Act Two of Treemonisha opens in the woods with a conclave of conjurors singing “Superstition.” Joplin’s stage directions tell us, “A wasp nest is hanging on a bush.” As Simon lists his fears, the chorus agrees: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true, /We all believe ‘tis true.” When Simon sings of shaking in fear when passing a graveyard at night, the chorus responds, “We’ll run.” Supposed to possess supernatural powers to ensure good luck and counteract any evil, the conjurers appear to have little control over their lives.
As “Superstition” ends and “Treemonisha in Peril” begins, Zodzetrick and Luddud signal their approach, bringing with them the kidnapped Treemonisha. Joplin quickly tells us that the conjurors in the woods neither expected her, nor know her:
When the conjurors decide to punish Treemonisha for opposing their luck bag sales, they needn’t look far for their means--the wasp nest hanging on the bush. However, perhaps we should wonder why the conjurors selected this meeting place. If they did not know or expect Treemonisha, they could not have planned to punish her with wasps. Why had the conjurors chosen to meet beside a wasp nest when the woods surely offered safer spots?
For us today, Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork supplies possible reasons for this seemingly reckless choice. Joplin's contemporaries may have understood more than today’s opera goer or listener.
Self-Protection or Business
The conjurors may have believed the wasp nest would help them.
According to Hyatt's hoodoo informants, wasp nests have protective powers.
Git dirt dauber nest an' use it as a help to keep a person from harmin' or gittin' up to yo', doin' anything to yo'. If a man taken a sock or somethin' [of yours] an' harmin' yo' that way, a dirt dauber nest kin be wo'n about yo' in yore pocket or eithah in yore shoe an' dey cain't harm yo' in no way. (I, 434)
Perhaps the superstitious conjurors had chosen their meeting location for the safety it offered. Close proximity to a wasp nest might protect them from falling victim to their many fears. Although instructions provided during Hyatt’s interviews focus primarily on powdered wasp nest, often mixed with other ingredients, the first passage indicates that the whole nest also provided protection.
Perhaps they had gone to the spot to gather materials needed in their business. Given the many sets of luck bag, goofer dust, and related instructions appearing in Hyatt’s study, wasps, wasp larvae, and wasp nests were among the most essential magical components.
Joplin’s stage directions refer to a hanging nest rather than a dirt dauber nest more common in the South Central U.S. Joplin may have specified the hanging nest out of staging necessity because a large specimen of this type would be easily visible from the audience whereas a mud dauber nest would not. Hyatt’s book does mention wasps that build hanging nests, indicating that that they also possess supernatural powers, but specific mentions of wasps other that dirt/mud daubers are rare.
As Zodzetrick and Luddud arrive in the woods with the kidnapped Treemonisha, Luddud sings, “This here gal don’t believe in superstition. . . . She don’t believe in conjury.” Hearing Zodzetrick’s “That’s the truth,” Luddud poses the real question—this time, not a question of belief or disbelief in the supernatural, but a mundane question of economics:
She’s been tellin’ the people that they should throw away their bags of luck. Now, how are you goin’ to get food to eat, when you can’t sell your bags of luck?”
Conjury could be a lucrative business. Hoodoo studies and other cultural history books furnish evidence attesting to the believers’ generous and ready payment of conjurors. For instance, in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese quotes a former South Carolina slave as saying, "Some dem old conjure people make lots of money for charm against ruin or cripplin' or dry up de blood." Likewise, in Strange Ways and Sweet Dreams: African American Folklore from the Hampton Institute, Donald J. Waters tells how a member of Hampton’s junior class wrote of a woman who had been told by the conjure doctor that she had been "conjured by drinking a cup of tea at a wedding." The conjuror gave her some roots from which to make a tea to break the spell, and the woman paid him “twenty-five dollars and gave him as much as he could carry home with him, that is, such as meal and meat, and flour and lard." The fear evoked by conjurors ensured their steady, substantial incomes.
Despite the superstitious belief in conjurors and the mixture of appreciation and fear that resulted in generous and rapid payment, many people doubted the conjurors’ work. “This is an age of humbug and humbuggers," proclaimed an 1875 issue of the Sedalia Daily Democrat. Attacking the previous day’s “little evening penny paper” story about an elderly hoodoo woman, the Daily Democrat reporter boasted, “Our readers demand a different literary pabulum than Voudou nonsense and frauds. " Not only the whites, but also the more educated blacks, regarded conjurors as “swindlers and thieves,” writes Jessie Gaston Mulira in “The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans,” an essay included in Africanisms in American Culture. For this reason, along with their folk religion definitions, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) and the Dictionary of American Regional English (1991) define hoodoo as "to swindle, hoodwink" and as "to cheat; to bamboozle; to take advantage of." Escaped slave and abolitionist Henry Bibb’s 1849 autobiography expresses this idea well when telling how an elderly conjuror's charm failed to protect him from a flogging: "The old man had my money, and I was treated no better for it."
