Southern Spirits: Ghostly Voices from Dixie Land
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NEGRO SUPERSTITIONS
by Thaddeus Norris

Lippincott's Magazine #6 (1870)

This is the entire text of an article called "Negro Superstitions" by Thaddeus Norris that originally appeared on pages 90 - 95 of Lippincott's Magazine #6, published in 1870. It is a hate-filled, intolerant, disturbing piece, but it is important in the annals of African American folklore for several reasons.

1) The author was a well known personage in his own right. The Famous Americans site at http://www.famousamericans.net/thaddeusnorris/ provides this brief biography:

NORRIS, Thaddeus, author, born in Warrenton, Virginia, 15 August, 1811; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 April, 1877. He removed to Philadelphia in 1829 and engaged in business. From his boyhood he had been an ardent lover of angling, and in after-years he became an authority on the haunts, habits, and instincts of fish. He was also a successful manufacturer of rods and flies. He was largely concerned in the preliminary arrangements for the erection of the aquaria at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition in 1876. Mr. Norris contributed constantly to sporting papers and published " The American Angler's Book " (Philadelphia, 1864) and "American Fish Culture" (1868).

Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography,
edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske.
Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889
electronic edition edited by Stanley L. Klos, 1999 -- StanKlos.com.

2) The article contains the first published account of "Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby," a story later made famous by Joel Chandler Harris in his "Uncle Remus" tales, and eventually filmed by Walt Disney as the centerpiece of the 1946 adaptation of the "Remus" stories in "Song of the South." It is widely thought that Harris, who had earlier written some non-folkloric Remus tales, was influenced by the Thaddeus Norris article to have his already-created old ex-slave Remus narrate the "Tar Baby" story. Harris, despite his seemingly fond autobiographical recollections of life among the happy slaves of a mythical ante-bellum plantation, did not come from a slave-owning family himself. He was actually the illegitimate child of a poor woman, and he earned his living as a printer's devil and typesetter before becoming a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. His dramatization of the Norris story proved so popular that he wrote dozens of further "Uncle Remus" tales -- many of them gleaned from books of folklore and recast in Southern dialect to please an audience hungry for kindly reminiscences about friendly slaves. Although Harris was a fabulist and a rank fictionalizer, we can be grateful that he at least had more respect for African Americans than was displayed in this grotesque article by Thaddeus Norris.

3) It is always interesting to see which 19th century authors use the terms "Voodoo" (or "Voodooism") and which use the terms "hoodoo," "conjuration," and "witchcraft" with respect to rootwork in general and in New Orleans most particularly. Norris, an unreconstructed Southerner who refers to the Civil War as "the war of the rebellion," speaks of rootwork in New Orleans as "hoodoo" and elsewhere describes its practitioners as "conjurers." In this he accords with Jelly Roll Morton the African American / Creole musician of New Orleans but not with Paschal Beverly Randolph the African American occultist who lived in New Orleans.

4) Norris was raised in Virginia, in what he calls "the Atlantic-Southern states." These are the Southeastern states in which blacks and whites lived together in small family groupings for hundreds of years, and where, as a consequence, a great deal of Germanic and British folklore and folk magic entered into hoodoo beliefs and practices. Norris' description of what he calls "witchcraft" accords very closely with the British-sounding account of hag-riding given 45 years earlier by William Grimes, the Virginia-born self-described "Runaway Slave."

5) The article also contains an early account of a white man curing "live things in you," preceding the 1895 publication of a similar curing account by the ex-slave Henry Clay Bruce by 25 years.

Thus, despite my great distaste for the racist tone of Thaddeus Norris' writing, which far exceeds in loathsomeness any other memoir at this site, i do feel that it should be preserved for the benefit of researchers and students of African American history.

Because this author's style was old-fashioned and prolix and he used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, some of the paragraphs have been broken into shorter pieces and a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].

WARNING: The material on this page was written by a European-American who was describing African-American spirituality as an outsider. This author was racist or race-derogatory and the conclusions he or she drew while writing this eye-witness account are grossly offensive. However, the text is included in full because it accurately describes practices and customs of the African-American South during the 19th century (albeit not always with complete understanding) -- and it also serves as a political reminder of how far we have some in our struggle for race equality and respect in the ensuing years. Read with caution and compassion.


