The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Folk-Tales and Folk-Lore collected in and near Washington

The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 6
Folk-Tales and Folk-Lore collected in and near Washington



By W. H. Babcock.

THE work of traditional fancy in and about Washington divides naturally into three branches: negro tradition, children's tradition, and adult tradition. These of course overlap each other, but not so as to cause any practical inconvenience in writing of them.

The exclusively negro traditions consist of tales, games, and hymns, with some superstitions and peculiar practices. A good part of their folk-lore proper is of white derivation, or passes into that of the white race. They also preserve some songs which are unmistakeably of English ballad origin, though not as yet discovered among white children. But the subdivision, as a whole, is very well marked, its roots being in the African nature, not the European. I have made only one or two slight incursions into this field, which I reserve for future effort.

Fragments of the second class have appeared in Lippincott's Magazine and elsewhere; but I expect shortly to make a more full and systematic representation in the Anthropologist of this city. I have been able to collect about a hundred games, involving some literary or fanciful element, without going even into our suburbs. No doubt there are many ears left for the gleaner.

The adult traditions take one farther afield, the wonder-tales in particular being scattered at irregular distances up or down the river. Each belongs to a place, and may be considered as an attempted explanation of something unusual also belonging thereto. I will begin with them.

The Spectral Drummer Boy.

Three miles above Georgetown (now West Washington) the Potomac in a narrow stream comes shattering through arid over a mass of rocks, making a "rapid" rather than a cataract, which is known as the Little Falls. The Virginia shore rises from the water's edge in precipices of considerable height, generally wooded, here and there indented by ravines, and at some points blasted out by quarry-men. The Maryland shore is flat; at low water a labyrinth of rocks and thickets, pools and devious waterways; in times of freshet a reach of hidden obstructions where the water tears and boils and wears great hollows with stone in stone. From the Chain Bridge, inaccurately so called, you look down on the ceaseless rush and upflowering against the piers. It is the very place for strange and musical noises, and the fancies which should go with them; and there, from time to time, has verily been heard the phantom drum.

It seems that in one of the early British expeditions a boat-load of soldiers attempted to cross the river, where the water widens about a quarter of a mile below the falls. Near the Maryland shore they were upset, and a drummer boy who was with them went down, and never rose again. But his music did not cease. He played one tune down below, and that usually in token of coming death. My first informants had heard the sound more than once when out fishing, and made all haste for the shore. But they knew of a less fortunate result of the warning. A certain river man, growing tired of the endless repetition of notes in the same order, turned on his unseen borer, demanding with a curse, "Can't you play anything but that?" My narrator added with all solemnity, "That man never reached the shore alive."

The main items of the legend, with certain additions which I did not get at first hand, were first made public by Mr. Charles Lanneau in one of his books, he having derived them from an old fisherman who was dead when my inquiries began. I have since heard the tale, with slight additions, from divers persons. The musician is heard by those ashore as well as by those afloat; occasionally he seems to be ashore also; and finally there are those who believe him to have come as a ghostly herald or accompaniment of war, and discountenance all faith in his performances since 1865.

The Three Sisters.

About half a mile above the city limits there are three rocky islets. Just below the last of these three rock-points rise out of water at low tide. Some say that just here the sisters were drowned. One account makes them Indian maidens out fishing; another, white damsels going to mill. The three islands, it used to be said, came up to mark their resting-places; but the popular credulity which can still swallow and digest a drum-playing phantom is no longer equal to dealing with such gymnastics on the part of great masses of stone. Also one hears no longer of a certain dreaded whirlpool near that group, which young swimmers once knew of. Old residents insist on the actual death of three sisters by an overset boat; but the circumstances raise a strong presumption in favour of the theory that the three neighbouring islands called for a metaphorical name, and the name in turn called for some fancy work by way of justifying it.

The Devil's Jump.

Fifteen miles down the river the Piscataway joins it from the north by a broad, shallow estuary, once navigable, now choked; most probably by the uptilting of strata. The region about it was early settled, the village of the above name appearing on maps of over two hundred years ago. Near it Tinker's Branch, a tributary, flows in. Following this beyond the deserted Chapel Hill, where white men's graves are going as the red men's have gone before, you come to a wild cluster of steep ravines, branching like the fingers of one's hand, converging toward the south-eastward, and overgrown with magnificent forestry. It is a spot sacred to Pan, or rather Satan, for he took from here his twenty-mile leap to Port Tobacco over the open country lying stretched before you; and moreover, according to one account he is even yet to be dreaded hereabout by sinners late o' nights, for he has not lost his agility. This curious fragment of a tale and the local name, the Devil's Jump, have lasted for at least a generation, and spread over many miles. Beyond the rather savage picturesqueness of the place, its secluded situation, and the chance that Indian rites may once have taken place there, I know of nothing to throw light on the matter.

