In the early 1900s, the docks of Louisville, Kentucky were terrorized by a death-dealing monster, striking panic into the hearts of the African-American community. Who was this horrifying serial killer, feared in alley and on riverboat?
It was, strangely,—a dog—not a rabid dog foaming at the mouth or a luminous Baskerville hell-hound, but a small yellow mongrel with the incongruous name of Rosenbaum, and a deadly penchant for befriending men who shortly thereafter died.
It was said that he was named for his first master, a man who kept a Louisville “barrel house,” according to a 1918 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Mr. Rosenbaum “imbibed daily of the liquor that cheers or depresses, until one day he was found dead, with the dog standing by his body.”
He was the first fatality. The second followed several weeks after.
“One day the dog followed a [barrel-house] patron home. He had hardly reached the door when his wife dropped dead. This was not considered especially nefarious on the part of the dog until a few weeks later, when someone hit the same negro in the head with a hatchet, inflicting wounds that caused joy to an undertaker. After that someone recalled that the victim had once struck Rosenbaum’s first master and was believed to have stolen some money from him while he slept the sleep of the surfeited.”
After that the chronology of Rosenbaum’s victims is a bit muddled; it’s obvious that the newspapers are not completely reliable and some published stories of the “hoodoo dog’s” victims as fresh news long after the fact. Again, according to the 1918 article, a man named “Tennessee Joe” was next. He had boasted of being unafraid of the dog’s reputation and was murdered in a shootout with a stranger.
Late in 1906 the newspapers first began to sit up and take notice of the canine menace:
“Less than a week ago Rosenbaum sniffed at a negro’s heels and the man died that night at the City Hospital, although there was apparently nothing the matter with him….Many efforts have been made to kill the dog, but all of them have failed, and he has dodged bullets, clubs and rocks successfully.
Lee White, the negro who died today, had previously expressed fear of the influence exerted by the dog.” Sun [Baltimore MD] 30 December 1906: p. 11
I have not edited out the casual racism of these newspapers, which, as a matter of course noted race, used derogatory terms for African Americans and scoffed at the ignorance and superstition of the fearful.
“HOODOO” DOG BRINGS DEATH
Yellow Cur Scores One More Victim Among Negroes in Louisville.
Louisville, Ky., Jan. 2. “Dere’s dat hoodoo dog, Lordy!” yelled a negro on the wharf as a yellow cur with rings around its eyes ambled up to him.
The negro turned white from fear, sank slowly to his knees and in a few minutes was dead. The coroner pronounced death due to fright.
Rosenbaum is the dog’s name, and three negroes who owned it successively met violent deaths within a day after coming into possession of the animal. [Lee White’s death mentioned.] The negroes believe that the dog has a charm, or “hoodoo,” and that to have the animal follow one means instant death. Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 2 January 1907: p. 10
By the nineteenth of January, the number of dead was reported as seven.
HOODOO DOG STRIKES TERROR AMONG NEGROES ON LEVEE
Seven Negroes Said to Have Died Because “Rosenbaum” Followed Them—Among Other Things, Canine Is Blamed for the Flood.
Louisville, Ky., Jan. 19. A yellow cur dog, with the remarkable canine name of “Rosenbaum” has the negroes of the Louisville levee in a state of terror. They say “Rosenbaum” is a “hoodoo” dog and that he has caused the death of seven negroes in the past two months.
Furthermore, they aver that any one attempting to interfere with “Rosenbaum” in his work of destruction will meet a fate more miserable than the ordained victims.
“Rosenbaum’s” methods of homicide are simple. He merely follows the negro he has marked. In the course of a short time the negro inevitably falls into the river or comes to some violent death. As he works on the levee, most of the seven in his graveyard perished in the water.
His last victim was Joseph Hikes, negro, who was drowned three days ago.
