faith in conjuration and witchcraft, I was led to believe that I could do almost as I pleased, without being flogged. So on the
next Sabbath my conjuration was fully tested by my going off, and staying away until Monday morning, without permission. When I returned home, my master declared that he would punish me for going off; but I did not believe that he could do it, while I had this root and dust; and as he approached me, I commenced talking saucy to him. But he soon convinced me that there was no virtue in them. He soon became so enraged at me for saucing him, that he grasped a handful of switches and punished me severely, in spite of all my roots and powders.
But there was another old slave in that neighborhood, who professed to understand all about conjuration, and I thought I would try his skill. He told me that the first one was only a quack, and if I would only pay him a certain amount in cash, that he would tell me how to prevent any person from striking me. After I had paid him his charge, he told me to go to the cow-pen after night, and get some fresh cow manure, and mix it with red pepper and white people's hair, all to be put into a pot over the fire, and scorched until it could be ground into snuff. I was then to sprinkle it about my master's bedroom, in his hat and boots, and it would prevent him from ever abusing me in any way. After I got it all ready prepared, the smallest pinch of if scattered over a room, was enough to make a horse sneeze from the strength of it; but it did no good. I tried it to my satisfaction. It was my business to make fires in my master's chamber, night and morning. Whenever I could get a chance, I sprinkled a Little of this dust about the linen of the bed, where
they would breathe it on retiring. This was to act upon them as what is called a kind of love powder, to change their sentiments of anger, to those of love, towards me, but this all proved to be vain imagination. The old man had my money, and I was treated no better for it.
[This combination is quite African; it contains the typical three ingredients and it is hot and spicy like many African formulas. The hair of the white folks to be worked upon is an obvious magical link, the red pepper is a preparation that can be used to harm, to protect, or to liven up a spell, as desired, and the cow manure is an ingredient found in a number of spells for soothing or gently controlling someone. Parching or scorching the materials and then grinding them to powder is a typical African method of work, as is deployment by sprinkling where the targets will come into physical contact with the powder.]
One night when I went in to make a fire, I availed myself of the opportunity of sprinkling a very heavy charge of this powder about my master's bed. Soon after their going to bed, they began to cough and sneeze. Being close around the house, watching and listening, to know what the effect would be, I heard them ask each other what in the world it could be, that made them cough and sneeze so. All the while, I was trembling with fear, expecting every moment I should be called and asked if I knew any thing about it. After this, for fear they might find me out in my dangerous experiments upon them, I had to give them up, for the time being. I was then convinced that running away was the most effectual way by which a slave could escape cruel punishment.
As all the instrumentalities which I as a slave, could bring to bear upon the system, had utterly failed to palliate my sufferings, all hope and consolation fled. I must be a slave for life, and suffer under the lash or die. The influence which this had only tended to make me more unhappy. I resolved that I would be free if running away could make me so. I had heard that Canada was a land of liberty, somewhere in the North; and every wave of trouble that rolled across my breast, caused me
to think more and more about Canada, and liberty. But more especially after having been flogged, I have fled to the highest hills of the forest, pressing my way to the North for refuge; but the river Ohio was my limit. To me it was an impassable gulf. I had no rod wherewith to smite the stream, and thereby divide the waters. I had no Moses to go before me and lead the way from bondage to a promised land. Yet I was in a far worse state than Egyptian bondage; for they had houses and land; I had none; they had oxen and sheep; I had none; they had a wise counsel, to tell them what to do, and where to go, and even to go with them; I had none. I was surrounded by opposition on every hand. My friends were few and far between. I have often felt when running away as if I had scarcely a friend on earth.
