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The Hair-Raising Tale of “The Witch Who Kept a Hotel”

As we get closer and closer to Halloween, the Library of Congress feels spookier and spookier! Just look at the black cat in our Halloween graphic above! In fact, the Library has just released a new web guide to Halloween resources, which can be found here. The new web page will act as your guide through our rich but terrifying Halloween treasures. Even more good news: the guide was put together in connection with an upcoming exhibition of our best spooky treasures. The event is called LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery.

As part of the effort, I’ve been looking through AFC’s collections for “Ghost Stories” and “Halloween Traditions,” two of the exhibit’s themes. In this blog, you’ll be able to hear and read another outstanding tale of the supernatural that I’ve exhumed with the help of my conspirator (or is she a colleague?) Stephanie Hall.

This story comes from the storyteller and folklorist Mary Celestia Parler (1904-1981). Parler is one of the most important folklorists in Arkansas history, and copies of her most valuable collections reside here at the American Folklife Center. The originals are at the University of Arkansas, where Parler was a professor for many years. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

Mary Celestia Parler at her home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This photo was taken for publicity purposes by the University of Arkansas News Service. A copy of it resides in AFC’s Vance Randolph Collection.

[Mary Celestia Parler was] responsible for developing and implementing the most extensive folklore research project in Arkansas history. She was a professor of English and folklore at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and the wife of noted Ozark folklore collector Vance Randolph. Through her vast knowledge and appreciation of Arkansas culture, she enabled many future generations to glimpse the state’s cultural history, much of which remains only in the stories, songs, and images she collected with the help of her students and assistants.

For a more complete biography, visit the article at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Although her greatest contribution was to Arkansas Ozark culture, she was not a native of that region. She came from central South Carolina, and in 1934 her South Carolina dialect was recorded by linguist Miles Hanley for the American Dialect Society. On that recording the thirty-year-old Parler decided to tell a folktale. She later revealed that her title for the story was “The Forty-Mile Jumper,” but the recording was indexed as “Story of Witch Who Kept Hotel.” I’ve decided to use a version of that more descriptive title, and call the tale “The Witch Who Kept a Hotel.”

This basic story type is widespread in North America. It exists in a number of forms, but all involve a witch or monster who tries to kill the hero, and magical dogs with fanciful names who defend him. Folklorists have long classified it as a version of ATU 303, “The Blood Brothers,” with elements of ATU 315, “The Treacherous Sister,” mostly known as European stories, because it resembles one incident in some versions of these tales. But William Bascom believed American stories of this type to be African in origin since the overall plot is nothing like ATU 303 or ATU 315, but does occur in Africa and the Caribbean. So the jury is still out on where the tale might come from, but it’s certainly popular in Africa and among African descendants in the Caribbean and North America.

Although we don’t know just what a “Forty-Mile Jumper” looks like, perhaps it’s a special kind of broom. Then this picture could be the witch leaving her hotel! In fact it comes from page 68 of “The History of Springfield in Massachusetts, for the young; being also in some part the history of other towns and cities in the county of Hampden” (1921) by Charles H. Barrows, published by the Connecticut Valley Historical Society of Springfield, Massachusetts, and dedicated to the Public Domain.

In fact, years after she told Hanley this tale, Parler revealed that she herself had heard the story as a child from an African American teller. Moreover, she had heard it in a dialect different from her own, although she must have been confident she could tell it in her own dialect for Hanley’s recorder. Her account of her source is a fascinating introduction to the story:

Flora Smith, an old Negro woman who lived in the village of Wedgefield in central South Carolina, told my brother and me many stories before the first World War. Mam Flora was what would be called a baby-sitter nowadays. Of all the tales she told us, the one we demanded most often was the story of the “Forty-Mile Jumper.” In 1924, when Mam Flora was “way up in ninety,” I refreshed my memory by having her tell it to me again. She told the story in the modified Gullah spoken by the Negroes of Wedgefield….

You can read her account of Flora Smith and her written version of the tale over at the Journal of American Folklore, if you or your library have a JSTOR subscription. I’ll have some more comments on the oral and written versions of the story after you hear it.  But since they would constitute “spoilers,” you should hear the tale first!  Below, listen to Parler’s story in the audio player, and read along with my own transcription, below that.

As usual, my transcription style is one that tries to keep some of the texture of oral performance. Rather than just organizing into paragraphs, I’ve made the unit of transcription the spoken line, bounded by pauses or other segment markers. My goal was to represent how Parler told the tale. So please, listen to Mary Celestia Parler tell the story, and scroll through my transcription as a form of subtitles.  Then, below that, read about another version of this story that Parler published in writing, and how it differs from the oral text!

It seems that once upon a time there was an old witch
Who kept a hotel
Out in the country somewhere.
And everybody marveled at the fact
That although a number of people stopped at that hotel
And went in to spend the night,
Nobody ever left again.

One night two men were traveling along the road.
Night caught them just as they were passing this hotel,
About which they knew nothing.

So they stopped in the hotel
And asked if they could spend the night.
And the old witch was very pleasant and told them,
Yes, she’d be very glad to have them spend the night
And furthermore she’d let them sleep with her two daughters.

So the two men went to bed with the two daughters
And they for some reason became suspicious of the old witch.
And when they noticed that the two daughters slept with peculiar long nightcaps on,
They decided that perhaps it would be a good idea
After the daughters went to bed
To change the nightcaps from the….
I mean after the daughters went to SLEEP
To put the nightcaps on their own heads,
Which they did.

And they stayed awake and noticed that
When the old witch came in in the dark
With a long gleaming butcher knife in her hand,
She felt around in the dark,
And she felt around in the dark,
Till she felt the nightcaps.
And then she felt the ones that didn’t have nightcaps on,
And SLIT the throats of her own two daughters.

After she went out of the room
These two men hot-footed it away.
And they went rushing away
And made quite a good distance before first day.

When the old witch woke up and went in
To see about these two men that she’d killed
And hide them in the cellar
There were her two daughters with their throats cut.
When she saw that she was so mad, she just
Was so mad she could DIE.

So she ran out in the yard
And she got her forty-mile jumper
And she got on her forty-mile jumper
And she jumped and she jumped until she caught up with the men.

And one of them ran and climbed a tree.
And the other man
Rushed off to call the dogs that they had
For some reason in the vicinity.

The old witch got a ax and she went at the tree and she’d say
She’d chop the tree and say
“Willy willy willy come down.”
And the man up the tree’ d say
“Willy willy willy come up.”

She’d chop the tree:
“Willy willy willy come down.”
The chips’ d fall.
The man up the tree’ d say
“Willy willy willy come up.”
The chips’ d fly back up.

All this time the other man was calling
“Bah-manecker Rody Kai-anger
Bah- manecker Rody Kai-anger.”

And the old witch going
“Willy willy willy come down.”
And the man up the tree going
“Willy willy willy come up.”

Pretty soon the old dogs were coming
“Aa-oow Aa-oow
Aa-oow Aa-oow.”

And the old witch
When she saw the dogs coming
She tried to get on her forty-mile jumper
But the dogs got there first
And they got her
And they caught her
And caught her by the throat
And KILLED her.

And the two men got on the forty-mile jumper
And they jumped and jumped and jumped
Till they went back to the hotel and found all the
Bones
Of all the people
That had been murdered in that inn
And down in the cellar,
A GREAT PILE of
TREASURE.

Oral and Written Versions: a Comparison

If the “Forty-Mile Jumper” isn’t a full broom like the one on the right, perhaps it’s a magical stick like the witch on the left is riding. Both these images come from the 1451 French manuscript ‘Le Champion des Dames’ by Martin Le Franc. The original manuscript is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the images are in the public domain.

As I’ve outlined above, years after this recording was made, in 1951, Parler published a version of this story in the Journal of American Folklore. In that case, rather than tell the story orally to another person, she simply wrote it down. This demonstrates some of the fascinating differences in the way people tell stories depending on whether they’re speaking or writing.

“The Witch Who Kept a Hotel” is certainly a hair-raising story, whichever version you look at. At first glance, it’s strange that a story of a creepy serial killer getting torn apart by dogs would be told to kids. But there are whimsical elements to delight children, like the strange names of the dogs, Bah-manecker, Rody, and Kai-anger, which children might enjoy. (These names may also hark back to African origins, since “Kaianga” or “Kayanga” is both a place name and a personal name in several African languages.) Similarly, it’s fun hearing about the magical battle between the witch and the man, who turns out to be a sorcerer himself. When his cries of “Willy willy willy come up” make the wood chips fly back up and repair the tree as she tries to cut it down, in turn crying “Willy willy willy come down,” we can imagine Parler and her brother as children, enjoying the silliness of the magical incantations.

