Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas
Dr. Timothy McCartney
PSYCHO-SOCIAL ASPECTS OF OBEAH
OBEAH AND MEDICINE
Throughout the world, more and more scientists are becoming aware and more sensitive to the belief that a para normal world does exist.
Modem science, and especially psychology, have made some gains in exploring and explaining much of what used to be looked upon as "magic", "supernatural" or "primitive" superstitions. The "surface" of the psychic world with regard to research has just barely been scratched, but there is more interest, serious study and questioning of the many "unexplained" phenomena.
Time Magazine 1 recently highlighted the increased psychic activity:
"In the U.S., "The Secret Life of Plants' becomes a best seller by offering an astonishing and heretical thesis: greenery can feel the thoughts of humans.
"At Maimonides Medical Centre in New York City, the image of a painting is transmitted by E.S.P. and seems to enter the dreams of a laboratory subject sleeping in another room.
"In England, a poll of its readers of "New Scientist" indicates that nearly 70% of the respondents (mainly scientists and technicians) believe in the possibility of extra sensory , perception.
"At the University of California, Psychologist Charles Tart reports that his subjects showed a marked increase in E.S.P. scores after working with his new testing machine !
1. TIME. "Boom Times on the Psychic Frontier " March 4, 1974.
114 (part 2)
"In Los Angeles, a leaf is cut in half, then photographed by a special process. The picture miraculously shows the "aura" or outline of the whole leaf.
"In Washington, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency assigns a team to investigate seemingly authentic psychic phenomena at the Sanford Research Institute.
"On both sides of the Atlantic, Uri Geller, a young Israeli psychic, astounds laymen and scientists alike by bending spoons and keys, apparently with the force of his thoughts.
"In the Philippines, tennis star, Tony Roche, is relieved of painful "tennis elbow" when an incision is made and three blood clots are apparently removed by the touch of a psychic healer, who knows nothing of surgery or of modem sanitation.
"In the U.S., the number of colleges offering courses in parapsychology increases to more han 100.
"In the U.S.S.R., researchers file reports on blindfolded women who can "see" colours with their hands.
"In California, ex-Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who while on the Apollo 14 moon mission conducted telepathy experiments with friends on earth founds the Institute of Noetic Sciences. His new mission: investigate occurrences that will not yield to rational explanation.
"In London, Arthur Koestler examines psychic research with the zeal of the believer. Koestler, one of the foremost explicators of establishment science (The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation) speaks of "synchronized" events that lie outside the expectations of probability. In anecdotes of foresight and extra sensory perception, in the repetition of events and the strange behaviour of random samplings, Koestler spots what he calls the root of coincidence. In his unforgettable metaphor, modem scientists are "Peeping Toms at the keyhole of eternity."
Thus, with all the above activity in psychic phenomena going on in respectable circles, Bahamian Obeah practitioners are being looked upon more seriously and there is honest enquiry into the "hows", "whys" and "wherefores" of Obeah practice.
Healing, or problems of physical and mental health, are the most important aspects in the practice and art of Obeah. The manifestations of a fix are usually some medical symptom (physical or mental) by which normal or trained medical professionals may find difficult to diagnose or treat. It is not unusual that many Bahamians will either use their own local cure or consult a "bush doctor" or Obeah practitioner before seeing a "qualified" medical practitioner.
Bahamians have always relied-on local cures, and today, in many of the remote islands of the Bahamas, the only medicines to be found are the natural ones from barks, bush and earth. It should be noted from the start, however, that many local healers are Not Obeah practitioners or even associated with Obeah; but it must be admitted that the majority of Obeah practitioners, and usually the most effective of them, are expert herbalists or bush doctors.
This section does not deal with actual parapsychological research findings, nor were there attempts made to allow for the case histories that will be cited, to undergo any rigid research procedures with controls. As far as possible, medical histories were obtained, individuals seen by the author * and stories verified by questioning and the evaluating of material. Genuine medical cases that have been attributed to the power of Obeah will be related.
* Many people refused to talk about their problem or gave permission to be seen.
Symptoms associated with Obeah and stories of people afflicted with strange "physical" happenings abound in the Bahamas. The real power or efficacy of the Obeah practitioner lends itself to the manifestations of being fixed.
Being fixed ascribes the causation of a disease or disability, or mental condition, to the magical influence of Obeah. It is like a hex or a spell placed on the individual by another person. Naturally, medical science is often incapable of dealing with the problem of fixing and only the Obeah practitioner who diagnoses and can interpret the reasons for the fix, is capable of unfixing or clearing the individual.
Virtually, any symptom, physical or emotional, may be ascribed to "being fixed".
