Alice M. Bacon: Conjure Curses from 1875
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The page below offers an in-depth look into the baneful curses cast by African-American root doctors in the 19th century.
CONJURE CURSES FROM 1875
Southern Workman, Volume 24, Number 11, 1 November 1895
These hoodoo curses and killing spells were collected in 1875 from compositions written at Hampton Normal School, a training institution for black school teachers, trades-people, and agriculturalists. Later known as Hampton Institution, and now as Hampton University, it was at that time attended only by African-American and Native American students. The fact that black educators oversaw the preservation of black folk-magic so soon after emancipation from slavery is a testimony to its importance in black culture.
Leona Herron and Alice M. Bacon published these accounts, which had been collected 20 years earlier, over the course of several months in the late 1890s under the heading "Folk-Lore and Ethnology," a semi-regular column in the Southern Workman magazine. The Southern Workman was written, edited, typeset, printed, and published by Hampton students in the journalism and printing trades. Herron and Bacon also oversaw the material's re-publication in the Journal of American Folklore, the quarterly journal of the American Folklore Society.
I have taken the liberty of inserting paragraph breaks and headings, and have rearranged the order of a few paragraphs to make this old article more understandable to contemporary readers. My comments are in green type, in [brackets].
FOLK-LORE AND ETHNOLOGY
Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors by Alice M. Bacon
This paper is a part of a study into the belief in conjuration, which is still common in some parts of the South, made for the Folk Lore Society by Misses Herron and Bacon from a collection of compositions written, in 1875, by Hampton students.
Miss Herron’s paper was published in the Workman of July 1895, but, through the pressure of material awaiting publication, Miss Bacon’s paper has been crowded out month by month until now. The connection between the two papers has thus been made less evident, but readers who have preserved the July Workman will see by reference to the Folk-Lore page in that number that the paper we publish this month is but a continuation of the same line of research. Space does not permit us to print the whole study in this issue, but it will be continued in the December number.
It is difficult here to make any classification of the things used in conjuring which will have any value except as a mere arbitrary distinction for the sake of ease in enumerating and remembering in some intelligible order the great variety of media for the charms cited by the authors of the compositions from which our data are drawn. We will however, for the sake of convenience, classify into (1.) Poisons. (2.) Charms.
Conjure Poisons for Sickness and Death
Of poisons derived from substances known or believed to be poisonous and administered in food or drink, a number of cases are cited.
A drink of whiskey is [spiritually] poisoned and offered to the victim; an apple is [spiritually] poisoned and given in church on Sunday.
It required no belief in the supernatural whatever to make one afraid of persons whose business it is to devise poisons to place in the food of their victims, and, if the evidence of our collection of compositions is to be trusted, there was on the plantations in the old days a vast amount of just that sort of thing.
That the poison did not always produce the desired effect was due rather to a lack of knowledge than to a lack of zeal on the part of the conjurer.
Reptiles, Amphibians, and Arachnids as Poisons
[Before presenting Miss Bacon's list of spells that make use of reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids as magical poisons, i would like to note that many, but not all, practitioners believe that ingesting such animals, even in powder form, can result in "live things in you" or the sensation that the animals have hatched inside of one and are wriggling about. There are several accounts of "intrusive animals" at this site, and the following spells explain how the poison is administered.]
One instance is given of “toad heads, scorpion heads, hair, nine pins, and [nine] needles baked in a cake and given to a child who became deathly sick.”
By another of our writers it is said that “some go in the woods and get lizards and little ground dogs [mud puppies or salamanders] and snakes and dry them and then powder them all up together in liquor and give them to drink, or pick a chance and put in their food so they can eat it.”
Another case is mentioned of a conjurer who caught a snake, cut his head off, hung him up by his tail, and let the blood drop into a can. Then he went out and caught a lizard, killed him, took his blood and mixed it with the snake’s blood. This mixture was done up in a bundle and sent to the victim. He drank it up, and in two minutes was lying on the floor speechless. In this case the victim was saved by an old doctor who was brought in and rubbed him about twelve hours.
One woman swallowed a lizard in a cup of coffee and was poisoned thereby.
In another case cabbage, presumably poisoned [with reptiles or amphibians],, was given to the victim with evil results.