The Pincushion Stone.

Crossing the river and going a very little downward, you would come to what was formerly the Mount Vernon estate. Professor Otis T. Mason, who formerly dwelt on a part of it, tells me that at the crossing of two roads there formerly stood an upright landmark, or what seemed to be one, which went by the above title. It was said that a man had murdered his wife there because of a quarrel about a pincushion; and that in (rather illogical) consequence she lay in wait at this point for benighted wayfarers, whom she delighted to stick full of pins. A sceptic finally took up the stone and built it into his barn by way of disproof; but unluckily the barn took fire and burned down, a series of misfortunes followed, and in the end the hold of the Pincushion Stone on popular credulity was stronger than ever.

The Treasure of Cacapan.

Cacapan creek is one of the minor affluents of the Potomac while that river passes through the Alleghany ridges; and one of the minor folds of those ridges parallel with the creek is known as Cacapan mountain. Walking over this beside a mountaineer some years ago, I heard from him a local legend which sounded to me like something fresh from the old world. I had asked him if there were any mines of valuable metals thereabout. After some information of a commonplace kind, he added that as to gold and silver there was plenty of them in the mountains as everybody knew; and the place had been found. A lot of foreign men, who acted very queerly, and kept to themselves, and who spoke a language which nobody about them could understand, had settled along that mountain, and dug into it, and found gold there. They worked at night mostly; and at last left suddenly, and covered the hole with a stone, and put a spell on it. For a long time nobody could find the spot; but a man out hunting came on it in a thicket and tried to raise the stone, but failed. He went for help, but could not lead them back to where it was. Afterward a man looking for sheep or cattle discovered it; but he could not lift it either, and proved a bad pilot likewise. These men had described it as marked with very strange letters. Now in that neighbourhood there was a negro who pretended to that kind of magic which is commonly supposed to belong to Vaudos or other heathen rites, although most of those who practise it claim to be Christians. He determined to set his black lore against that of the foreigners; and succeeded not only in finding the stone but in partly lifting it also. Then there was a sudden rush of enemies whom he could not see, and he felt blows falling all over him as he was fleeing headlong down the mountain-side. Nobody has ever found the magically-anchored stone since that day.

Ghost-stories are attached to various houses in Washington as in other cities, but they are of recent date, or ordinary features, presenting nothing, so far as I know, that would interest a student of folk-lore. We are quite without any ghost-laying parsons, or any faith in such; and the services of our rather numerous scientific societies have not as yet been called into requisition. Across Chesapeake bay, in Queen Anne county, Maryland, there is an unique tale, of long standing, wherein a ghost appears by daylight, evidently from a very hot place, makes a demand for certain moneys on behalf of his children, and burns his finger-points into a fence-rail to attest the verity of his presence. This rail, I am assured, was actually produced in court as documentary evidence. But I am travelling beyond my proper bounds.

Animal Lore.

Some elements of this are hardly less marvellous. Now and then they take a narrative form, though of course not confined to any places.

Of the mole it is said that he once had excellent eyes, but no tail. The other animals jeered at him for this deficiency. Meeting a creature, or being (of which I could get no more definite account), he bewailed his tailless condition. The offer was then made to him by this one of preternatural power that he should give up his eyesight in exchange for his tail. He accepted, and the mole goes blind, but with a slim tail, to this day.

In another narrative the mole is a young lady who was too proud to be tolerated. So she wears fine clothes underground, and has no eyes either for her own beauty or that of others.

The fore-paws of a mole cut off and hung around a child's neck are considered an excellent assistance in teething.

The large rock-fish, or striped bass, are found to be unwholesome at certain seasons. This is caused by their bad habit of feeding on the copper-mines under the sea.

There are divers creatures of fabulous or exaggerated attributes about our homes. Thus the "wood-bitch" will attack man, leaping upon him in the spring from some tree. Her bite is fatal. The "ground-dog" keeps close to the earth, but can bark and bite, being a degree less dangerous. Both of these must be salamanders by the description I have of them. So, too, the "scorpion," which is bright coloured, and runs along fence-rails, not having much in common with the diabolical wingless little dragon, which goes elsewhere more properly by the same name. The "sassafras-worm" has a face somewhat like an owl, feeds on the sassafras-tree, and stings severely. The "corn-worm" I suppose to be some large and active grub which devotes itself in like manner to the maize. It is dreaded by workers in the field.

