VOODOOISM IN TENNESSEE
by Sallie M. Park
from The Atlantic Monthly magazine (September 1889)
This article appeared under the byline "S.M.P." in the September
1889 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, Volume LXIV, pages
376-380. Due to internal notations on the first two pages
("my husband, Colonel Park, was absent" ...
"she said -- 'Miss Sallie, I come to tell you' ... "Mars James was gone"),
i believe that the author was Sallie M. Park,
the wife of Colonel James Park, resident
at Beechwood Hall, and i am crediting it as such.
This article describes a curing ceremony that Park witnessed among her
slaves, before the Civil War, perhaps during the 1850s.
Her fond look back to the era of slavery is paternalistic and
diificult to countenance, but her sympathies were obviously aroused by
the ritual she witnessed.
For another view of
rootwork in Tennessee, written during the late 1860s, see the similarly-titled
"Voudooism -- African Fetich Worship Among The Memphis Negroes"
printed in "The Memphis Appeal" newspaper, circa 1865 - 1867. The unknown
Memphis writer also describes an incident of curing.
Because this author
used terms unfamiliar to modern readers, 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.
Did the sun really shine more brilliantly upon the old
plantation home in those ante-bellum days than it does now?
Did the perennial-blooming shrubs smell sweeter, the birds
have a gladder note? Perhaps not, yet the day on which
occurred the strange instance of Voodoo superstition I wish
to recall was more beautiful than any that seem to bless the
earth now, while it was only one of many such that I
remember at Beechwood Hall.
My husband, Colonel Park, was absent. Mother and I were
together, ostensibly sewing, but for the most part sitting
with folded hands, enjoying through the open window the
freshness of a May morning. Honeysuckles swayed into the
casement with free gifts of fragrance. Outside were acres of
greensward and sunshine, bounded by the tender green of the
forests. In the vivid blue depths above sailed a lazy crow,
supplying with his "caw, caw," the discord needed to
complete the harmony of the song-birds. Beneath him the
young corn rows checkered the brown fields. The theme of the
day's melody was peace. Peace lay in the long shadows of the
old apple orchard upon the sloping knoll. Everywhere were
rest and quietude, when the door opened, and tall Eliza
stood before us, with a troubled expression upon her face.
She was a confidential servant through whom I generally
communicated my wishes to the other negroes, and was always
the messenger to bring me news of importance from the
"quarters." Her grave features were unusually solemn as she
"Miss Sallie, I come to tell you Etta's mighty bad off. De
gal's plum wore out, an' Uncle Jack's done sent for dat
Instantly aroused from my beautiful dream of peace, I
questioned Eliza anxiously.
"What is the matter with her?"
"Etta's done tricked," she replied. "She spent last night
a-crawlin' under de house huntin' fur de vial what 's got de
Voodoo medicine in it. She done wore herself out, an' she 's
layin' on de bed pantin' like a lizard.
[Both "crawling" and
"panting like a lizard" are signs of being tricked. For a 1938 account
in which this terminology appears, from the neighboring state of Arkansas,
Lucky Mojo page on Aunt Caroline Dye in which is reprinted
an interview collected by
Harry Hyatt in which a woman describes how her cousin was
cured after being tricked by an old woman
who had her "howlin' an' [...] crawlin' on her knees [...]
jis' as crazy as a rud [red] lizard."].
"She say she gwine
die. Her daddy come over from his marster's dis mornin', an'
he done sent fur de Voodoo woman, to see if she can't do
nothin' fur her. An' I did n't want no such goin's-on in my
house while Mars James was gone, lessen you knowed it."
"Who is this Voodoo woman, Eliza, and where does she come
"Hush, Miss Sallie, honey; she hyers every word we says
right now. She don't 'low nobody to name her. She say she
ain't got father nor mother, an' nobody don't know whar she
come from nor whar she 's a-goin' to."
"Why do they send for this mysterious person to cure Etta?
What do they imagine has made her sick?"
"Dey 'lows ole Aunt Sue 's tryin' to conjure her. De gal's
'feard to eat anythin', an' she 's starvin' herself to
death. Sometimes she snatches a bite o' what comes from de
white folks' table before ole Sue has a chance to do sump'n'
to it. I done talked to her an' talked to her, but I can't
do nothin' wid her. Her mammy says Aunt Sue been goin' down
steady till Etta was took, an' now she look like she gwine
live anudder hundred years."
I interrupted a little impatiently: --
"Eliza, I don't in the least understand you. Martha knows
better than that. This is nonsense you are telling me.