The negroes also say “Rosenbaum” has caused the flood. Cincinnati [OH] Post 19 January 1907: p. 12
Louisville suffered a devastating flood in January of 1907; in some areas, water reached the chimneys.
And the casualties kept mounting:
“ROSENBAUM’S” MASTER DIES AT CITY HOSPITAL
Hoodoo Dog Follows Body of Owner to Undertaker and Howls Mournfully
Simon [also reported as “Josh”] Harris, colored, aged forty years, died at the City Hospital of consumption yesterday afternoon after a week’s illness. Harris is said to be the owner of the hoodoo dog, “Rosenbaum,” which has been exciting the negroes who inhabit the levee to a great degree, on account of the supernatural powers that the dog is said to possess.
Undertaker Bax, who went up to the hospital to take charge of the negro’s body, said that “Rosenbaum” was at the door of the morgue, howling at the height of his voice, and when he put the body in the basket to take it to the office the dog tried his best to jump into the basket with his master. Mr. Bax said that the dog followed the body over to his establishment and remained around the door for several hours until he was chased away.
The negroes on the levee will now have more fear of “Rosenbaum” than before on account of his connection with a dead man. The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 4 March 1907: p. 3
For some reason, this story of Will Clifford’s demise had an unusually wide and long run. The same article ran in various U.S. papers until October of 1907.
A “Hoodoo Dog.”
Another victim of “Rosenbaum, the hoodoo dog of the levee,” was added to-day, when Will Clifford, a young colored man, dropped dead suddenly after the “hoodoo dog” had been following him around for sometime. According to the negroes on the waterfront, the death of Clifford brings the total number of Rosenbaum’s victims up to eight.
Clifford is said to have incurred the enmity of the dog during the recent flood, when he struck the animal with an oar.
Rosenbaum is a yellow mongrel which appeared on the levee front sometime ago. It is now hard to get negroes to work on the wharfboats, so terrorized are they. The Reporter [Elyria OH] 14 March 1907: p. 8
Strangely, while there may have been other fatalities, the hoodoo dog was no longer news until 1911, when Rosenbaum’s lethal career came to a close.
NO TEARS WHEN ROSENBAUM, HOODOO DOG, MEETS DEATH
There was joy among the roustabouts yesterday, for Rosenbaum is dead. Rosenbaum was a dog, but he was not a dog whose companionship was appreciated. He was a hoodoo dog, and whenever he “adopted a man,” that man was doomed.
Rosenbaum never cared for white people, but was especially fond of the negro roustabouts who frequent the waterfront. Several years ago he made friends with “Speck,” a dusky steamboat laborer, and was his constant companion for several weeks, until one day Speck was crushed to death between a steamboat and a barge.
George Collins, a negro riverman, was the dog’s next victim. A months after the animal began following George, George was drowned in the Ohio River.
“Daddy” Dean, a well-known roustabout, was Rosenbaum’s last victim. “Daddy” did not seek Rosenbaum’s friendship. It was thrust upon him. No effort on his part could stop the little yellow cur from following in his footsteps. One day last summer “Daddy” Dean dropped dead.
Since that time the dog has been a veritable Hound of the Baskervilles. When he came aboard a vessel or a barge, all hands deserted, and it was difficult to get deckhands to remain in service on that boat. The animal was dreaded and shunned like the plague, yet no one dared to kill him. [contradicted by the Baltimore Sun article of 1906] He was a pugnacious dog, and in his day fought many fights, killing several members of his race.
Yesterday Rosenbaum became engaged in a controversy with a big bulldog that strolled down to the levee from Main street, and when the argument was ended, Rosenbaum had gone to the great beyond.
The dog’s body was buried on the water-front yesterday afternoon in the presence of a number of rejoicing stevedores, deckhands, roustabouts and other rivermen, and a stone slab was placed above his last resting place—but minus any eulogistic epitaph. The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 31 January 1911: p. 4
It was said that “three hundred colored folk” attended the burial of the “yellow, fuzzy cur of mixed unidentified ancestry.” (Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 2 February 1911: p. 11)
But such a demonic creature could not lie quietly in his grave:
Levee Rousters Given Rude Shock by Gost [sic] of “Rosenbaum,” the Hoodooed Dog.
