CONJURE BALLS, MOJOS AND FRIZZLY CHICKENS
by Carl D. Kirby
The beliefs and superstitions that I learned growing up in the Mississippi Delta have almost faded away. The tenants who nurtured them are dead or scattered to the four winds, displaced by machinery and technology.
An early casualty of their migration to the cities was the legend of the Swift Peter. Occasionally renewed in the plantation environment, there was nothing to sustain it in the inner city. This widely-held belief had a credible basis in fact. I had heard about this mysterious animal since childhood, and in the early fifties an incident occurred that prompted me to investigate the source of the legend. One of my, tractor drivers said that he was keeping his prize possum hound in the house at night because a tenant on the adjacent place had reported a Swift Peter attack. I had previously interviewed plenty of witnesses,
many of whom reported sightings of the animal. Descriptions were sketchy due to the blazing speed of the creature. The tenant reported I couldn't do nothin' but glimpse him 'fore he run into the cotton. There were many more ear witnesses than eye witnesses. The animal or animals attacked the house dogs and cats, killed or carried off chickens and small puppies. Dogs that fought them were often badly wounded. The attacks occurred at night and raised a tremendous racket. When the tenant ran out with his gun and lantern, he was always too late to get a shot. According to one victim, When he run off, it w'ant a minute till I heard a racket at the next house. My break-through came in the person of one Eddie Robinson, a
one armed man who was chopping cotton for me. I admired Eddie because he had overcome his disability by rigging a leather harness with a large brass ring to slip the hoe handle through. I asked him if he had ever heard of a Swift Peter. I sho' have. I even seen one. Where? Cross the river in Arkansas. We was possum huntin' and the dogs bayed him. He was caught in somebody's trap. He like to killed one of the dogs before we shot him. How did you
know it was a Swift Peter? They all said it was. What did it look like? Well, it was bigger than yo' bird dog, but not hardly as big as Mr. Butler's German Police dog, and he was kinda long and low. He had two rows of teefies on the bottom and the top teefies come down twix 'em.. .and kind of a yellow top knot. Eddie admitted that they were all drinking. I always found him to be truthful, so I believed he thought he saw the double row of teeth in the lower jaw. I believe that it was a Red Wolf,
still surviving at that time in parts of Louisiana and Arkansas. A highly secretive animal, it could well have thrived in the vast
forests between the levee on the Mississippi side.
Two other beliefs, although erroneous, were supported by visual evidence. Because a boar possum has a forked penis, they believed it copulated in the nostrils of the female, who then sneezed the semen into the marsupial pouch. There was the Stinging Snake, properly named Chain Snake for the red linked design on its black body. This snake is harmless, but its tail ends in a sharp point that looks like a stinger. There was the recurring tale of one stinging a tree in its death throes, whereupon the tree promptly died.
The strongest and most popular superstitions were of African origin. A gifted few had the power to cast spells or conjures to enlist the aid of good or evil spirits. They were referred to as witches, regardless of gender. I personally witnessed a successful conjure in the late thirties:
Uncle Rambo was probably eighty, with a shock of white hair and a scraggly goatee. He was described as two headed; he had too much wisdom for one head, and he was feared and revered throughout his domain. One day he was fishing on the Yazoo Pass, and he ran out of pipe tobacco. He hailed a young man fishing
nearby. Aubrey, you got any 'bacca? I ain't got nothin' but some Grainger Twist. That'll be all
right, boy. Aubrey got to his feet and executed a dance that would become popular years later. The old man was speechless, not comprehending the play on words. Aubrey laughed, That ain't
enough, I'll gi' you some mo'. He resumed his gyrations. Uncle Rambo didn't laugh. He pointed a shaking finger at Aubrey. You gon' be sorry for that, boy. A week or so later, Aubrey awoke to find a bloody sheet tied over the foot of his bed. Now, a conjure is no good unless the
conjuree knows he or she is being conjured, and what the result will be. Uncle Rambo had put the word out that the sheet was a death sheet, and that Aubrey would lose the use of his legs.
Not long after, my country doctor father got a call from the plantation owner to come see about Aubrey. I went along to drive
and observe. There was no doubt Aubrey was ill. He was listless and his skin was ashy. Papa checked him over. He had no feeling in his
legs and feet. He couldn't wiggle his toes or move his legs.Papa stuck him with a needle from his thighs to the soles of his feet. No reflexes. He elicited the story of the Grainger Twist from a tearful Aubrey. Don't worry, Aubrey, I'm going to find a cure for you.