"Last Sat'day night
De niggas went a huntin'
De dogs dey run de coon,
De coon he run de wolves,
De wolves run de Stiff-leg,
De Stiff-leg run de Devil,
Dey run him up de hill,
But dey cotch him on de level."

Many a mythical story has originated in some such weird song as I have just quoted, and in time gained credence with the ignorant. I listened to this jargon for the first time in my early boyhood, as it was sung with banjo accompaniment by an old negro named Cato, who rejoiced in the euphonic surname of Escutcheons.

On my way home from his cabin in the dim twilight, I drew in my childish imagination, a picture, and half dreamed it over at night. Foremost came a bounding devil, with horns and tail erect, closely pursued by something half-human, half animal (i.e., the Stiff-leg), which with rapid strides but halting gait had almost clutched his Sable Majesty. The Stiff-leg in turn was pursued by a wolf, the wolf by a raccoon of tremendous proportions, and the raccoon by a pack of yelping, barking dogs; while the negro huntsmen, with wild mirth, over fallen logs and through brambly brake, brought up the rear.

I have thought since, if I had wealth at command, and could find an artist who could form a like conception of the wild chase, I would have it painted in fresco on the walls of some favorite room. If such an impression was made on the childish imagination of a white boy, the song no doubt impressed itself with a strong semblance of reality on the dark minds of some half dozen negro children who listened to Cato at the same time.

[This is only the opening salvo in a virtual barrage of white-supremacy material to follow. By the time we get to the actual folklore, we'll need hip boots to wade through this stuff. Sorry 'bout that.].

We find in our cities, even at the present day, amongst people of intelligence and culture, minds having a strong tendency to superstition; and if we could look over a record of the names of those who stealthily visit fortune-tellers, we might lose faith in the right-mindedness of some of our intimate acquaintances.

Romance, though, even as history, is not without its uses, and the heroisms of either will still continue to incite boys and girls and men and women to deeds of daring and noble suffering. The perusal of the one, especially to the youthful mind, is no less absorbing than that of the other. The boy or girl does not ask whether the story be true or not; and he would be a hard-hearted parent who would rob the boy of his pleasure, as he pores over Robinson Crusoe or the Arabian Nights, or the story of Captain John smith and Pocahontas, by telling him that what he reads is not true, or say to the little girl who weeps over the Babes in the Woods that it is all a fib.

Every era has had its peculiar myths. So also has had every people. But there are superstitions which have been, and now are, common to different nations. Many of them have found place in the fabulous stories of newer nations, and more of them, whether ancient or modern, have originated in some trifling incident. We are told in books how the idea of the Centaur, the Dragon, the unicorn, the Kraken, and even the Sea-serpent, originated; and I think I have shown how a wild legend might grow out of an imaginative, nonsensical song, the vagary of a wooly pate.

[Actually the song-images presented by Cato are quite reminiscent of Anglo-Germanic "wild hunt" lore and the fabulous Germanic woods-being called "Der Teufel" (the Devil); not to mention the wonderful bestiary of Appalachian demonry, with its subtle Native American inclusions; in other words, the "Stiff Leg" could as well be Native or Germano-British as African.].

Although belief in witchcraft has almost faded away, it is not probable that a general diffusion of knowledge will ever entirely dissipate films of a like nature from the minds of the masses. Animal magnetism, the power of communicating through "mediums" with the spirits of the departed, et cetera, still find believers. It is human, and ever will be, to grope after the hidden, the ideal, and to hold them up as real.

[At the time of this writing the Spiritualist movement, which had begun in the 1840s among Anglo-Americans who sought to communicate with the dead through mediums, was still in strong force, and its influence had also spread into the African American community. One of the leading Spiritualist mediums of the time was the African American lecturer, author, and sex magician Paschal Beverly Randolph, also descended from a Virginia family. Some of Paschal Beverly Randolph's writing on Voodooism (hoodoo) is also archived at this site.

