Hoodoos through History: Crossed eyes, lilacs, and man-killer engines

black cats were unlucky

Hoodoos through History: Crossed eyes, lilacs, and man-killer engines

A popular story and sitcom theme in the 1950s and 60s was “the jinx.” A character superstitiously fancied himself cursed or believed he was bringing bad luck to those around him. Naturally some clever rationalist would trick him into the seeing the error of his ways leading to a happy ending and a victory for scientific thinking.

Stories of such bad luck streaks (without the happy ending) were widely reported in the press throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Evil Eye, bad luck, Jonah, curse—and hoodoo—these were all names for negative conditions ranging from a bad run at the poker table to malign influences leading to death.

I don’t propose to enter into the controversy about the origins of the word “Hoodoo.” It started as a noun (as in “the practice of hoodoo”) and theories about its source rove from African (a variation on “voodoo”) to Irish-Gaelic and Spanish. The term first appears in the 1870s and, in spite of journalistic mockery of superstition, thousands of articles were published with “hoodoo” as their theme.

I am more interested in the historical manifestations of what constituted a hoodoo. There are, of course, the usual suspects: black cats, the number thirteen, and broken mirrors. A hoodoo could be a person, place, or thing and the list was apparently endless. A sampling of objects I’ve seen labelled “hoodoos” were hundred-dollar bills, mummies, chairs, clocks, a sack used to hood a lynching victim, the Hope Diamond, stray dogs, the country of Panama, athletes, opals, bicycles, ships, and trains. Soldiers, sailors, miners, and railroad men all had their own sets of hoodoos and remedies for the same. Let us grasp our rabbits’ feet and our four-leaf clovers firmly and venture into the world of hoodoos of the past.

While it was sometimes said that the efficacy of a rabbit’s foot was dependent on it being cut off by a cross-eyed person, in other circles, strabismus was a hoodoo.

THE HOODOO Lifted From the Minneapolis on Her Recent Trip

Congressman Amos J. Cummings, Chairman of the House Naval Committee, who was a much interested spectator on the recent splendid trial trip of the Minneapolis, is confident that to him, no less than to the Cramps, her builders, credit is due for her magnificent run. It happened in this way: Just before the trial trip the Congressman, Constructor Nixon and one or two of the Cramps, were in a box at a theatre when the Congressman’s eye fell upon a cross-eyed girl in the audience. “Good heavens, Nixon!” exclaimed the superstitious Representative, “this will never do. That girl will hoodoo the Minneapolis sure. We must all get up and turn around.” “Nonsense!” replied the other members of this party with less fear of cross-eyed girls. Undeterred by this scoff the Congressman arose and deliberately turned around three times in full view of the audience. “Now the Minneapolis is safe,” he murmured, as he sank back in his seat to enjoy the play without any further fears for the cruiser’s performance on her trial trip. [This was the C-13, 1894-1921.] Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 July 1894: p. 19

Those afflicted with cross-eyes must have had much to endure from the public. The gentleman in this next article made an official complaint. Spitting is well-known as a device for warding off the “Evil Eye.”

“HOODOO” Of Cross Eyes Must Not Be Noticed By Policemen

Baltimore, Md., February 21. The Police Commissioners of Baltimore will not permit a member of the force to offend a cross-eyed man. This was made manifest when Officer Canby, of the Northern District, was arraigned before the board to-day charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. The complainant was Charles A. Gartling, whose optics are considerably upon the bias. He stated that he boarded a street car and faced Canby, who was upon the platform. The policeman promptly took off his helmet and spat in it to ward off the “hoodoo.” There was a general laugh, and Gartling was offended. He wrote to the Commissioners of the occurrence and Canby had to pay $1 fine for his superstitious proclivities. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 February 1901: p. 1

Papers seemed to delight in lists of hoodoo victims and their dooms.

STAR IS HOODOOED The Kokomo Police Fight Shy of Badge No. 3

Kokomo, Ind., Dec. 17. A strange superstition attached to the police force of this city has been intensified by the death of Officer Kirkman. By some singular fatality every “No. 3” policeman since the organization of the force nine years ago has died within a year after beginning duty. No deaths have occurred among the other numbers, but the death mark has been on every “No. 3,” all extraordinarily active and efficient officers. The first to pin on the fatal number was A. M. Martin, who died of tuberculosis. The second, Edward Everett, succumbed to typhoid fever. The third, Thomas A. Seacrist, died from injuries received in jumping from a train. The fourth and last, who has just died from fever superinduced by injuries received in quelling a riot election day, was Jerry Kirkman. No other officer can induced to don badge “No. 3” and the police board has abolished the fatal number. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 17 December 17 1900: p. 2

Less than a year later, Badge No. 3 was back in service—and claimed another victim.

