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How Ham was Cured by Jennie Woodville

1875

This was in slave times. It was also immediately after dinner, and the gentlemen had gone to the east piazza. Mr. Smith was walking back and forth, talking somewhat excitedly for him, while Dr. Rutherford sat with his feet on the railing, thoughtfully executing the sentimental performance of cutting his nails. Dr. Rutherford was an old friend of Mr. Smith who had been studying surgery in Philadelphia, and now, on his way back to South Carolina, had tarried to make us a visit.

"You see," Mr. Smith was saying, "about a week ago one of our old negroes died under the impression that she was 'tricked' or bewitched, and the consequence has been that the entire plantation is demoralized. You never saw anything like it."

"Many a time," said Dr. Rutherford, and calmly cut his nails.

"There is not a negro on the place," continued Edward, "who does not lie down at night in terror of the Evil Eye, and go to his work in the morning paralyzed by dread of what the day may bring. Why, there is a perfect panic among them. They are falling about like a set of ten-pins. This morning I sent for Wash (best hand on the place) to see about setting out tobacco plants, and behold Wash curled up under a haystack getting ready to die! It is enough to—So as soon as you came this morning a plan entered my head for putting a stop to the thing. It will be necessary to acknowledge that two or three of them are under the spell, and it is better to select those who already fancy themselves so.—Rosalie!" I appeared at the window. "Are any of the house-servants 'witched?"

"Mercy is," said I, "and I presume Mammy is going to be: I saw her make a curtsey to the black cat this morning."

"Well, what is your plan?" inquired Dr. Rutherford.

Mr. Smith seated himself on the piazza railing, dangling his feet thereagainst, rounding his shoulders in the most attractive and engaging manner, as you see men do, and proceeded to develop his idea. I was called off at the moment, and did not return for an hour or two. As I did so I heard Dr. Rutherford say, "All right! Blow the horn;" and the overseer down in the yard

Blew a blast as loud and shrill

As the wild-boar heard on Temple Hill—

an event which at this unusual hour of the day produced perfect consternation among the already excited negroes. They no doubt supposed it the musical exercise set apart for the performance of the angel Gabriel on the day of judgment, and in less than ten minutes all without exception had come pell-mell, helter-skelter, running to "the house." The dairymaid left her churn, and the housemaid put down her broom; the ploughs stood still, and when the horses turned their heads to see what was the matter they found they had no driver; she also who was cooking for the hands "fled from the path of duty" (no Casabianca nonsense for her!), leaving the "middling" to sputter into blackness and the corn-pones to share its fate. Mothers had gathered up their children of both sexes, and grouped them in little terrified companies about the yard and around the piazza-steps.

Edward was now among them, endeavoring to subdue the excitement, and having to some extent succeeded, he made a signal to Dr. Rutherford, who came forward to address the negroes. Throwing his shoulders back and looking around with dignity, he exclaimed, "I am the great Dr. Rutherford, the witch-doctor of Boston! I was far away in the North, hundreds of miles from here, and I saw a spot on the sun, and it looked like the Evil Eye! And I found it was a great black smoke. Then I knew that witch-fires were burning in the mountains, and witches were dancing in the valleys; and the light of the Eye was red! I am the great Dr. Rutherford, the witch-doctor of Boston! I called my black cat up and told her to smell for blood, and she smelled, and she smelled, and she smelled! She smelled, and she smelled, and she smelled! And presently her hair stood up like bristles, and her eyes shot out sparks of fire, and her tail was as stiff as iron!" He threw his shoulders back, looked imposingly around and repeated: "I am the great Dr. Rutherford the witch-doctor of Boston! My black Cat tells me that the witch is here—that she has hung the deadly nightshade at your cabin-doors, and your blood is turning to water. You are beginning to wither away. You shiver in the sunshine; you don't want to eat; your hearts are heavy and you don't feel like work; and when you come from the field you don't take down the banjo and pat and shuffle and dance, but you sit down in the corner with your heads on your hands, and would go to sleep, but you know that as soon as you shut your eyes she will cast hers on you through the chinks in the cabin-wall."

"Dat's me!" said Mercy—"dat certny is me!"

"Gret day in de mornin', mas' witch-doctor! How you know? Is you been tricked?" inquired Martha, who, having been reared on the plantation, was unacquainted with the etiquette observed at lectures.

Wash groaned heavily, and shook his head from side to side in silent commendation of the doctor's lore.

