Author Archives: Mary Overbey


Morgan comes from a very superstitious family. Her mother grew up in Northern Virginia (with some time spent in Washingon D.C.) and her father grew up in Pennsylvania. Morgan herself was born in Montclair, New Jersey. Her family then moved to Arizona, where she spent her childhood before moving to Las Vegas as a teenager. Her family has very strong belief in the supernatural and she shared with me some of their superstitions.

“Hold your feet up in the air while riding over a bridge or train tracks; press your hands against the ceiling when traveling under them, or through a tunnel. (And hold your breath while inside a tunnel!) – The first ones were made up by my mother’s best friend when they were children; the logic was that it’d keep the bridge from collapsing, etc. My youngest sister has been trying to popularize the idea of pressing your hands against the side of the car if a train passes by that side, to keep the train from toppling over, but it hasn’t been catching on.”
The superstitions about holding up the bridge or keeping the train on its tracks are definitely examples of magical thinking, more specifically Homeopathic (sympathetic) magic, which operates on the principal that “like produces like.” In this case, Morgan’s family uses a symbolic representation of an action to try and affect the entire situation. Potentially, the reason her sister is having trouble getting the new tradition to catch on is because magical thinking in the United States has waned as modernity progresses (probably, in this particular case, thanks to advances in engineering and architecture that have all but removed the threat of an imminent structural collapse).
The holding one’s breath inside a tunnel is a custom that appears in some form or another throughout most of the United States. Sometimes the belief is that if the person makes it to the end of the tunnel, he or she has the right to make a wish (like passing a challenge and receiving a reward). In this case, the breath-holding seems to be a in the interest of protection, as though the tension in one’s lungs and face could carry over and strengthen the tunnel. (This would not the be first breath-holding superstition that relates to protection; traditionally- particularly in the American South- one holds one’s breath while passing by a graveyard both to pay respect to those who do not have breath themselves and to avoid breathing in spirits with malicious intent.)

Superstitions – luck

Morgan’s family is very superstitious and she shared with me some of the superstitions she grew up with (more here).

In her family, black cats are considered good luck. She said, “We always keep a black cat in our house. Whenever we don’t have one, (for whatever reason), Dad’s job or something will tank. Usually it’s financial luck.”

This would seem contrary to the tradition in American (and must of Western) society that sees black cats as bad omens. Historically, they were associated with witchcraft and black magic, and although contemporary American society does not see this kind of paranoia (and there is less of a stigma associated with witchcraft in general thanks to a renewed interest in practices like Wicca and homeopathic medicine), the negative connotations about black cats persist. Animal shelters report lower adoption rates for black cats and some will even cease adoptions of them around Halloween for fear that the cats might be abused.

For as much negativity as there seems to be surrounding black cats in Wester folklore, there seems to be an equal amount of positive folklore that supports Morgan’s family’s tradition. In several European cultures, black cats are considered very good luck, and even- as Morgan said- symbols of prosperity. In England and Scotland, the superstition is that a black can can bring good fortune and that a woman living with a black cat will have many suitors, and sailors believed it was lucky to keep a cat on board (if nothing else, having the cat around to catch mice certainly improved their fortune). Additionally, the ancient Egyptian revered black cats, whom they believed to have a connection to the goddess Bastet. It was recognized that cats helped protect the food stores from rats and to kill or injure a cat was considered criminal.

There is even a historical anecdote that says King Charles I of England owned a black cat that he believed brought him good fortune. When the cat died, he mourned the loss of his good luck and was soon after arrested for treason and eventually executed.

The King Charles story and other feline folklore can be found here:

Morgan also said that peacock feathers are considered very bad luck. “My father’s ex-wife once brought home a vase full of peacock feathers, and the pipes burst throughout the entire apartment.”

This is a fairly common Western belief, although its origin is indeterminate. There is speculation that the distinctive markings on the peacock’s feathers represent a kind of “evil eye.” In my research, I also found it suggested that this superstition was created to discourage the hunting and eating of peacocks. I think the answer lies somewhere in between, and while the peacock feathers are not an “evil-eye” per se, the killing of a peacock might bring bad fortune on those associated with it, even someone who just purchased its feathers. This is just my own interpretation, borrowing a little of the spirit of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Information and a little history of peacock myths can be found here:

Family Legend

“One of my ancestors through my mom’s side was a gunslinger with Jesse James.  At one point, he found Jesus either through a sidewalk preacher or the local minister’s beautiful daughter, depending on who’s doing the telling.  After that, he left the gang, changed his name, and became a preacher, and got married.  The only record we have of him is a black-and-white picture, two holsters holding six-shooters on his hips and a Bible in his hand.  Nobody knows what his name was before, because if he told anyone before he died, the law would come after him, or so the story goes.

He kept up practice with his guns, though, and once saved someone one of his old gang buddies kidnapped. I’ve never heard it told the same way twice; it might have been his wife, the schoolteacher, the mayor’s young son, the mayor, someone else entirely, or it might have never happened.  You know how family stories grow with the telling.”

