By Roger Pinckney
It was a classic case of hoodoo who-done-it. Who busted the head off that fine Victorian porcelain figurine? And who stuck a buzzard feather in the hole and left it on Miss Billie’s grave? And who left a pocket full of small change, all heads-up on Miss Geraldine’s headstone? Who left the jasmine, in bloom that time of year?
Daufuskie Island, South Carolina 29915. Google driving instructions for giggles, fourteen miles by water from the nearest traffic light.
Africa defines this place, right over the curve of the world. Go down to the sea at sunrise, look beyond the breakers and that first blush of dawn and you can almost see it, four thousand miles away. Go down to the swamps at midnight and you can damn-sure hear the drums.
Call it root—good and bad. Call it hoodoo, voodoo, or conjure. Don’t call it anything, but disbelieve at your peril. Fifteen dead and counting, died of one thing or another, but they are all dead as hell.
Shouldn’t have put that sales office on that slave graveyard. Shouldn’t have tried to steal that land, block that road. “People round here, they conjure, conjure, conjure,” the preacher said, “they won’t leave nothing to God.”
Dassrite, Pastor. But who done it?
Mary Dunn was a Martinangele—Italian immigrant farmers since the 1750’s, indigo for the rich blue dye at first, later cotton. When she died in 1876, she left five acres and her family’s small burial plot to “the plantation families of Daufuskie ” for a cemetery. The cemetery grew slowly as the generations were laid to rest: Mary Chaplin who lost all five of her children and died of a broken heart, Isaac Martinangele dead from a snakebite, Peter Grimball, the “faithful husband, tender and loving father and amiable companion, snatched by the relentless hand of death” in 1845.
And meanwhile, the five high-ground acres of oaken timber along a deepwater creek came to be worth millions, lusted after by generations of real estate wizards, the last of which attempted an outright theft in 1986.
A curious thing here in South Carolina—a maintained fence after seven years becomes the legal property line. This was from the days when surveyors struggled a measuring chain through the bushes and shot angles with a transit like an old-time low quality rifle scope. It was meant to ease the burden on property owners, surely not to facilitate the wholesale theft of land. But at Mary Dunn, the quarter acre fenced around the crypt and stones was deemed the extent of the cemetery—by the real estate wizards, anyway. Miss Billie and Miss Geraldine disagreed, cashed in their life insurance and hired a lawyer who somehow found Mary Dunn’s century-old will and proved ownership of the entire tract. As the project would not pay without that prime waterfront, it was quickly abandoned, the real estate wizard took a bad fall, broke his damn neck—the ninth or tenth fatality, I lose count.
But now there’s a new bad actor afoot, not a real estate wizard this time but a high-roller from Savannah. He bought two hundred acres, cut pines, sawed lumber, built a barn, trap and skeet ranges and planted pecan trees, all good. But then he tried to block the road to Mary Dunn—bad, very bad.
The list of likely suspects narrows now to one. Somebody on the island who knew and lived the story and was close to Miss Billie and Miss Geraldine, calling up their spirits now to do battle once again. But I won’t breathe her name.
I reckon Number Sixteen is already a dead man walking.
But I ain’t gonna be Number Seventeen.
I’ll mind my manners.