Searching the Library and Research Center: Missouri Mystery, Magick, and Poetry

cover of red book titled The Water WitchCover of The Water Witch, from the collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

During my first year as a graduate assistant at the Missouri History Museum, I was conducting research in the Library and Research Center when I came across a book in the card catalog titled The Water Witch. Being a lover of all things magical, I was intrigued and requested the book from the stacks. While it wasn’t a long-lost tome of ancient magick, I nevertheless found myself enchanted. It turned out to be an absolutely delightful book of Missouri poetry that was published in 1924. It’s actual title, once opened, was extended to The Water Witch and Other Missouri Rhymes in Missouri Language. The poetry was written by “Uncle John” of Missouri, also known as Dr. John Joseph Gaines. The title of the book came from a poem in the book. Here are the first two verses:

 

 

"The Water-Witch"

I’ve allers looked on fortune-tellin’ peole with suspicion,
An’ never sot much store by luck—unless I went a-fishin’.
I’ve been around consid’able, an’ it never seemed to me
That people could see furder in the dark than I could see.
And still, there’s superstitions that we’ve allers kep’ in view—
Such as prophesyin’ weather by the way the wild-geese flew;
Or, plantin’ yer potter-crop around the moon, fer luck—
An’ we can’t deny the virtues of the forked, peach-tree switch,
As exemplified undoubted by a genuine water-witch.

Image of Jehu Sifers holding a divining rod, mentioned in the poem "The Water-Witch." Image of Jehu Sifers holding a divining rod, mentioned in the poem "The Water-Witch."

Jehu Sifers was a farmer—nothin’ different from the rest—
Wore the old-style, flowin’ whiskers, that completely hid his vest.
The neighbors said he couldn’t read or even sign his name;
But there ain’t no book requirements, in the water-witchin’ game!
Folks said that it was borned in him—he bein’ a seventh son—
Without the which, I reckon, water-witchin’ can’t be done!
Ast him, an’ he’d agree with ye, withot jes’ sayin’ so;
An’ that was all he seemed to keer to let us fellers know.
Weren’t forehanded much at farmin’, yet he somehow helt his own,
An’ kep’ his family fed an’ clothed until they all was grown!
But he moseyed ‘roun’ so quiet-like, an’ acted like a bein’
That sensed things deeper down—ye know—too deep for common seein’.

The “Water-Witch” does have a bit of magick after all, though today we would call it superstition. When I was a child, I often heard my grandmother swear by the truth of many superstitious beliefs. If her hand itched, someone was going to give her money. If salt was spilled it went over her shoulder, and if her ear was ringing, someone was talking about her. My absolute favorite was her horror of me considering wearing red for my wedding. She very seriously said something along the lines of “Marry in red, live in dread.” I have also heard, “Marry in red, you’ll wish you were dead.” I opted not to have red at my wedding, though it wasn’t due to the superstition. My husband and I have recently celebrated our 11th anniversary, so perhaps we dodged a bullet by avoiding the red. I have yet to find anything on red weddings in Dr. Gaines’s poetry, but perhaps he would agree with my grandmother.

Dr. John Gaines, poet, physician, and composer, holding his fiddleDr. John Gaines, poet, physician, and composer.

Dr. Gaines appears to be quite an interesting character. He was born on a farm in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, in 1862 and died in Excelsior Springs in 1935. While he spent much of his time working as a physician and researcher, he was also a writer and composer. He wrote the “Uncle John” column in the Excelsior Springs Daily Standard, and he also played the fiddle, the inspiration for two of the poems in his book. Dr. Gaines’s poetry celebrates being a Missourian in a small community. His poems share relatable tales about his hobbies, the weather, his mother, and even his grandmother. These tales express his love for life, as well as pride in being a Missourian, as you can see in selected verses from his poem "In Old Mizzoury."

"In Old Mizzoury"

I landed here in sixty-two, on a Janooary day;
Mizzoury rocked my cradle, and I sorter had to stay.
An’ later on, at weanin’ time, without the least excuse,
She tied me to the saddle-horn, an’ turned the critter loose—
Right here in old Mizzoury,
Old, pioneer Mizzoury,
That somehow cradles everything that Natur’ can produce!

I ain’t forsook her bound’ries sence the day that I was born,
An’ never will, I reckon, until Gabriel toots his horn,
With Liberty her Goddess, an’ her law the Golden Rule,
We all jine in the anthem, with the old Mizzoury mule—
All hail!  Our old Mizzoury,
Eternal, grand Mizzoury—
The hotter than the hottest, and the coolest of the cool!

The Water Witch is a thought-provoking book, and the weather isn’t the only thing to remain the same. Missouri is still filled with those who are proud to be Missourians and who are full of love for their life, family, and friends. I consider myself lucky to have found this gem in the Library and Research Center, so much so that my dear husband surprised me with an original copy of my own. Reading through this book has allowed me a small glimpse into the lives of those who lived here before us. Each poem has been a treat to read, and I will continue to share them with you as I journey through the past of old Mizzoury with Uncle John.

—Judy Williams, Digital Engagement Coordinator