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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
[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
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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
-- but it is best known to contemporary readers by the parody of it written by
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower
How doth the little crocodile
from "Alice in Wonderland."]
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
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
[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.
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
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.
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
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
"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
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:
Lippincott's Magazine #6
My thanks for C.L. Green for the transcription from a microfilm copy in my collection.