How Ham was
Cured by Jennie
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
"Many a time," said Dr. Rutherford, and calmly cut his
"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
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
"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
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.
"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
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
More white powders. Then came Wash, great big Wash; and when
his powder changed, what do you suppose he did? Well, he just
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
"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
"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
"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
"Humph!" said I, "men are not so stupid, after all."
Edward looked more amused than flattered, which shows how
conceited men are.