The "fire-tangler" is a caterpillar with a feathery parti-coloured fan-like tail, very handsome and very virulent I have seen its work, which was very effective. The "rearhorse" is the Carolina mantis, one of our oddest insect figures. The "devil's saddle-horse" is an ugly predatory creature, not growing so large as the other, but bearing a mark like a saddle on his back. Ihe "blood-'n-'oven," or "blood-nout," is the deep-voiced green batrachian elsewhere known as "bull-frog." The "bull-bat" is the "night-hawk" of the north, a near cousin of the English goat-sucker. "Chimney-bats" are swifts. The "rain-crow" is the cuckoo, and a weather-prophet.

When it is ebb-tide the slits in a cat's eyes are horizontal; floodtide, vertical.

When a sleeping dog "hunts in dreams," some one is coming from the direction in which his nose points.

Hang up a dead snake, and it will rain to-morrow.

Kill a frog, and it will rain hard for three days.

A cock crowing at the door announces a visitor.

If he walks in, turns round and crows, he announces a death in the family.


The moon lying on her back indicates rain.

The moon pointing to the south-east does likewise.

There will be no change in the weather until the moon changes.

Potatoes should be planted in the dark of the moon or they will not thrive. This applies to seeds, in a less degree.

Fish will bite better in the change of the moon.

A spring should be cleaned only in a certain time of the moon.

Informant not sure which.

A child born at the full of the moon will be a boy.

Omens and Divinations.

If you open an umbrella in the house, the youngest person present will die.

If you hang a coat or hat on the door-knob of a door or door-bell, the youngest of the house will die.

It is unlucky to sweep the dirt out of the house after 12 a.m. That is the time for funerals.

It is unlucky to go in at one door and out at another. (As life does?)

It is not wise to set a hen during a certain part of August. The life of the world is at its lowest then.

On a journey, if you meet a woman, it is bad luck. If an old woman, it is worse. If you speak to her, worst of all.

Take the combings of your hair, and burn them. If they burn steadily for a long time, you will live long also. If the blaze flashes up and dies out quickly, your life will do likewise.

A piece of paper is sometimes used instead.

If two people are about to wash their hands in the same water, they must sign the cross over it, or they will quarrel.

If two persons going hand-in-hand meet an obstacle which divides them, the one on the left will go to hell, the one on the right to heaven. Another version substitutes "good luck" and "bad luck" for this impromptu day of judgment.

If you drop a pair of scissors, and one point sticks in the floor, a visitor is foretold from the direction in which the other leg is extended.

If you find a four-leaved clover, put it in your slipper. Look in after a week, but not till then, and you will find a gold bracelet.

If you find a four-leaved clover, you will have good fortune.

To determine whether you are loved or not, strike a match. If it goes out before it crumbles to pieces, yes; if not, no.

Or, fold a rose-petal to form a bag. Knock it on your hand. If it makes a loud noise, yes; if not, no.

You must keep very quiet after a wedding as the bride passes out. If you can hear a pin drop, that is good luck.

"Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger,
Sneeze on Tuesday, kiss a stranger,
Sneeze on Wednesday, expect a letter,
Sneeze on Thursday, expect something better,
Sneeze on Friday, joy and sorrow,
Sneeze on Saturday, joy to-morrow."

Luck in Birth.

"Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
Saturday, no luck at all."


A child which has never seen its father possesses through life the power of curing most diseases, especially whooping-cough. The remedy is applied by blowing down the patient's throat.

An infant born with a caul has the gift of seeing spirits. The only way to prevent this is to keep the caul carefully as long as he (or she) lives, and not to let him (or her) ever see it.

A cradle must not be rocked while empty, or the child's death will soon make it empty indeed.

A cradle must not be moved by two persons. Two would move the child's coffin.

A child should not be laid on the table or measured, these acts being ominous of death.

If a sick child smiles as though recognising some one, it has been called, and will soon go to another world.

Baptism (by the mark of the cross) will make a child sleep better thereafter.

Baptism (by the mark of the cross) is a cure for sickness.

An infant must be carried upstairs before it has ever gone downstairs. Otherwise it will keep going down all its life.


For warts.—Touch the wart with a stick, looking over your shoulder at the new moon. Then throw the stick away, and be careful not to look at the moon or the stick again that night.

Take stones and smear them with blood from the wart. Throw them away. Whoever steps on the stones will get the wart, and you will lose it.

For freckles.—Count them, and throw an equal number of pebbles in a paper. Whoever steps on the paper will get the freckles.

This list is by no means exhaustive, I presume. Indeed, it represents, more probably, but a very small part of what might be collected. Some of the above sayings have currency mainly in certain classes of adults, farm labourers, for. example, or nurses; others are of recent importation from remoter parts of the neighbouring states, and may not stay with us permanently; a few would rarely, if at all, be heard except among the negroes or the children; yet taking the past and future into consideration they are hardly assignable to either of the two corresponding classes. As a whole they are anything but homogeneous, having come trooping here from divers quarters of perhaps three continents.