Often, a patient will explain his illness, initially, in a rather guarded manner. Unless he is very disturbed, only intensive questioning would reveal his beliefs, and after that, he describes his illness usually by naming his tormentor, although sometimes the source of the "fix" remains unknown.
The commonest belief is that you are "fixed" or can be fixed by the proper use of the many prescribed negative fetishes. These are often common household items or clothes, such as salt, sand, socks, handkerchiefs, such blood or the excreta of common animals - as the chicken, goat, pig or snake. Other items having magical significance are human hair, fingernail clippings, urine, blood and feces. The common use of blood, excreta, nails and hair in witchcraft
practices of the 17th century Caribbean voodoo, and even Egyptian healing rites indicate the venerable origin of some of the Obeah signs. The most powerful item used in Obeah, however, is cemetery (grave) dirt and next to this is probably sea water.
All the previous material may be used to "fix" an enemy by using them in conjunction with proper times and conditions. Sunrise, the dark of the moon, midnight, are particularly favoured times to "fix" people.
For example, a common method for "fixing" one's enemy is to collect grave dirt at midnight, get the Obeah man or woman to place a set +, add the grave dirt and bury all this in front of the victim's house. When the victim steps over the "set", he gets fixed, and either a physical or mental symptom (or both) will occur.
The more common physical symptoms occurring as the result of being "fixed" are the loss of hair; unexplained swelling of the limbs or stomach; constant headaches or "ringing in the ears"; unexplained outbreak of boils or festering sores that do not respond to medication; the loss of use of the limbs (not being able to walk, etc.) or deformity of the limbs, loss of sight. Many of the remedies employed for the above symptoms are extremely varied - bush baths, poultices, salves, the drinking of many liquid concoctions, etc. Many of these type of therapies are effective, but the early observers of Bahamian life, probably ignorant to the effectiveness of natural herbs and barks, usually "poked fun" at the local cures and projected their own brand of racial prejudices with their writings, even though some of them experienced a "cure" from the local bush doctor.
Amelia Defries 2 describes such an occurrence: "I was the only white person on the island—the commissioner being away on leave just then—and, when I developed fever, Aunt Celia* was sent for. I recognized her at once, for I had last seen her coming from delivering a baby into the world, and she was dressed then as now in remarkably grubby rags, fastened with an American safety-pin. On her head a soiled yellow bandana handkerchief, silhouetted against the orange and sapphire of the sunset, and the attitude of her angular hands, the way she moved and her general "atmosphere" recalled the Haweis paintings of Bahamian negroes. I recoiled at first - for the unclean, long nails of the "Wise Woman" looked anything but hygienic. Nevertheless, she "worked on" me (as she put it) and cured me in an incredibly short time. During the treatment we had many a talk, and I found out how the original doctors effected their cures. Aunt Celia has very little work, for most of these 'ignorant,' people on this desert island know how to cure themselves on the rare occasions when they fall ill. But in serious cases, she is consulted. All her medicines grow in the 'bush' and are fresh-picked and fresh-boiled for every patient. Rubbing with lard or melted tallow candle is one of her chief cures and to some of her medicines she adds a 'large, big rusty nail', Cows' gall is a remedy for certain complaints when you can get it. This and mustard, however, are rarities."
Rosita Forbes, 3 observing 'being fixed' in Cat Island, and interviewing the local commissioner, wrote: "'These islanders are the most suspicious I know,’ said one of the young men. 'They wouldn't sleep or eat with a neighbour, no ma'am, they'd be too frightened of being 'fixed'. He told how a youth brought back a cake from Nassau and gave a slice of it to one of his
+ Ways of setting a fix, e.g., taking an article of clothing,
or hair or photograph, etc. See previous chapter diagram.
neighbours, with whom there had been some dispute. Apparently, the man could not resist 'shop' cake. He ate it and within a few hours was dead. 'All the villagers thought it was Obeah, good, hot and strong. But it may have been poison,' concluded the narrator. Nobody could possibly tell. In the long, sandy lane we met an intelligent looking negress who was considered a good doctor. Most of her medicine grew in the bush. She picked and brewed them fresh for each patient. But sometimes she uses cow's gall, rare as a needle, or a shilling on Cat Island, lard or melted tallow candle, a big rusty nail stewed in the juice of certain herbs, seaweed, a poultice of earth and red peppers, or a conch taken from the shell, laid on an open wound. The one thing she did not believe in was fresh air. Nobody ever died of her treatment, she insisted. They died from old age, or 'sperrits,' from poison and drowning—and fresh air and sharks or sharp-teethed Barracuda—she even acknowledges that her fellow villagers occasionally died from consumption 'if dey plum obstinate about it, but dey nebber die from what I do to dem, no Ma'am.
