Author Archives: Bailey Abedon

The First American President Was Actually Black

Main Piece:

Subject: I was talking to this one guy because my grandfather wanted me to talk to him. He was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre that happened in South Carolina state in the 60’s or whatever. And then he brought back into my memory this thing- he mentioned it because he believed it… But he starts out by saying, “I always knew Abraham Lincoln was black.” And then that segwayed into him saying something that I heard as a kid, which is that the first president of America was black and wasn’t George Washington… and that you can find him on the back of a twenty dollar bill. 

Interviewer: And can you?

Subject: I mean the idea is that… it’s fucking black and white on green paper, so people are like, “You see this man right here? That’s a black man.” And it’s like yeah! Because in the 1700’s all the slave owners, and an economy built on slavery… they definitely would have elected and let a black man run the country. 

Interviewer: And could just reiterate who told you this idea?

Subject: This is folklore I have heard from various black people. It came back to my memory because I was talking to someone my Grandfather knows. But yeah… it’s just this belief that there is actually a long lost black president who was the first president before George Washington. And the only reason why we don’t know is because they erased it from our history books. You know the really simple phrase. “It’s not in the history books. They rewrote history.” That shit. Which does happen but not in this case. None of the logic follows through. What specifically gripped me about the second time around when I was talking to this guy… He basically was the catalyst for the South Carolina State Massacre. It started as a bowling alley that was segregated. He was the guy that broke the color line there. He was like, “Fuck this shit I want to go bowling.” So we’re talking… and I didn’t know this before talking to him. We talked at length about the massacre and why he wanted to talk about it. But for him to later say in the conversation, “I’ve learned more on the internet in the past five years than I have in the past sixty years.” This guy has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry! This is a smart man. He’s seen racism because that involved people dying. He understands how that looks in real time and how it operates in South Carolina. And yet… he somehow through the internet… he somehow believes that Abraham Lincoln was black. Even though we have pictures of him. And also believes there was a first black president. Which is antithetical to how racism works in America for that to ever be a possibility. In this person’s mind, how does that work? How do you separate those two and how do they overlap. Because I’m sure that’s a massive part of your life! 

Interviewer: I feel like I’ve heard that theory before… that the first president of America was actually black.

Subject: I’m not quite sure how popular it is. I think it could be pretty popular. But no one talks about it because it’s not believable! I heard it from various black men. They say, “Yeah the first president was black. Look at the back of your twenty dollar bill. They erased it from the history books. They don’t want you to know it.” It’s like, how do square that? It’s weird.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six-feet-apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this fascinating folk belief regarding American history.

Interpretation: I have heard this folk legend before, and the theorized first black president of America was supposedly a man named John Hanson. Though the subject said he could be found on the back of $20 bill, many sources make the claim it is on the back of the $2 bill. On the back of the $2 bill, there is the image of the Second Continental Congress, and supposedly there is a man seated in the back who was believed to be Hanson, the first black president. As the subject alludes, it is a controversial belief. On one hand, I could see it is a legend that in away seeks to reclaim black history where so much of it has been erased and destroyed. On the other hand, the subject noted his frustration with it, in that it might subsequently, unintentionally undermine or downplay the racist foundation of which America was built. I see this legend as being very nuanced. The subject saying that the person who told him this folklore was a very educated, intelligent man makes me think that there is a romantic and poetic element to the legend more than a logical or factual one.

The Crooked Man- Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: (Singing) There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked six pence against a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Interviewer: That is so spooky… where did you hear this?

Subject: My mother would sing it to me before I went to sleep when I was younger and I never forgot it.

Interviewer: Did that make you scared?

Subject: Um… no not really. I didn’t notice any, uh, I guess, sinister tones in the lyrics or the purpose of the song until I got older. Then I sung it again and I was like wait. That’s pretty creepy.

Interviewer: Yeah like the same thing happened to me. Something about it is just weird.

Subject: Yeah it’s amazing what we don’t pick up on when we’re kids right?

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother in his senior year of high school. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me any folklore he learned when he was a child. He proceeded to sing this nursery rhyme.

Interpretation: I am familiar with this particular nursery rhyme in the same way my brother is. My mother used to sing it around the house. When I got older and recounted it with my siblings, we all had the same realization that it was quite an unsettling tune. We clearly are not the only one to pick up on its creepiness, because the nursery rhyme was featured in the horror film “The Conjuring 2” in 2016. And later in the same year, the nursery rhyme actually got a movie solely inspired from it, titled “The Crooked Man”, about a nursery rhyme that awakens a demonic figure. So I was curious about the origins of the nursery rhyme, what the lyrics are really about, and if they intended to be creepy. Upon research, I discovered the rhyme is actually about Scotland gaining political and religious freedom England. The “crooked man” is about the general who signed the agreement and the “crooked stile” supposedly refers to the border between England and Scotland. I found it super fascinating that a nursery rhyme about a historical event could be interpreted and appropriated so differently as a horrifying tune.