Because Treemonisha recognizes the conjurors' parasitic ways and threatens their ability to line their pockets and fill their stomachs, the group in the forest determines to punish her. Taking conjuring seriously, the uneducated would regard any conjuror's revenge as a grave matter.. "I have seen negroes, otherwise comparatively intelligent, refuse to pick up a pin, needle, or other such object, dropped by a negro," reports William Wells Brown, "because, as they alleged, if the person who dropped the articles had a spite against them, to touch anything they dropped would voudou them, and make them seriously ill" (My Southern Home. The South and Its People, 1880). The potential effects of a conjuror's poisons were so horrifying that one writer mused about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s possible addition of a conjuror to Uncle Tom's Cabin:
Had the amiable Mrs. Stowe ever heard of the wicked practice, she could have introduced into her book one of the most original as well as useful characters. How pleasantly, in truth, could she have killed poor Legree with African poison, and all for the sake of Humanity! How well could she have painted for our delectation his remorse, and the terrible visions seen during those paroxysms of pain and madness, which the same devilish poison so often produces! (Daniel R. Hundley. Social Relations in Our Southern States, 1860)
The first issue of Journal of American Folklore provides an excellent example of gruesome consequences when it quotes an Arkansas correspondent:
And do you know what a good conjurer can do to you. Of course he can blight your crops, kill your cattle, make a mess of your love affairs, but he can do more: he can throw lizards into you! Now if there is anything more disagreeable than lizards for internal companions I don't know it; they are worse than a guilty conscience, and it is not surprising that they usually kill 'conjured' persons in three months. (I: 1, Apr.-June 1888)
In light of such dire hoodoo possibilities, we might wonder about the relatively innocuous punish-ment Joplin’s conjuror Simon proposes—pushing Treemonisha into a wasp nest. Regarding the wasps as a typical folkloric element, Ed Berlin observes, "The chosen punishment clearly echoes the Joel Chandler Harris tale of Brer Rabbit being thrown into a briar patch, although in that case the briars were not the punishment that Brer Fox had anticipated” (King of Ragtime, 2nd ed.). With a central character named Remus, Joplin very likely has Uncle Remus tales in mind as he introduces African American folklore into his opera. Yet when Simon speaks of his plan for revenge in the superlative--as "the best"--and the others accept his suggestion, we might question the conjurors’ credentials. After all, a wasp nest is a natural, not a supernatural, threat, isn’t it? In Berlin’s words, the plan “indicates that the conjurors have no faith in their own powers; they recognize their inability to punish her through supernatural means.” Barring severe sensitivities to wasp stings, Treemonisha should experience no more than temporary discomfort much as Brer Rabbit was expected to experience after being thrown into the briar patch. This is all logical from our modern point of view.
Believers in hoodoo would think differently. To them, wasps and wasp nests contain a spirit, like everything else. We have seen the belief that the god or other spirit inhabiting a sacred tree can create and nourish other life—animal or human. We have seen the belief that the tree can take revenge against anyone who injures it. We have seen the same dual powers attributed to luck bags because they were composed of objects containing such spirits. Now we have seen the belief that wasps and wasp nests can protect. With this knowledge, we can guess those wasps and nests can also harm, not just in a natural way, but also in a supernatural way. Jesse Gaston Mulira hints at the wasp nest’s destructive power:
Another gruesome find was unearthed one morning in the summer of 1939. While walking through one of the old New Orleans graveyards, a worker found the strangled nude body of a young black woman. The body was on its back and in each of the breasts was a black hat pin sticking upright. In one hand was a curious gris-gris consisting of a wasp's nest and some horsehair wrapped in red silk. (“The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans”)
I’ve found no hoodoo practices directly inflicting “the awful sting of the wasp” from which Treemonisha later thanks Remus for rescuing her. As a general practice, conjurors could not kidnap and drag victims to the source, be it a wasp or black cat, a cemetery or a crossroads.
However, because of a wasp’s sting, even dead wasps were believed capable of inflicting hurtful or deadly power far from their nest just as hair from a black cat, dirt from a graveyard, or a cross mark drawn on the ground were believed capable of harming an enemy. Likewise, wasp nests were believed to retain the same power far from the environment where the conjuror found them.
Since hoodoo doctors earned their livings by selling products to aid the buyer of to harm the buyer's enemy, these conjurors needed portable goods—ingredients they could place in a bag or bottle to be carried away or consumed by the purchaser, administered to the intended victim, hidden under the steps or in a tree near an enemy’s home, or scattered along a footpath taken by that enemy.
Hyatt’s informants again help familiarize us with the role wasps and wasp nests play in hoodoo spells.
Inflicting Physical Harm
If Joplin’s conjurors intended to injure or slowly kill Treemonisha, they could easily do so by preparing one of the hoodoos described in Hyatt's study. For instance, they could gather and burn some wasps, “mash dat ashes up and make powder out of it," and then sprinkle the powder in her tea, coffee, or other drink. According to Hyatt’s informant, the process would yield certain results. She would feel pain within nine days, and if she failed to get something to counteract the spell, within twenty-nine days, she would be so infested with live insects that she would begin to pass them (I, 229). This passing was not what we might expect. The process would not rid her of the wasps and leave her well again. Instead, the wasps might appear in her mouth or ears, or even pop out of her forehead or a toe. A small number might leave the body, but many more would remain to poison her from the inside.
