Tituba the Witch

TitubaandtheChildren-Fredericks[1]

Tituba was the first person examined in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and was possibly the only true witch.  She learned the Craft from her mistress in Barbados and likely practiced some form of Voodoo.

Although Tituba was a woman of color there is some debate whether she was African West Indian, Native American, or of mixed heritage.  In the court documents she is listed as an “Indian Woman, Servant.”  She may have been an Arawak Indian from South America who was captured as a child, enslaved in Barbados, and sold to Samuel Parris as a teenager between the ages of 12-17 years old.  Parris brought her to Boston in 1680, along with another slave called John Indian whom she later married.  They had one child called Violet.  During the next few years Parris became a minister,started his own family, and moved his household to Salem in 1689.

What sparked the Salem witch hunts?  Many theories have been offered over the years, but the trigger appears to have been a group of Puritan girls who were bored and yearned for “sport.”  During a particularly harsh winter, when they were often confined to their small houses for long stretches of time, their curiosity was peaked by Tituba’s supernatural tales.  At that time in New England there was also a widespread interest in fortune-telling, which was forbidden.  Two of the girls read fortunes from an egg white in a glass of water, and when they started acting out and having fits  Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and Abigail Williams blamed Tituba as the cause.

The Reverend Parris beat Tituba until she confessed to making a witch cake with Mary Sibley.  And before long, her superstitious ramblings had convinced the people of Salem that Satan was among them. Tituba talked of riding on broomsticks and claimed she saw one of the villagers –  Sarah Osborne – with a winged female demon.  Her accusations led to an outbreak of mass hysteria that ended in the execution of 20 people.

Strangely enough, Tituba was one of the survivors.  Because she had already admitted to being a witch she never went to trail.  Instead, she was placed in jail.  No one knows where she went after her release but it seems likely she was sold to another owner.

Or perhaps the only true witch escaped because she knew a good protection spell!  What do you think?

Sources:

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba,” at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html

“Tituba,” at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/ASA_TIT.HTM

Wikipedia. “Tituba,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tituba_(Salem_witch_trials)

Doctor John Bayou: Voodoo Man

Voodoo 6

The “Last of the Voodoos” in New Orleans was the infamous tattooed Jean Montanet, commonly known as Doctor John, Voudoo John, and Bayou John.  Born a free member of the noble Bambaras Tribe from Senegal, John was kidnapped by Spanish slavers and shipped to Cuba.  After earning his freedom from a friendly master he worked as a ship’s cook, finally settling in Louisiana.

Doctor John seemed to possess mysterious Obi powers.   He began telling fortunes – and must have been skilled at reading people because he soon had enough money saved to buy a house.  Then he set up as a conjure man, and at the height of his fame was estimated to be worth $50,000.

John kept a harem of at least fifteen “wives” that he claimed to have married according to African tradition.  Most of these women were bought as slaves and they bore him many children.  At one time he teamed up with Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau to sell potions, charms, and spells.

Although Doctor John often looked after the poor in his neighborhood – and gave away food to the needy – he was tricked several times by unscrupulous business men who stole away his fortune.  He ended up broke, living with one of his daughters.

But how powerful was this Voodoo conjure man?  He seemed to have a charismatic personality and a sound understanding of herbal lore.  There are many first-hand accounts that his medicines actually worked.

However, he also liked to take advantage of the gullible white women who came to him out of curiosity.  One lady paid him $50 for a potion he later confessed was merely a few common herbs boiled in water.  His rationale was, “If folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take the fifty dollars every time!”

Sources:

“Haunted New Orleans” at http://www.nola.com/haunted/voodoo/?content/history.html

Hearn, Lafcadio.  “The Last of the Voudoos” at http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/hearn/lastvdu.htm

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

What’s Your Poison? Strychnine!

Did you know:

  • Strychnine comes from the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree found in India and elsewhere.
  • It also appears in the bark of some species of this toxic tree.
  • The fruit is the size of a large apple, orange in color, has  a hard rind, and contains five flat seeds.

Strychnine

  • Strychnine poisoning causes stiffness in the jaw, neck, and belly, and eventually leads to muscular convulsions and death from asphyxiation.
  • There is no antidote, but early hospitalization can save lives.  If a patient survives the first 24 hours then a full recovery is possible.
  • This poison is used to kill rodents and small predators in Europe.
  • Strychnine has been called the “least subtle” toxin.  At first the symptoms resemble a tetanus infection but most people who ingest it know they have taken poison!  It is said to cause a great deal of suffering because victims remain conscious until death.
  • In the 1904 Olympic Games the marathon was won by Thomas Hicks.  He had been given a stiff brandy and two shots of strychnine to enhance his performance.
  • In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries this substance was used as a recreational drug.  It is also occasionally mixed with street drugs such as LSD, heroine, and cocaine.

But according to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions. The surest poison is time.”

Sources:

Inglis-Arkell, Ester. “Strychnine: A Brief History of the World’s Least Subtle Poison,” at http://io9.com/strychnine-a-brief-history-of-the-worlds-least-subtle-1727903421

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia. “Strychnine,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnine

___.  “Strychnos nux-vomica at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnos_nux-vomica

 

Marie Laveau: Voodoo Queen

Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was  a Louisiana Creole free person of color who developed a reputation as The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

Marie_Laveau[1] Laveau was born in the French Quarter, the illegitimate child of a wealthy plantation owner.  She worked as a liquor importer, hairdresser, occultist, herbal healer, and also ran a brothel.   Much of her power was said to have come from her carefully-cultivated network of spies who gave her the information she used to impress her patrons.  One rumor claims that Laveau originated from a long line of voodoo priestesses in West Africa.  Cynics, however, suggest she learned her skills from fellow practitioner, Doctor John Bayou.

