While on a commercial visit to Tennessee, it was my good fortune to sojourn a few weeks in the charming town of Franklin. Williamson County. This county, before the war, was one of the richest in Middle Tennessee, and heavily populated by negroes, of which many still remain—a shadow only of their former number, but, if possible, more devoted to-the superstitions rites of their native State than ever. I made many pleasant acquaintances here. Prominent among them was Dr. Jones, who exerted himself in every manner to add to my enjoyments. Dr. Jones, like all Southern physicians, was of a line social turn, extremely polite, and being in active practice, I took with him frequent rides over the adjacent country. The blacks were often the theme of our conversation, and we both enjoyed the subject.
There are among the blacks a few who claim supernatural powers in the cure of the sick, at least a particular kind of sickness. They will not condescend to treat any disease unless it is of that obscure lingering kind called by them “tricked,” and then they are exceedingly jealous as to witnesses to their rites. Dr. Jones had practiced among them quite extensively, and his work being nearly always gratuitous, be had considerable influence upon them. He promised to use this influence in procuring me a visit to one of their ceremonies.
It was not long before I was notified of an opportunity. He had under treatment a young mulatto woman, who was in the last stage of tabies mesnterica, I quote the doctor, which he assured me was utterly incurable, and it possesses that peculiarly slow dwindling away sort of character, that con vinced the blacks some enemy in her “house” had laid his spell upon her, and although they had employed a white doctor, this was only for respectability, and Dr. Jones was finally convinced a negro doctor was at work also. He at last got their permission to witness his practice by seeming to advise a resort to it. By the way, no negro can attain eminence among them, or influence, except by age, and being a preacher. The older the better, but he at the same time must be a preacher, this being the ultima thule of their ambition.
On a bright morning we set out on our trip and took our way up the Harpeth bottom. Soon, however, we left this delightful pastoral country, and burst into defiles among the knobs, a slow, tedious way, among huge groves, some boulders, and always crossing “branches.” At last, some eight or ten miles brought us among the tallest of the knobs, and here we stopped in a bosky dell, fastened our horses, and prepared to ascend one of the tallest hills.
A negro, one of the patient's relatives, awaited us to act as guide. He informed us that the patient had arrived that morning, having been brought by easy stages on a litter. A precipitous, rocky pathway, slowly followed, soon brought us to the summit of the hill, and here, while resting, we could see far away to the north the capital of Tennessee.
The top of our hill had its crown shaven, and a worn fence, three rails high, enclosed about an acre of sprouty land. In its centre stood a log cabin of the rudest kind, and this was the abode of the greatest doctor of them all. His reputation was so great his patients were all brought to him. His name was Peter, Uncle Peter they called him, and his age, according to his own account, had long-ago passed the hundred years.
Several negroes were basking in the sun, and they all touched their hats and shewed their glittering teeth as we passed and entered the cabin. Our eyes were so blinded by the darkness that we could not at first see, but as things gradually cleared up we saw the patient lying on a pallet in the centre of the dirty fit or, while near her set the doctor. His appearance was well calculated to inspire us with awe. He had been a giant, but age had doubled him up and bent hiss until he was only a huge carcass. He was sitting on a stool, bent over on his knees, and with finger he was tracing some sort of characters in the dust on the floor. He took no notice whatever of our entrance, but kept his eyes fastened on his crooked, knobby fingers as they traced, traced. The patient certainly was one well calculated to put his magical powers to the full test Emaciated to the last degree, skin dry, pulse quick, rapid, and weak, and respiration fast. Her eyes were large, bright, and wild. Of course we looked with pity mixed with contempt upon the folly of these children of the desert in hoping for any good result.
After keeping us waiting a full half hour the old man arose to his feet, and as his tall form unfolded he showed what must have been his proportions when young. We now, for the first time, got a view of his face. It was gaunt, huge, and wrinkled. His lower face and his head were matted with hair as kinky and white as wool. His mouth was adorned with only one tooth, and he had a constant trick of thrusting his tongue against it, causing it to vibrate back and forth, for it was loose. His eyes were sunk deep under the overhanging brows, and though pale with age, we soon found that they had a baleful glare. He hobbled slowly by the aid of a stick to the door, which he stooped out of, and folding his hands and turning his face upward toward the sun, now near the zenith, he mumbled some expressions, whether of prayer to the sun or incantations I could not tell. This was followed by several low bows in the same direction. He then re-entered the cabin.
It was singular to watch with what reverence and awe the blacks eyed him; in fact it was so apparent that some of it became communicated to ourselves. He seemed to take no notice whatever of our presence, or, in fact, of any but the patient’s. He took a sharp-pointed stick, about two feet long, and tapering f-om one end to the other, from over the fireplace, and leaning on his staff he slowly drew a circle around the pallet. He then drew lines from the pallet to the ring, like the spokes of a wheel. These lines were about two feet apart. Next, (we watched him closely), with the point of his wand, be made some cabalistic characters in each space. He next took from his bosom a rag, and slowly untied it, and putting a pinch of a dark powder in his own mouth, he did the same to the patient, and then dropped a like quantity on each one of the strange characters in his circle.
The powder he had taken seemed to have excited him, as it likewise did the girl, for she looked wilder than ever, and he, suddenly tossing his staff aside, began, slowly at first, to tramp around the circle, carefully avoiding the lines he had drawn. As he tramped around he seemed to grow taller; in fact, he straightened up until his head reached almost among the smoky, spider-webbed rafters. He tossed his arms wildly around his head, and tramped around, and now I noticed the peculiar glare of his eyes. They were, I imagined, like the eyes of the cobra as he charmed his prey. As he passed around he first merely mumbled inarticulate words, but as he became more excited he talked louder, and though I did not understand his language, I caught a few words that he most often repeated. “Barimo, Barimo,” he often called out, and several times he stopped, bent over the head of the patient, and said rather slower than his other expressions, “Hang lo rapelang.” Then straightening up he would start around on his circuit.
At last he seemed wound up to the highest pitch, his eyes were staring from their sockets, his face seemed turgid with blood, and we, too, became infected, our eyes being fastened on him, and the patient appeared almost crazy. At this juncture, we heard a singular humming noise, low and musical; it seemed to be coming in at the open door. At first it was as soft and uncertain as an Eolian harp, but gradually it became louder and louder, until the cabin seemed full of humming birds or bees.
“By heavens,” whispered Dr. Jones in my ear, “there are spirits in the room.” “Millions of them,” came from the old doctor, without any sign of his having spoken.
We started, looked at each other, and then determined to see it out.
As this noise intensified itself, I noticed the patient began to look calmer, and gradually she closed her eyes, and seemed asleep. A gentle perspiration was on her forehead, and her breathing became slow and regular as a child's. While she was in this condition the old man gradually ceased his utterances, the humming noise became more and more indistinct, until it at last floated away in the distance. He then settled slowly down on his stool, and again commenced marking with his finger in the dust. The attendants now, at a signal from him, came in, and lifting the pallet carried the sick woman out and laid her in the shade of an oak.
We sat a while, and seeing no disposition on the part of the magician to notice us, we took our homeward way after contributing some coins to his wants.
I left Franklin the next day, and did not revisit it for several months. On my return I called on my friend. The door was opened by a handsome mulatto girl, who seemed to recognize me, though I did not remember her. After greeting Dr. Jones, I asked him what became of the girl. He told me she was the one who had answered the bell.
- Voodooism by unknown author, Spiritual Scientist, v. 3, No. 11, November 18, 1875, p. 122