The more refined a people, the more interesting its mythical legends. Those of the Caucasian race are attractive; while those of the negroes are repulsive, especially when connected with their heathenish religions. An extenuation for slavery put forth by many Southerners is, that the negro is modified, his nature softened, by associations with the white man: I might add that his superstitions are humanized also.

[I told you we'd need hip boots!]

An illustrative argument in favor of this notion is to be found in a poem by a Mr. Randolph of Lower Virginia.

[Here's where it gets interesting. You see, Paschal Beverly Randolph, the great African American Spiritualist Medium and Root Doctor, was of mixed race -- and his father was one of the wealthy white "Mr. Randolphs of Lower Virginia"! So here, in what follows, Thaddeus Norris unwittingly supplies us with a sample of the racist attitude taken by the white Randolphs toward their black slaves, and lovers. Reading it, i had a sharp sense of how tough a row Paschal Beverly Randolph had to how, growing up by the side of his abandoned and discarded mother Flora, never acknowledged as a family member by the white Randolphs, even after she died and he was left an orphan on the streets.]

There are some exceedingly fine passages in it for so unpretending a title, which is "A Fish Story," wherein an old negro fiddler, fishing one day, after waiting a long time in vain for a bite, ties his line to his ankle and commences playing his fiddle. The warm sunshine and the soothing music after a while cause him to fall asleep, when a huge drum-fish seizes his bait and pulls him with a sudden jerk from his canoe. The fish and fisherman both lose their lives, and, one entangled in the line and the other hooked in the jaw, are cast ashore "by the heaving tide." The poet draws the contrast between Old Ned the fisherman and the wild African in the following lines:

"Although philanthropists can see
The degrading effects of slavery,
I cannot help thinking that this old creature
Was a great advance on his African nature,
And straighter of limb and thinner of lip
Than his grandsire who came in the Yankee ship.

"Albeit bent with the weary toil
Of sixty years on the slave-trodden soil,
Though thoughtless, and thriftless, and feeble of mind,
His life was gentle, his heart was kind:
He lived in a house, and loved his wife,
And was higher far in hope and in life,
And a nobler man, with his hoe in his hand,
Than an African prince in his native land.

"For perhaps the most odious thing upon earth
Is an African prince in the land of his birth,
With his negative calf and his convex shin,
Triangular teeth and pungent skin;
So bloated of body, so meagre of limb,
Of passions so fierce, of reason so dim;
So cruel in war, and so torpid in peace,
So strongly addicted to entrails and grease;
So partial to eating, by morning light,
The wife who had shared his repose over night;
In the blackest of black superstitions down-trod
In his horrible rites to his beastly god,
With all their loathesome and hideous mystery:
But that has nothing to do with the fish story."

[So much for the racial hate-mongering of the poetic white supremacist Randolphs of Lower Virginia, circa the mid 19th century. And well you may wonder by now if the fish-loving Mr. Norris will ever get around to the nominal subject of his essay, "Negro Superstitions," or will just waste more time telling us that Africans are "improved" when Lower Virginia white Randolphs beget offspring with black servants and then abandon their "thinner lipped" Randolph children to live on the streets. Well, we're getting there.]

Nevertheless these lines, as we shall presently see, have bearing on a certain mythological worship which still has existence in a limited way in Louisiana.

[Actually, as a close reading of what follows will show, the Lower Virginia white Mr. Randolph's race-hatred poem has no bearing on anything Norris brings up later, including his account of hoodoo in New Orleans, which involves tadpoles, not fishes. The man had fish on the brain, and the above was just some gratuitous nastiness he thought would give his white readers a laugh. And Lord knows the old boys needed a laugh, having lost the Civil War, poor fellas.]

I will first refer to a few of the negro superstitions of the Atlantic-Southern states.

Of course there is the universal horseshoe branded on the door of negro cabins as a bar to witches and the devil.

[The use of the horseshoe to keep off witches is totally European in origin, not African, and its popularity in Virginia is in keeping with the propensity of hoodoo in the South-Eastern states to reflect British, Irish, Scottish, and Germanic folklore.]

There are also the "conjuring gourd" and the frog-bones and pounded glass carefully hidden away by many an old negro man or woman, who by the dim light of a tallow candle or a pine torch works imaginary spells on any one against whom he or she may have a grudge.