"Such a 'wise woman' has to work very hard. She cannot feel a pulse, prescribe and go away. She must go out into the bush or along the shore and find the numerous complicated ingredients for her medicines. She must then 'bile' them or stew them and take them to the patients, whom she will bathe, rub, knead, plaster and soon 'packing them' with pepper, grass or other herb plants, 'filling them' with purges of oil or herbal infusions. Her methods are drastic. The patients are generally thinner when she has finished with them but I was told nine out of ten times she effects a cure - when she fails it is because 'de Lawd sure wanted dat man very bad!"'
As virtually any symptom or misfortune, including death, may be explained as the result of being fixed, the ones most common in psychiatric practice are those syndromes which form the biggest part of any psychiatric referrals—alcoholism, depressions, anxiety states, confusion& and delusional states.
"Crazy people" have always been feared and looked upon with awe and suspicion by Bahamians”.* Mental illness is generally characterized by various distinct syndromes which vary in terms of its description, cause treatment and cure.
"Plaggin' wid nerve trouble," "sick in de head", "bad head", "madness" and "going crazy" are the most common terms used to describe the individual that has a mental problem.
The causes of mental illness are many, but the following represents some of the main common local beliefs :
* The author's "Neuroses In the Sun" goes into the problems of mental illness in the Bahamas.
Mental illness in the Bahamas is still stigmatized and patients are often discriminated against when job or house hunting; also, they are shunned or teased by the general populace.
Usually, prior to being seen by a physician, individuals who feel that they have been 'fixed' consult an Obeah man or woman. On the other hand, many consult the faith healer. These healers may be strictly religious healers, or they may be a combination of both (Obeah-religious) as already described in "white magic". The Devil, playing an important role in the illness, must be cast out or the individual may be possessed by a demon and must be exorcised. There is a distinction between "evil" demon possession or being "possessed" by the Holy Spirit, a much sought-after condition, indicating "purity" of the soul or the actual manifestation of God in one's body. One does not have to be ill to receive the "Holy Ghost", as normal individuals may receive it especially during a church service. The loud music and singing, hand clapping, the "Amens" and "Hallelujahs" and the sudden "getting the spirit" of the individual is manifested by epileptic-like convulsions, a trance-like condition and even glossolalia (speaking in tongues). Evil or demon possession never takes place in church or at a church service and has different manifestations. The individual suddenly "changes" his personality. They have new ideas, knowledge of places or situations that they could not have possibly seen or experienced. Their facial expressions change and are no longer their own. Their language becomes garbled, a different tone of voice is emitted and often they utter the most obnoxious profanities.
The medical profession generally attributes this phenomena to schizophrenia, as medical experts do not generally acknowledge the existence of separate entities apart from what they can see, touch, feel or measure; so possession by a demon is entirely inconceivable. The doctor will look rather for personality defects rather than the presence of an external force. Many will attribute the illness to secondary or tertiary personalities as part of the original personality. Stories like "The Three Faces of Eve" or "Sybil" attest to this approach.
To the religious specialist, possession is a real entity and is the ' taking over" of the soul by an outside evil force more likely to be the Devil or his demons. Those religions or cults that have no devil, either interpret these outside forces as being 'good' or 'bad', depending on what the individual projects while possessed. Fear and superstition also accompany possession with its attendant taboos and a popular conception is to have destroyed all objects that have come into contact with the possessed one. The 'evil eye' concept is still popular in some countries, i.e., a possessed person casting a glance at a healthy person can cause the healthy person to become ill. "Belief in the evil eye is common throughout Latin America where it is known as "malojo", and in the Caribbean Islands, where it is called 'rnaljo'. In Trinidad, maljo is thought to be responsible for general wasting and debility, abdominal pains and loss of appetite. 4
There are also specific places where an individual may go to become dispossessed or cleared or healed. For Bahamians, Haiti, Cat Island or Andros Island are specific places for Obeah healing. For more orthodox Christians, the popular and varied places in the world where healing waters flow, grottos and places like Lourdes, can effectuate miraculous cures.
Personalities, in addition to local healers, who are popular in the Bahamas (thanks to American T.V.) are Oral Roberts and Katherine Kullman, Bahamians who can afford it, and after local 'cures' have not worked, travel to Haiti or America, to look for a person or place that would perhaps be effective. A terminal cancer patient friend of mine, one month before he passed away, went to consult with Katherine Kullman.
The "non-medical" healers, therefore, whether they be priests, evangelists, Obeah practitioners, shamans, witchdoctors, or whatever they may be called, play an important role in the medico-cultural spectrum of human existence and to this author's mind, are as valid and effective as the "trained" healer (or doctor) the western world produces.
In the case of physical illness, the herbs, barks and natural medications have their physical validity, coupled with the patients' belief in the healer.
