Granger, Mary (editor, heading the Georgia Writers Project), 1940, Drums and Shadows (excerpt), University of Georgia Press.
This interview took place in the home of Nathaniel John Lewis, the mayor of ‘Tin City’, a Geechee settlement near Savannah, Georgia, in the early 20th Century. As was common practice by folklorists at the time, the conversations were transcribed phonetically to capture the language and dialect patterns of the subjects.
Nathaniel John Lewis, the first mayor, has a neat little one-room dwelling behind a board fence. As he politely apologized for not being at his best, a certain amount of schooling was evident in his speech, which was extremely soft, slow, and careful. He smiled with grim amusement when we asked if he knew anything about conjure or spells.
“Cunjuh?” he repeated. “That’s what is wrong with this ahm of mine. As I sit heah, I know that my enemy brought about this affliction. One night two, three yeahs ago, I put out my hand to open my gate. Pain went into my palm jus like stabbin with a shahp needle. This ahm has been no use since then.”
“Perhaps it is rheumatism?” we suggested.
“No, sir. It isn’t. I know. An cunjuh must be fought with cunjuh. If I know my enemy’s name I could get somethin frum a cunjuh doctuh to help me seek revenge. But I am helpless.”
“What would the doctor do about it?” we asked.
“The toe nails, the finguh nails, even the scrapins frum the bottom of the foot are all very powuhful. If the doctuh could get any of these frum my enemy, he would mix them in whiskey an make my enemy drink. That is all.”
“Would the enemy die or just get sick?”
But the old man was brooding with a faraway look in his eyes and would not answer our question.
“Cunjuh,” he said again. “You ask me if I know about these dahk things. I know too well. My wife Hattie had a spell put on uh fuh three long yeahs with a nest of rattlesnakes inside uh. She jus lay theah an swelled an suffuhed. How she suffuhed! Jus like the foam that comes on a snake’s mouth when he is hungry, she would foam. But she couldn’t eat.”
“Did she die of snakes?” we wanted to know.
“No. It was predicted that she would have a spell put on uh to die by fyuh and sho enough one night she was burned to death with the snakes still inside uh.”
“But how were the snakes given to her?”
“That I can’t tell. She maybe drank them in a little whiskey. But I can’t tell.”
Nathaniel Lewis’ somber gaze had all this time been directed through the open door to his garden. It was a pretty little green inclosure with rustic benches set hospitably about. We commented on the vines and ferns, which showed careful cultivation.
“You like my gahden?” Lewis said mournfully. “That’s all I can think of, my gahden. Theah’s a bush out theah that’s goin to protect me frum any othuh enemies. Nobody can cunjuh me now because of that bush. If only I’d had a little piece of that plant befo, Hattie would be alive an me well an strong. But I kept puttin off goin to get a piece. You have to go to the woods in the dahk of night an find it faw yuhself. If you get caught at sunrise in those woods, you can’t get out till night again. You plant a piece of the bush in somebody’s yahd. They can’t go out till you let them. You plant it in yuh own yahd. Nobody can get in to do you hahm. That’s why I’m safe now. But,” he concluded, with a melancholy look around his meagerly furnished domain, “I should’ve had it befo. My enemy has even prevented me from gettin on relief.”
Lewis showed us his single treasured book, which he said contained magic art.
“This book has helped me some,” he said, “but I didn’t really need it. I was birthed with my wisdom because I was the seventh child an bawn with a caul.”
We asked if he could see and talk with spirits.
“I see them,” he said simply. “Theah is a little ghos that stays right roun this house. The firs night I moved in heah he walked right in an jumped on me. I managed to throw him off. Now he comes every night. Sometimes he stands at the gate with his feet so high off the groun,” measuring about a foot, “an his face is turned backwards, but he can always see you. I don’t talk to him any aw try to come close, because he would hahm me aw cause me to hahm myself. I jus pass him by as if he wasn’t theah. But I see him.”
“I know theah must be buried treasure wheah this house is built, fuh wheahevuh theah is money aw othuh treasure a ghos is put theah to gahd it. One time I went out to Deptford with two othuh men to dig up a pot of money that I knew was buried theah. I saw three spirits, one man an two women. We dug and dug an finally we could see the pot of money. Jus then one of the women laughed, ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!”, pot sunk down deepuh in the groun. We all ran.”
“The laugh that spirit gave went right through me. I nevuh tried to dig up the money again. Right now I know theah is treasure buried heah unduh me, but I wouldn’t try to get it. It is bad luck. That spirit warned me.”
“I see witches, too,” he continued. “Not everybody can tell a witch, but I can. Theah’s an old woman on Gwinnett Street with some cows. Othuh people don’t know it, but she’s the worse kind of witch. Not very long ago she came and rode a woman heah in Tin City and sucked uh blood. You ought to see that woman. She’s so thin and weak she can’t stand up.”
“But isn’t there some way to keep witches out?” we asked.
“Yes, you can lay a bruhmstick cross the doe befo night an they can’t come in. A little salt is good. They don’t take to salt.”
Then he insisted on returning to the subject of his magic book. We evinced the proper interest and he showed us a strange recipe jotted down in almost illegible writing on the flyleaf of this book.
table salt–1 box
“That’s a cunjuh mixin,” the old man explained. “I don’t know what it’s faw. It was in the book when Joe Fraser, a root doctuh, gave it to me.”
“Where is Joe Fraser?”
“He is dead these long yeahs. All the real old root doctuhs are passin on to the beyon.” And Nathaniel Lewis sadly stroked his lame arm.
We left him standing in his garden and went on down the winding path.