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Doing witchcraft: Lizards, bags, and dolls

While witches were commonly thought to enact witchcraft by thought, touch and sight, they were also believed to practise ritual forms of harmful magic. One of the most pervasive in American cultures concerned bodily intrusion. In other words, the notion that witches invisibly sent objects into their victims. Elf shot and witch balls are examples that have already been discussed. The Zuni Pueblo considered this intrusive magic the commonest way in which witches harmed people. They sent bone splinters, thorns, cactus needles, insects, shreds of funerary cloth, and corpse flesh into their victims’ bodies. Amongst Californian Native Americans, nail clippings, blood clots, and individual hairs were also thought to be intruded, and among the Apaches, frogs and stones. Jesuit accounts of the Iroquois relate how medicine men expelled the intrusions using emetics, or magically used a knife but without making an incision.35 Other records attest that they also claimed to massage the intrusive material to the surface or more spectacularly cut an incision into the body and sucked it out. Both procedures obviously gave ample opportunity for magic of the sleight-of-hand kind. Consider another Jesuit observation regarding the medicine men of the Iroquois: ‘In this, some jugglers are so expert in their art that with the point of a knife they seem to extract or rather, they cause to appear whatever pleases them,—a piece of iron, or a pebble which they say they have drawn from the heart, or from inside of the patient’s bones, without, however, making an incision’.36

Amongst African Americans we find the similar notion that witches sent lizards and snakes into their victims’ bodies. The same concept is well recorded from West Africa. In 1867 an African-American woman named Emily McClellan, who had moved from Virginia to Washington, came to believe she was conjured by another woman after a dispute over a skirt. Emily began to bark uncontrollably like a dog, and she felt something gnawing its way from her stomach to her neck. Some who watched over her said they saw the form of a lizard crawling under the skin of her chest, moving up to her neck and back again. At the time McClellan lived in a tenement in Campbell Barracks, upper Seventh Street. The area simmered with racial tensions, with regular assaults on African Americans. Only the year before there had been pitched battles between poor white and black residents.37 This time the place was raised to a pitch of excitement due to McClellan’s bewitchment, with both white and black neighbours confirming the sightings of the lizard in her body.38

Mrs Bailey Johnson, of Augusta, Georgia, died in January 1895 after a root doctor told her that she was filled with lizards. Her children believed their father had conjured her. A fight ensued in which the father killed one of her sons.39 In the same year Mary Rogers, a young African-American woman of 487 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, died. It was believed a spell had been put upon her years before by a mixed-race woman with whom she vied for the affections of a man during her girlhood in Virginia. Rogers’ step-sister said that a local white ‘voodoo’ doctor, Dr Parrett of 851 Fulton Street, had treated Mary and told her that he had extracted snakes and lizards from her. Parrett told the coroner that he merely treated her with rhubarb and bitter aloes. The autopsy revealed that she died from a tumour.40

One magical explanation for how witches performed bodily intrusion involved placing the powder of ground, dried snake heads, and scorpions in their victims’ water or food: they would come back to life in the stomach and slowly eat up their hosts.41 As to natural explanations, some of the experiences of lizard and snake intrusion were probable due to tapeworms, cancerous growths, and nervous disorders, and it has been suggested that the symptoms of severe stomach acid were another common cause.42 Most important though, was that many people claimed to have actually seen lizards removed from a person’s body by a conjure or root doctor—or thought they had seen them to be more precise, since it is obvious that those practitioners used illusory tricks like their Native-American counterparts. There are instances of lizards being tucked up sleeves and retrieved at the appropriate moment of the ritual, or concealed in a poultice applied to the skin, or likewise hidden in a cabbage leaf for the same purpose.