"My black cat tells me that the witch is here; and she is here!" (Immense sensation among the children of Ham.) "But," continued he with a majestic wave of the arm, "she can do you no harm, for I also am here, the great Dr. Rutherford, the witch-doctor of Boston!"

"Doctor," inquired Edward in a loud voice, "can you tell who is conjured and who is not?"

"I cannot tell unless robed in the blandishments of plagiarism and the satellites of hygienic art as expunged by the gyrations of nebular hypothesis. Await ye!" He and Mr, Smith went into the house.

The negroes were very much impressed. They have excessive reverence for grandiloquent language, and the less they understand of it the better they like it.

"What dat he say, honey?" asked old Mammy. "I can't heer like I used ter."

"He says he will be back soon, Mammy, and tell if any of you are tricked," said I; and just then Edward and the doctor reappeared, bearing between them a pine table. On this table were arranged about forty little pyramids of whitish-looking powder, and in their midst stood a bottle containing some clear liquid, like water. Dr. Rutherford seated himself behind it, robed in the black gown he had used in the dissecting-room, and crowned by a conical head-piece about two feet high, manufactured by Edward and himself, and which they had completed by placing on the pinnacle thereof a human skull. The effect of this picturesque costume was heightened by two large red circles around the doctor's eyes—whether obtained from the juice of the pokeberry or the inkstand on Edward's desk need not be determined.

In front of the table stood the negroes, men, women and children. There was the preacher, decked in the clerical livery of a standing collar and white cravat, but, perhaps in deference to the day of the week, these were modified by the secular apparel of a yellow cotton shirt and homespun pantaloons, attached to a pair of old "galluses," which had been mended with twine, and pieced with leather, and lengthened with string, till, if any of the original remained, none could tell the color thereof nor what they had been in the day of their youth. The effect was not harmonious. There was Mammy, with her low wrinkled forehead, and white turban, and toothless gums, and skin of shining blackness, which testified that her material wants were not neglected. There was Wash, a great, stalwart negro, who ordinarily seemed able to cope with any ten men you might meet, now looking so subdued and dispirited, and of a complexion so ashy, that he really appeared old and shrunken and weak. There was William Wirt, the ploughboy, affected by a chronic grin which not even the solemnity of this occasion could dissipate, but the character of which seemed changed by the awestruck eyes that rolled above the heavy red lips and huge white teeth. There was Apollo—in social and domestic circles known as 'Poller—there was Apollo, his hair standing about his head in little black tufts or horns wrapped with cotton cord to make it grow, one brawny black shoulder protruding from a rent in his yellow cotton shirt, his pantaloons hanging loosely around his hips, and bagging around that wonderful foot which did not suggest his name, unless his sponsors in baptism were of a very satirical turn. There were Martha, and Susan, and Minerva, and Cinderella, and Chesterfield, and Pitt, and a great many other grown ones, besides a crowd of children, the smallest among the latter being clad in the dishabille of a single garment, which reached perhaps to the knee, but had little to boast in the way of latitude.

There they all stood in little groups about the yard, looking with awe and reverence at the great Dr. Rutherford, who sat behind the table with his black gown and frightful eyes and skull-crowned cap.

"You see these little heaps of powder and this bottle of water. You will come forward one at a time and pour a few drops of the water in this bottle on one of these little heaps of powder. If the powder turns black, the person who pours on the water is 'witched. If the powder remains white, the person who pours on the water is not 'witched. You may all examine the powders, and see for yourselves whether there is any difference between them, and you will each pour from the same bottle."

During a silence so intense that nothing was heard save the hum of two great "bumblebees" that darted in and out among the trees and flew at erratic angles above our heads, the negroes came forward and stretched their necks over each other's shoulders, peering curiously at the little mounds of powder that lay before them, at the innocent-looking bottle that stood in their midst, and the great high priest who sat behind. They stretched their necks over each other's shoulders, and each endeavored to push his neighbor to the front; but those in front, with due reverence for the uncanny nature of the table, were determined not to be forced too near it, and the result was a quiet struggle, a silent wrestle, an undertone of wriggle, that was irresistibly funny.

Then arose the great high priest: "Range ye!"

Not knowing the nature of this order, the negroes scattered instanter and then collected en masse around Mr. Smith.

"Range ye! range!" repeated the doctor with dignity, and Edward proceeded to arrange them in a long, straggling row, urging upon them that there was no cause for alarm, as, even should any of them prove 'witched, the doctor had charms with him by which to cast off the spell.