Roustabout songs on the levee were stilled last night. In the holds of the steamers and in barrelhouse backrooms negroes shook with fear. They were thinking of the fates of “Daddy” Dean, “Icky Picky” and others. The river front was deserted. Only gloom was abroad. The creaking of a shutter would have caused panic, for the tranquillity of the levee had been disturbed by the ghost of “Rosenbaum,” the hoodoo dog.
“Rosenbaum” was an exceptional dog. Until he died a year ago sure death was in store for the negro with whom he sought to become friendly. A rude wooden slab marks his grave under the trestle at the foot of Third street. It was around this spot that his spirit stalked last night, according to stories told the police by a score or more of frightened negroes.
Patrolmen Hayed and Hessian, headquarters men, were called to the river front about 10 o’clock. From the scared roustabouts they learned that Will Smith, a new Orleans negro, walking along the levee near the grave of “Rosenbaum” had seen coming toward him what he thought was a yellow dog. The animal had wailed as if in misery, but disappeared in a veil of smoke before the negro’s eyes a moment later.
The news spread. The roustabouts, doubting Smith’s story, gathered around. Just then Ruth Ellison, a negro woman, pointed to the trestle. Along its side she declared she saw the form of a dog moving. Ruth thought it uncanny for a dog to walk in this manner. It was a yellow dog.
“Dat dog’s got de debbil in ‘im—it’s Rosenbaum!” she cried, and the negroes flew.
The history of “Rosenbaum” is fraught with queer happenings. Among the negroes it is a tradition that the friendship of the little mongrel was fatal. “Daddy Dean,” a patriarch of the levee negroes, was among the first victims. He was drowned. Another negro, “Icky Picky” by nickname, afterward was honoured with “Rosenbaum’s” friendship. He dropped dead suddenly. Another negro was brained with a hatchet soon after he met Rosenbaum. The list is a long one.
The advent of the year 1913 is considered responsible for the coming of Rosenbaum’s ghost by the darkies. The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 2 January 1913: p. 9
Adding fuel to the legend: this was also the year of The Great Flood of 1913.
Tales of the Hoodoo Dog were revisited in a lengthy Courier-Journal article in 1918, where more victims were named and it was revealed that death only followed if the dog followed the victim; meeting the dog face-to-face was harmless.
“Sam Smith, better known as Icky Pickey, read the story [of Daddy Dean’s death.] When he was followed by the dog, he demanded police protection.
“Bill Jones died of pneumonia one night just as a dog was heard howling outside. Jim Jackson was found drowned. There was no trouble recalling that he had struck Rosenbaum with an oar…Josh Harris had only one eye, and he was cross-eyed at that. Now a cross-eyed negro is believed to have peculiar powers of his own along the hooding and jinxing line, but when Harris began to exhibit signs of nervousness it was seen that all was lost…. If you don’t believe it, look at the newspaper files of early 1907 and you will find where the death of Harris was predicted a week before [I have not located any articles to this effect], while he was still walking, alive and well, but greatly perturbed.”
A man named Spence Johnson was in the group that buried the dog He felt himself immune to the hoodoo because he wore a protective charm and salt in his shoes. On the day of the burial a cry went up that the dead dog was winking. He ran, losing his charm and his shoes.
“The charm was easily found, together with tatters of his clothing, but during that brief interval the hoodoo had been able to creep in and do its malignant work.” The next day Spence paid up his insurance. Two weeks later he was dead. “the last glaring victim of the hoodoo.”