"No, 't am' nonsense, Miss Sallie. Am' you' gran'pa done
tole you ole Sue was gittin' to be a ole woman when he was a
little boy? How do she live so long 'thout she sucks young
folks's blood while dey's 'sleep? De chillun dies, an' she
keeps on a-livin'."
"Oh," said I, "you surely can't believe that, for the poor
old creature has not been able to stir from her door for
"Shucks, Miss Sallie, she don' need no foots to walk wid at
night. Peter Sladen 'lows she can travel faster 'n a bird
can fly. He seen her standin' in de door one night, wid big
black wings to her shoulders, same as a bat, an' she riz
right up in de a'r an' was gone clean out o' sight in a
minute. He seed her wid his own eyes.
[This is a classic
description of a shape-shifting witch or hag; see also the
William Grimes on Hag-Riding at this site.]
"By nex' morn'n Mary
Billy's baby was dead, an' ole Sue was hoppin' around
pearter 'n common." Dropping her voice almost to a whisper,
she added, "I always 'lowed she had somethin' to do wid
Jerry was Eliza's son, who had died very suddenly of
something like sun-stroke the previous summer. To divert
her mind from a memory that always clouded her face with the
melancholy of mania, I arose, saying, "Come with me, Eliza.
We will talk to Sue, and then I will see Etta."
She followed me to the door of the cabin of the old woman,
who had been an unprofitable charge upon the plantation
for a quarter of a century, but I could not get her to go
inside. I entered alone; and the moment I spoke to her,
the wretched old centenarian, a mere bundle of bones and
clothes in the chimney corner, began to mumble and chatter.
The cob pipe dropped unheeded from her blue gums, and
would have set fire to her dress but for the nimbleness of
the pickaninny who had the care of her. She raised her
skinny claws (they had ceased to resemble hands)
protestingly, and the wrinkled black skin of her face fell
pendulous from the bone as she wagged her head to and fro,
"Don' come here pesterin' me, chile. De Lawd knows I am'
done nothin' to de gal. Send fur Dr. Davi'son. Dey says I 'm
at de bottom of it, but de Lawd knows I am' done nothin'."
The filmy sightless eyes rolled about restlessly, vainly
seeking mine as she urged her innocence. "Send fur Dr.
Davi'son," she repeated. "he'll tell you dere am' nothin'
de matter wid de gal."
Putting her head in the doorway, Eliza said : --
"Law, Miss Sallie, don' trust to dat. Doctors don' know
ev'ything. Doctors am' Gawd A'mighty."
Turning to the hideous living mummy, I said, --
"You need n't be uneasy, Aunt Sue. I shall have the whole
matter carefully investigated. No one shall hurt you, if you
have done nothing wrong."
"De Lawd blesh you, honey, you's de ve'y spit o' you'
gran'pa. He would n't never let 'em hurt ole Sue, poor ole
Sue, -- ole Sue, poor ole Sue."
We left her muttering "poor ole Sue," which was often her
refrain for hours at a time. As we walked down the lane
between the houses in the quarters, on our way to Eliza's
cabin, the girl kept so close behind me that I felt sure she
had the folds of my dress tightly grasped in her band; and
her voice was quavering with ill-suppressed fear as she
"Folks says she 's talkin' to de ole boy, when she carries
on like dat."
"Eliza," said I, "are you really and truly afraid of Aunt
"Naw 'in, I am' 'feard of her. I w'ars red pepper in my
"Red pepper? What for?"
"To keep her from hurtin' me, Miss Sallie."
"Where did you get such an idea?"
"Shoo, Miss Sallie, I be'n knowin' dat sence I was a young
gal. 'T was a party give by de Mayberry darkies. We was all
dancin' a break-down, an' de planks shuck under our foots
powerful, an' let de clouds o' dust fly out 'tel we could
n't see 'cross de room. Some nigger sneeze right loud, den
'nudder somebody, den 'nudder, 'tel you could n' hyer yer
yers fur de sneezin'. I sez, 'Mr. Frierson' (Tom Frierson
was my partner), 'dere must be pepper in dis house
somewhars.' 'Yes,' he sez, 'I'm w'arin' it in my shoes.'
