Exhibit Written and Curated by Teagan Acoff


In 1824, a guide detailing several practices similar to those found in witchcraft- various charms, palmistry guides, dream interpretations, etc.- was published, supposedly by "A Woman of Color" in Massachusetts named Chloe Russel. Today, that claim is being debated. Only a few copies of the text have been recovered, but those that have are being evaluated in regards to the authenticity. The controversy of who authored The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book refers to whether the credited Chloe Russel, a black woman, wrote it, or if a white publisher attempted to profit from black practices. Scholars have looked at her backstory, the housing records in Massachusetts at the time, and several other factors that have led to no definitive answer. By looking at the practices of witchcraft by both Africans and African-Americans and comparing them to Russel’s text, we can gain a better understanding of the authenticity of her work.

Chloe Russel's Background

The biographical introduction to The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book introduces Chloe Russel as a woman from the Fuller nation in Sierra Leone. At nine years old, she was kidnapped and taken to Virginia, where she was purchased by Mr. George Russel, and passed to his son when he died. His son was cruel and tyrannical over the slaves, driving Chloe Russel nearly to suicide. Before she could execute the deed, her father came to her in a dream, along with a spirit, both willing her to stay alive. The spirit gave her the abilities of prophecy and interpretation- which she goes on to detail within the guide. These powers helped her gain her freedom. The text itself, while some facts are true, has several mistakes which make the authenticity questionable. Due to some inaccuracies regarding where she lived and the anonymity of Chloe Russel in history- a woman who claimed to spend thousands of dollars freeing other slaves would have drawn notice- many scholars believe that a white publisher attempted to take advantage of the growing popularity of the “African-American fortune teller” stereotype. 

Russel's background is important when looking both at the authenticity of the text and in the witchcraft practices found within the pamphlet. Many scholars agree that the experiences Russel details within the text make sense. The Fuller nation could be connected to the Fulani people of West Africa, and the fear of white people- or, as Russel calls them, Baccaranas- being monsters mimicked some older black narratives. Her description of the slave ship and the dichotomous personalities of her two masters were also factors that legitimize the narrative (Gardner 263). There are, however, issues surrounding her experience in Africa- the "Tygers" she mentions living with were not native to Africa, and the description of Mr. George Russel does not fit that of any known to be living in Virginia at the time (Gardner 263). In order to have a better idea of whether or not Chloe Russel truly wrote this text, as a black woman, her practices must be compared to other's.

Pictured: the front page of The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book, stating the author to be Chloe Russel, "A Woman of Color" (Gardner). It is black and white and reads, from top to bottom, "The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book, By Which Every Person May Acquaint Themselves With The Most Important Events That Shall Attend Them Through Life. To Which Is Added, Directions For Young Ladies How to obtain the Husband they most desire; and for Young Gentlemen how to obtain the Wife they most desire. By Chloe Russel, A Woman of Color, In the State of Massachusetts. Exeter: Published By Abel Brown. 1824." In the middle of the page is an image of the American Eagle seal. The left side of the pamphlet reads, "By Astrology- Physiognomy, and Palmistry." The right side of the pamphlet reads, "Anatomy-Geometry-Moles, Cards and Dreams."

Pictured: a 6x6 question chart found at the end of The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book. The first vertical row goes from A-E, and each row after counts from 2-6. Each letter corresponds with a question on the following pages, and each number corresponds with an answer. One would pick a figure on the table and look for that question and answer combination (Gardner).

Chloe Russel's Practices

The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book details a few different kinds of divination. The first few sections detail directions to find the most desired spouse, as well as how to figure out if an estranged friend is in good health, and whether or not a lady is ever to marry. The directions for these processes include similar ingredients and are usually performed under a specific moon cycle, such as the full or new moon. The practices base themselves heavily around use of flowers, water, moon cycles, fruit, etc. It goes on to detail dream interpretations, giving a lengthy list of symbols, feelings, actions, and allusions, explaining what each means in context and the larger connotations. For example, Russel explains that dreaming of walking on or swimming in the sea without danger means, "you will enjoy the person you love" (Gardner 281). A hot oven, however, "denotes separation from your friends" (Gardner 280). Palmistry, the next section, allows Russel to identify the five important lines on one's hand and explain what each cross, length, and defined mark means for one's life and health. The moles section does a similar deed, identifying personality traits, futures, and luck for an individual. The very last section of the pamphlet explains a chart, shown to the left.