In the case of mental illness, it would appear that the local healer is extremely effective, when it is considered that cultural tenets influence not only the definition of a mental illness, but also the nature and type of its treatment. The healing process is a form of psychotherapy.
Jerome Frank 5 looks at psychotherapy
from three basic concepts:
The valid Obeah practitioner is a psychologist 'par excellence' - in training, methodology and healing techniques. Relief of suffering, attitudinal changes, follow-up, are all valid marks
4. BEAUBRUN, Michael. "Mental Health and the Interaction
of Cultures in the Caribbean". Keynote address at the 10th Biennial
Conference of the Caribbean Federation for Mental Health, Caracas, 27th
of the trade but, most of all, the personal charisma of the healer and the strong faith and beliefs in his purported method, are of prime importance.
Faith and cultural security on the part of the ill person is as important to his relief as is the bedside manner of the 'society' doctor to his patient.
'Interpretation' of events, happenings and the phenomena accompanying an 'unexplained illness' must be given if it is to be proven effective, and according to the beliefs of the sick person. Non-belief, non-acceptance or doubt are barriers in all aspects of healing, e.g. possession against the will of an individual with that individual fully aware of all of his faculties and powers and resisting possession is completely impossible.
Thus, it can be seen, that in the practice of Obeah, there is a profound influence on an individual's emotions or on physical health. It is suggested 6 "that anxiety and despair can be lethal, confidence and hope, life-giving." In order to better understand the Obeah-medical 'connection', the following are some medical case histories attributed to Obeah. The patients cited are all Bahamians (white and black).
Case History No. 1
Ruth, a 25-year-old, very attractive girl, was referred to me by her physician because of depression, but also severe headaches and lethargy of 2 1/2 weeks duration. She had not responded to traditional medication and it was suspected by her ,doctor that she was still suffering from shock because her boyfriend of 5 years, who lived with her and who was the father of two of her three children, suddenly, one morning, just got up and left her.
6. FRANK, J.D. ibid.
On examination, the patient was depressed, somewhat confused and expressed suicidal ideas. She was given medication by a psychiatrist colleague of mine, given two weeks sick leave, and seen by me on a twice-weekly basis for supportive psychotherapy.
She responded fairly well and was soon fit to return to work. However, she was still very much in love with her boyfriend and would occasionally continue to brood, withdraw and sometimes have tearful sessions.
One afternoon, about three weeks after she had returned to work, she telephoned me and, with urgency, announced that she had to see me immediately.
I saw her the same day, and she appeared to be excited, a little apprehensive, but soon, after some hesitation, began to talk.
"You see, Doc, I have a Haitian friend who sells me 'numbers' and
I told him about my situation. He has a friend whom he believes can help
me and he wants me to see him. You mind?"
"No—I told him that I was taking medicine from a doctor but I didn't mention any name or tell him that you were seeing me. Anyhow, he then asked me what I wanted him to do for me. Well, I tell him I didn't want anything done to me, but that I still loved my boyfriend very much and wanted him back 'home'. This Obeah man just sat very quietly listening to me, and after I was finished, he said, 'O.K., I help you. You got money? - It'll cost you $150.' I asked him if he'd take a cheque and he said that that was money. Anyhow, Doc, the man told me that all I had to do was one thing - ha, ha! Lord, Doc, I can't tell you what the man tell me to do."
"Come on, now, you've never been shy with me. You can tell me anything—you know that."
* Bahamians use the term "man'' (pronounced mon) (male or female) often.
"Man, Doc, this sound so stupid!!"
The following Wednesday my patient telephoned me and said that her boyfriend didn't come around that Saturday, but came around the Tuesday night. She asked him if she could get something for him to drink. He said he wanted a beer. Well, she told him that she had no beers, but he said that he would take some coffee—anyhow, they agreed that she would fix him a nice cup of tea because that's all she had. She drew the tea with her 'prepared' tea bag, and her boyfriend drank it all down.
"Well, we'll now wait and see what happens. Be sure that as soon as something happens, even if you have to come to my home, you come and tell me.
On Sunday morning, very early, my doorbell rang. On opening it, there was my patient—very excited.
"He home, Doc—true to God, Doc—I went out to do some shopping on Saturday afternoon and when I got back home, at about 7:30 p.m., there was my boyfriend, lying in my bed. With tears in his eyes he said that he was foolish to leave me and that he'd never do it again and that he still love me. Lord, Doc, what you think—this Obeah man really powerful."
I was rather shocked at this news, and told her to "play it cool" and we'll see what happens.
This incident happened in 1974. This patient recently saw me in a supermarket and she told me that her boyfriend is still with her—in fact, he is so attentive to her that he is with her everywhere she goes—actually, she said: "Doc, he fix too good 'cause I kinda tired of him always following me around."