Witchcraft was not all imaginary though: people really did practise harmful magic in all cultures. The fabrication of conjure-bags or -balls was a common form of cursing magic in African-American tradition. The following examples illustrate what they consisted of and how they were employed. In 1888 Colonel Dewey Moore Wisdom, Chief Clerk of the Union Indian Agency in Muskogee, in what would later be the state of Oklahoma, presided over the trial of an African- American gospel minister named Willis Loren and his two sons who were charged with witchcraft by one of their neighbours named Island Renty, who lived in Cane Creek Bottom. Many African Americans in the neighbourhood were descended from people enslaved by the Creek Nation. Island claimed that Loren’s two sons visited his home at midnight and buried in his yard a quantity of dirt, broken bottles, and horse hair tied up in a cloth. These items were duly produced in court and the Lorens did not deny that they had placed them Renty’s yard. Although they believed in the power of witchcraft, the Lorens pleaded that they were not trying to injure anyone, but had only been trying to scare folks in the neighbourhood. The locals were not so convinced. A large and threatening crowd gathered as the Lorens were escorted away.43

In the summer of 1885 the North Carolina family of Henry McCorckle fell ill after he quarrelled with a hoodoo doctress who had lodged with them. She threatened to conjure them all, which she duly did by collecting some mud from a nearby stream, adding some of her own hair and six crooked pins, and rolling it into a ball. She returned to McCorckle’s house, dropped to her knees and threw the conjure ball so that it stuck to the wall. Within hours the family was suffering from griping stomach pains. A few months later, a similar case was reported from Ellijay, Georgia. A black root gatherer had begged for bread from an African-American woman named Clements, who lived alone with her four sons. Clements refused to provide charity whereupon the root digger uttered a curse against her and her cabin. A few hours later Clements died of convulsions. A conjure ball consisting of red rags, hairs from a black dog’s tail, and crooked pins were found lodged over the door of the cabin. An autopsy of Clements’ body found no evidence of poisoning.44

The conjure ball concept had limited penetration into European-American practices, chiming a little with the widespread notion of the witch hair ball. It became a part of the folk beliefs of white North Carolinians. One elderly woman named Lucy Britt of Gates County, who was bom in 1844, recalled, ‘I went to see a herb doctor who told me if I’d find the conjure [bag] and throw it in runnin’ water, without touchin’ it with my naked hands, I’d never be troubled no more. I never found nary a thing; so I’ve had to suffer with colic and rheumatism all my life’.45 We find reference to it much farther afield too, such as in the Wisconsin state board of health’s legal action against a ‘hex woman’ named Anna Jurich in 1934. This forty-nine-year-old single mother with no stated occupation lived with her daughter in what was then 2nd Avenue in Milwaukee, providing magical services to the Yugoslav community. One Mrs Obradovich (there were several in the town) had failed to pay Jurich for a spell to ward of harm during childbirth, and in retaliation a ‘witch ball’ was thrown through the Obradovich’s window. It consisted of a thimble filled with toe and fingernail parings, wrapped in human hair and vari-coloured string. This was covered with a patchwork of cloth cut in triangles, crosses, crescents, squares, and ovals. The family burned it and scattered the ashes in an attempt to avert the curse.46 It is likely that Jurich, who had emigrated in 1900, picked up the idea from Milwaukee’s substantial African- American population. Perhaps she purchased it ready made from a local conjure doctor.

The origin of the conjure ball is linked to the West African gris gris bags, also known as juju bags, and the nkisi or minkisi containers of Congo. These consisted of a collection of ritual objects, powders, and oils placed most commonly in a red pouch. They gave their possessors spiritual power that could be used for benign and malign purposes. A case from Spanish Louisiana in 1773 demonstrates the African link. Several slaves were accused of requesting a man from Guinea, who spoke only Mandinga, to create a ‘grign consisting of herbs and the gallbladder and heart of an alligator to murder a plantation overseer.47 In nineteenth-century America bottles also came to be used as vessels. In 1883, for instance, it was reported that an Atlanta conjurer had bewitched another by placing some water (probably a euphemism for urine) in a bottle along with six hairs from the right hind leg of a cat.48

Native-American tribes shared the similar concept of the medicine bundle. This was a sacred collection of objects such as arrowheads, fossils, feathers, pipes, animal bones, tobacco, and other items of personal or tribal significance, kept in a skin bag or pouch. Together with associated rituals they enabled access to the spirit world, and provided protection for the individual, usually a chief, medicine man or woman, and ensured the well-being of the community.49 What is unclear is whether in pre-contact times the medicine bundle was imbued solely with beneficial powers. Christians demonized the medicine bundles as the tools of the maligned medicine men and they became associated with witchcraft amongst some Native Americans by the late eighteenth century. The Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, for instance, denounced medicine bundles as witch bags. In 1806 an aged Christian chief, Teteboxti, was murdered at a Moravian mission by the Prophet’s followers after a catch-22 situation whereby they promised to give him a pardon if he gave up his medicine bag, which was believed to contain tobacco, bones, and other magical elements. He did not have one, but under torture confessed to burying it under a stone. It was not found were he said it was, though, and under further torture he confessed he had hidden it a fellow Christian’s house. He was subsequently executed.