"Come, Martha," said Edward; but Martha was dismayed, and giving her neighbor a hasty shove, exclaimed,

"You go fus', Unk' Lumfrey: you's de preacher."

Uncle Humphrey disengaged his elbow with an angry hitch: "I don't keer if I is: go 'long yose'f."

"Well, de Lord knows I'm 'feerd to go," said Martha; "but ef I sot up for preachin', 'peers to me I wouldn' be'feerd to sass witches nor goses, nor nuffin' else."

"I don't preach no time but Sundays, an' dis ain't Sunday," said Uncle Humphrey.

"Hy, nigger!" exclaimed Martha in desperation, "is you gwine to go back on de Lord cos 'tain't Sunday? How come you don't trus' on Him week-a-days?"

"I does trus' on Him fur as enny sense in doin' uv it; but ef I go to enny my foolishness, fus' thing I know de Lord gwine leave me to take keer uv myse'f, preacher or no preacher—same as ef He was ter say, 'Dat's all right, cap'n: ef you gwine to boss dis job, boss it;' an' den whar I be? Mas' Ned tole you to go: go on, an' lemme 'lone."

"Uncle Humphrey," said Edward, "there is nothing whatever to be afraid of, and you must set the rest an example. Come!"

Uncle Humphrey obeyed, but as he did so he turned his head and rolled—or, as the negroes say, walled—his eyes at Martha in a manner which convinced her, whatever her doubts in other matters pertaining to theology, that there is such a thing as future punishment. The old fellow advanced, and under direction of the great high priest poured some of the contents of the bottle on the powder indicated to him, and it remained white.

"Thang Gord!" he exclaimed with a fervency which left no doubt of his sincerity, and hastened away.

Two or three others followed with a similar result. Then came Mercy, the housemaid, and as her trembling fingers poured the liquid forth, behold the powder changed and turned to black! The commotion was indescribable, and Mercy was about to have a nervous fit when Dr. Rutherford, fixing his eyes on her, said in a tone of command, "Be quiet—be perfectly quiet, and in two hours I will destroy the spell. Go over there and sit down."

She tottered to a seat under one of the trees.

One or two more took their turn, among them Mammy, but the powders remained white. I had entreated Edward not to pronounce her 'witched, because she was so old and I loved her so: I could not bear that she should be frightened. You should have seen her when she found that she was safe. The stiff old limbs became supple and the terrified countenance full of joy, and the dear ridiculous old thing threw her arms up in the air, and laughed and cried, and shouted, and praised God, and knocked off her turban, and burst open her apron-strings, and refused to be quieted till the doctor ordered her to be removed from the scene of action. The idea of retiring to the seclusion of her cabin while all this was going on was simply preposterous, and Mammy at once exhibited the soothing effect of the suggestion; so the play proceeded.

More white powders. Then Apollo's turned black, and, poor fellow! when it did so, he might have been a god or a demon, or anything else you never saw, for his face looked little like that of a human being, giving you the impression only of wildly-rolling eyeballs, and great white teeth glistening in a ghastly, feeble, almost idiotic grin.

Edward went up to him and laid his hand on his shoulder: "That's all right, my boy. We'll have you straight in no time, and you will be the best man at the shucking to-morrow night."

More white powders. Then came Wash, great big Wash; and when his powder changed, what do you suppose he did? Well, he just fainted outright.

The remaining powders retaining their color, and Wash having been restored to consciousness, Dr. Rutherford directed him to a clump of chinquapin bushes near the "big gate" at the entrance of the plantation. There he would find a flat stone. Beneath this stone he would find thirteen grains of moulding corn and some goat's hair. These he was to bring back with him. Under the first rail near the same gate Mercy would find: a dead frog with its eyes torn out, and across the road in the hollow of a stump Apollo was to look for a muskrat's tail and a weasel's paw. They went off reluctantly, the entire corps de plantation following, and soon they all came scampering back, trampling down the ox-eyed daisies and jamming each other against the corners of the rail fence, for, sure enough, the witch's treasures had been found, but not a soul had dared to touch them. Dr. Rutherford sternly ordered them back, but all hands hung fire, and their countenances evinced resistance of such a stubborn character that Edward at length volunteered to go with them. Then it was all right, and presently returned the most laughable procession that was ever seen—Wash with his arms at right angles, bearing his grains of moulding grain on a burdock leaf which he held at as great a distance as the size of the leaf and the length of his arms would admit, his neck craned out and his eyes so glued to the uncanny corn that he stumbled over every stick and stone that lay in his path; Mercy next, with ludicrous solemnity, bearing her unsightly burden on the end of a corn-stalk; Apollo last, his weasel's paw and muskrat's tail deposited in the toe of an old brogan which he had found by the roadside, brown and wrinkled and stiff, with a hole in the side and the ears curled back, and which he had hung by the heel to a long crooked stick. On they came, the crowd around them following at irregular distances, surging back and forth, advancing or retreating as they were urged by curiosity or repelled by fear.