At the age of 18 Laveau married Jacques Paris.  He died in mysterious circumstances leaving her with two young children.  Later, she took a younger man as a common-law husband and bore him fifteen children.  Only one – a daughter also called Marie – reached adulthood.  Marie continued her mother’s legacy when she retired from the public in old age.

Laveau supposedly had a snake called Zombi, named after an African God.  She staged elaborate ceremonies where the dancers became possessed by voodoo spirits called loas; danced naked around bonfires; sold charms or gris-gris; saved several men from the gallows; told fortunes; and stayed eternally youthful.  She passed peacefully in her sleep, but her ghost has often been seen in the graveyard where she is buried.

Laveau’s tomb is in St. Louis Cemetery, Number One.  According to legend, if you draw an X on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb and shout your wish – it will be granted.  Once this is done you must return to the tomb, circle the X you made, and leave an offering of thanks.

If anyone has tried this – please let me know if it worked!

Sources:

CSI, “Secrets of the Voodoo Tomb” at http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/secrets_of_the_voodoo_tomb/

The Mystica, “Laveau, Marie” at http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/l/laveau_marie.html

Voodoo On the Bayou, “Marie Laveau” at http://www.voodooonthebayou.net/marie_laveau.html

Wikipedia, “Marie Laveau” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Laveau

Photo:

Angela Bassett playing the role of Marie Laveau in American Horror Story

Kit’s Crit: Tell My Horse (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston

Do you believe in Zombies?  Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!

As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power.  But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts.  The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti.  Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.

The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling.  Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.”  But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead.  Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit.  It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.

ZombieThe dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor  who turns the body into a mindless slave.  Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan. 

Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices.  It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste.  Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.

Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!

Voodoo or Hoodoo?

Voodoo 1

What is the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo?  I recently visited the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum to find out.  Here is a brief account of my discoveries:

Voodoo is a religion (led by initiated witch doctors) that has split into two branches – Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun.

Hoodoo, however, is a form of folk magic (that anyone can practice) which originated in West Africa and thrives predominantly in the southern USA.

They are complimentary aspects of a supernatural belief system from similar ancient roots.

Voodoo 2

Voodoo comes from West African Vodun – “spirit”- and was made popular in Haiti.  It has since spread to many other places, most notably Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria.  Voodoo is a way of life  built around the supreme being Bondye, a remote creator god.  But there are many spirits called loa that can be worshipped on a personal level.  To connect with the spirit world a believer can invite the loa to enter their body and possess them during religious ceremonies.

Voodoo 3

Hoodoo is also called conjure, witchcraft, working the root, and root doctoring.  It is closely aligned with the form of African spirituality known as Ggbo.  As part of the Obeah folk tradition it spread from Haiti and Jamaica to New Orleans and along the Mississippi Delta.  In many way it is an American form of Voodoo.

Voodoo 5

Constantly changing as it comes into contact with other cultures, Hoodoo has many Roman Catholic elements.  When African American slaves were forced to convert to Christianity by a law of 1685 they replaced the loas with saints from the Bible.  God became the archetypal Hoodoo doctor who controlled fate and destiny, while Moses was the first man who performed magic and miracles.  The Bible is the greatest conjure book in the world and many of the Psalms are used in spells.

Hoodoo also draws on Spiritualism.  People are able to harness supernatural forces to assist in their daily lives and they can connect with the other world in different ways, often involving rituals and sacrifices.

Bottle Trees are a popular garden feature.  These glass bottles are used to trap evil spirits until the morning sun destroys them.

If you are ever in New Orleans then pay a visit to the Voodoo Museum.  It is a fascinating experience!

Voodoo 6

Additional Sources:

Knowledge Nuts, “The Difference Between Voodoo and Hoodoo” at http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/12/26/the-difference-between-hoodoo-and-voodoo/

Wikipedia, “Hoodoo” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoodoo_(folk_magic)

Wikipedia, “African Vodun” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun

 

What’s Your Poison? Arsenic!

Did you know:

Rice

  • The word arsenic comes from the Persian word for yellow, but it is better known as The King of All Poisons or The Poisoner of Kings.
  • Arsenic is highly toxic but nowadays it can be successfully treated in a hospital.
  • This poison occurs naturally in rice.
  • It is also found in leafy vegetables, apple juice, grape juice, and seafood.
  • One of the greatest natural threats is contaminated groundwater that has absorbed arsenic salts.
  • Long term exposure causes cancer of the bladder, kidneys, liver, prostate, skin, lung, and nose.
  • Symptoms of poisoning start with headaches, confusion, drowsiness and severe diarrhea.  Then comes vomiting, bloody urine, hair loss, stomach pain, convulsions, coma, and death.
  • Although this toxin used to be very difficult to detect it is now traceable in hair, blood, urine, and nail clippings.
  • For over 2,400 years arsenic was used in Chinese medicine, and in the West it was an early treatment for syphilis before penicillin became available.
  • For hundreds of years women mixed arsenic with vinegar and chalk to provide the desired white complexions of the ruling classes.
  • And because this poison has similar symptoms to cholera, many criminals throughout the ages have – quite literally – got away with murder!

Sources:

Authority Nutrition. “Arsenic In Rice” at  http://authoritynutrition.com/arsenic-in-rice/

GreenFacts, “Arsenic” at http://www.greenfacts.org/en/arsenic/

Wikipedia. “Arsenic” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic

_. “Arsenic Poisoning” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning