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Spiders and Skin-Changers: Two African American Witch Tales for Halloween

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A witch in a pointed hat sits on the shoulders of a boy in a sailor suit. Her legs are wrapped tightly around his neck and she pinches his ear with one hand. His eyes are closed, and she appears to be sticking pins into his face.
“The Witch and the Fat School Boy” by R.E. Sherwood was originally an illustration for the story “Von Nipkin’s Defeat,” and was published in 1888. It shows a witch riding a young boy who is dressed and on his feet. Find the archival scan here.

It’s almost Halloween, and therefore time for spooky stories here at Folklife Today! Witches are, of course, a big part of American Halloween, and the witch is one of the most popular characters featured in costumes and decorations. These range from the standard image of a woman with a pointy hat and a broom, to less conventional witch outfits. But what was the image of the witch in American folk culture?

Nowadays, there are communities who reclaim the idea of the witch, pointing out that traditional witches and conjurers had an important role in many communities, from providing traditional medicine such as herbal remedies and midwifery, to acting as therapists through such practices as guided meditation and divination. There are also modern spiritual communities who call their practice witchcraft and see their roots in traditional witch practices. You can read more about all these things over at the Wild Hunt blog, among many others.

This post, however, focuses on two stories about one of the ways in which witches were traditionally believed to be a nuisance to their immediate neighbors. Witches were known for “riding” people, which in some cases meant using their bodies as vehicles and taking them far away, but in many cases seemed to involve simply sitting on top of them and absorbing some of their energy, leaving their victims drained and sometimes sick. The experience of feeling such attacks at night is widespread throughout the world, and often accompanied by the perception of a supernatural being. It is often explained by doctors as sleep paralysis, and sleep paralysis is definitely part of the experience. But the medical diagnosis doesn’t explain why people often see, hear, and feel an attacker in the room with them…which is part of what makes it so scary!  (My professor David J. Hufford wrote his first book about these experiences, and you can read an interview with him about them here.)

So how did people believe that witches reached their witch-riding victims? Some witches, they thought, could change their shape, using the shapes of fast animals to cover great distances and the shapes of small animals, such as insects and spiders, to slip into people’s homes. That’s what’s behind the story below called “The Spider Witch.” Another belief was that witches were able to remove their skin and then slip into people’s homes through the keyhole or a crack in the door or wall. That’s what you’ll find in “Skin, Don’t You Know Me.”

Both of these witch stories were recorded in Michigan by the folklorist Richard Dorson. Dorson took down many of his stories as dictation, but he did tape record about a quarter of them, and the tapes are in our archive here at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Both of these stories were published by Dorson in his books Negro Folktales in Michigan and American Negro Folktales, and then republished years later by Carl Lindahl in American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress. My own transcriptions used these previous publications as a starting point, but as always I heard certain things differently, and my transcriptions reflect that.

My transcriptions also differ in other ways. As I’ve written here before, my transcription style tries to keep some of the texture of oral performance. Rather than just organizing into paragraphs, I make the unit of transcription the spoken line, bounded by pauses or other segment markers. In this I follow some of my teachers in folklore (Margaret Mills), anthropology (Dell Hymes), and linguistics (Bill Labov), though I’m sure any deficiencies are purely my own fault. Representing reported speech, which narrators only sometimes indicate with phrases like “say” or “she said,” was a challenge…I settled on using quotation marks throughout. My goal was to represent how the tellers told the tale, mainly for the benefit of listeners who might not catch the words of their dialects without some effort. So please, listen to these great storytellers, and scroll through my transcription as a form of subtitles.

A witch dancing a round dance with the supernatural creatures known as "farfadets," here depicted as skinless beings.
This a detail from the 17th Century painting La Ronde Des Farfadets by David Ryckaert III. It shows a witch dancing with the supernatural creatures known as “farfadets,” here depicted as skinless beings. Farfadets, like witches, were known for entering homes and tormenting people in their beds.

J.D. Suggs’s “Skin, Don’t You Know Me”

Our first story is “Skin, Don’t You Know Me,” told by J.D. Suggs. Suggs was 65 years old and living in Calvin, Michigan when he met Richard Dorson in 1952. He became Dorson’s good friend and favorite storyteller. Dorson even included a special section in American Negro Folktales called “The History of James Douglas Suggs,” the only storyteller to receive such treatment. As Dorson tells us, Suggs had led a colorful life up to that point. Born in 1887 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, he left the farm to take a job as a prison guard. After that, he had played professional baseball, performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, and gone to France as a soldier in World War I. On his return, he worked as a railroad brakeman, a construction worker, a technician, a cook, a handyman, and a rooming-house manager in Chicago, before moving to Michigan.