HOODOO BADGE Being Busily Side-Stepped By Police Officers in Kokomo

Kokomo, Ind., May 7. Police Badge No. 3, that has been held for years a hoodoo, may claim another victim. In all the history of the town no officer wore the fatal star and lived more than a few months. “No. 3” has five victims, whereas none of the wearers of the other six numbers have died. Two weeks ago in reorganizing the force under the metropolitan police system all of them asked to be excused from wearing “No. 3.” It was finally agreed to draw cuts for numbers and the fatal “No. 3” was drawn by Marshal Edwards. The same day Edwards became ill and is still confined to his bed. The badge had not been worn since the death of Officer Kirkman six months ago. Previous victims of the evil star were A.N. Martin, Edward Everett, and T.J. Seacrist. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 May 1901: p. 2

Perhaps abolishing the star in 1900 broke the hoodoo. Marshal Edwards apparently recovered and did not die until 1927.

Ladies had their own set of hoodoos.

HOODOO FLOWER Is the Lilac, For She Who Wears It Will Never Wed

“She who wears the lilac will never wear the wedding ring,” runs the old proverb, and although the scent of the flower is sweet and its tints are fresh and universally becoming it is contraband among the village maidens in England. A single boutonniere of lilac has been held responsible for solitary spinsterhood. For the same reason mothers with marriageable daughters never allow a jug of the sweet smelling blossoms inside the house. It may stand on the outside window sill, but “there’s no love luck about the house” when there are lilacs in it. To give one’s sweetheart a spring of the flower is the death blow to the most secure of engagements. White lilacs are even more fatal to love affairs than the colored ones; they are, in fact, as ominous as an opal ring. Love, however, laughs at artificial flowers, and only the real tree grown one can come between the lover and his lass. Stony-hearted bachelors sometimes sport a lilac boutonniere as a charm against feminine blandishments. Londoners do not share the superstition, and use the flower freely for decoration, regardless of the unlucky attributes. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 1 August 1900: p. 6

Opals were considered to be very unlucky unless they were one’s birthstone.

Empress Eugenie, throughout her husband’s reign, manifested a considerable fear of opals, and was only persuaded with difficulty by the emperor to wear a magnificent opal parure with which he had presented her on Easter day in 1870. She most reluctantly donned it, at a fete given in the month of June, at the palace of St. Cloud, and it proved the last entertainment that she ever had occasion to give as empress of the French [before the Second Empire was overthrown.] Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 26 August 1900: p. 14

In England and America peacock feathers are regarded as bad luck, possibly because they bear the mark of the “evil eye.”


Superstitious playgoers will learn with horror that peacocks’ feathers are to form the basis of costumes in the long-delayed production of M. Rostand’s “Chanticleer.” Few English actors would be bold enough to wear these ill-omened feathers. In 1890 a procession of gods and goddesses was shown on the stage at Drury Lane, and, although Juno appeared with her peacock at the first rehearsal before the play was produced the company persuaded the author to cut the bird out of the cast in order to avoid the bad luck which it would certainly bring. On the opening night of the present Prince of Wales’s Theater several people were taken ill, and this was attributed by many to the fact that the stalls were ornamented with a design of peacock’s feathers. The manager went to the expense of recovering the whole of the stalls with a less unlucky pattern. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 January 1910: p. 15

Entire families were wiped out (according to the newspapers) by hoodoos.


Hawesville, Ky., July 6. Hancock county’s “trouble woman,” Mrs. Nancy Newman, is dead here at the age of eighty-seven years. She was the last of thirteen brothers and sisters whose stepfather, Capt. John Sterett, was the first sheriff of the county. Tragedies came often into Mrs. Newman’s life. Her youngest child was scalded to death in a tanning vat. The second was burned to death on the home hearth two weeks later. The third, a Confederate soldier, was murdered in a riot at Mobile, Ala. The fourth was killed two years ago when a house fell on him. The fifth met death in a runaway five years ago. A son-in-law and a grandson met violent deaths. Two weeks ago the aged woman herself, hobbling into the kitchen for a drink, fell and broke her leg which had not begun to mend when she died. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 6 July 1912: p. 10

Rudyard Kipling, who wrote about Eastern curses and hoodoos in, for example, “The Mark of the Beast,” was also accused of having the Evil Eye. Can anyone actually verify this supposed toll of ships? (chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com)


My military correspondent, who went down the other day to Sydenham to study Mr Kipling in his new role of rifle range opener, told me in private conversation (says Mr T.P. O’Connor, in M.A.P.) of the curious glint of Mr Kipling’s eyes—almost, indeed, like the glittering gaze of the Easterns whom he has brought to Western knowledge in his books. But he did not set this forth in his description, because, near as he was to Mr Kipling, he found it hard to tell whether from the dark eyes themselves, or from the divided lens—“split specs” some people call them—which Mr Kipling’s eyesight compels him to wear. I see from the San Francisco Argonaut that the superstitious fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, believe that Kipling actually has the “evil eye”—that he is, in their language, a “hoodoo.” Every single one of the 20 fishing boats named by him in “Captains Courageous” has gone down at sea. The last two of the ill-fated craft which originally formed the fleet foundered the other day in the big storm off the Massachusetts coast. Poverty Bay [Australia] Herald 6 November 1902: p. 4

As I have previously posted, owls have an evil reputation as a bird of ill-omen.