Hyatt provides dozens of other applicable reports demonstrating various ways conjurors could use wasps or wasp nests in a hoodoo spell, such as these:
Yo’ see dese ole waspses. An’ yo’ kin take a wasp when he got young uns, a wasp nest. Yo’ know what de wasp nest is. Yo’ kin take a wasp nest when it’s got young uns in it, an’ each li’le hole is got a covah ovah de top of it dat look like a stem. Well, now, yo’ take dem an’ boil dat an’ strain an’ put it is a bottle. . . Well, ah’ll go an’ git a bottle of anythin’ dat he [de intended victim] drinks an’ ah open it at the countuh an’ po’ mine outa it an’ drink mine. An’ den ah po’ some of dis in dere. See, ah po’ some of dose wasps’ juice in dere on it. An’ den dey [the enemy or enemies] begin tuh form waspses in ‘is intestines. (IV, 3107)
Although wasps and wasp nests were believed capable of causing physical pain and even death as Hyatt’s examples reveal, Joplin’s conjurors could have used them in at least two less harmful but perhaps equally effective ways. According to hoodoo traditions, either of these alternate strategies could have ended Treemonisha’s opposition to their luck bag sales.
Controlling a Person's Thinking
Those believing in hoodoo practices know a variety of ways to control an enemy’s thinking, some of which involve the use of wasp nests. Hyatt’ quotes two New Orleans informants:
Anything that would be to have influence—like you get dis dirt dauber nest an’ de pepper I told you about and mix it up, that would be goofer dust . . . so now, say, for instance I want you to lose your memory, if you were going to court or something [against] me, it would get you where so you would prob’bly forget what you’s talking about. (I, 226-227)
Were Treemonisha to grow confused and forget her opposition or knowingly change her mind, the conjurors could continue selling their wares to her superstitious neighbors.
Driving a Person Away
In case a conjuror or client feared that an enemy’s forgetfulness or mind change might prove temporary, wasps and wasp nests were believed capable of exerting yet another power. Hyatt demonstrates how they could force a person to leave the area:
Now you’ll take a pound of beef meat, ground meat, but it must be beef. Yo’ take wasps nest—one wasp nest. Yo’ take all dat an’ yo’ work it up into a cake lak—yo’ understan’, lak a hamburger. Now, yo’ put dat into a stove. Yo’ work it in one big cake an’ yo’ put it into yore stove an’ let it dry up. Yo’ bake it into yore stove an’ yo’ let it dry—jis put it on a piece of papah an’ put it in the stove an’ let it bake. An’ yo’ take it an’ yo’ place it by de do’ or de steps or somethin’ of dat individual, an’ dey gotta go. (II, 1375)
We can easily regard the wasp nest as the last resort of powerless conjurors incapable of supernatural punishment. This view is consistent with an overall plot in which education and good sense win out over ignorance and superstition. It exposes the conjurors for the frauds they are. It might also evoke a snicker or two as might the conjurors’ terrified flight when they see an approaching scarecrow.
When we delve into hoodoo beliefs and practices, we discover another layer to the opera. Joplin demonstrates his knowledge of hoodoo beliefs through many of his choices, such as Zodzetrick’s cross mark and spitting and his announcement that he will return during the period of the waning moon, Treemonisha’s deep spiritual connection with the sacred tree, and, yes, the conjuror’s fear of Remus dressed as a scarecrow—the subject of the next blog entry. As details accumulate, it becomes increasingly evident that Joplin expected some of his audience members to understand dialog and actions that modern audiences don't understand.
Granted, hanging hives and dirt dauber nests differ from one another, but both house stinging wasps and their larvae. In those, the supernatural power resides. The similarity is greater than the difference. And, granted, Hyatt's informants speak of processed wasp or wasp nest rather than of a nest in its natural state and environment. However, if a luck bag containing powdered wasp nest or a small nest in a pocket or stocking could protect the conjurors, maybe proximity to the nest in the woods could, too. If someone drinking water containing boiled wasps or wearing clothing that had come in contact with burned wasp heads could subsequently develop internal wasps, surely they could suffer the same consequences from wasp stings. As Hyatt's informants repeatedly say, the point is to get the wasp (or snake, or lizard, or frog) into the person in some form. If powdered wasp nests could induce amnesia, force a mind change, or drive someone from the community, shouldn’t we accept that living wasps and their nests could probably do the same?
Although we cannot know Joplin’s intention with certainty, we must consider the possibility--perhaps the likelihood--that the conjurors planned a supernatural punishment. Joplin’s knowledge of hoodoo beliefs and practices and the frequency with which wasps and wasp nests figure in Hyatt’s folklore interviews require us to do no less. To understand an opera dramatizing the conflict between hoodoo and education, we cannot think only like scholars. We must also learn to think like conjurors.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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2018 copyright on research content, Sue Attalla