This story has been passed down through Mary’s family since the late 19th century. She explained that although it is uncertain exactly where her ancestor settled either before or after his name change, it was probably somewhere in Texas or New Mexico (Jesse James and his gang were based largely out of Missouri, but they were active across much of the south and midwest, so this is entirely possible) and that she believes her family has roots several generations back in Texas and Oklahoma. Her grandfather on her mother’s side grew up in South Carolina, but moved around a lot when he was in the Marines. He met her grandmother for the first time while stationed in California and married her several years later when they were both doing religious work in Japan. Mary’s mother (their second child of four) settled in San Diego County where she grew up, and eventually her grandparents joined them.

This legend is really interesting to me for several reasons. First, it has probably survived and been passed down because it contains story elements that would be pleasing to almost any American audience, even if that audience was not connected with the story. The story of Jesse James has long been glamorized in Hollywood as something dramatic and exhilarating and it’s no secret that violent and transgressive behavior provides audiences with a naughty thrill. To have a connection to that story would be exciting. However, the story is also one of redemption, which is another story element that appeals to American audiences. People love a comeback story and a gunslinger who finds God and even saves a person who had been kidnapped by his old gang buddies fits the bill perfectly.

It is also interesting that she notes in her telling that there are certain elements that she has never heard the same way twice. This is often true of oral tradition- stories tend to grow and change as they are passed along and the particular elements they contain at the time of the telling are often more indicative of an element about the teller or the environment than they are of the story itself.

Most interesting, however, are the minute similarities between the story of her ancestor and the story of her grandfather. She explained that when he was in the military and stationed in Japan, he had a “literal come-to-Jesus moment” with the Chaplain, went to Bible school, and devoted much of his life to religious work- building churches and community centers with Mary’s grandmother. It is possible that he simply followed in his ancestor’s footsteps, whether that occurred to him at the time or not, and it is also possible that, as oral tradition is wont to do, over time the story of his ancestor acquired elements of his own story, so that the man became less an outlaw and more a little like his descendant, a good man with an exciting life.

Marching Song

“I left my wife in 1712

On the verge of starvation

Without a piece of gingerbread,

Did I do right? Right?

Right for my country,

Right for myself?

I managed a store,

Bought a new home,

By Jove, but I left, left…”

?Marching Song

Morgan’s mother learned this marching song from friends at a Girl Scout Camp in Northern Virginia around the year 1965 and it has been in her family ever since. When I first heard it, I was a little surprised at the content of a Girl Scout marching song. After some consideration though, I realized that it makes sense. This would not be the first time a military-style marching song has been adopted into a children’s song- for example, the “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” rhyme featured on page 91 of Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. A brief web search revealed that this particular song exists in many forms, both as a military chant and a children’s marching song, with the unifying characteristics being that in each version, the soldier has left (“left…left…”) his wife and a number of children behind with little to no food.

This song seems to have existed at least since World War I, and earlier versions of it do not include the second half. Instead, they all say something along the lines of “Left, Left/I left my wife and [x] children/ to go and fight a war/ I left,” which makes sense given the propensity of Americans at the time to consider patriotism and the duty to one’s country a higher calling than the duty to oneself (or family). In the 1965 version, however, something is different and that is what I find so interesting. The speaker did not go off to fight a war. He went to start a new life without his wife and children and he continually questions (in marching rhythm) “Did I do right?”

In 1965, The United States was 10 years into the Vietnam War, with 10 years still to go. It appears that, given the atmosphere of fatigue and uncertainty at the time, a traditional military marching song turned children’s song was modified to convey the perspective of a draft dodger who started a new life away from his family. But why choose the year 1712? Obviously, there is no one answer. It could be a reference to the New York Slave Uprising, which happened on April 6, 1712 or the War of Spanish Succession, which Great Britain was involved in until 1714. It is also possible that the year was chosen arbitrarily. What is significant is the way the sentiment of the American people during the years of the Vietnam war was able to reach a Girl Scout camp in Northern Virginia and create a lasting piece of folklore.

Folk Belief – Ireland

Eimear learned this tradition from her mother (who learned it from Eimear’s grandmother) and has since gotten into the habit of doing it herself.
“I’m Irish, and there’s an old “piseog” [superstition] that if you take a piece of straw from the church manger scene at Christmas and put it in your purse, you won’t have money problems for that year. You’re also not supposed to spend any money on New Year’s Day, because it means you’ll be paying for things the whole year…I’ve asked my mother and she says she’s not sure where the straw tradition came from (although I see plenty of old ladies in Dublin doing it every year, so it’s not just a family superstition), but her mother told her not to spend money on New Year’s Day. My grandmother was born in Belfast and moved to Dublin when she was a child. My grandfather was born in Clare and moved to Dublin as an adult. I get the impression that my grandmother was very close to his family, so it’s as likely she picked it up from them as from her own.”

This superstition is interesting because it reflects the widely held idea that a new year represents a new beginning financially, personally, etc. Americans make resolutions for the New Year, often related to prosperity and during the Chinese New Year, red envelopes containing money are given to children and unmarried/unemployed adults [].
The tradition of taking the straw from the church manger also reflects the strong presence of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant, as both often feature nativity scenes of pageants in the church at Christmastime) that still holds in Irish culture. It even permeates a holiday that is not traditionally religious, New Year’s Day, and is incorporated into New Year traditions because it is so ingrained as a part of daily life.