So what’s the difference between the versions? I’ll begin by saying that there’s one advantage to the written version: Parler didn’t remember one detail in 1934, and with the disc recorder running she couldn’t stop for too long to think. So she simply says that the men “for some reason” became suspicious of the witch, and then, momentarily thrown off, stumbles in describing them switching the nightcaps. That’s really the only flaw in an otherwise great performance.

Mary Celestia Parler and her husband, folklorist Vance Randolph at their home in Fayetteville, Arkansas.. This photo was taken for publicity purposes by the University of Arkansas Information Agency. A copy of it resides in AFC’s Vance Randolph Collection.

The written version shows that there was a connection between her forgetting that detail and stumbling a moment later–it was really a single mistake. The nightcaps and the men’s suspicion were deeply connected:

The old witch told the two girls to be sure to wear their nightcaps; and, when they had gone to bed, she came into the room and made sure. That made the two men suspect something. So when the girls were asleep, the two men took the nightcaps from the girls’ heads and put them on their own heads.

That’s certainly one advantage of writing: it allows you to get your details straight, and to edit them if you make a mistake.

Still, Parler’s oral delivery makes this a much better story. Some of the most hair-raising phrases of this tale are much more effective the way Parler spoke them than the way she wrote them. So, for example, consider the phrase:

But the dogs got there first
And they got her
And they caught her
And caught her by the throat
And KILLED her.

This is a beautiful segment of poetry, punctuated by near-rhyme (got-got-caught-throat), alliteration (caught-caught-killed), and what folklorists call “incremental repetition,” in which a phrase is repeated with small changes each time (and they got her-and they caught her-and caught her by the throat).

The same passage, in Parler’s written version, is much more prosaic:

Then the dogs came to where the old witch was chopping the tree, and they jumped on the old witch and ate her up.

Similarly, consider the following passage with its repetition of details:

When the old witch came in in the dark
With a long gleaming butcher knife in her hand,
She felt around in the dark,
And she felt around in the dark,
Till she felt the nightcaps.
And then she felt the ones that didn’t have nightcaps on,
And SLIT the throats of her own two daughters.

In Parler’s written version, this passage is:

By-and-by, when the old witch thought that the men and the girls were asleep, she crept in, in the dark, and felt around for the nightcaps. Then she cut off the heads of the ones who did not have on nightcaps. But she did not know that she had cut off the heads of her own two daughters.

Again, the oral passage is like poetry, or music, or a theme and variations. ”The dark” is mentioned only once in the written version, but three times in the oral tale, a magic number of repetitions which also serves three purposes: the emphasis on how dark it is reminds the hearer why the old witch makes such mistake, it intensifies the scary atmosphere, and it creates a poetic rhythm of repetition.

Similarly, “felt,” which again emphasizes the witch’s inability to see, is used only once in the written version, but four times in the oral tale, where it’s joined by other words that end abruptly in “t,” all of which are absent from the written text. In fact we might say that in the oral story, but not the written one, the murder is described in poetry, with these repeated words and repeated “t” endings punctuating the grisly business: “she felt…felt…felt…felt…and SLIT the throats….” This is, I think, much more effective than Parler’s written version.

Comparing the oral and written versions of this story created by the same great storyteller and folklorist thus reveals some of the ways in which a good oral telling of a folktale can be more compelling than a written version. It’s hard to know just why this difference emerges: it could be that the repetition occurs because the speaker has to make sure the hearer gets the details in only one hearing, since they can’t just read it again if they miss a point. Indeed, one theory of the origin of poetry is that the forms of repetition we consider poetic, such as rhyme and rhythm, alliteration and assonance, emerged to help us remember texts, in the days before writing existed, or at least before most people could write.

Of course it’s true that brilliant literary versions of folktales also exist, both in verse and in prose. So it might be that some people are just better at oral delivery and others at literary adaptations.

In any case, this is a matter of taste. I prefer Parler’s oral version…but if you have a different opinion (or additional reasons to love oral storytelling or written adaptations), I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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