Dorson was unfailingly complimentary in describing Suggs, as the following passages show:

Suggs proved the best storyteller I ever met. For whole days, from morning till midnight, he dictated tales to me, or recited them into the tape recorder, faultlessly and with great gusto. “I hear a story once and I never forget it,” he boasted innocently. Alert-eyed and smooth-skinned in spite of his sixty-five years, with a husky melodious voice, Suggs resembled a champagne bottle about to fizz, his expansive buoyancy barely corked by the restraints of society. Relax them a trifle, and Suggs erupted into fable, anecdote, jest, and minstrelsy; eventually he volunteered nearly two hundred narratives and twenty-five songs.

What made Suggs an outstanding storyteller? The circumstances of his varied and mobile life clearly expanded his repertoire, by enlarging his experience and contacts. His own gregarious and congenial nature led him easily into social groups and friendly talk. He related tales with mnemonic authority and contagious enthusiasm, customarily repeating his narrative in a swift recap as soon as he finished it, with high excitement. Once having heard a story he never forgot it, so he claimed, and his narrative powers bore out the boast. Whatever he described, whether the technology of his jobs, the local color of Bible plays and election fights in the deep South, or actual folktales, he etched fully with myriad details and hues. He did not simply tell the story but acted it out and dressed it up with sounds, gestures, and tumbling words. Even in ordinary conversation his range of inflection and musical timbre enriched his speech….

Dorson pointed out that Suggs also had a deep connection with supernatural tales:

A sober supernatural strain tempered his jocularity however, for he believed in spirits, hoodoos, and the dark powers of the universe, and regularly quoted Scripture to document their reality.

One last note about Suggs: Dorson dedicated American Negro Folktales to Suggs’s memory, noting:

He never lived to see the books of Negro folklore to which he contributed so substantially. It is consoling to know that the spirit and salt and kindly humor of Suggs will not completely vanish with his death.

Here at Folklife Today, I’m happy to contribute to keeping Suggs alive by presenting not only his story but his voice.  Hear it in the player below, and follow along with the words beneath that.  After that, there are some notes on the story too!

Richard M. Dorson: Well, how bout that other story, that doesn’t have any animals in it. It has to do with the witch, you know, the witch who got out of her skin?

Oh, yeah.
You know, used to, in the olden times, you know,
there was witches used to go around, you know.
And they could get out of their skin.
And if you had any crack in there,
they could ease in there and they’d ride you at night, you know,
and they’d get on you and ride you.
And if you had any jewelry or anything, they could carry that out.
So one fella come along, he says, says:
“Now, that’s terrible.”
Says, “I’ve lost a whole lots of jewelry,”
And said: “I can’t never catch up with who done it.”
So one gentleman, he’s coming in late one night
(you know how some men stay out late at night)
and he seen some woman kept working up there.
And he stopped.
‘I’m going to see what that is, that is out there.”
She begin to shed all her clothes, and she laid them down.
Pulled off her hat, she laid that down.
“I wonder what’s happening.”
And after a while, she got all…all of the things she had off…got nude.
And so, now what happened, you see the skin worked
and after a while just skin’s standing up there.
And he went to it and felt it.
“And what’s this all about?”
And the skin was damp.
And so he just stood there.
He says, “Well, I do say. I’ll see what it’s all about.”
So he eased down.
He’d heard that if they put pepper and salt in a witch’s hide,
you get em, catch em, find out who it was.
So he eased in there and he come back and he peppered and salt, peppered this hide, good.
Pepper. Red pepper. You know, that’s hot.
And after a while, the old lady, grandma,
Granny James.
She come out.
She seen the hide begin to shake, and after a while
she get in there and she shake faster and faster.
Get out and after a while
She say, “Skin, don’t you know me?”
She walked around and jumped back in it and about burned up.
“Skin, don’t you know me?”
And so she just kept it running
“Skin don’t you know me?”
So she couldn’t get in there.
And so after a while she says,
“If anybody’ll wash that hide, hide, good, with salt and water,
you know, table salt, and water,
I’ll give em all their jewelry back.”
So this man goes, gets soap, water.
He washes it good and greases it and make it slick, you know.
And so she slipped in there, and that was Grandma James, the next neighbor.
So that’s who’d been stealing the jewelry.