Positive Connotations of Witchcraft

Chloe Russel's witchcraft, though set only 200 years after the Salem Witch Trials, has a positive connotation to its purpose. The craft focuses on achieving personal goals- finding a good spouse, checking in on friends- or revealing features about one's life and relationships. These practices are meant to inform people of what the universe has in store for them, motivating and reassuring them. Even the negative revelations bring peace to some in the form of lessened anxiety, as they now know what they should expect. Additionally, given her authorship is authentic, Russel used this guide to bring herself up in society. This black woman used her gifts to get freed from slavery and make enough money to free other slaves, while publishing a guide that not only allowed her to support herself, but also establish her place in history, in a literary and tangible sense. This pamphlet still sparks academic discussion today as we discover more copies and evaluate the authenticity of the authorship. Witchcraft, in this guide, is both used and framed as positive.

Witchcraft Practices Around Africa

In order to evaluate the authenticity of Chloe Russel's witchcraft, the witchcraft practices from various locations in Africa must also be looked at. Africa has had a complicated relationship with witchcraft. While there have been witch hunts, some of those hunts have been executed through witch-like processes, and some witchcraft has been seen as helpful. There are a few specific and notable locations to look at in detail to better understand the view of witchcraft in Africa.

Hausa Speakers in Niger

The Hausa speakers in Niger had witches called soul-eaters. These soul-eaters had "stones" in their stomachs, which move when their hunger is activated. The powers were passed from parent to child, either through the father's semen or the mother's milk, although the powers could also be purchased with money, and soul-eater would pass onto the purchaser stones. Their victims suffered from debilitation until their life is completely drained. They would startle their victim until the soul jumped out so the soul-eater would transform into an animal to steal the soul. The means with which the soul-eater gets power mimics that of the cannibalistic witch (Steward 73). These witches are motivated by jealousy of those who have wealth and good luck.

Maka People in Cameroon

Witches, according to the Maka people from Cameroon, use an occult force called djambe, which can be used for good or harm. It is described often as a grey mouse living in one's stomach. The difference seems to be between who is speaking of witchcraft. Villagers tend to see witchcraft as a tool, a means to get what they need when they otherwise cannot, where the elite see witchcraft as a weapon of the weak. Though the craft has positive connotations for the villagers, the means with which one becomes a witch is dark. One who wants to be a witch must develop an insatiable drive for a nocturnal cannibalistic feast, in which new witches must sacrifice their parents. Those who will not sacrifice their parents are eaten themselves.

New Guinea Practices

Witches in New Guinea also follow the common theme of cannibalistic witches. These witches can also fly, transform, and destroy life force. Specifically in Pangia, witches have several means of finding ways to attack victims. Tomo is when a witch slips lethal substances into food so victim falls ill and dies, unless a spell is administered by trained curer. Kawei, or Kewanea, are red birds of paradise sent from the body of the witch to find stolen items used to make their victim ill. Nakenea is not necessarily a means of attacking a victim, but instead one of finding if a victim is marked for death. Witches take part of life force from a piece of hair, clothing, food remnant, etc., suspend the item over a pool of water, and say spells- making water rise up from the pool. If water covers the suspended item, then person from whom the life force was taken is marked for death.

Witch Hunts in Africa

Various places in Africa had specific methods of witch hunting that also involved witchcraft. These ordeals were meant to restore confidence in the communities and satisfy people's apprehension about witches. Some places used divination as a means to determine witches, such as The Shona of Zimbabwe. They had a process called “throwing of bones” (Mesaki 171). They would cast divination stones, pebbles, beads, etc. and read their posture in order to find witches. The Lele of Kasai and Zaire used poisons, water boiling, and medicine drinking to disclose witches. Other places used intuition to determine witches, like the Sukuma of Tanzania, or secret oracles called benge, like the Azande.