She also related to me that in talks with her boyfriend, she asked him what made him decide to come back to her. He told her that he suddenly started thinking about their past life together, and a funny urge came over him and he couldn't help himself from returning. This
* Vagina (or "crabby" as used colloquially)
story, however, does not end here. I wanted to visit this Obeah man myself and obtained his name and telephone number from my patient. The conversation went as follows:
Case History No. 2
Leila was a hard-working lady, who initially started selling food to civil servants in government offices and also on Bay Street. Through her hard work and determination, she built up a food catering service and also did farming. She was intelligent, thrifty, a hard worker and was liked by everybody. She married a man who was also a hard worker, but used to drink too much sometimes and although Leila was disturbed by her husband's drinking, her business and family life was not too seriously affected.
Leila had money in the bank, but like many Bahamians, kept large sums of money in her house * for emergency purposes.
* Inside mattresses, in tin pans, buried in the ground, nailed between partitions of houses - are all famous money hiding places in the Bahamas.
Leila was thinking about expanding her business and formulated a plan that she would take to the bank hoping that she could borrow money. She got up very early one morning, went to her hiding place to get her money and, to her horror, the money was gone! She and her family searched everywhere and couldn't find the money. She finally called in the police and after a few weeks of investigation, could not find the money, nor did they have any theory as to how it was either stolen or lost. Leila was extremely upset and decided that she had to find out, by any means available, how her money had disappeared.
Leila believed in Obeah and was advised by a friend to go to Haiti and see a man that he knew.
She journeyed to Haiti, and saw a man who told her that, unfortunately, he couldn't tell her the name of the person who stole the money, but that the culprit would be struck blind!
Leila paid the man, and returned to the Bahamas to see whether the Obeah man was successful in finding the person who stole her hard-earned money.
To her horror, at the exact moment that she was informed by the man in Haiti that the culprit would go blind. Leila's husband became suddenly blind. He confessed that he had stolen the money and Leila, although angry and disappointed, didn't want her husband to remain blind. She went back to Haiti, saw the Obeah man * , but he told her that, unfortunately, he could not reverse the blindness.
The husband consulted an eye specialist, but, at the time of writing, he is still blind.
I discussed this case with Dr. Ken Knowles, a Consultant Ophthalmologist, who did not initially see him, but knew about this story and obtained the medical history of Leila's husband, who was seen in 1957 at the Eye Wing of the Princess Margaret Hospital. He was 36 years old, and been given medical tests (e-g. V.D.R.L. etc.) all of which were negative.
He had a history of drinking, but not that much to appreciably affect his eye sight. He was diagnosed as having "Optic Atrophy".
Dr. Knowles explained that "Optic Atrophy" is very common in the West Indies, but it is a gradual illness, with progressive loss of sight. Dr. Knowles thought it unusual that this man would suddenly go blind without any previous history, and at such an early age. Subsequent doctors' notes on his medical file indicate that his right eye was blind, with no reaction to light and his left eye went from 6-60 to 3-60 and finally to 2-60 vision when he was last seen in 1958.
I asked Dr. Knowles whether he thought that this Obeah man in Haiti really "fixed" this man to go blind.
With his usual twinkle in his eyes and his oftimes sarcastic humour, Dr. Knowles replied that it was an unusual case, under unusual circumstances, and who was he to finally become an eye expert in Obeah!
My investigations have proved that the facts, as related in my story, are correct—the medical reports attest to the sudden blindness of Leila's husband, but whether it was a coincidence or whether it was the power of that Obeah man in Haiti, is left for the reader to decide!
* Actually a voodoo priest.
Case History No. 3
My father, a custom's officer, used to arrive home at about two o'clock—the family would have lunch and after my father's visit to the toilet (to do what comes naturally and read the daily papers) and a little 'nap', we would all go for a drive, visit friends or go to either of two little farms that we had on Blue Hill Road or Wulff Road: My father was late in coming home—he hadn't telephoned, and my mother (a natural worrier) was becoming concerned. Her fears were soon relieved when at about 2:45 p.m. the car horn blew (as it was my father's custom as he turned our corner) and my father arrived. When he entered the house, we could see that he was visibly shaken and there were looks of anxiety, puzzlement and concern in his face.
"What's the matter, dear?" My mother asked.
"Dear, I've just seen the most frightening thing in my life. There is P------ from Tarpum Bay who has been brought here for medical treatment. She and her parents are living in our house in Hay Street. I went to see them and, Dear, I just saw P------, and she is passing glass from her mouth and nose. I just can't believe it—it's not possible, but I just saw it with my own eyes. I don't understand it. They tell me that she has been Obeahed, but you know I don't believe in that stuff. But I do know something, I just saw glass coming from P-----!"