A gray-and-white owl, which lurks in trees in the early morning and hoots in the twilight as trains of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad go whizzing by, has come to be regarded as a hoodoo by the trainmen. Death and catastrophe have marked the system for weeks. Hardly a day has passed but a wreck has occurred or a trainman has gone to his death. In nearly every instance, engineers and firemen say, the hoodoo owl appeared by night or day a few hours before. Engineer Harry Chapman, of this city, whose wild engine ran into and wrecked a passenger train in Waterbury, March 31 last, saw the fateful bird the night before he went to his doom. The express train leaving this city at 8:10 o’clock in the morning for New York has within two days killed three persons. Thursday the train struck and killed a woman near Mamaroneck, and a man near New York City. The third was a woman killed by the same train at Bridgeport on Friday. The gray-and-white owl has appeared most frequently within the past week. George Rennie, a brakeman, fell from a freight train near Waterbury. His companions say he spoke of seeing the owl previous to his fall. He died in the hospital. Conductor George E. Whipple, of the Federal Express, was struck by a truck on the platform as his train pulled through Wickford Junction, Rhode Island, Friday night and was instantly killed. Mrs. Margaret Lakin, the only woman passenger agent in the employ of the road, was killed while on duty at Cohassett, Mass., Friday. Andrew Lang was found dead beside the track in Waterford Friday, and his body was taken to New London. So strong has grown the superstition concerning the hoodoo bird that attempts have been made to kill it, but though stray shots have been fired from trains in the suburbs, no one has reported having hit the owl. It was last seen this morning on the Naugatuck Division. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 April 1903: p. 13

Railroad workers, like sailors and miners, were sensitive to omens. Some engines were believed to be hoodooed or bewitched or were called “man-killers.” Like the lethal Engine 971, which, with other stories of hoodoo engines are found in The Face in the Window.


Akron, Ohio, May 1. The superstition among railway men that accidents never occur singly is strengthened by the remarkable experience of Engine 971, which pulls the Cleveland, Akron and Columbus accommodation train through this city. This engine has had its deadly three in the last six weeks. Solon Miller, struck at a crossing at the edge of town by 971 and hurled to death, was buried six weeks ago. Mrs. Frank Wiley, walking along the track with her husband three weeks ago Saturday night, fell before 971 and was horribly mangled. William Norris, a milkman of this city, was the last victim, a few days ago. He was hurled nearly 100 yards by the engine. Engineer John Simmons has applied for another engine, and says unless he gets it he will quit railroading forever. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 2 May 1905: p. 6

Houses described as hoodoos, usually had a long history of financial misfortune, murder, and/or suicide for the occupants. This story from The Headless Horror tells of a different sort of manifestation of the hoodoo.


Van Wert, January 7. Your correspondent, while out gunning to-day, met a farmer named Goodloe residing near the Indiana line. During a conversation, Mr. Goodloe pointed to an old log house in the vicinity of a strip of woods, stating at the same time that there was something unaccountably strange about the premises. Said he: “About ten years ago I moved my family to Van Wert County from near Pottsville, Penn., and bought eighty acres of land, upon which I built that cabin. We had no luck as long as we lived in it. When we came here, we were all well and hearty. After living in the cabin about a year I began to lose flesh. So did my wife and children. Before three years rolled around we resembled a family of skeletons. My wife wanted to return to Pennsylvania, but I said that I would build another house on the other side of the farm. I did so, and we have prospered ever since. We gained health and strength and now I am as strong as anybody. Nothing ever thrived in the cabin. I rented it to an old negro, who after living there six months moved away. He said the place was haunted, and I, too, am inclined to think it is. Everything about the place dies or shrivels up to nothing. When we cooked meat on the stove it would curl up or boil down almost out of sight. I planted a lot of young fruit trees on the south side of the house and in less than two months they twisted and shriveled to mere sticks. After we removed to our new house I used the abandoned hut as a shelter for hogs during the winter. The more corn I fed them the thinner they became, until I had to turn them out into the woods and nail up the cabin doors to keep them out. The last winter I lived there, just after butchering hogs, I hung eight hams on a joist. They were tied in sacks, and when I took them down to use them they were found to have shrunk to chunks no larger than your fist. “Then, again, I could notice a difference in my corn crop this fall. I had a pretty fair yield all around, excepting the part of the field which was near the cabin. Close to the cabin the ears were nothing more than nubbins, and mighty poor ones at that. I’ll bet I shingled that old house more than half a dozen times in the three years that I lived in it. Every time the shingles would warp and draw out the nails and finally drop off. I don’t believe in ghosts nor spooks, but I can’t for the life of me account for the queer antics of that blessed old cabin.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 January 1885: p. 1

Now I’m off to spit in my hat.

For more hoodoos, you’ll find chapters called “A House in Which Nothing Will Thrive: Haunted and Hoodoo Houses” and “The Malice of Inanimate Objects: A Haunted Telegraph, the Murderer’s Clock, and a Hoodoo Chair” in The Headless Horror. There is also a lengthy story on the many suicides in the hoodoo Cell Thirteen at the Ohio State Penitentiary in the same book. The Ghost Wore Black contains a chapter called “The Hoodoo Hat and Other Horrors: Cats, Hats, and Hangmen’s Ropes.”


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.

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