There are also queer beliefs that are honestly maintained. One is, that the cat-bird carries sticks to the devil, and that by its peculiar note, "Snake, snake," it can call snakes to its rescue and drive away those who would rob its nest. another is, that every jay bird carries a grain of sand to the infernal regions once a year, and that when the last grain of sand is so taken away from the earth the world will come to an end; all of which, of course, is at variance with Father Miller's calculations.

Then there is a belief in a certain affinity and secret communication between themselves and wild and domestic animals. Many persons have observed a negro's way of talking to his dog or to a horse. "Aunt Bet" will say as she is milking, "Stan' aroun' now, you hussy, you. You want to git you foot in de piggin, do you?" and the cow with careful tread and stepping high will assume a more favorable position.

Amongst the mythical animals of the woods is the moonack. It is generally supposed to live in a cave or hollow tree. The negro who meets with it in his solitary rambles is doomed. His reason is impaired until he becomes a madman, or he is carried off by some lingering malady. The one who has the misfortune to encounter it never recovers from the blasting sight: he dares not speak of it, but old, knowing negroes will shake their heads despondingly and say, "He's gwine to die: he's seed de moonack."

Many of these superstitions, as the efficacy of the frog-bones and conjuring gourd, are no doubt handed down from their African ancestors.

A few years back the rites of the "Hoodoo" were practiced and believed in the city of New Orleans. From the description I have had from those who witnessed the ceremony, it must have resembled the incantation scene in Macbeth.

It is well known in Louisiana that many a cargo of slaves from Africa was landed on the Gulf coast soon after that portion of our national domain was purchased from France, and, that this traffic in human flesh was stealthily kept up for some years after the war of 1812. Labor was in demand, and this demand increased as the rich alluvial lands along the Mississippi and the lagoons and bayous to the west of New Orleans were opened to the culture of cotton and sugar.

The planters, whether they were creoles of French or Spanish extraction or emigrants from the Atlantic States, were not disposed to quibble as to the legality of procuring slaves in this way: they were only too glad to get them; and the numerous lagoons running from the Gulf into the interior offered facilities for the landing of slaves. That the heathenish rites of the Hoodoo should exist in Louisiana even at the present day is therefore not wonderful.

But to return to the votaries of Hoodoo in New Orleans. There was the fire in the middle of the earthen floor with the iron pot swung over it. What its contents were none but the official negroes knew; but as it boiled and bubbled, the negroes, with song of incantation, would join hands and dance around it until they were exhausted and fell on the floor. Amongst the votaries of the Hoodoo, it is said, could occasionally be found white women of wealth and respectability who had been influenced by their old negro servants.

For some years before the war of the rebellion, it was my fortune to be connected in business with a firm in New Orleans. One of my partners, as an act of humanity and to secure his services as porter, bought a negro boy whom we had been hiring from some years by the month. His name was Edwa, and at the time of buying him he was about eighteen years of age. When not employed in his regular duties, he improved the hours by learning to read and write.

[The phrase to "improve the hours" was once a common term to indicate spending time in self-betterment. It derives from a poem by Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) containing the lines

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower
-- but it is best known to contemporary readers by the parody of it written by Lewis Carroll
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
from "Alice in Wonderland."]

He was constitutionally and practically honest. His services were valuable, and he was a favorite with all. Still, his hereditary aptness for such things led him to join in the Hoodoo; and as a matter of course he became bewitched, and, although a consistent professor of the Christian religion, he believed in this superstition.

It was about three years after my partner became his owner that he was thus affected. All arguments against his foolish impressions were useless. he imagined that some one of his co-worshipers had put a spell upon him; that his enemy had poured frog-spawn into some water which he had given him to drink, and that this spawn had hatched and entered into the circulation of his blood; that his veins were full of small tadpoles.

[Obviously Norris was being facetious in calling Edwa's fellow hoodoo practitioners his "co-worshippers," for the young man was a Christian.]