My mother listened to my father in disbelief, but she, unlike my father, was somewhat superstitious—she was a great believer in dreams and things that could happen, e.g. if she laughed too much (usually at my father's jokes and antics) she would suddenly become serious and say "I'm going to cry soon" or "we'll soon be hearing some bad news". She also believed in blackbirds, being a bad omen. Anytime she saw birds around her house, she would say "Someone's going to die soon". In fact, my father told me that the afternoon before my mother had a stroke and died suddenly, after three days of illness, she saw some blackbirds in an almond tree in our back yard. She looked at my father and said "They are here for me - I'm going to die soon." My father, just shrugged his shoulders and thought that my mother was up to her usual superstitious 'predictions' again. - Anyhow, my father decided to take my mother to see what he just saw, and I persuaded them to take me. When we got to our rented house in Hay Street, my mother felt that the experience could be too traumatic for me (I was only eight years old then) and they left me in the car.
About a half hour later, my parents returned to the car and they were both 'visibly shaken'. My mother told me that she had just seen the lady and glass was still coming from her mouth and nostrils. My father had a small piece of white glass in his hands and he gave it to me to feel.
"Throw it away, because if it is the result of Obeah, I don't want it in my house—don’t want anything like that for my children to be exposed to."
For me, this experience was fascinating, and it didn't sound too extraordinary. We were being fed at that time all kinds of nursery rhymes and the "cow jumping over the moon" or Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck 'takling' and acting like humans, were all part of our fantasy world that programmed us to accept things like glass coming from the mouth or nostrils as
* These areas, at that time, were very sparsely inhabited and consisted mainly of very thick bush. We used to plant corn, okras, pumpkins, watermelons, tomatoes and various types of peas and beans. There were also coconut trees and delicious jelly coconuts were always available.
'normal'. Even though my parents, aunts, uncles and other relatives constantly talked about it, the incident soon passed from my mind.
In 1953, just before I left the Bahamas to enter St. John's University in Minnesota, my father asked me to go to Eleuthera and visit my grandmother, who was very ill. He thought that it might be the last time that I saw her alive. Walking along the hard streets at Tarpum Bay, one day, a cousin of mine pointed to a lady sweeping out the church (gospel hall) and said that it was P-------, the lady that passes glass. My memory was jolted back to that Friday afternoon in 1941, and I was sufficiently curious to go and speak with her.
"Hi, I'm 'Lil Tim' * , May Dorn's grandson. How are you?”
Naturally, while obtaining information for this book, I got back on the case of the 'glass passer'. Members of her family that I've met, without exception, confirm the story. I have tried, without success, to obtain pieces of the glass, but no one seems to have kept them.
This lady is still alive and lives in Nassau, but the family that she lives with refuses to let me see her.
To authenticate this story, I wrote to Dr. Michael M. Gerassimos who had seen this phenomenon. Dr. Gerassimos practiced medicine on the island of Eleuthera for many years and is now stationed at the island of Inagua. I received the following letter from him the 14th July, 1975 :
"Dear Doctor McCartney.
"After going to Eleuthera in 1960 to reside and work. I became friendly with Mr. – at Tarpum Bay and sometime after, i.e. one or two years after that, he told me about a girl who, from time to time, 'passed glass' from her mouth, ears, nostrils and/or skin. I am not sure about her name but I think it was -------- + and she lived not far from—Club. I was so intrigued by this phenomenon that I asked Mr. - to let me know at any time, night or day, when it was happening, in order for me to witness it and, sure enough, he called me and I went to Tarpum Bay.
* I am named after my father and everybody, especially
from Eleuthera, used to call me 'Lil Tim" (Little Tim), distinguishing
me from my father "Big Tim" - my 6' 4 1/2" notwithstanding!
"The girl was lying down at home with several curious people (including myself!) present. Appearing from one nostril (possibly both?) was a piece of glass that seemed to be coming out and, upon waiting, it did in fact move down. Its passage was assisted by some coaxing from me with a forcep, and in this process she received a minimal laceration of the nostril. Apart from this, which I had caused, there was in fact no injury or bleeding and this agreed with the story I had been told, i.e. the glass was passed without any bleeding! The size of the price was 1" -1 1/2" long with diameter the same size as the opening of the nostril, i.e. it filled the nostril and it was rough and elongated. Unfortunately, I did not retain the specimen produced. I certainly saw it happen. My appraisal of the event is that the girl was a fairly simple person and a bit backward, perhaps lacking in affection and attention. I considered a possible explanation was that on a previous occasion she may have accidentally pushed a piece of glass into one of the orifices, or done so by chance, while in a somewhat hysterical or emotional state, and that following this she became the centre of attention and had a lot of visitors. Subsequently, this action was repeated occasionally as a subconscious action which brought her attention and satisfaction. I do not believe it was a conscious deception on her part. I suggested my explanation to several people in Tarpum Bay, including Mr.— and none accepted it. But I cannot think of another explanation that I can accept. What is your opinion?''
