Diversity Essay: “Superstitious”— How to Erase People from the National Historical Narrative

Paulette D. Kilmer
Paulette D. Kilmer

We invoke language and symbols buried in our subconscious to declare who belongs among us as equals and whom we shall discriminate against. In the nineteenth century, one word in news items reinforced bigotry against people of color, women, and strangers, like sailors or actors. That term “superstitious” promoted negative stereotypes because fear of the occult has resulted in horrors, like the Salem Witch Trials, which Caucasians waged against fellow church members.

In 1828, Webster’s Dictionary defined “superstition” as “belief in the direct agency of superior powers in certain extraordinary, singular events or in omens and prognostics,” or following “extreme and unnecessary scruples” that God did not require. Thus, humans turned their holy books into licenses to persecute those who disagreed or looked different. Wherever and whenever people have lived, they have invoked the paranormal to explain the unknown. Ironically, religious zeal prompts us to stigmatize those we do not understand as superstitious: “rigid in religious observances” or “full of idle fancies.” Nineteenth-century newspapers repeatedly depicted marginalized souls as superstitious: ignorant, malicious, and cruel.

Labeling individuals as “superstitious” erased them from the national historical narrative and justified ignoring their contributions as well as abusing them. Therein, women and Blacks frequently starred in ghost stories; editors told tourists in the 1870s that the eight First Nations (who called Yellowstone home in the summer) feared geysers and would not inconvenience them. To the north in Yosemite, entrepreneurs described the indigenous people in the past tense to imply they were extinct. While this short essay cannot document the many instances when stereotyping crept into news accounts, advertising, fiction, and editorial opinion, some samples reveal the presence of this injustice. Demeaning images of ostracized groups solidified cultural divisions that resulted in discrimination and a privileged class feeling superior to everybody else.

“All Indians are superstitious, and the Zuni are no exception.” (Kansas City Journal, July 24, 1898), p. 15.

The Zuni worshipped the sun god, the Kansas City Journal noted: “Their belief of the creation corresponds to Darwin’s theory although it can hardly be said that they have any reverence for the monkey.” The sun god covered the people with hair and gave them tails; he offered them a painful operation. Those who ran away became monkeys, but the brave who endured the surgery emerged as humans. Allusions to animals appeared often as in calling men “bucks.”

A front-page article in the New York Sun on December 11, 1892, treats the “Schenectady Giant,” James Hartley as a taciturn “remarkable specimen.” He sleeps outside, never laughs, and earns his livelihood selling roots and herbs. The reporter compared the hut where this “last of the Mohawks” lived to a mastiff kennel. Hartley served in the 115th New York Infantry during the Civil War. “Although white and … Negro (sic) blood is in his veins, the Indian is above all, and this he glories in.” One day Hartley thought witches had cursed his infected hand and intended to cut it off, until the doctor took him to the hospital.

The Journal treated Hartley like a freak, but other American Indians received worse coverage. For example, on page two of its December 10, 1896, edition, the Tyrone (Pennsylvania) Daily Herald said, “As everyone has heard, the Apache is the most treacherous, cruel, and cowardly of all the Indian races.” The “superstitious worshippers of demons” did not believe in life after death and lived in moment without feeling regret for their evil deeds; these editorial asides generated animosity toward indigenous people.

“I think the white cowboy is superior to the Mexican. The white man is cool, patient, and of better judgment.” John Sullivan, the cowboy (Mitchell [South Dakota] Republican, March 25, 1886, p. 4.)

Sullivan acknowledged the reputation of Mexicans for excellence in riding and lassoing. Since Mexican wranglers thought their sins caused the booming in a thunderstorm, they stripped off their clothes and beat themselves with cacti: “Frequently, their wild cries cause a disastrous stampede of the cattle in their charge.” Sullivan’s anecdote reflected the distrust of Catholicism in the United States: “The Mexican is superstitious, and when his religious fears come upon him, the cattle in his charge are a secondary consideration.”

Moreover, the Marion (Ohio) Daily Star observed Mexicans cherished their right to gamble: “The Mexican is intensely superstitious. He believes in that abstract quality known as luck, and as long as the world moves, the desire will possess him to play.” The New Ulm (Minnesota) Weekly Review described impoverished Mexicans who lived near an erupting volcano as too superstitious to react to the chaos constructively. These “miserably poor” peasants lived in “indescribable squalor” and “perpetual misery,” and fared much worse than “their closest neighbors, the wandering coyotes.”

