Superstitions of a
By Robert Shackleton, 1905
The incongruity is the fascination of it all. In New York, the most modern of all large cities, the very embodiment of twentieth-century youth, thrives superstition, gray with countless centuries of age.
When the night wind wails through the gorgelike streets of the great East Side, thousands tremble, for the restless cry is from the souls of children unbaptized. Where thick-packed multitudes mass, many a charm is mystically woven, even as spells were whispered and charms woven in the forests of Northern Europe, centuries ago. Black art has not been banished by the electric light. Myths hold their own in spite of the railroad and the telegraph. Faith is desperately pinned to necromancy. There are, in New York, beliefs and weird practices which were old when the earliest scribe began to write upon the rock.
Not long ago a quadroon was taken into court for preying upon the Negroes of the Eighth Avenue colony. He claimed magic power, and in the power of his supposed magic a multitude believed. His arrest was brought about by a woman whose son remained ill despite the virtue of three green seals and a magic belt. Recently the will of a German woman, a dweller in Stanton Street, was disputed because she had profoundly dreaded the influence of witched and because, at her death, it had been found that little bags were hidden throughout her clothing, and that in them were incantations to drive the witches away. Attention was drawn, two years ago, to a woman in Ridge Street, who had many clients, and whose specialty was the bringing together of married folk who had drifted apart. She charged twenty dollars to each who invoked her aid, and for that sum she exorcised the evil spirit through whose malignancy the separation had come.
But it is seldom that the black art of Manhattan attracts the attention of the law. To find the terrible Hun who is in league with the devil, to find the seer who makes a child proof against poison by writing magic words, in blood, upon its forehead, to find the man who in consternation discovered skull and crossbones sewed upon his garment, to find where love-philters may be bought, with full instructions as to their administration, one must patiently come to know the mankind of the tenements.
Ghosts are told of in the crowded region north of Grand Street. There are tales of demonology in Chinatown. Almshouse dwellers, sitting in the sun, watching the surging tide and the glistening water, tell of spirits and banshees and fays. Italians dread the evil eye, but have faith in amulets.
Diedrich Knickerbocker narrates that at one time the witchcraft of New England threatened to spread into these Netherlands, and that certain broomstick apparitions actually appeared, but that the worthy dwellers within the gates of Manhattan kept the witches away by dint of the time-honored device of nailed-up horseshoes. It is quite evident, however, that since then witchcraft has stolen in.
Curious it is to find, in Essex or Lulow Street or East Broadway, a belief in Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam; but among these East Side women who pronounce incantations against her she is not Lilith as we know her in Rossetti, marvelously beautiful and eternally young, snaring the souls of men in the meshes of her enchanted hair, but a malicious personification of evil, forever watching to steal away or injure the new-born child.
Races that never heard of the predecessor of Eve share in the fear that new-born children are liable to be stolen away; they hold that fairies are the
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This page was last updated on
01 Jul 2006