The Jigsaw Puzzle

Main Piece:

Interviewer: So tell me this scary story you’ve heard of.

Subject: Okay so… there’s this girl and she’s home alone. She goes into the attic and she finds a puzzle that she hasn’t seen before… she has no idea where it comes from. She’s bord so she’s like “okay, I’ll make this puzzle.” So she goes down to her kitchen and she starts making this puzzle. There’s no picture on the box or anything! It’s just in like an old box. She has no clue what’s up. But she starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together she realizes that it is her kitchen. And as she goes around the edges she realizes that she is also in the puzzle. Finally she completes the puzzle… except for one last piece. And on the last piece is her kitchen window with a horrifying twisted demonic face… in the window. And slowly she puts the piece into place… and then the window slams open! 

Interviewer: Wow that is terrifying. Where did you hear this story?

Subject: A friend. A friend and I were trying to tell each other scary stories to scare the other out of falling asleep.

Interviewer: And did it work?

Subject: Definitely.

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother who is in his senior year of high school. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me the scariest story he had ever heard. He was ready to accept that challenge, particularly because he was riddled with boredom.

Interpretation: This legend scared me in a deeply unsettling way. I think it is the slow build of the story, how it starts with something as seemingly trivial as a girl finding a puzzle, then escalates into terror. I had never heard this scary story before, and upon doing some research, I found out this is a fairly popular internet urban legend. Different renderings of it were featured in a number of anthologies of scary stories, as well as in a few pieces of authored literature, like the movie “The Dead Poet’s Society”.  I could not find a tie to the legend of any specific culture, heritage, or nationality beyond varying internet groups.

The Unlucky Number Thirteen

Main Piece

Subject: So Grandma Gordon was a very superstitious woman. She believed in many of the superstitions that have been passed along from the “Old Country” and carried forth through generations.

Interviewer: The Old Country? That would be Russia?

Subject: Yeah Russia. That’s probably ultimately where it came from. People really believed in a lot of things. Like thirteen was a really bad number. And even to this day, I still have that in my head that there is something about thirteen. So Grandma Gordon wouldn’t live in a building that had a thirteenth floor. So the building that they lived in interestingly, in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t have a thirteenth floor. It was almost a thirty story building but it didn’t have a thirteenth floor. And they built the buildings that way because they were trying to sell to people who really believed in these things that wouldn’t live in a building that had that thirteenth floor. So it went twelve… fourteen.

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard passed through the family.

Interpretation: I am very familiar with superstition that the number thirteen is extremely unlucky, but I had no idea of its ties to “The Old Country.” Upon further research, I found that the number thirteen is considered unlucky across many religions and cultures. The superstition is also tied to the measure of time. Sumerians built the ancient calendar using the number twelve. There are two sets of twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year. Because twelve was considered the perfect number, thirteen was considered unlucky. Additionally, in Christianity, it is considered unlucky because at the Last Supper, there were thirteen people sitting at the table and one of them, Judas, ended up betraying Jesus. This seemed to be the most common source of thirteen’s unluckiness. I suspect the superstition’s spread in Russia to have originated from a variety of origins. Furthermore, I found that the number thirteen is significant but not considered unlucky in some cultures. In Judaism, thirteen is the year where a young Jewish boy or girl becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. I find it so interesting that despite my being Jewish, my father, and his grandmother, the belief that thirteen is still very unlucky is ingrained in their brains. 

Lizzie Borden – Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: I grew up in the town next to Lizzie Borden… where Lizzie Borden was. Lizzie Borden was from Fall River and I was from Tiverton, the town over. And I can remember I took pottery classes right near Lizzie Borden’s house. We all knew the story of Lizzie Borden. That she took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. She didn’t really like her mother apparently. But when she saw how sad it made her dad, she gave her father forty-one. 

*Singing* Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one. 

It was a nursery rhyme! As kids you know… because it happened so close to where we all lived and grew up… that was sort of scary. Somebody would smack their parent with an axe forty times… and then do it again forty-one times! Lizzie Borden!

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard through his family.

Interpretation: I first discovered the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme when I watched the biographical film Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny. It was a sort of feminist approach to the Lizzie Borden story. Lizzie falls in love with a woman and her parents are depicted as emotionally abusive and controlling. Though I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the film, because it was my introduction to Lizzie Borden, whenever I heard the nursery rhyme, I always felt a bit defensive over her. The nursery rhyme obviously does not leave much room for nuance. Lizzie is a horrifying figure in it. Hearing my father’s account of how afraid he was of Lizzie, and how villainous she was to him as a child made me think about what other nursery rhymes have a more complicated background than how they are interpreted.