While plundering some wild honey caverns near Del Rios, Texas, along the Devil River, a Kansas City tycoon dangled on a rope in a deep crevice. His Mexican crew were supposed to pull him to the surface; however, when the bees buzzed as loudly as a waterfall and stung them mercilessly, all but one fled. That opportunist hoped to steal his employer’s gold watch and coins. His boss’s howls of pain convinced the Mexican that Satan had taken possession of the victim, and so he ran away. The KC speculator finally hoisted himself up the rope and out of the hole. Still wrapped in mosquito netting and sticky with honey now coated in dirt, he arrived in the city in time to greet the funeral party of his friends who had just stepped off the train.

“The Chinese and Japanese are as much in the dark as the barbarous tribes of the lower races of Asiatic paganism.” Scranton [Pennsylvania] Tribune, July 15, 1895, p. 3.

Despite inventing gun powder, a printing press and a mariner’s compass before anybody else, “the Chinese are very superstitious,” the Scranton Tribune said. They burned brown paper to empower loved ones to ride smoke to heaven. On November 26, 1920, The Powder River [Broadus, Montana] Examiner described the “peculiar” burial convictions “honored the spirits of the earth, wind, and fire.” Chinese mourners feared crossing the forbidden line between here and the realm beyond life would end in violent death.

Sometimes the newspapers milked the beliefs of other cultures for humor. Consider the Salisbury [Connecticut] Western News story about floods ravaging the area around the Tez-Chin-Lin dam. Villagers found a huge fish swimming in a small hole. They “declared the fish a god” and stopped shoring up the levee, “as it was plainly the will of Heaven that the bank should give way.” After the catastrophe, the conservator of rivers sacrificed “a fabulous tortoise or fish” to the god of the waters and set up lavish tables, waved elaborate prayer scarfs, and completed an intricate ritual. But the god sent another raging flood. This time the conservator tossed aside the incense and offerings. He scolded the fish and then boom! He fired a cannon, sending fish confetti into the blue ski and convincing his people that he was not responsible for the deluge.

“These are known as conjure N—who can ‘hoodoo’ you. To incur the ill will of one of them is a grievous misfortune.”  Troy [Missouri] Free Press, September 7, 1888, p. 6.

Most southern Blacks, especially those in Louisiana, practiced voodoo, according to the Troy Free Press, which used the “N” word in the story and praised the cunning white men who knew how to stop the voodoo mania. The correspondent explained all African Americans expected to go to heaven and sit at the same table as white people: “His heaven…is one of sensual delights, and corpses and funerals are to him a great delight.” The old women taught the children that while they slept, witches tied knots in their hair. Telling a ghost story about the phantom of a murder victim leading a passer-by to his grave in the woods, the Atlanta Sunny South said on October 13, 1888 (page 19), the “Negro (sic) murderer, like all his race was superstitious.” The clever sheriff took the terrified killer to the burial spot, and he confessed.

Words matter because we rely on our media to show us the world. In the Gilded Age, newspapers echoing assumptions that “they all are superstitious” shaped readers’ attitudes toward Native Americans, Mexicans, the Chinese, and African Americans. This coverage stigmatized ethnic, cultural, and racial differences. The two-valued orientation split our county into “us” and “them” camps. Possibly incapable of seeing the injustices that tribal lingo caused, newspapers reflected the prejudices of their readers. In 1850, on page 13 of The Nightside of Nature: Or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, the first ethnographer (Catherine Crowe) warned, “They are afraid of that bugbear Superstition—a title of opprobrium, which is very convenient to attach to whatever we do not believe ourselves.” Analyzing past stereotypes could inspire us to question our assumptions, to empathize with others, to respect marginalized individuals, and to rethink our media until it fairly covers us all.

About the author: Paulette D. Kilmer is an author and professor of narrative journalism writing, ethics, and media history at the University of Toledo. Her research interests focus on the connections between narrative, myth, social justice, and history.

Featured image: Matteson, T. H. Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass. Salem Massachusetts, None. [Between 1900 and 1920] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/92515055/.

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