Dr. H___, a shrewd physician, became acquainted with Edwa's malady, and assured him that he was correct, and his master and friends unreasonable and entirely in the wrong, as to his complaint; and, to use an old saying, "to fight fire with fire" and restore this favorite servant, he put him under a course of medicine and made a final cure as follows:

Procuring some hundreds of minute tadpoles from the ditches back of the city, he made an appointment with Edwa to be at his office at an hour of a certain day. Giving him a dose of some sickening and stupefying medicine, he then bled him copiously and shook the tadpoles from his coat sleeve into the basin of blood. His master and a few friends who were present acknowledged their error on seeing the tadpoles, and Edwa had ocular demonstration that he was delivered from these internal pests, and soon recovered his usual health and spirits.

[This story falls into a class of tales that tell of the white master out-foxing his black slave or servant by pretending to cure him of a folkloric or ethnically-specific malady by playing along with the symptomology of the sufferer and performing a fraudulent cure, which succeeds due to psychological factors and the placebo effect. There is no academic name for this genre of white folk tale (for that is what it is, a folk tale told by whites to other whites about blacks) -- but i have always referred to it as "tricking the servant to cure him" (with the pun on "tricking" very much intended). I consider "tricking the servant" tales to be white counterpoints to black slave stories of "tricking the master" of the type embodied in the famous John story, "Caught the Old Coon at Last." It is important to note that black tales about tricking the master do not usually involve hoodoo, but white tales about tricking the slave invariably do.]

Negroes are naturally suspicious of each other -- that is, of some secret power or influence those of greater age have over them -- and will entrust their money and health and well-being to white persons with perfect confidence, while they are distrustful of those of their own color. I cite the following as a case in point -- its truthfulness I can vouch for:

[And here begins a second tale of "tricking the servant to cure him." Seeing two such stories in such close succession helps clarify the form of this type of tale.]

A gentleman in Alexandria, Virginia, had an old servant by the name of Friday, who filled the office of gardener and man-of-all-work about his premises. One summer, Friday, from some cause unknown to his master, was very "ailing." He lost his appetite, his garrulity, his loud-ringing laugh, became entirely incapable of attending to his duties, and appeared to be approaching his last end.

On questioning him closely, he told his master, with some reluctance, that he was suffering from a spell that had been put upon him by Aunt Sina, the cook, who was some years older than himself. When pressed hard for some proof, he said that he had seen her, one moonlight night, raise one of the bricks in the pavement leading from the portico to the street, near the gate, and place something under it which he knew was a charm, for he had tried several times, without avail, to raise the brick; and that he could not even see that it had ever been moved. Further, that he had frequently heard Aunt Sina muttering something to herself which he could not understand, and on one occasion saw her hide something in her chest, which he was pretty sure was a conjuring gourd. All of this, he said, was a part of the spell; that all the physic he had taken was of no avail: that he was troubled with a constant "misery in his head," and was certain he was going to die.

His master, knowing how useless it would be to endeavor to reason him out of such belief, and being a practical wag, determined to treat Friday's case with a like remedy. He accordingly enjoined strict secrecy toward Aunt Sina as to any knowledge of his being bewitched, and put him on a course of bread-pills tinctured with assafoetida.

He then searched the garret, and finding a pair of old boots with light morocco interlinings, he cut out and drew distinctly, on two similar pieces, a skull and crossbones encompassed by a circle. He further warned Friday of the evil effect that might ensue by passing over or near the brick under which Aunt Sina had deposited the charm, and promised to write to a celebrated Indian doctor who lived some thousand miles away, and get his advice. Then he sent his old servant with a letter on some pretended business which would keep him away a few days.

In a few days Friday returned. Some heavy rain having fallen during his absence, all marks of disturbance in the pavement were effaced. Friday still continued to grow worse, and in a few days more his master produced a letter from a long envelope with a singular-looking postmark and mysterious characters on it, which he informed him was from the Indian doctor. The letter of this wise sachem, as his master read it to Friday, informed him that the conjuring gourd had no power of evil in his case, but that the person who had put the spell on him had hidden two charms; that if one of these could be found and certain conditions observed, the other could also; and if they were both alike the spell would be broken.