“Even though Rosenbaum be dead, mingling superstition and pessimism together, who knows but that he may have bequeathed his malevolent powers to another dog and then the dreaded hoodoo may crop out perhaps in another section of the city—say Ninth and Grayson streets. Ask Jake Werhle, the traffic policeman at Fourth and Green streets, whether the story of Rosenbaum is true. That the negroes about Ninth street realize that the hoodoo dog may come back is evidenced, according to Werhle, by a recent incident at a saloon in the Ninth-street neighbourhood.
Capt. “Skeets” Pulford, for many years in charge of the Fourth district, took a scraggly cur dog into the place and introduced him as Rosenbaum. The next day carpenters had to put in new windows and doors at the drink emporium…” The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 12 May 1918: p. 37
Astonishingly, in 1920, Rosenbaum was still said to haunt the Louisville waterfront.
“Hoodoo Dog” Again On Levee; Puts Fear Into Wash Brown.
“Rosenbaum” Lives After Death to Predict Flood But Negro Roustabout Has Little Taste for “Conjurations” From Spirit World and Vanishes Like Mist of the Morning.
Does the ghost of Rosenbaum, “hoodoo” dog, come back every time the Ohio River passes the flood stage at the foot of Fourth Street?
A legend in O’Neal’s Alley is that Rosenbaum does come back.
January 1, 1913, scores of roustabouts on the levee were willing to take oath that they saw the “reincarnated” animal, and predicted a great flood for that year. (For fuller particulars see the newspapers of January, 1913).
That the omen of Rosenbaum’s appearance was fulfilled the entire Ohio Valley knows. The flood of 1913 was almost as disastrous as that of 1884.
Up to 12:13 o’clock yesterday morning, Wash Brown, negro, who hails from Shawneetown, Ill., had little faith in the malevolent powers of Rosenbaum, and declared that once a dog is dead, he’s a dead dog.
Other disparaging remarks are said to have been made, so sacrilegious that had Ickey Pickey been alive he would have dropped dead form the fear of the spell to come.
Of course all this was prior to 12:13 o’clock yesterday morning. Wash, who “rousts” on the steamboat Nashville, was on his way to his bunk.
Incidentally, the grave of Rosenbaum is exactly at the twenty-eight-foot mark, or in other words the danger line.
It was here he was buried after the flood of 1907, under the railroad trestle, just a few yards east of Fourth Street.
The night was so dark that Wash himself blended with it in perfect accord. Then something suddenly illuminated the dismal areaway under the trestle and shadows of the network of iron danced fantastically as if impelled by two powerful lights.
Wash looked, he says, and saw two balls of fire. They were eyes that seemed to reflect both light and heat, and he declares he felt a burning sensation on his forehead where the eyes were momentarily focused.
He stood transfixed.
Then he made out the perfect outlines of a dog, such as Rosenbaum had been described to him.
Not until the figure climbed nimbly up the trestle was Wash able to relax. And relax he did.
Last night he was missing from his room in O’Neal’s Alley and the “Nashville” had pulled out, but the story of his experience was the topic of conversation from one end of the levee to the other.
Low tones, of course! The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 21 March 1920: p. 19
Can we attribute the longevity of the apparitional Rosenbaum to pranks such as that played by Captain Pulford or did Rosenbaum have look-alike offspring to carry on the family legacy of horror?
Extrapolating from all the articles to be found in various databases, we arrive at a death toll of, appropriately, 13 victims: Mr. Rosenbaum, “a patron of the barrelhouse,” “Tennessee Joe,” Bill Jones, Lee White, Simon Harris, Jim Jackson, Will Clifford, George Collins, “Daddy” Dean, Sam “Ickey Pickey” Smith, Joseph Hikes, Spence Johnson. It is an impressive tally for man or beast. Of course, the rational explanation for these deaths would be disease, drink, and the hazardous and grueling work of the transient river laborer, rather than a companionable canine hoodoo.
Are there still reports of Rosenbaum on the Louisville waterfront today? It would probably be too much to ask for his grave to still be known or marked.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.