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This is an article from the Washington Post newspaper of September 6, 1885. Knowing how often people younger than me attempt to judge material from the past by the standards of the present, i almost hesitated to preserve it here, due to the disrespectfully arch voice employed by the journalist, and the use of the words "Negro" and "colored" (which were respectful terms back then, but are often objected to now) and the word "darky" (which has never been respectful) at any time, past or present. In the end i decided that although it conveys a distasteful and patronizing tone of white arrogance, and we hardly need any more proof that racism was a way of life among the well-to-do whites of Washington, D.C, and, leaving that to one side for the moment, the article actually also provides a useful amount of information that might otherwise be lost. I will comment on these points as we go. Because this unknown author used terms unfamiliar to modern readers or employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, 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 come in our struggle for race equality and respect in the ensuing years. Read with caution and compassion.
[Here, in 1885, we have a fairly early use by a white person of the word "hoodoo" (rather than the inaccurate word "voodoo") to describe African-American folklore and folk magic. In addition, the man in question is called a "hoodoo doctor," which is a good, solid, early sighting of those two words in tandem. To me this would seem to indicate that the anonymous journalist had some familiarity with black people. This is not to excuse the author from being a racist, but to bring a bit of shading to the starkness of the charge.]
An old and honest-looking colored man was standing on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and K Street north-west yesterday afternoon when a young and well-dressed darkey approached and said in tones indicative of great delight:
"Why Mr. Williams, how glad I am to see you! How are you getting along?"
[I think that by referring to Mr. Williams as "an old and honest-looking colored man," the journalist was trying to be complimentary, within the range of his inherent bigotry. This is made more obvious by his choice of the derogatory word "darkey" to describe the unscrupulous stranger who approaches the old man.]
Mr. Williams did not recollect ever having seen the man before, but, feeling flattered at the friendly interest which was manifested, received his new friend with open arms, and in a few moments was engaged in unburdening himself to him. It seems that Mr. Williams had $10 with which he was going to pay his rent, but as there was $20 due he had devoted all the early part of the day to a useless speculation as to where the rest of the money was coming from. He now appealed to his new acquaintance for advice which might assist him out of his predicament.
[Here is where the story sparked my interest. The technique of casing a client -- learning some information such as the person's name, address, family connections -- and then pretending to know the person is still used by psychic scammers and confidence artists to this day. As a card reader myself, i cannot even count the number of times a client has come to me after having been defrauded by an older, exotic woman who ran into her outside a grocery store, knew her name, and declared that "Spirit" had caused them to meet. The scammer then said that she had "an important message" for the victim and got her involved in a web of financially draining drama. Or, in some cases, like this one, the scammer went almost directly to the sleight of hand money-vanish known to fraudsters as "the pigeon drop." Sometimes both parties put up money to secure fidelity to an agreement (for instance, to split money in a wallet conveniently "found" on the street), but the result is the same. The handkerchief or envelope that the victim holds contains nothing but paper.]
"Why, my dear fellow," said his friend when the old man had finished his story, "nothing could be easier. Just place your money in this handkerchief," drawing one from his pocket, "I place this paper over it, tie it in a knot and in two hours it will double itself."
[So now we must ask, why was this commonplace con artist called a "hoodoo doctor"? Well, for one, because it can be assumed that he was black, like his victim, but if you read closely, there is an interesting variation on the usual pigeon drop as a white person would have performed it, namely the wrapping and tying of the money in a cloth, which is a culturally black way of working a legitimate conjure spell. (White con artists who work the pigeon drop usually use a paper envelope.) Of course for a con artist to pose as a root doctor is unfortunate, but it does happen, even now.]
Wondering at the strange process for making money, but confident of the result, Mr. Williams did as he was bid. His younger companion covered the money carefully with a piece of paper, pronounced a few cabalistic words over it, tied the handkerchief in a knot, then handed it to the old man. "Now mind," he said, "don't open it for two hours," and, with an affectionate farewe ll, withdrew.
[The recitation of "cabalistic words" is a nice journalistic touch. I think that "cabalistic" is here used in its broadest meaning, not with reference to the Jewish kaballah, but in the sense of "occult and metaphysical; unintelligible to the average layperson."]
Mr. Williams stood for a few moments watching his friend's retreating figure, then returned slowly to his-home, rejoicing at his good fortune. Before the two hours had elapsed, however, his curiosity overcame his scruples and he opened the handkerchief. Instead of twenty dollars, which he expected to find inside it, there was only a piece of paper.
His money was gone. Half frantic he rushed from the house and started in search of the thief; but after wandering about for an hour or two he became discouraged and reported the matter to the police.
Williams is now somewhat in doubt as to whether his money was really stolen or whether he prevented the transformation by being too precipitate in opening the handkerchief. He is very anxious, however, to see the young man, if only to have the matter explained.
[And it is just as true today, more
than 135 years after this account was published, that the victim of the pigeon
drop often blames himself for not having followed the con artist's instructions
to the letter.]
[I wish the author had been able to assure us that some good soul helped old
Mr. Williams raise enough money for his rent. I would like to think that the
boys in the newsroom pitched in and crowd-funded him a twenty. As for the bogus
hoodoo doctor, well, we still have them with us. Such is human mendacity.
[I wish the author had been able to assure us that some good soul helped old Mr. Williams raise enough money for his rent. I would like to think that the boys in the newsroom pitched in and crowd-funded him a twenty. As for the bogus hoodoo doctor, well, we still have them with us. Such is human mendacity.
This material is reprinted from
September 6, 1885
[My sincere gratitude to nagasiva yronwode for crafting the illustrations for this page.]
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