The letter then went on to describe the place where one of them was hidden. It was in an old churchyard, but the doctor could not say where the church was: it might be in America or England or France. The description of the church, however, was so graphic that by the time his master had read it through the white of Friday's eyes had enlarged considerably, and he gaspingly exclaimed, "Fo' God, Maas Ant'ony! It's Christ Church, here in dis very town!"

His master here laid aside the letter, and bringing his fist heavily down on the table, declared that it was: it had not occurred to him before. The charm, so said the doctor's letter, was under the topmost loose brick (which was covered with leaves) of a certain old tomb, the fourth one from the gate, on the left-hand side of the middle walk, going in. It was to be taken from under the brick, and by the bewitched, going out of the churchyard backward -- all the time repeating the Lord's Prayer. He was to turn around when he reached the street and throw a handful of sulphur backward over the wall.

The day on which the letter was read to the patient, Aunt Sina was sent on an errand which would detain her all night; and when the moon was well up Friday complied with all the conditions, his master awaiting his return. Then a few bricks in the pavement were removed with great difficulty, and the other charm was found. They were compared by the light of a red wax candle in his master's office, and to Friday's joy one was an exact duplicate of the other.

"Now, Friday, drink this," said Maas Anthony, handing him a large tumbler of whisky, into which he had stirred a teaspoonful of sulphur taken from the same paper as that he had thrown over the churchyard wall. "The spell is broken, and if you sleep well to-night, you will be all right in a day or two. Remember, though, if you hint to old Sina anything about breaking the spell, she will bewitch you again. Now go to bed."

Of course Friday slept well. With his mind at ease, and, under the influence of nearly a pint of whisky, why shouldn't he? He soon recovered his health, his garrulity and his loud laugh.

[Finally, without so much as a prefactory words, here is the first appearance of the story of Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby."]

Every Southern boy has heard the story of the "Rabbit and the Tar Baby." It runs thus:

An old negro, who cultivated a little truck-patch for his own private benefit, had his black-eyed peas stolen frequently, without being able to detect the thief. At length, as he crossed the branch near his patch one morning, he discovered rabbit tracks in the mud, and was convinced that Puss was the depredator. He knew from the size of the tracks that it was a very large and wary old rabbit which had haunted the neighborhood from time immemorial. His cunning was proof against all the snares, traps, deadfalls, gins and gums that were ever set for him. If he was captured, he managed by some device to get off and continue his thieving.

After long consideration, and knowing the curiosity of wild animals, as well as the tenacity of tar, the old man concluded to make a "tar baby" or image, and set it where the rabbit was in the habit of crossing the branch. The rabbit, after feeding plentifully! on the old man's peas through the night, was returning to his nest across the branch about daybreak one morning, and to his surprise saw a black baby standing bolt upright before him.

After some hesitation he approached, and throwing himself on his haunches and nodding to the baby, bade it "Good-morning," but the baby gave no answer or sign of recognition. he then upbraided the baby for its impoliteness: still it gave no answer. He then abused it outright for its incivility, but the baby treated him with silent contempt. Infuriated at this insulting behavior, the rabbit gave the baby a terrible slap in the face with his right forepaw, when it stuck fast.

"Let go my hand," said the rabbit: the baby maintained its silence, but held on to the paw. He then gave the baby a heavy left-hander, and that paw also stuck fast. Then he kicked the baby in the stomach with his left and then his right hind foot, and they also were held. Losing all discretion in his rage, he gave the baby a vigorous butt in the face, when his head stuck, and he was irrevocably held fast -- that cunning old rabbit -- and outwitted by a tar baby!

The owner of the patch, going to his work about sunrise, discovered the arch thief a victim to his curiosity and bad manners, and loosing him from the baby and holding him by the hind legs, rejoiced over his captive thus: "Ah ha, ole fellow! I got you at last, I is. You been thievin' dis long time, but now I got you, sartain. You good for roast, you good for bile, you good for fry, you good for potten-pie." But the rabbit, after remaining passive for some moments, suddenly thrust both of its tarry forepaws into the old man's eyes, so that he was compelled to let go the rabbit's legs to rub his aching orbs.

