Doubt, Authenticity, and The Witch Grave of Tallahassee
As far as witches go, I tend to consider myself a skeptic. I’m wary of claims until there is a suitable source to back it up and I rarely accept anything at face value. In a folkloric practice this can sometimes be a drawback, not because folkloric witchcraft expects a witch to accept everything but rather because folkloric witchcraft demands suspension of disbelief. At least for a little while. When first confronted with a story or folk tale, the folkloric witch should treat it as true until proven ineffective. Be able to live in that perspective long enough to determine if it fits in your practice. This can be particularly difficult during the internet age when misinformation and personal gnosis is misinterpreted as historically verified fact.
Suspension of disbelief is a concept I first came into contact with while studying Anthropology in college*. Boiling the concept down, suspension of disbelief is actively allowing yourself to consider the possibility that something is real/right despite personal convictions that it is not real/right. Suspension of disbelief in anthropology has a relationship to ethnocentrism, or the belief that ones own culture is superior to another**, and is part of the process of putting ethnocentrism aside when doing anthropological work. Just because something seems unbelievable to you does not make it any less real to someone else and what your culture has taught you is real does not immediately make something real for someone else.
There is a rich and detailed conversation waiting to be had about suspension of disbelief in modern witchcraft movements, but todays topic is a little more specific. My upbringing and education both lend me to being analytic and acknowledging inconsistencies within arguments, beliefs, and behaviors. I’m a horrible person to go see a movie with, I have a hard time suspending disbelief during bad movies and I’m pretty obnoxious about it. When it comes to folkloric witchcraft, I think of myself as someone who can easily suspend disbelief for a time to look at stories and find value in them beyond just entertainment.
This is a founding principal of folkloric witchcraft, belief is more important than historical accuracy. It doesn’t matter if the people or events are real, the story contains power because it is told. And yet there are times when claims are so outlandish that I can’t accept them as informative and I cannot suspend my disbelief. One such example is the Witch Grave of Tallahassee.
There’s a grave in the Old City Cemetery of Tallahassee that stands out amongst the other plots. The grave of Elizabeth Budd-Graham. The grave is where the legend starts due to its large ornate spire, an Edgar Allen Poe poem carved into the stone, and the fact that the grave faces the opposite direction from all the other graves. Local legend says that Bessie (as she was commonly called) was a ‘white witch’ who had spelled her husband into marring her. The problem for me as the listener of this story is it attempts to rewrite history and claim that Bessie was a witch, when there is absolutely no evidence that she was. Supposedly it's right after her death that rumors surfaced that she was using love spells, but theres no way to track down word-of-mouth from 100 years ago. As one of the few Florida folktales about witches, I should be chomping at the bit! But the story was so out there that I never paid it much attention at all.
That changed when I actually went out to visit the grave. I didn’t suddenly believe that Bessie was actually a witch or even have a spiritual revelation to her status. What changed my mind about the validity of this story as a source of power were the offerings littering Bessie’s grave. Tea cups, sea shells, notes, money, and sticks wrapped with twine. Carefully positioned on the ledges and corners of the grave, positioned to gain favor from the Witch of Tallahassee in matters of money and love. To the folks leaving these offerings, it didn’t matter wether or not Bessie was a witch when she was alive. They left offerings because they firmly believed that those offerings could help change something in their lives. The reality of Bessie’s career in life is inconsequential to the power that now exists in her story.
Visiting Bessie’s grave reinforced something in me that I have always said, but didn’t always act on. What I think of as real doesn’t determine its reality. It was a reminder that my practice, my methods, and my approaches are only important to me on an individual level. There was a palpable power at that grave, and it doesn’t matter what I think that power comes from because it’s already there.
Folkloric witchcraft is experimental and alive. My beliefs change when presented with new information that counters old information. I’m still a bit too literal, but not as much as I think I am. Folkloric witchcraft is something that allows me to be wrong and correct myself without feeling as though I’ve made some horrible mistake. My practice and exploration into folklore can comfortably combine both my education (and nitpickyness) and my innate desire to believe. I can be a Scully and a Mulder.
* I’m going to be paying off this debt for the rest of my life so best believe I’m going to name-drop my minor at every conceivable chance.
** These are very simplified versions of these terms used in very specific contexts. There is also a political aspect to both of these concepts that is important, but not the focus here.
Photo taken by Aaron Oberon. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.
The Witch Grave of Bessie (2018).