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introduction | 19th century hoodoo | 20th century hoodoo | 21st century hoodoo


by William Grimes


This is an extract from "Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Written by Himself," a 68 page memoir self-published by William Grimes in the state of New York in 1825.

Many slave narratives of the 19th century consisted in part of appeals to Christian Abolitionists to aid in bringing slavery to an end and, as an incentive, demonstrated that former slaves could and would become more "orthodox" in their beliefs and more like the Anglo-American benefactors once they were educated. What makes William Grimes' autobiography unusual for a slave narrative is that, as you will see below, the author professes a continued belief in wtchcraft, even after gaining his freedom, and does not in any way associate hoodoo or rootwork with "superstition" or over-credulity.

The following notice, from the beginning of the book, will place the author clearly in mind, for it tells us who he was and how he came to write his autobiography:


THOSE who are acquainted with the subscriber, he presumes will readily purchase his history. Those who are not, but wish to know who Grimes is, and what is his history, he would inform them, generally, that he is now living in Litchfield, Connecticut, that he is about 40 years of age [he was born in 1784], that he is married to a black woman, and passes for a negro, though three parts white; that he was born in a place in Virginia, has lived in several different States, and been owned by ten different masters; that about ten years since [circa 1815] he ran away, and came to Connecticut, where, after six years, he was recognized by some of his former master's friends, taken up, and compelled to purchase his freedom with the sacrifice of all he had earned. That his history is an account of his fortune, or rather of his suffering, in all these various situations, in which he has seen, heard, and felt, not a little.

Because this author used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].

[Paragraph breaks have been inserted for ease of reading, but spelling and punctuation are as originally printed.]

[Pages 23 - 25]

I will state to my readers some facts relative to the treatment I received from him [a slave owner], and others, during the time I lived there.

He had an old black female slave whom he called Frankee. I always believed her to be a witch: circumstances to prove this, I shall hereafter state.

He also had at one time, a number of carpenters at work in his yard. One of them, a man about my size, and resembling me very much in his dress, being dressed in a blue round-about jacket. He came into the yard to his work one morning, with an umbrella in his hand. This old woman saw him come in, and thinking it was me, or pretending so to do, was the cause of my receiving a severe whipping, in the following manner.

My master having mislaid his umbrella, had been looking for it for some time, and on enquiring of her about it, she told him that she saw me come into the yard with it in my hand. I was then in the yard; he called to me, and said, where have you been sir? I replied, only to work about the yard sir.

He then asked me where I was all night with his umbrella. I told him I had not been out of the yard, nor had I seen his umbrella. He said I was a liar, and that I had taken his umbrella away, and was seen to return with it in my hand this morning when coming into the yard. I told him it was not so, and that I knew nothing about it. He immediately fell foul of me with a large stick, and beat me most unmercifully, until I really thought he would kill me. I begged of him to desist, as I was perfectly innocent. He not believing me, still continued to beat me, until his strength was entirely exhausted.

Some time after this, my mistress found his umbrella where she had placed it herself, having removed it from the place where he had left it, and gave it to him, saying, you have beat him for nothing, he was innocent of it.

I was afterwards informed by another servant, of the circumstance. I then went to my master, and told him that he had beaten me most unmercifully, for a crime I was not guilty of, all through the insinuation of that old woman. He replied, "no, by Gad, I never hit you a blow amiss; if you did not deserve it now, you did some other time."

I told him she must have been drunk or she would not have told him such a story. He said that could not be, as she never was allowed to have any liquor by her. I told him to look in her chest, and convince himself. He then enquired of her if she had any rum. She said, no sir, I have not a drop.

I then told him that if he would look in her chest, he would find it. He accordingly went, and found it. He then said to her, hey, you old bitch I have caught you in a lie. On this same account she appeared to be determined to kill me, by some means or other.

I slept in the same room with her under the kitchen. My blankets were on the floor. She had a straw bed on a bed-stead about four paces from mine. My master slept directly over my head.

I have heretofore stated that I was convinced that this creature was a witch, and would turn herself into almost any different shape she chose.

[The belief that witches can shape-shift or take the form of various animals is common both in Africa and in Europe]

I have at different times of the night felt a singular sensation, such as people generally call the night-mare: I would feel her coming towards me, and endeavouring to make a noise, which I could quite plainly at first; but the nearer she approached me the more faintly I would cry out. I called to her, aunt Frankee, aunt Frankee, as plain as I could, until she got upon me and began to exercise her enchantments on me. I was then entirely speechless; making a noise like one apparently choking, or strangling.

My master had often heard me make this noise in the night, and had called to me, to know what was the matter; but as long as she remained there I could not answer. She would then leave me and go to her own bed.

After my master had called to her a number of times. Frankee, Frankee, when she got to her own bed, she would answer, sair.

What ails Theo? (a name I went by there, cutting short the name Theodore)

She answered, hag ride him sair.

He then called to me, telling me to go and sleep with her.

I could then, after she had left me, speak myself, and also have use of my limbs. I got up, and went to her bed, and tried to get under her coverlid; but could not find her. I found her bed clothes wet. I kept feeling for her, but could not find her.

[A classic sign of the witch who goes riding at night is that her body is literally not in her bed, so all you will find while she is out is her skin, which is wet inside, like a freshly skinned hide. One way to catch such a witch is to salt her wet hide so that it shrinks and she cannot fit back into it. Evidently Grimes did not know how to do this or was too terrified to try.]

Her bed was tumbled from head to foot. I was then convinced she was a witch, and that she rode me. I then lay across the corner of her bed without any covering, because I thought she would not dare to ride me on her own bed, although she was a witch.

I have often, at the time she started from her own bed, in some shape or other, felt a shock, and the nigher she advanced towards me, the more severe the shock would be.

The next morning my master asked me what was the matter of me last night. I told him that some old witch rode me, and that old witch, is no other than old Frankee. He cursed me and called me a damned fool, and told me that if he heard any more of it, he would whip me. I then knew he did not believe in witch-craft.

He said, why dont she ride me? I will give her a dollar. Ride me you old hag, and I will give you a dollar. I told him she would not dare to ride him.

[This description of hag-riding is as classically European as it is African-American. The terminology -- including the words hag-riding and witchcraft -- are more European than African, but are especially common in the black community in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, where a great deal of English and Germanic folklore has entered into hoodoo.]

This material is reprinted from

Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave.
Written by Himself:
Electronic Edition.
Grimes, William, 1784-1865

Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
supported the electronic publication of this title.

Text transcribed by Apex Data Services, Inc.
Images scanned by Melissa Graham
Text encoded by Apex Data Services, Inc., Elizabeth S. Wright and Natalia Smith
First edition, 2001
ca. 180K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
(c) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Source Description:
(title page) Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Written by Himself
William Grimes
68 p.

Wake Forest University Library provided the text for the electronic publication of this title.

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