Back at headquarters, he told Mr. Turner, Tim, I can't do anything for Aubrey, but you can. Go to Uncle Rambo and give him twenty dollars to take the curse off. Don't laugh; I've read authentic stories of believing in spells so strongly that no doctor could cure them. There is nothing physically wrong with
him, but don't discount the power of the mind. There are accounts of Polynesians who can simply will themselves to die when they are tired of living. As a doctor, I can't comprehend how one can stop an involuntary muscle like the heart, but they do it. By the way, this call is on me.
Uncle Rambo allowed Aubrey's father to witness the removal. Although it was summer, he had Jim to kindle a hot fire in the fireplace. He threw in powders that blazed up in different
colors. He mumbled incantations, rubbing Aubrey's legs with a salve that no doubt contained cayenne pepper. Aubrey began to
sweat profusely. Uncle Rambo dried him off with a clean flour sack and threw it in the fire. Aubrey's legs twitched. He flexed his toes and began to shout. Thank you, Uncle Rambo!
Thank you, Jesus! I'm sorry, Uncle Rambo, I was just jokin you.
Uncle Rambo put his materials away. Don't never joke nobody like that again, boy. Don't open the window till the fire burn hitself out. Good evenin'. A week later, Aubrey was hoeing cotton. I was privileged to see another act of witchcraft used to apprehend a fugitive. A fight at a card game resulted in the stabbing death of one of the players, and the perpetrator escaped into the woods behind the levee. He was at home in the woods, and presumed to be armed. When the dogs lost the trail in the river, the sheriff called off the search and obtained the services of a witch woman. He figured the killer's family were providing him with food and shelter, as well as reports on the movements of the searchers. At the funeral service, the witch placed an egg in each hand of the deceased and assured his family that three days after the burial, his hands would start squeezing the eggs, and the murderer would feel shortness of breath and heart pains. His heart would burst when the eggs did, unless he gave himself up beforehand. Of course, his kin duly informed him, and the tenth day after the funeral he came in, actually looking relieved.
One of my hands asked off to attend his uncle's funeral. I asked him what was the cause of death. They say he had a snake in him. How in the world could he swallow a snake, Andrew? He didn't 'zackly swallow it. Well, how did it exactly get there? A witch-man put somthin' on him. How did he do it?
They say he catch a snake of a certain kind and kill it in a certain way, and tie a certain knot in it. Then he hang it up in a tree till it dry, then he grind it into a powder, and put it in my uncle somethin' to eat. When he et it, the snake re-fawm inside him, then it quile around his heart and start squeezin' till he die. Didn't they try to do something to stop it? Everthaing they could; they give him some lye. Hell, Andrew, they burned him up trying to kill the snake! It wan't all that much, but his lips real red.
Many superstitions bordered on the ridiculous. One man who left his wife and came to live with relatives on my place gave the following explanation: My wife shade-dried my clothes. He had come home to find the clothing hanging under the front porch, and had left with just what he had on. I never did learn the
penalty for ignoring this one, but twenty years later encountered a similar superstition among the negritos of Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
The afflicted were not completely defenseless. Some spells had their antidotes. Butterbean hulls placed under the front
porch steps prevented the entry of malicious spirits that brought illness. A bottle tree in the front yard was a good all around repellent. A small dead tree or bush with plenty of branches was festooned with all colors and shapes of small bottles, chiefly those used for medicines, flavoring and hair straightener. They were fine for ordinary spells cast from a distance, but availed not against conjure balls hidden near the house. Conjure balls were made from secret ingredients ground into a powder, mixed with beeswax and rolled into a marble-sized ball. It could be tossed under the porch or close to the house, where it would pass unnoticed while it slowly released its malignant vapors. The only known antidote for this was the frizzly chicken. These chickens are distinguished by feathers which curl forward, giving the appearance of standing with their butts to a strong breeze.Persons carelessly picking up a conjure ball would receive the full charge of the curse, possibly killing them outright. The frizzly, being immune, would track down the ball, pick it up and tote it into the woods, far from the proximity of the intended victim.
There were charms intended to offset bad luck with good. I carried a rabbit's foot in grade school. Our cook, Henrietta,
got me a Three S Toby, a small bag packed with soot, sand and salt, and some little hard balls that felt like okra seed. I wore it on a string inside my shirt. The little chamois bag was
tightly sewn, and it was never to be opened. Its job was to keep haunts we called them haints from scaring me. It was very effective, and obviously had great residual effect. It has been sixty-nine years since I lost it swimming in Moon Lake, and to this day, I've never been scared by a haint.