The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp

Bess Lovejoy
Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

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In 1906, the Bronx Zoo Put a Black Man on Display in the Primates' House

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo.
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) opened in September 1906, people visiting the Primates’ House encountered a startling sight. There, amid the cages full of exotic animals, they found a human: Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe from what was then known as the Congo Free State. Though he was just 23 years old, this was not the first time Benga had been publicly displayed as a curiosity.

Benga was brought to America by explorer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, who first exhibited him at the notorious “human zoos” of the 1904 World’s Fair. His life before the fair is largely a mystery—as Pamela Newkirk writes in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, “Given the various conflicting accounts offered by Verner as to how he acquired Benga, the true story will probably never be known.”

The Man With a Five-Cent Smile

A 1904 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article claimed a tribe had held Benga captive as a slave until Verner purchased him at a slave market. A 1916 New York Times article said Verner met Benga at a Belgian Army station, where soldiers had saved Benga from a cannibalistic tribe. And there were more variations in-between. Beyond that, it’s also thought that Benga had a wife and two children, who were killed either by Belgian forces looking for ivory or a hostile tribe.

In 1904, Verner brought Benga to the U.S., where he displayed him at the St. Louis World Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The main draw was his sharpened teeth, which he showed for five cents. Though newspapers at the time said they were shaped to facilitate cannibalism, tooth sharpening was a common form of body modification within Benga’s tribe, and did not indicate someone who noshed on human flesh.

After the fair, Benga returned to Africa with Verner, then later accompanied the missionary back to the United States. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s African American Lives, “Otabenga married a second wife, a Batwa woman who died from snakebite soon afterward. The Batwa blamed Otabenga for her death and shunned him. That decision appears to have strengthened his relationship with Verner.” Though again, Newkirk points out that Verner gave differing versions of events over the years.

By the time Verner brought Benga to New York City, the explorer was broke. Eventually, he contacted William Temple Hornaday, the then-director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear, but before long, he was displaying Benga as another exhibit.

"Is that a man?"

According to New York Magazine, in his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next, the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to suggest the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the cage and baring his whittled teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were, too—though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.

Hornaday posted a sign in the Primates’ House listing Benga’s height and weight—4 feet, 11 inches tall and 103 pounds—and how he had ended up at the zoo. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read. If Hornaday’s attitude toward his new "acquisition" needed further elaboration, it was summed up in the tone of an article he wrote for the zoological society’s bulletin:

"Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes, and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the ‘downy fell’ described by some explorers ... He is happiest when at work, making something with his hands."

Following a piece in the New York Times, word of the exhibit spread. "We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people," the Times quoted Reverend Dr. R. S. MacArthur as saying, "and then we bring one here to brutalize him." In an editorial, the Times conceded that “the show is not exactly a pleasant one,” but that Benga "is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering" and concluded that the best place for him was likely the forests of his homeland.

“He Refuses To Be Looked At”

Soon, a group of Black clergymen was leading protests around the city. After a threat of legal action, Benga was let out of the cage, and once again allowed to roam the grounds of the zoo. But by then, he was a celebrity. The zoo was attracting up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, jeering and laughing at him. Benga spoke little English, so couldn’t express his frustration. Instead he lashed out, wounding a visitor with his bow and arrow and threatening a zookeeper with a knife.

Calls for Benga’s freedom increased. Hornaday wrote to Verner, suggesting he come take him away or place him in an orphanage. Verner, who had gone south in search of work, wrote back and suggested giving Benga “a dose of some sedative” temper his outbursts. In another letter, along with a message to Benga, Verner promised to come get the young man, and instructed Hornaday to send him to North Carolina.

On September 28, 1906, Benga left the zoo and was taken in by the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. A 1907 newspaper article noted, “Many persons who visit the orphanage to get a glimpse of Ota wrestling with dog, cat, cow, and other preliminaries of the English language are disappointed. He refuses to be looked at since his experience in the monkey cages.” Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and went on to learn some English and found work at a tobacco factory, alongside other odd jobs, but grew depressed and homesick. In 1916, he died by suicide.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, had long been under pressure to acknowledge the issues surrounding Benga’s display. On July 29, 2020, in the wake of the U.S.’s recent, ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, the organization published a statement from WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper condemning and apologizing for how the institution treated Benga. As part of the statement, the organization revealed that it had made all of its archival material related to Benga available to the public.