Superstitions of a Cosmopolitan City, continued
from witchlike in appearance. Of middle age, shrewd, impassive, slow, rather short, clean, clad n a plain black gown and knitted shoulder-cape — the very commonplaceness of her appearance gave an additional twang of disquiet.
It would be a mistake to think the superstitions of New York obtain among the ignorant only. The rich and the well-to-do dread thirteen at table — the result of a superstition that goes back to the Last Supper, where one was a traitor. In his great painting of the Supper, Da Vinci illustrates a prognostic in which many in Manhattan have faith — for Judas has just upset the salt! Educated men ward off rheumatism with horse-chestnuts. The Easter-egg custom comes from rites and beliefs of unknown antiquity. Many, in moving, will not carry away a broom. Many count it unlucky to take the family cat with them to a new home. Many still put horseshoes over their doors — thus recognizing a superstition which apparently arose from the warding away of evil by the horseshoe-shaped blood-splash of the Passover. There is a Wall Street broker who must have his right cheek shaved first, and the initial stroke must be upward. A certain horse-owner is confident of success if, on the morning of a race-day he accidentally meets a cross-eyed man. Many a New York matron will under no circumstances remove the wedding-ring from her finger, for dire ill luck would come. A New York financier whose name is known throughout the world holds active superstitions in regard to cats. People watch the placing of valuables in a cornerstone, without suspecting that the custom is thought to have a far-distant necromantic origin in the use of human beings to strengthen buildings and bridges. The original belief still holds in out-of-the way corners of the world, and many of the Chinese believed the absurd report that the Czar of Russia was to safeguard the Manchurian railway by means of this ancient form of black art.
It is mainly among the undigested foreign element that the mightier superstitions lurk, and it is not always with the grimness which the beliefs themselves would seem to indicate.
The Italians, crowding into the city by tens of thousands, bring with them the superstitions of Italy, and belief in demon possession and in the evil eye is wellnigh universal among them. A leading churchman was believed, by a host of devout Italians, to have the power of the evil eye, though none believed that he ever wrongfully used it; and there are men and women in Roosevelt and Elizabeth streets, about Mulberry Bend and in the Little Italy of Harlem, who are held to be possessors of this attribute.
But with the Italians magic is not of necessity a serious danger. The very commonness of it has rendered imperative and customary a multitude of counterbalancing charms, beginning with the stringing of certain shapes of coral about the necks of children, and in many cases continuing with the wearing of coral as a safeguard throughout life. Then, too, there is a way of so holding the fingers as to neutralize the evil, the method being to fold the two middle fingers into the palm, leaving the others projectively pronglike.
Properly considered, there is considerable amusement obtainable from the pervasiveness ways of meeting and offsetting it. For example, a few years ago an Italian vice-consul went from New York to a neighboring town to investigate the murder of an Italian there. The slain man, it appeared, had sold his soul to the devil, and could at any time call that personage to do his bidding. This, not unnaturally, had the effect of minimizing the popularity of the man, and, in fact, of raising up enemies against him. The devil, it was learned, had made his life secure from steel, poison, or bullets; whereupon certain hard-headed compatriots fell upon him with clubs and tossed him into a pond to drown.
A curious epidemic of “devil frights,” which followed each other in the schools of the East Side a few years ago, showed a readiness on the part of others than Italians to believe in the personal present of the being that old Peter Stuyvesant legendarily shot with a silver bullet at Hell Gate. Time and again, while the epidemic lasted, schoolrooms were emptied by a panic following the cry that the devil was at the window.
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01 Jul 2006