My investigations have not proved Dr. Gerassimos' hypothesis and all those people close to her attest that she has been under constant surveillance and there is no evidence of her pushing glass into any of her bodily orifices. Also, when she has been ill and had her hair combed, some days on occasion, long slivers of fine glass would be combed out of her hair, coming from her scalp and other days, there were none: and all the time she was kept indoors because she was ill and had absolutely no access to glass, especially of the type and variety that 'passed' from her.
This lady is not the only one with a history of 'passing glass' in the Bahamas. The Tribune of June 8th, 1938 had the following headline:
"Strange Tale from Eleuthera. Commissioner * sees Glass Issue From
"The woman came to Nassau last week, soon after this attack and the Commissioner has brought a collection of the glass to the city on this trip. This strange incident was also witnessed by Mr. W. B. Johnson + Government Tomato Inspector, who has just returned from Eleuthera.
"'When I saw her,' Mr. Malone told a Tribune representative, 'She was passing a piece of glass from each nostril, one ear and her breast. The piece that came from her ear was one inch wide and this was two days coming. She suffered great pain, but there was no tearing of the
* A commissioner is the official government representative
on the Family Islands. He is usually the combination of judge, justice
of the peace, marriage officer, sometimes local 'doctor' and the administrator.
flesh and no blood, except when she coughed up two pieces from her throat. Then she spat a little blood. She seems to know when a piece of glass is coming. She goes to bed and after it has passed, she is quite happy and goes back to her work. The strange thing about the case is that where there is a natural opening, I could see glass coming from the top of her nose, but in cases where there is no natural opening in the skin, I could not see where the glass came from. It just oozed out of her skin. Dr. Fields and I spent three days at the settlement trying to discover an explanation. We even spied on her through a hole in the partition, but all she did was groan and worry around in the bed while the glass was coming out. This lasted for a week,' the Commissioner said. 'An explanation? I can't explain it. I left the room in horror when I first saw the case but I soon went back and both the doctor and I tried to discover the cause, without success. Dr. Fields said that the glass from her head was a chemical substance which crystallized after exposure to air, but he could not explain the manufactured glass that came from her body. She tells me that she passed half of a lamp chimney from the centre of her head at Tarpum Bay two years ago. Her mother says that she has passed as high as fifty pieces of glass in one spell. I don't know about this. After seeing this case, however, I shouldn't be surprised if she passed a demijohn. The woman claims that she got a dose of Obeah that was set for her mother."'
"It is said that the disorder has ceased but up to the time of going to press this afternoon, the Tribune was unable to locate the victim for a personal interview. Mr. Malone showed the Tribune representative a box of specimens he had with him. The glass from the ears and nostrils were white; but the two bottlenecks were green in colour and perfectly shaped."
Seven days after the Tribune had published this story, a Tribune reporter actually saw the incident of 'passing glass' happen. The story was reported in the Tribune, June 15th, 1938:
"Yesterday morning, a Tribune representative found Dorothy Gordon, a buxom Eleuthera girl who has come to Nassau to live. Miss Gordon has been the centre of wide interest lately in consequence of periodical attacks in which, according to an interview with Commissioner Ronald Malone published in the Tribune last week. She passes glass from various parts of her ,body, including bottlenecks from her thighs and breasts.
"Yesterday, we published a short interview with the afflicted girl and the people with whom she is living promised to give the Tribune a call when another attack came on. Late yesterday afternoon—after the paper had already gone to press—we received the promised telephone call— a spell was coming on. Tribune representatives scurried over to the little cottage in Grant's Town, elbowed through a roomful of awestruck spectators and found the girl writhing and groaning on a bed. There were two pieces of green glass protruding from the nostrils. As we bent over to obtain a closer view, she coughed up three pieces of glass in assorted shapes amid hushed exclamations, and whispered softly in the presence of the strange phenomenon.
"'Those two pieces in the nose should be pulled out,' a Tribune representative ventured.
"'You can't do that, it'll drive her crazy,' a member of the family said, with some alarm.
"'I wouldn't pull it out regardless,' a spectator observed laconically, 'that plague’ll catch me flying.'
"And so—we leave the case open. The glass which protruded from her nose and that which came out of her mouth need not have originated in the body—and yet they might have. It is
said that they often come through the skin - we cannot say that we have seen this phase of the singular manifestation.
