Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

Witchcraft in Louisiana

The Indian medicine men or priests have many ways of deceiving their people. A French officer found that the people of a certain tribe believed very much in an idol which a medicine man had set up. This idol was called by a long name, Vistee-poolee-keek-apook. The Indians, when they stood near, would sometimes hear it speak, and this seemed to them a very wonderful thing.

A French officer named Bossu tried to find out what made the idol talk. He found a long reed, such as we call a cane pole, running from the back of the idol's head to a cave or hollow in the rocks behind the idol. This reed had been made into a hollow tube. In the cave there was a medicine man who talked into the tube. The words coming out of the other end in the idol's head were heard from the mouth of the idol, as if the idol were speaking. Bossu showed the Indians the trick, and then got one of his soldiers to destroy the idol.

The soldier that destroyed the idol was so brave, that the Frenchmen had given him a nickname which means "fearless." The medicine man declared that some dreadful thing would fall on Fearless because he had destroyed the idol. In order to make his people believe in the power of this god that had been thrown down, he told them that there was a witch or evil spirit which came to the village in the shape of a little black panther. He said, that, whenever he pronounced the name of his god, this little black panther would instantly disappear.

You see, the cunning old medicine man had somehow got hold of a large black cat with yellow eyes. Cats were not common among the Indians, these animals having been brought by the white people. Such a cat as this, the Indians had never seen. The medicine man kept the cat in his cabin, and trained it. He would strike it with a whip, crying out every time he struck it, "Vistee-poolee-keek-apook!"

The poor cat became afraid of the long ugly name of the Indian god, because the whip and the name always came together. One day the black cat crept into the cabin of an Indian woman to get something to eat. The medicine man who was near by saw it. He said the name of his god in his common voice. The cat, which the Indians believed to be a witch, jumped like lightning through the hole in the cabin that was used for a window. The Indians really believed that they had seen an evil spirit in the shape of a little black panther, and that it disappeared when the medicine man spoke the name of his god.

After that, every time an Indian saw this black cat, or little black panther, as it was called, he spoke the name of this terrible god. Of course, the black cat with yellow eyes ran away. Tired out at last with being driven off in this fashion, the cat disappeared entirely, and took up its home with the wild animals in the woods, where it could not hear the terrible name of the idol any more.

Bossu afterward made use of the Indians' belief in spirits for his own purpose. One of his soldiers had been killed by one of the Indians. Bossu could not find out who killed the soldier, or even to what tribe the Indian that killed him belonged. He wanted to punish or frighten the murderer in order to save the lives of the rest of the French soldiers.

He called the chief of the Indians, and told him that one of his men was missing. He said he was sure the man had not run away. He therefore asked that the Indians should find the man, and said, that, if he were not found, he should have to think that some of the Indians had killed him.

The chief answered that the white soldier had probably gone hunting in the woods, and killed himself accidentally with his gun, or else he had been killed by a panther. To this Bossu replied that the animal would not have eaten the gun or the clothes of the soldier. He said that if the Indians would find the Frenchman's gun, or bits of his clothes, they could easily show that he had been killed by a wild animal.

Bossu had a friend among the Indians who was very much attached to him. He persuaded this young Indian to tell him to what tribe the murderer of the Frenchman belonged, but he solemnly promised that the other Indians should never know who had told him. He paid the young Indian for telling him.

The Frenchman who was called Fearless now undertook to have the man who had killed the other soldier punished, for the dead soldier had been his friend. But it was necessary that he should not let the Indians know who had told about it. Fearless stripped off a great quantity of bark of the pawpaw tree. He thought he would play a trick like that of the medicine man, and make the Indians believe that a spirit was talking to them. He did everything very secretly. By fastening pieces of the pawpaw bark together with pitch, he managed to make a very large speaking trumpet, which would carry the voice a long distance.

When he had finished this trumpet, he left the camp one very dark night. He carried with him his gun, some food, and a gourd full of water. He had also a bearskin of which to make a bed, and a buffalo robe to cover himself with. With these things he hid himself on a hill. This hill was near the Indian camp. From the top of it Fearless could make his voice heard for three miles round by the aid of his great pawpaw trumpet.

He shouted through this great bark trumpet what seemed to be words in an unknown language, such as the Indian medicine man used. The frightful noise sounded through the woods. It did not seem to come from anywhere. The Indians thought that these cries came down from the sky. The Indian women were thrown into a great fright, and even the warriors and chiefs were alarmed. They said that the Master of Life was angry with their tribe, and that this horrible voice showed that something bad was going to happen to them.

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston

The day after the voice was heard, the old men of the tribe came to consult Bossu about this strange noise. Bossu told them that the white soldier who had been killed could not rest. He said that every night his voice was heard, though nothing could be seen. He said that the voice cried out in a melancholy tone, "I am the white soldier that went with the French captain. I was killed by a man of the tribe of the Kanoatinos. Frenchmen, revenge my death."

The Indians now saw that it was of no use for them to tell any more lies about the death of the white man. They believed that the soldier's ghost had told the Frenchmen all about it. They confessed the murder, but they explained that the white soldier had provoked it when he was drunk, by bad treatment of the Indian who killed him.

Captain Bossu was not willing to take their excuses. He told them, that, if the soldier had done wrong, he ought to have been brought to his own captain to be punished. He said, "If one of my soldiers should kill one of your Indians, I would put him to death. You must do the same with the Indian who killed my soldier."

The oldest of the chiefs now commanded one of his men to go and seize the guilty man, bind him, and bring him in to be put to death, in order that the ghost of the French soldier might no longer trouble them.

Captain Bossu did not wish to put the Indian to death. He knew that the French soldier had very greatly wronged and provoked the Indian. He got his young Indian friend to go to the wife of the chief of the Kanoatinos, and say to her that she might beg the life of the guilty man. The young Indian told the chief's wife that Captain Bossu would not refuse her anything. The woman went, and begged that the Indian might be spared. Bossu consented that the Indian should live, but said that he did it as a favor to the chief's wife.

The chief then turned to the condemned Indian, and said to him, "You were dead, but the captain of the white warriors has brought you to life at the request of the chief's wife." The white people and Indians then smoked the pipe of peace together.