The inheritance of such medicine bundles became problematic. The impulse was to destroy them. A Pueblo legend relates how a man burned a ‘witch bag’ he had found containing hairs, rags, fingers, and a small rag doll. A local witch went mad searching for it and was soon discovered dead.50Yet at the same time they were ancestral objects that one should not destroy. The spirit of the deceased owner might not rest if separated from his or her bag. The Ojibwa of Minnesota ensured that they were buried with their owners, a process that would ensure the tradition was allocated to the past.51 A Menomini woman interviewed in the midtwentieth century explained regarding her great-grandmother, ‘I inherited her two “medicine bags”—the very powerful one, and another one. I no longer have them. Having them in my possession put me under an obligation to kill one person each year with each bag. This is our old belief. But I do not wish to kill persons.... I gave the two bags to two old, distant relatives’.52

A distinctively African-American tradition with clear roots in the West African kingdom of Kongo was the use of goopher dust or graveyard dirt. In Africa it was usually employed for protective purposes but in nineteenth-century America it also became a tool of harmful magic.53 It could be blown at a victim, or added to the ingredients of a conjure ball. The use of poisons, as we have seen, was also considered an aspect of African harmful magic, and was expressed in the use of snakes and lizards heads, often dried and powdered, in conjure practices. Plugging was a technique more widely known across American cultures. Amongst the Kwakiutl a charm to cause fainting fits consisted of a hole made in the end of a stick into which was placed some hair or menstrual blood. This was then covered with a bit of snake or corpse skin and a wooden plug inserted.54 A variation of the practice was used by African Americans in Georgia and Alabama, whereby some excrement of the intended victim was obtained and plugged in the hole of a tree. This caused the intended victim to be constipated. To counter it the plug had to be taken out and the tree chopped down and burned.55 European Americans used similar plugging techniques for causing harm and as a medical cure.

The concept of harmful image magic was based on the ‘laws of sympathy’—that like affects like or that lasting associations are formed between things that have been in close contact with each other, was common to all cultures in America. The fabrication of dolls in the form of an intended victim that were then mutilated dates back to antiquity and can be found across the globe. Amongst the Menomini of Wisconsin, witches were thought to make dolls of their victims out of grass and wood, or drew their likeness on the ground or on birch bark, and then shot, stabbed or mutilated the images.56 Amongst the Nambe ‘witch dolls’ filled with chilli seeds, dirt, and rags were thought to inflict disease, and an old prohibition amongst the Pueblo against making rag dolls for their children derives from the fear over their evil usage. It has been suggested that the Pueblo knowledge of witch dolls derives from Spanish Americans. During the Abiquiu witch trials in mid-eighteenth century New Mexico, for instance, it was claimed that the suspected witches had made a clay image of Father Toledo in which they stuck pins.57 But it is likely that it was a practice independent of European influence.

Although in the twentieth century the voodoo doll became an iconic and commercial vehicle for expressing African-American magic, it was not a common element in conjure; at least it was by no means as ubiquitous as conjure balls for the same purpose.58 As a term, it does not appear in newspapers or other literary sources until the twentieth century, although the concept of such image magic was certainly a part of hoodoo or conjure. In 1906 a Galveston woman who lived near Winnie Street asked the police for protection after what was described as a ‘hoodoo doll’ was left hanging on her door knob along with a bunch of carrots. The doll’s features were those of an elderly woman with grey hair, and attached to it was a placard on which was pencilled a skull and crossbones and the word ‘Death’.59 A children’s prank perhaps, but indicative of the fear that such objects inspired.

There is a difference, of course, between the folklore reports of the many ways in which people could try to harm through magic, and proof that such rituals were actually used. I have provided some concrete examples above, but most of the evidence we have for people conducting such rituals, particularly amongst European Americans, concerned actions against suspected witches and not by accused witches. We shall return to this in the next chapter.

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