'What you w'arin' it in yer shoes for?' sez I. Sez 'e, 'I
w'ars it to keep a ole conjure nigger from hurtin' me. He
kep' a-workin' on me 'tel he got a needle in my leg. Dat
needle bothered me 'bout a year. Sometimes it would come
through de skin, an' I done my best to catch holt uv it an'
pull it out; but jes' as soon as I lay my hands on it, it
was gone ev'y time. Den I put red pepper in my shoes an' a
silver dime 'tween my toes, an' I am' seen dat needle
[Tom Frierson told Eliza about a form of conjuring
in which the victim feels unnatural pains in the feet or legs. This is sometimes
called "poisoning through the feet." Wearing red pepper and a
silver dime in the shoes
for magical protection
against such work is quite common to this day. For another such account
at this site, see the 1930s slave narrative by
in which he mentions
folks wearing silver
dimes in the shoes.]
By this time we had reached Eliza's house. Both its doors,
which were opposite, were wide open. To the right was the
fireplace, with a few smouldering sticks in it, over which
swung a pot attached to an old-fashioned crane. On a low
bench were seated the sick girl's parents, moaning in a low,
sobbing tone. In the corner near them was a neatly made bed
covered with a bright patchwork quilt. The beams of the low-roofed
cabin were hung with festoons of red pepper, bunches
of yellow pop-corn, and strips of dried pumpkin. Here and
there on the walls were wisps of pennyroyal, side by side
with a lithograph of a lady with a vivid red rose and green
leaves stuck in her jetty ringlets, or a highly colored
fashion-plate from an early issue of Godey's Lady's Book. A
small table near the centre of the room was set with two
flowered plates, cups and saucers, and knives and forks.
Another bed was against the wall opposite the fireplace, and
on it lay, face upward, the negro girl, apparently in a
dying condition. Her eyes were partially closed, the balls
rolled back. A scant, fluttering breath came through her
parted teeth. The brown arms lay straight on either side.
"Etta, what is the matter with you?" I asked.
She did not answer me. I took one of her hands and stroked
it gently. It was clammy, and the palm was ashen-colored.
"Speak to me, Etta. I want to help you. If you would like to
see the Voodoo woman, she shall come to you."
The lids lifted tremblingly from the glazed eyes. With a
painful effort she gasped out --
"It's my only -- chance -- Miss Sallie. I'm goin' to die.
All last night -- I was crawlin' -- under de house --
buntin' fur de vial. De cork 's out -- de stuff's 'most
gone. As soon as it's gone I'm goin' -- goin'. Dere ain't
much left -- I'm "--
The motion of the lips ceased, the eyelids fell, and only an
occasional pulsation in the wrist showed that any life was
left in the limp form. In the intense stillness that
oppressed the next few moments I caught the sound of
approaching wheels. I went to the door, and, shading my eyes
with my hand from the outside glare, saw rattling down the
lane a shackling little old cart, driven by the sick girl's
small brother, Buster. His legs protruded like black sticks
from under his one white garment. With his whip (merely a
hickory handle and a leather string) he was belaboring a
little gray mule into a trot that jerked the wheels until
they seemed to run each in a separate track, and sometimes
almost under the centre of the wagon.
"There comes the woman," I said to those in the room.
"Thank Gawd fur dat, Miss Sallie," came at the same moment
from Martha and her husband, neither of whom had said a word
up to that time, but had remained bent forward, looking
downward, and groaning at regular intervals.
I watched the approach of the wobbling wheels that
finally stopped in front of the house. From the wagon
descended two remarkable-looking persons, a man and a woman.
He, a very tall negro, with thick African lips and woolly
hair, was dressed in cloth as black as his skin. The woman
was a delicate light mulattress, of reddish tinge. An oval
face, regular features, and large, brilliant black eyes gave
her singular beauty. She wore no hat or bonnet, but around
her head was twined a turban of bright hues, Madras yellow
predominating. Large hoop earrings hung from her ears, and a
string of blue beads was twined round and round her throat,
and fell in festoons, longer and longer, until they touched
the waist of her white tunic. Beads were also wound about
her arms, which the loose sleeves left bare. Beneath her
skirt of dull indigo blue, which did not conceal her well-turned
ankles, her exquisitely formed bare feet were seen,
which carried her lightly, yet with great dignity of
bearing, into the house.