Sometimes standing on the Ohio River bluff, looking over on a free State, and as far north as my eyes could see, I have eagerly gazed upon the blue sky of the free North, which at times constrained me to cry out from the depths of my soul, Oh! Canada, sweet land of rest--Oh! when shall I get there? Oh, that I had the wings of a dove, that I might soar away to where there is no slavery; no clanking of chains, no captives, no lacerating of backs, no parting of husbands and wives; and where man ceases to be the property of his fellow man. These thoughts have revolved in my mind a thousand times. I have stood upon the lofty banks of the river Ohio, gazing upon the splendid steamboats, wafted with all their
magnificence up and down the river, and I thought of the fishes of the water, the fowls of the air, the wild beasts of the forest, all appeared to be free, to go just where they pleased, and I was an unhappy slave!
But my attention was gradually turned in a measure from this subject, by being introduced into the society of young women. This for the time being took my attention from running away, as waiting on the girls appeared to be perfectly congenial to my nature. I wanted to be well thought of by them, and would go to great lengths to gain their affection. I had been taught by the old superstitious slaves, to believe in conjuration, and it was hard for me to give up the notion, for all I had been deceived by them. One of these conjurers, for a small sum agreed to teach me to make any girl love me that I wished. After I had paid him, he told me to get a bull frog, and take a certain bone out of the frog, dry it, and when I got a chance I must step up to any girl whom I wished to make love me, and scratch her somewhere on her naked skin with this bone, and she would be certain to love me and would follow me in spite of herself; no matter who she might be engaged to, nor who she might be walking with.
[This frog bone spell is a variant of the better known black cat bone spell used to gain control over a lover. "Scratching" the target with the bone is possibly Central African in its manner of working.]
So I got me a bone for a certain girl, whom I knew to be under the influence of another young man. I happened to meet her in the company of her lover, one Sunday, evening, walking out; so when I got a chance, I fetched her a tremendous rasp across the neck with this bone, which made her jump. But
in place of making her love me, it only made her angry with me. She felt more like running after me to retaliate on me for thus abusing her, than she felt like loving me. After I found there was no virtue in the bone of a frog, I thought I would try some other way to carry out my object.
I then sought another counsellor among the old superstitious influential slaves; one who professed to be a great friend of mine, told me to get a lock of hair from the head of any girl, and wear it in my shoes: this would cause her to love me above all other persons.
[This is an ancient and well-known spell, but the objective is usually stated a bit differently -- putting the hair of someone in your shoe allows you to metaphorically step on and dominate the person. Such a spell can be done for love of a controlling sort or to gain the advantage over an enemy.].
As there was another girl whose affections I was anxious to gain, but could not succeed, I thought without trying the experiment of this hair. I slipped off one night to see the girl, and asked her for a lock of her hair; but she refused to give it. Believing that my success depended greatly upon this bunch of hair, I was bent on having a look before I left that night let it cost what it might. As it was time for me to start home in order to get any sleep that night, I grasped hold of a lock of her hair, which caused her to screech, but I never let go until I had pulled it out. This of course made the girl mad with me, and I accomplished nothing but gained her displeasure.
Such are the superstitious notions of the great masses of southern slaves. It is given to them by tradition, and can never be erased, while the doors of education are bolted and barred against them.
[It seems that in presenting these anecdotes, Bibb wishes to poke fun at his own clumsy inability to master his youthful emotions. The powder and root that prevented flogging worked until young Bibb decided to push things by "talking saucy;" the red pepper sprinkling powder in the bedroom was overdone to the extent that it made the targets cough and sneeze and so he discontinued its use before it had an effect; the frog bone scratch was so violently accomplished, in the form of "a tremendous rasp across the neck," that Bibb hurt the target and angered her; and the hair needed for the shoe spell was collected just as violently and to just as bad effect. The telling of these mishaps is comical, and that, no doubt, is the effect Bibb wanted to convey in recounting how he had left behind not only his shackles but also his "superstitions."]
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(title page) Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave,
Written by Himself.
With an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack.
207 p., 18 ill.
Published by the Author; 5 Spruce Street.
Call number E444 .B58 (Joyner Library, East Carolina University)
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