"Today, crowds thronged the little lane to see the wonder girl who was reportedly still generating glass."
Miss Gordon, the 'glass passer', has since died, but Commissioner Malone is still alive, although retired as Commissioner.
In a speech to the Rotary Club of East Nassau in 1973, Commissioner Malone, in vivid detail recalled the incident that has just been reported. Unfortunately, in his many travels, he has mislaid the samples of the glass that he kept.
My investigations have found many people that confirm these stories. They also tell of a lady that used to live through McCullough Corner West, who on occasion would have small insects (e.g. roaches) fall from her legs. I tried to find this lady, but up to press time for this book, have not been successful. Needless to say, all these incidents have been blamed on Obeah.
Case History No. 4
Peter was a 16 year old student at one of the high schools in the Bahamas and referred to me because of 'odd behaviour'. He complained of 'hearing voices' and oftimes, in class at school, a 'funny feeling' would come over him and the voices would tell him to curse bad words.
Peter's teacher stated that he was a good student and that she had known him for about two years. She couldn't understand his recent behaviour. She would be teaching a class, then all of a sudden Peter would start making grunting noises. When she would observe him, his eyes would 'roll over', he would begin to tremble, as if in a fit, and then the profanities would come.
My initial examination found a physically appropriate youth. He was well orientated, spoke coherently, and formed a good rapport. He was of average normal intelligence (as scored on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) and his Bender Gestalt drawings indicated good visual motor-perception and co-ordination without any manifestations of brain dysfunction. Responses of projective tests (e.g. T.A.T.) indicated some depressive traits but no psychopathology; yet, he heard voices and said that he was beginning to now 'see things.'
"Things like what?" I asked.
"How often does this happen?"
In spite of the results of Peter's psychological tests, I thought that he was either freaking out on drugs or that he was an early schizophrenic. However, there was no evidence to support the drug theory and so I referred Peter to Dr. John Spencer * for another opinion. Peter was placed on medication and I was asked to follow him up psychotherapeutically.
* Dr. Spencer has since left Sandilands and, at present, is a Consultant Psychiatrist in Perth, Australia.
I saw Peter on a once-weekly basis, and even though his bizarre behaviour in the classroom had been modified, he continued to hallucinate, but I never saw him during one of these 'spells' as his relatives used to describe these episodes.
One Saturday morning, the doorbell to my home rang, and Peter's mother, very excitedly, stated that Peter was going through a 'spell'. He was lying in the back seat of their car and was mumbling incoherently with the occasional 'cuss' word. I told them to take him to Sandilands and I would meet them at my office there. When I got to Sandilands and saw Peter again, he was definitely psychotic and I decided to admit him for treatment, my tentative diagnosis was then confirmed in my own mind and I labeled him a schizophrenic. Just before the nurse came to take him to the ward, Peter let out a blood curdling cry and fell on my couch mumbling, "Leave me alone - oh, Lord, save me - leave me alone."
"Who are you talking to, Peter?" I asked.
By this time, I had become more than interested in what Peter was saying and really scolded myself for not exploring the Obeah theory before.
"Where is this cross?"
By this time, the nurse had arrived, so had Dr. Spencer. They then took Peter to the ward and tranquilized him. After he had left; I talked with his mother and asked her whether she knew what Peter was talking about.
"Where is Peter's grandmother?"
* Colloquially, "no attention"
"Is there a Sapodilla tree in your ma's yard?"
"I think so, Doctor, but I ain' been home for 'bout five years now - yeah - there's a dilly tree in the yard—yes—dat's right, there's a big dilly tree in the yard, but it so near to the next man property dat my mudder and dis man does row 'bout who tree it is."
"Listen here," I continued. "Can you go to Cat Island and look fbr the tree and even dig around the tree and see if you see any cross around? I'm interested in this and I just want to follow this case up, Maybe we can help Peter better if we find this cross."
Peter's mother went to Cat Island and, in digging around the Sapodilla tree, found buried in a black piece of cloth, a cross made from the middle stem of the 'pondtop' * tree. The mother told me that her mother and her mother's neighbour had a long-standing feud over property and it is believed that this man set a 'fix' for the grandmother. How her son Peter got this fix, and he had never once visited Cat Island, was a mystery to all.
From a medical point of view, Peter was shortly discharged from hospital and, up to the time of writing, he has never since hallucinated, or acted in his bizarre fashion, or been psychotic. He was taken off medication and, at present, he has a responsible job in a local hotel.
Three basic questions must be asked:
* I'm afraid I don't know the botanical name for this 'palm-type' tree that grows almost wild in the Bahamas. Bahamians use the leaves for plaiting and making straw crafts. Fishermen also use it to string fish and conchs.
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