Of course the rabbit escaped, and as he went bounding off, the old man exclaimed, "Go long, you big-eye, whopper-jaw, long-leg, cotton-tail! You ain't got nuff fat on you whole body for fry you hind leg."

When such stories were told, and I became inquisitive as to animals talking with human beings or with each other, I was generally told, "Dat was a long time ago, but dey don't do so any mo'."

[Next, a tale of hag-riding.]

In my childhood I firmly believed in witches, and it was with some dread that I went out of doors or through a room alone when it was dark, and frequently dreamed of them after hearing some of the stories told by the servants on long winter evenings.

An old house-servant of my father was as chock full of these witch stories as Sancho Panza was of proverbs. According to his teachings, wizards ("conjerors," he called them) and witches made a bargain with the devil that they were made to possess extraordinary powers over their fellow-mortals in this life, and in exchange their souls belonged to him. There were some restrictions, however, which the devil could not free them from. For instance, they had no power over a child who had not arrived at the age of discretion, could work no evil to a person who had a Bible in the room at night, and could not utter the Lord's name.

Stanton, the man referred to, said that a witch could creep out of her skin and leave it in bed, so that her absence could not be noted; that it was not uncommon for one witch, when she had enmity against another, and knew when she made a nocturnal excursion, to get her skin, and, turning it wrong side out, to salt and pepper it well; and then, turning it with the fleshy side in again, to replace it in bed.

[This aspect of hag-riding, in which the witch is caught outside her skin, is sometimes categorized as a type of folk-tale called "Skinee Don'tcha Know Me?" -- for that is what the witch syas when she tries to return to her skin and finds it all shrivelled up from having been salted.]

One of Stanton's stories was as follows: I will narrate it, as nearly as I can, in the language in which he used to tell it:

"Once der was a ole man dat was a conjeror, an' his wife was a witch, an' dey had a son, an' dey larnt him to be a conjeror too; an' every night dey use to git out of deir skins an' go ride deir neighbors. Well, one night de conjeror tech his son wid his staff an' say, 'Horum sacrum' (dat mean, 'It's pas' de hour o' midnight'). 'Come git up; let's go ride de overseer an' his oldes' son; I had a spite 'gin 'em dis long time.'

[Horum sacrum actually means something like "the sacred hour" -- e..g. midnight, the sacred hour for witches.]

"So dey goes to de overseer's house, an' give de sign an' slip t'rough de keyhole. den dey unbar de door on de inside an' take out de overseer an' his son, widout deir knowing' it; an' de conjeror tetch de overseer wid his switch an' he turns to a bull, an' tetch de overseer's son an' he turns to a bull-yerlin'. Den de conjeror mounts de bull, an' de boy he mounts de bull-yerlin', an' sets off a long way over de creek to blight a man's wheat what de conjeror had a spite agin.

"Well, dey rode a long time to git dar, an' when dey was cummin' back dey see de mornin'star shinin' mighty bright, an' de conjeror say to his son, 'S'pose we run a race? Whoever git to de ole gallus [gallows] cross de creek fust will live de longes'.' so off dey goes, nip an' tuck -- sometimes de bull ahead, an' sometimes de yerlin' ahead. But de bull, he gets to de creek fust, an' stops to drink, de yerlin' little ways behind; an' when he gits to de creek de boy gin him a cut, an' he would ha' gone clean over, but de boy as he went over hollered out, 'God, daddy! dat's a good jump for bull-yerlin'.'

An' dat same minit dey was bofe standin' in de water forty miles from home. De bull wasn't dar, an' de yerlin' wasn't dar. An' de same minit de overseer was asleep in his bed at home, an' his son was in his bed. An' in de mornin' dey feel very tired, an' know dat de witches been ridin' 'em, but dey never find out what witches it was."

[The point of the tale is that the young conjuerer, having sold his soul to the devil, finds his magical hag-riding power undone when he unconsciously utters God's name. ]

This material is reprinted from:

Negro Superstition
By
Thaddeus Norris

Lippincott's Magazine #6
(1870)
pp. 90-95

My thanks for C.L. Green for the transcription from a microfilm copy in my collection.

SOUTHERN SPIRITS: GHOSTLY VOICES FROM DIXIE LAND
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