It was now getting dark, so Dr. Rutherford, having had the table removed, brought forth three large plates filled with different colored powders. On one he placed Mercy's frog, on another Wash's corn, and on the third the muskrat's tail and weasel's paw taken from Apollo's shoe. Then we all waited in silence while with his hands behind him he strode solemnly back and forth in front of the three plates. At length the bees had ceased to hum; the cattle had come home of themselves, and could be heard lowing in the distance; the many shadows had deepened into one; twilight had faded and darkness come. Then he stood still: "I am the great Dr. Rutherford, the witch-doctor of Boston! I will now set fire to these witch's eggs, and if they burn the flames will scorch her. She will scream and fly away, and it will be a hundred years before another witch appears in this part of the country."

He applied a match to Apollo's plate and immediately the whole place was illuminated by a pale blue glare which fell with ghastly effect on the awestricken countenances around, while in the distance, apparently near the "big gate," arose a succession of the most frightful shrieks ever heard or imagined. Then the torch was applied to Mercy's frog, and forthwith every nook and corner, every leaf and every blade of grass was bathed in a flood of blood-red light, while the cries grew, if possible, louder and fiercer. Then came Wash's corn, which burned with a poisonous green glare, and lashed its sickly light over the house and yard and the crowd of black faces; and hardly had this died away when from the direction of the big gate there slowly ascended what appeared to be a blood-red ball.

"There she goes!" said the great Dr. Rutherford, and we all stood gazing up into the heavens, till at length the thing burst into flames, the sparks died away and no more was to be seen.

"Now, that is the last of her!" impressively announced the witch-doctor of Boston; "and neither she nor her sisters will dare come to this country again for the next hundred years. You can all make your minds easy about witches."

Then came triumph instead of dread, and scorn took the place of fear. There arose a succession of shouts and cheers, laughter and jeers. They patted their knees and shuffled their feet and wagged their heads in derision.

"Hyar! hyar! old gal! Done burnt up, is you? Take keer whar you lay yo' aigs arfer dis!" advised William Wirt in a loud voice.—"Go 'long, pizen sass!" said Martha. "You done lay yo' las' aig, you is!"—"Hooray tag-rag!" shouted Chesterfield.—"Histe yo' heels, ole Mrs. Satan," cried one.—"You ain't no better'n a free nigger!" said another.—"Yo' wheel done skotch for good, ole skeer-face! hyar! hyar! You better not come foolin' 'long o' Mas' Ned's niggers no mo'!"

The next night was a gala one, and a merrier set of negroes never sang at a corn-shucking, nor did a jollier leader than Wash ever tread the pile, while Mercy sat on a throne of shucks receiving Sambo's homage, and, unmolested by fear, coyly held a corncob between her teeth as she hung her head and bashfully consented that he should come next day to "ax Mas' Ned de liberty of de plantashun."


"But, Edward," said I, "why did those three powders turn black?"

"Because they were calomel, my dear, and it was lime-water that was poured on them," said Mr. Smith.

"Well, but why did not the others turn black too?"

"Because the others were tartarized antimony."

"Where did you get what was in the plates, that made the lights, you know?"

"Rutherford had the material. He is going to settle in a small country town, so he provided himself with all sorts of drugs and chemicals before he left Philadelphia."

"But, Edward," persisted I, putting my hand over his book to make him stop reading, "how came those things where they were found? and the balloon to ascend just at the proper moment? and who or what was it screaming so? Neither you nor Dr. Rutherford had left the yard except to go into the house."

"No, my dear; but you remember Dick Kirby came over just after dinner, and he would not ask any better fun than to fix all that."

"Humph!" said I, "men are not so stupid, after all."

Edward looked more amused than flattered, which shows how conceited men are.

JENNIE WOODVILLE.