Negative Connotations of Witchcraft

Witchcraft in Africa is rooted in fear and jealousy. The cannibalistic, vengeful nature of the witch stereotype, alongside the witch hunts, gives witchcraft a negative connotation. The practices sound like those told to children at bedtime to keep them from wandering too far into the woods. Where Chloe Russel's witchcraft focused on bettering one's life and gaining a deeper understanding of the self and situation, the witchcraft in Africa focuses on jealousy, vengeance, and violence.

African-American Hoodoo Practices

As African people were kidnapped and brought to America as slaves, their religions, beliefs, and practices came too. They eventually morphed into the African-American religion of Hoodoo. There came to be tricotomy of Hoodoo groups, due to the differences in climate, dress patterns, and slave quarter organization, which caused differences in practice. Area 1 was heavily influenced by Senegambian, Mande speakers, Bambara, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe cultural complex, and Central West Africa or Kongo-Angola-Zaire area.1 Area 2 was influenced by Sierra Leone, Igbo, and Central West Africa or Kongo-Angola. Area 3 was influenced by Gold Coast, Akan, Bight of Biafra (Hazzard-Donald). In Africa, roles such as blacksmith, diviner, herbalist- in Hoodoo, roles became religomagical practitioners/specialists conjurers, treaters, healers, midwives, and slave “doctors” (Hazzard-Donald 49). These beliefs, such as African-inspired funeral rites, the use of magical talismans and charms of protection, divining, and belief in ghosts" (McMillan 104), are also found in New England historical documents.

8 Common Practices in Traditional African Religion, which became foundation elements in Hoodoo religion:

        • Counterclockwise sacred dancing
        • Spirit possession
        • The principle of sacrifice
        • Ritual water immersion
        • Divination
        • Ancestor reverence
        • Belief in spiritual cause of malady
        • Herbal and naturopathic medicine
Positive Connotations of Witchcraft

Hoodoo's purpose within slave communities was "supernatural controlling and community regulation, protecting individuals from harm... stimulating or drawing good fortune... herbal healing and medicine” (Hazzard-Donald 50). It focused more on establishing community and tradition among slave groups than it did on harming or targeting enemies, as African witchcraft did. Like Chloe Russel's practices, these beliefs and rituals were rooted in positivity and fortune.

Pictured: the Kongo cosmogram, used by the Bakongo people to represent the universe and humankind's place in it, as well as the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and other qualities. It is a cross with small circles at each point, a larger circle at the intersection of the cross, and arrows going counterclockwise from one point of the cross to another. The cosmogram was the basis for much of the thought put into African American Hoodoo (Hazzard-Donald).


While the ideas in The Complete Fortune Teller, and Dream Book do not line up exactly with specific African or African-American practices, due to the adaptability of Hoodoo, its focus on plants and charms, and the purpose of use, it is very likely that Chloe Russel was an authentic witchcraft user who based her text in Hoodoo. The private nature of these practices would make it hard for a white person to create a guide such as this, which detailed many customs. African witchcraft had a negative connotation and focused mostly on harm, whereas African-American Hoodoo- similarly to Chloe Russel's guide- placed more focus on protection and bettering one's situation. These findings are in no way definitive, but by comparing all of these practices, the connection between the guide and Hoodoo lends itself positively to the authenticity of the text.

Works Cited

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England

Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30045526. Accessed 8 Dec. 2020.


History, vol. 24, 1995, pp. 162–177. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24328661. Accessed 8 Dec. 2020.

McMillan, Timothy J. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, and Resistance in Colonial New England.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 1994,

pp. 99–117. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2784416. Accessed 8 Dec. 2020.

Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern. Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip, Cambridge University Press, 2003. ProQuest Ebook

Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=255161.

Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System. University of Illinois Press, 2013. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt2ttfqm. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

Wehmeyer, Stephen C. “From the Back of the Mirror ‘Quicksilver,’ Tinfoil, and the Shimmer of Sorcery in African-American Vernacular

Magic.” Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, vol. 12, no. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 163–185. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/mrw.2017.0019.

  1. This section was known for the fabrication of protective amulets (gerregery, wanga, and zinzin by Mande labels).