Tuesday, January 5, 2016

American Superstitions, article in the Literary Digest 1895

AMERICAN SUPERSTITIONS, article in the Literary Digest 1895

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AMERICAN folklore is generally understood to be in its in fancy as yet. We have not had the time and opportunity to develop a robust body of native superstitions, altho it appears that here and there, owing to special circumstances. the germs of well-defined superstitions may be found. Apologizing to the world for our backwardness in this respect, Mr. D. B. Fitzgerald, writing in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly (August), indicates the localities in which American superstitions are being evolved. In the mountains of West Virginia, in the rural districts of Kentucky and Tennessee, in the narrow peninsula separating the Chesapeake Bay from the ocean which is the joint property of Maryland and Virginia, and in a few other districts, something has been done to redeem the United States from the accusation of living without superstitions. Of Kentucky's contribution Mr. Fitzgerald writes:

“Naturally, and yet worthy of remark in passing, the tales of Kentucky deal almost exclusively with horses, spectral or otherwise. The residents of Jessamine County conduct the visitor to a bit of woodland intersected by a much-traveled road, about which he discovers no remarkable features until informed that no horse, however old or decrepit, unless blind or hoodwinked, ever passes through that remnant of forest without running away with driver or rider. The mystery has long ago been given up as unsolvable, but the fact remains; and it is quite curious to see sturdy old farmers alight and blindfold their horses at the edge of this haunted timber.

“There is also a great swamp in the eastern part of the State which is the residence of an immense but fleet-footed phantom stallion, which seen in daylight is coal-black, but encountered on the highway at night is white as the proverbial driven snow.

"The most remarkable story emanating from the regenerated ‘dark and bloody ground’ is that which relates that a race, in the vicinity of Lexington, was once run by a ghostly horse and jockey. There were twelve entries and starters, but as the horses were going down the back~stretch the judges and the spectators in the stand counted thirteen contestants, the odd horse being a black, three-year-old filly, ridden by a diminutive negro, which forged rapidly to the front and came in first at the finish, mysteriously disappearing among the horses as they were pulled up in the turn."

The center of activity in the superstition industry is, however, to be found in the Maryland-Virginia district above referred to. Its eastern shore is quite fertile in weird tales, goblin adventures, and miscellaneous ghost stories. The territory is well adapted to the production of superstition, for its people have for three hundred years lived in ignorance and poverty on the borders of great cypress swamps and in pine forests. We quote from the account of Mr. Fitzgerald:

“The highways seem to have become favorite resorts for eastern-shore ghosts. We have many times heard the story of the invisible horseman, who dashes along the road at a mad gallop, and who makes his presence known by a shout and the beating of the hoofs of his horse. Occasionally riding out in state, he drives a team, and then the rattling of wheels and the crack of whip are accompaniments of his passage. The whites regard this phantom simply as an eccentric freak of the spirits, tho the negroes profess to see in it a more particular and ominous significance. In one locality—this was on the banks of the Susquehanna River—our attention was directed to a roadside quarry, and we were requested to notice upon the face of the rock at the back of the excavation the outline of a huge door. Having assented to the fact that certain cracks and streaks upon the surface of the rock did present something of this appearance, we were seriously informed that this was the door behind which the invisible horseman stabled his phantom steeds, and that at a certain hour of the night, moved by unseen hands, it swung open for his exit.

“Other specters of the highway are 'The Blacksmith,' a name which has no appropriateness further than that it is used to describe a ghost armed with a heavy hammer; ‘Loblolly William,’ whose supernatural pretensions are based upon the fact that when encountered upon a hard and dusty road his footsteps are those of one walking through deep and soft mud; ‘Miss Phoebe,’ who has appeared only once since the war, and whose present existence is, therefore, somewhat problematical; and to these the negroes, who have no individual names for particular ghosts, add the terrific specter which they call 'the man with the iron face.'"

Owing to the loss of hundreds of oyster sloops in the great bay, a number of oyster superstitions have sprung up. Chief of them is that of the "oyster lights," which appear on the surface of the water and proceed from lanterns on the masts of phantom ships. They are said to be observed in the hour preceding a storm. The writer continues:

“In the same class we must place the black schooner which sails up and down the Chesapeake. making signals of distress, but which, when approached by a boat, sinks swiftly and silently beneath the waves. An old steam-boatman on the bay informed us that this ill-fated vessel always flies the English flag, the inference being that she belonged to the British fleet which ascended the Chesapeake during the war of 1812, and which, after meeting with a stout resistance, captured and burned the town of Havre de Grace, at the head of the bay. It seems, however, that the same schooner occasionally appears on the ocean side of the peninsula. where she flies a black flag, the residents of the beach believing that the phantom craft was originally one of those under the command of the pirate Blackbeard, and that her ghostly crew is engaged in a repeated but fruitless attempt to regain possession of the gold which this famous marauder is supposed to have buried in the vicinity of Green Run Beach. It is said that the schooner when seen is always headed directly in toward the land, and that when she reaches the outer line of breakers her bow plunges beneath the waves and she disappears."

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