Again, horse hair is put into the food, or a preparation of poisonous snakes and lizards is mixed with the whiskey. [Unmentioned by Miss Bacon is the belief that horse hair, if dropped into water or whiskey, can turn into snakes in the body; for this reason it is said that no matter how thirsty you are, you should never drink from a horse trough.]
The theory in regard to the poisonous effects of hair is thus stated by a boy whose own hair had been baked in bread and given him to eat. The conjure-doctor told him that if he had eaten it the hair would cling round his heart strings and would have afflicted him so that he would not be able to work and after a while it would kill him.
Conjure Charms for Sickness and Death
If roots, snakes, lizards, hairs, and other disgusting objects could be worked into the food and drink of the victim it was undoubtedly the most certain way of despatching the business to the satisfaction of his enemy. But this method of revenge, because it was the most direct and certain, was the most easily discovered, and we find that other methods seem to have been more popular.
Just as poisoning is less direct and therefore safer than clubbing or shooting, so “fixing” by means of a charm is safer than either, and charms seem to have been relied on for working evil to a very great extent.
Direct Contact Charms for Sickness and Death
The form of the charm which comes most near to the simple poisoning, of which we have already given examples, is the passing of the spell to the victim by handing to him some conjured article or placing it where he can pick it up. In these examples it is contact alone that transmits the evil; the charmed or poisoned thing need not be eaten.
A sweet potato on a stump in the victim's potato patch has been known to cause pain just as soon as it was touched by the one for whom it was intended.
Something put on the gate-post causes swelling of the hands.
A woman, picking up [wood] chips, picked up a small bundle folded in rags; the next chip stuck to her hand and she was conjured.
A bottle of cologne presented to a girl by her unsuccessful rival puts her eyes out when she smells of it.
A pair of new shoes just come from the shoe-maker causes such pain that the victim cannot walk. He continues to grow weaker and thinner and to suffer even after the shoes are removed and at last dies of the effect of conjured shoes.
One instance is of a girl who detects her father-in-law putting something into her shoes after she is supposed to have gone to sleep. She burns the shoes and so avoids the trick; the shoes in burning make a noise like a bunch of fire works.
In another case a small red bag, (presumably filled with occult miniatures) is fixed to the sole of the victim’s foot.
In one case a carving knife is conjured, supposing that the cook will be the first person to use it, but the charm goes astray because the seamstress has occasion to use the knife, and the charm goes from it to her.
Some conjurers accomplish their ends by throwing hair balls at their victims.
Bed Charms for Sickness and Death
Charms seem to be most frequently conveyed by even more indirect methods than those thus far enumerated.
A baby is conjured by the presence in its crib of something all wrapped up in hair and all kinds of other queer looking things. The bundle when burned showed strange variety of colors.
A colored man got angry at a woman and tricked her by the following complicated charm. He took some blue cloth and cut out several chickens and sewed them up after filling them with some kind of dust and a lot of needles and pins. He covered these with feathers so that they looked precisely like real chickens, and then sewed them up in his victim’s bed. [This unusual spell may derive from the European lore surrounding the "death crowns" found in feather pillows. These objects may take the form of a feather wreath or a bunch of feathers in the form of a hen or a rooster. Stories of finding and destroying them before the patient dies, or finding them belatedly after the patient's death, are found in many families. Death crowns used to be saved and passed down through the generations among rural white families in the American South.]
Conjure balls, snakes and all kinds of reptiles are often found in the beds of those who have been “conjured.”
Room and Road Charms for Sickness and Death
In other cases the fatal bundle or bottle is secreted in some corner of the room in which the victim lives or is placed in the road over which he most often walks.
A charm in the shape of a small rubber ball may be placed in the chimney corner, or poison may be put in a bottle and buried in the path, in some cases upside down.
A sick woman, who had almost pined away to skin and bones, sent for a conjure-doctor. He went at once to the hearth, took up a brick and found sticking in a cloth six pins and needles. He took them up, put salt on them, and threw them in the river. The needles and pins were said to be the cause of so many pains.
In other cases poisonous balls of various sizes, filled with roots, herbs, and other mixtures, were put in the road. They would have no effect on any but the intended victim. These charms or tricks seem to have been made personal by securing something from the body of the victim, as a strand of his hair, or some earth from his foot prints.