Skip to main content

"The Conjure Woman—Truth is Stranger than Fiction"

"The Conjure Woman" by Charles W. Chestnutt, published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston, (Price $1.25) is the best book of short stories of the year. It has peculiar interest for North Carolina readers because the author shows a thorough acquaintanceship with the superstitions and shrewdness of the negro character. The writer begins his first conjure story by stating that some years ago his wife was in poor health and his doctor advised a change from the temperature in the vicinity of the Great Lakes, and he came to North Carolina to visit a cousin who was in the turpentine business. The destination he writes, was "a quaint old town which I shall call Patesville, because for one reason, that is not its name. There was a red brick market-house in the public square with a tall tower which held a four-faced clock that struck the hours and from which there pealed out a curfew at nine o'clock." The further description of the place and surroundings country shows that Fayetteville was the town near which he brought a vineyard and settled. The seven conjure stories were told the new settler by an old issue negro, "Uncle Julius," who was employed as coachman, and they bear every evidence of genuineness. They are admirably well told and each has a conclusion that gives "Uncle Julius" credit for smartness, as well as a vivid imagination. In the multitude of ialects, Chas. Chestnutts' conjure stories deserve to rank with those of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page.

We had scarcely finished reading this book, which charmingly tells of harmless conjure faith of the old time darkey, when the Newton Enterprise gave an account of a trial in Lincoln court, showing how faith in "conjuration" caused loss to a white man in North Carolina in the blazing light of this era's civilization. Here is the story of the trial:

"Chris Detter was on trial on indictment for embezzlement and Martin Smith was the principle witness. Smith swore that Detter claimed to be a witch doctor and represented to him that his sister, an inmate of his house was bewitched. After treating her some time, he said that the whole house and every crack in the house was full of witches and that the only way to get rid of them and cure the patient was to burn the house. Smith and his family had such implicit confidence in the witch doctor that the house was set on fire and burned down. During the burning the doctor stood by with a big stick to kill the witches as they came out. But after the fire he claimed that the witches had escaped up the chimney. Smith had a large hog and the doctor claimed that the witches had taken refuge in the hog, but that they could be driven out by hitting the hog between the eyes. Acting on the doctor's instructions Smith took a big stick of wood and hit the hog on the head, while the doctor held the hog's mouth open with a large butcher knife to enable the witches to escape. The first lick was not hard enough and the doctor called for a harder lick. The next blow killed the hog. Then the doctor said that a certain portion of the hog, if eaten by any member of the family, would cause instant death, but would have no deleterious effect on anybody else. he drew a mark close behind the shoulder blades and convinced smith that if any of his family ate of the meat back of this line it would bring sure and immediate death. Smith therefore took the head and shoulders, and the doctor the hams and sides."

The Charlotte Observer adds some additional facts:

"Smith was living in Burke county all this time. The witches proving to be unusually tenacious in this case and refusing either to "banish" or be banished. Dr. Detter went into consultation with Smith again and informed him that he (Smith) would really have to leave, as the witches would not. The doctor recommended Lincolnshire as being peculiarly exempt from witches, and offered, at the sacrifice of his precious time and talents, to secure Smith a foothold in lovely Lincoln, where the hoo-doos never trouble and the hoo-dooed might get a breathing spell and surcease from witches. He secured a home for Smith in this El Dorado for the small sum of $240, and Smith folded his tent like the soft-snap that he was, and silently stole away to Lincoln. The most of the silent stealing, however, was done by Dr. Detter. Smith finally discovered that Dr. Detter had obtained this new home for him for $165, and had thus made $75 clear profit, although he told Smith that he paid exactly $240 for the place. Smith, as The Enterprise informs us, plucked up courage enough to consult a lawyer. They put the law on the learned Dr. Detter, and he was adjudged to be guilty of embezzlement. Judge Coble will doubtless give him a term in the pen."

The fact that such a thing could be possible among white people of North Carolina today almost staggers belief. It shows the crying need for education and proves that truth is stranger than fiction.