Richard M. Dorson: For heaven’s sake. That’s quite a story.

The version of “Skin, Don’t You Know Me” published by Dorson in his book is very different from the one in our archive. This should not necessarily surprise us, since Dorson clearly already knows the story, and knows Suggs tells it, when he specifically requests it on the tape. It seems likely that Dorson had previously heard Suggs tell the story, and that he took that previous performance down in dictation and used it for the book rather than referring to the tape.  That means you can consult Dorson’s books for another telling of the same story by the same teller. They’re still under copyright so can’t be placed online, but they’re both available in the Folklife Reading Room–or visit your local library!

By contrast, Lindahl does use this tape as the basis of the story in his book. He identifies Granny James in this story as “one of Suggs’s own neighbors,” but I don’t think this is warranted by the tale on the recording. After all, Suggs locates the time when witches could get out of their skins and invade people’s homes as “the olden times,” and identifies the two male characters as “one fella” and “one gentleman.” He never states that these are people he knew or even that the story describes his community. Suggs does say that Granny James is “the next neighbor,” but this could merely mean neighbor to the victim (“one fella”), whom she rides and robs.

Whether or not Suggs meant to locate the story in his own hometown, the story is certainly a traditional one, rather than a unique personal anecdote. The earliest version I know of was published as part of the chapter  “Spirits, Seen and Unseen” in Joel Chandler Harris’s Nights with Uncle Remus, in 1883, four years before Suggs was born. In Harris’s rendering, which attempted to capture African American dialect, the witch asks “Skin! wey you no know me?” In another earlier version called “Old Skinny,” published in 1943 in Bundle Of Troubles And Other Tarheel Tales, the witch asks “Skinny, Skinny, don’t you know me?” This confirms that Suggs’s version, “Skin, don’t you know me?” is a well known story from a strong tradition of witch tales. In a more general sense, the belief that witches remove their skins, and that salting the skins can prevent them from being put back on, is recorded in many other places, including Georgia (in the Georgia Writers Project’s Drums and Shadows), and the Bahamas (in Zora Neale Hurston’s Hoodoo in America).

Leozie Smith’s “The Spider Witch”

Among Dorson’s other favorite informants were the Smiths, Leozie and her husband E.L. Smith, who were also raised in Mississippi. Dorson described his visits with them vividly:

On our entrance a voluminous woman with lustrous features and a courtly little man all seamed and wrinkled, rose from their dinner and enveloped us with hospitality. They pressed us to dine with them, narrated tales, and talked continuously; Mrs. Smith overpowered the men with her vocal energy and, for nearly an hour, standing all the while, she delivered a monologue on how the spirit of a brown man had brought her from Chicago to this farm in Calvin with its magically healing spring. The Smiths exuded supernatural lore and belief about witchcraft and hoodooism and God’s vengeance; they fitted each other like two pieces of stovepipe, one taking up where the other left off, and kept the collector dizzy and furiously scribbling. With such lively informants the recording machine clearly could help, and one memorable evening it snatched from the air an animated conversation strewn with witch and hant tales.

The following story, told by Leozie Smith, is excerpted from that remarkable tape recording. Play it in the player and follow along with the words beneath it! After that there are a few notes on the story too. AFC’s recording of Leozie Smith ends abruptly, but Dorson’s transcription of this story indicates there were a few more lines on his original tape, which explain the witch’s fate. I added those to the end of the text, in square brackets.

An illustration of 15 arachnids
An illustration of 15 arachnids by Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919. Find the archival scan here.