[Park presents us with one of the earliest verbal
descriptions of what a 19th
century "black gypsy" rootworker looked like, with
her colourful Madras yellow tignon (which Park calls a "turban"),
loose-sleeved white tunic, indigo-blue skirt, gold hoop
earrings, and Middle-Eastern or Indian style blue beads worn to
protect against the evil
eye. Given the way this woman dressed, it is
possible that what Park saw as a "light mulatress" may not have
been a woman part African and part European, but rather a
woman who was part African and part Romany, or even entirely
Romany. Note also as you read what follows that the curative rite
this "Voodoo woman" performed does not closely resemble
either African or Haitian Voodoo, and her song, chanted in
"a foreign tongue" and accompanied by "undulating" dance movements
is a further hint that she may have been from the Romany
culture. In any case, whatever her ethnicity, she and her
African American male helper were obviously not slaves and
were free to travel the country and practice their spiritual
Her companion followed most
respectfully, while the boy hitched the mule. I retreated to
the fireplace, and stood watching with amazed interest. The
parents did not stir. They did not even look up. Eliza
turned her back, and sat on the further door-sill, looking
out. The woman took no notice of any of us, but advanced
into the room towards the patient on the bed. Her eyes
assumed a steadfast expression as she fastened them upon the
girl. After a long space of breathless silence, in which she
continued her fixed gaze, her eyes scintillated with an
influence that pervaded the room, and seemed to subject all
other volition to her own will.
She concentrated her attention upon Etta. A quiver ran
though the girl's frame; her eyes flew open with a startled
gaze. The woman drew back four or five steps with a hasty
but most graceful movement, still looking intently into the
eyes of the sick girl. Her body swayed to and fro. Keeping
time to its rhythmic motion, she chanted slowly a weird,
fantastic, barbaric air, unlike anything I had ever heard.
The words were in a foreign tongue. The undulations of her
body brought her near enough to touch the girl upon the
shoulder, upon whom the effect was electrical. Again a
shiver ran through her frame, and she looked intently upon
the Voodoo woman, as, changing the air, she chanted in a
low, sweet key that sounded like a staccato wind beating
upon an Aeolian harp: --
"You loved him! You loved him! He 's gone!"
Then a pause followed, filled only with the throbbing pulse
in my ears. Again she sang: --
"He's gone! He went to the fields! While there, he worked!
He worked! He put his hands to his head, and said, I'm sick'
At this Eliza rose from her seat on the door-sill, and
turned. Through it all the poor father and mother did not
look up, but made a low moaning and sobbing that fitted into
the chant like a minor accompaniment, and so excited my
nerves that I could not restrain the tears from rolling down
my face. The woman continued : --
"It is this that ails you, and not the medicine in
the vial! The old woman did try to trick you! The
vial is under the house! But it will not be emptied! I have
sent it back to where it came from! It has gone down, down!
It has gone to him!" and she pointed to the floor. "It's
gone now," she repeated, introducing a soothing note into
the song. "That is not what ails you. You loved him, and
he's dead! He's dead!" Here the song was a wail.
Eliza, who was listening with strained attention, threw
her arms above her head, cried out in a piercing voice,
"It's true! It's true! It was my son, and he's dead, he's
gone!" and fell across the foot of the bed, burying her face
in the bed-clothes.
The strange woman passed her hand over Etta's brow two or
three times, raised it, and, stepping back three or four
steps, said, in a voice of command, --
The girl arose.
With hand still up, the woman continued to walk backward to
the door, her eyes still riveted on the girl, saying, --
"Follow -- follow -- follow."
Etta left her bed and followed.
When the woman reached the door, she threw one concentrated
look upon the girl, following her as if impelled by an
invisible power, and then turned and went out of the door.
She ran lightly up the street, retraced her steps down the
other side of the houses: making the circuit of the
quarters, and came back into the house, followed still by
the panting girl.
When she entered the house she looked at me for the first
time, and said in an altogether different voice, though it
was gentle and calm: --
"She is well now, Mrs. Park. There will be no more trouble
It startled me to hear my name from her lips, for I was sure
she had never before seen me, and was not expecting to meet
me when she arrived. Moreover, no one had spoken to me since
her entrance. While I was pondering this and all I had
witnessed within the hour, the tall man approached her, and
very tenderly placed his arm around her waist. It was timely
support, as I at once saw she would have fallen to the floor
without it. Her eyes were slowly closing, and her body was
"She must sleep," said the man. "She always sleeps after one
of these spells."
I motioned him to follow me with the light burden of her
body, which he had already taken into both his strong arms.
I led the way to another cabin, where she was laid upon a
bed, and rested in a heavy, motionless sleep for hours,
after which, as I was told by Martha, she ate heartily at
their table. As the cock crew for midnight she arose, and
went unquestioned to her mysterious home.
Etta's recovery was as complete as it was sudden, and I
never heard anything more of her queer malady.
S. M. P.
This material is reprinted from
The Atlantic Monthly