But I’ll tell you one, what I started to tell a while ago.
When I was, oh, well I guess I was about ten or eleven years old,
I was working for some white people, and this man,
he just liked to tell so much
about as nice a white man as I’d ever want to see.
Near as I can remember
(I was only a child)
And he was telling me there was witches riding him.
He used to call me Zee.
He would tell me, “Zee”
(His girl, named Vera, he called her “Vee” and me “Zee”)
Said, “Did you know that a witch rode me last night?”
Said, “Look here how I got my hair turned.”
He was redheaded.
We was always taught that redheaded people was the meanest men that was, you see.
And I said, “Maybe it’s cause you’re so mean.”
But he said, “You know, a witch just rode me last night.”
Said, “Just rode me, rode me, rode me, rode me
Until I just couldn’t sleep.”
Well, I had heard my mother say, you know, way back then,
you had those sifters
great, big, round sifters-you know
do this-a-way-to sift out your flour or meal.
And I said, “Mr. Sparks,” I said
I was a little talker, you know, to anybody that liked me, you know.
I said, “Mother said if you take this sifter
and put some salt on it
handful of salt
and turn it bottom side upwards
said you’ll catch that witch
said, the next morning, when you wake up, the witch’d be there.”
Oh, he used to just laugh, you know
take me up on his lap
he just like thought an awful lot of me.
He said, he told me then,
“Well, Zee.”
I’d always come to tell every one of them good night before I’d go home.
It wasn’t so far, I could run all the way home.
He said, “Zee”
Said “Come early in the morning
Because we going to have that witch
Because I’m going to throw that big sifter down tonight.”
You know, I thought he was after teasing me about this here
About me telling what mother said.
Say, “All right.”
Say, ‘I’m going to get me a handful of salt.”
This white maid. Miss Josie, he called her Miss Jose.
Said, “Miss Jose,
I want you to get me a big handful of salt
and put [it] down at my bed
and bring that sifter and turn it down.”
So she did. She put a big handful of that kind of coarse, heavy salt down.
And then they take that big old sifter and turned it down
Like he said.
When they got it, he got into bed.
The next morning I woke up EARLY.
“Mama, I must just go down to Mr. Sparks
early this morning, and go catch the witch.”
And, you know, when I got down there,
they had bare woke up, you see.
I knocked on the door
and the boy that sleep in the other room, one of the boys,
Eh, he opened the door.
He was about, along about my age.
And they always so tickled when I’d come early, you know.
We’d have a rap.
I say [whispering], “Let’s go and see if Daddy catched the witch.”
So we eased in there and looked
and there you know, we seed a spider about as big as my hand.
And I said, “Hi, Mr. Sparks.”
And he said, “What’s the matter.”
I said, “You just caught the witch” [laughs].
He hopped up and looked.
And you know that old spider’s legs had got up in the wire of that sifter
and had swole underneath and on top
and he couldn’t pull it out!
And he was the biggest spider you ever seed in your life.
And it had a big wide mouth, about a inch wide.
And just doing that mouth like that, you know.
And it looked like he had two lips!
[Mary Richardson:] Lips?
Big as my…big as my hand
and the biggest old legs
They’re caught in that sifter.
Now that is just as true as we look at each other.
And if Mr. Sparks was living, he could tell you.
I don’t know whether any of his family is living, see, or not
because it’s been a long time since I seed ’em.
Can’t tell.
But we caught that big old spider under there.
So I said, I guess that witch had turned and turned
and that’s the last thing he could turn to.
[And so the spider was the witch.
They taken him outdoors
and put some kerosene on some straw
and the sifter over it
and burned him up
and threw the sifter away.]

This story is interesting in several ways. It shows that people in the African American community believed that witches could be men or women, since the assumption Leozie makes is that the witch is a he. It also uses the traditional motif of a sieve or sifter used as protection against a witch. In the idea of the spider’s swollen leg, there is a hint of another traditional story, in which a shape-changing witch is wounded when in an animal guise, and later identified as a witch when the wound also appears on his or her human body. This isn’t fully realized, though, since the witch is simply killed in its spider form. Finally, Leozie’s assumption that the witch “turned and turned, and that’s the last thing he could turn to” suggests many other stories in which shape-changing witches take a series of different forms to escape a pursuer, as in “Master and Pupil” (ATU Type 325), and the traditional ballad known as “The Two Magicians” (Child 44). All these traditions, however, remain in the background of what is, after all, a vivid personal experience story.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these two witch stories presented for Halloween, which is just one week away. We have some more treats coming up for the big day–stay tuned!

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for sharing these wonderful recordings and transcriptions. I love Dorson’s “American Negro Folktales.” It’s great to hear a couple of the tellers in their own voice.

  2. Loved listening to these folktales, reminded me of my great grandmothers stories.Thanks for sharing.

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