There are many stories about objects that carry a curse with them: a great blue-white gem called the Hope Diamond, a tiger’s-eye ring worn by the late Rudolph Valentino, a bowie knife that brought about the death of a purchaser back in the Roaring Twenties. The spookiest story of a cursed object I’ve ever run across comes from antebellum Kentucky, where a beautiful chest of drawers (“chester drors” as we pronounce it in the knobs) had a curse laid on it in revenge for its murdered maker.
On plantations in the antebellum South, there were many occupations held by slaves, from house servants through skilled craftsmen down to field hands. Jacob Cooley, who owned a large plantation near Frankfort, Kentucky, owned a slave named Hosea who was one of the most skilled craftsmen in the state. Hosea made furniture.
It was a piece of his own making that brought about his death. Jacob Cooley was a harsh disciplinarian at best and an evil bastard at worst. When his wife was carrying their first child, Jacob–who with an arrogance typical of him assumed that firstborn would be a son–ordered Hosea to build a chest of drawers for the baby’s room.
Hosea made a beautiful chest of drawers, with which any man but Jacob Cooley would have been well pleased. Jacob Cooley, though, hated the finished piece and, in a rage, beat Hosea so badly that he died a few days later.
And so, despite the injustice and the anger of Hosea’s fellow slaves, the matter might have ended–save for this: one of Cooley’s other slaves was a “conjure man”, who remembered and practiced the ways of his people far across the sea.
One dark night, as Jacob Cooley slept, the slaves gathered in the conjure man’s cabin. It’s not certain, now, how they managed to get possession, that one night, of the chest; but a curse of death was placed on it for all future generations of Jacob Cooley’s lineage. One drawer was sprinkled full of dried owl’s blood, and a conjure chant was sung.
Despite his hatred of the piece–and possibly out of guilt–Jacob Cooley eventually put the chest of drawers in his as yet unborn child’s room.
It would be satisfying to say that Jacob Cooley was the first to fall victim to the curse. Unfortunately, that firstborn–a son–died within days of his birth.
That baby boy was only the first of Jacob’s descendents to die of the curse.
~~The second Cooley son was, as a young man, stabbed to death by his personal servant.
The chest of drawers fell by inheritance to Cooley’s third son, John, whose wife tactfully stored it in the attic, knowing the tragic associations it had for his family.
Eventually, though, she gave it to her sister-in-law, Jacob Cooley’s youngest daughter, Melinda, as a housewarming gift when she and the man with whom she had eloped, a charming but lazy Irishman named Sean, set up housekeeping on another holding of the Cooley family.
Melinda bore many children, and was left to raise them alone when her husband deserted her and moved to New Orleans.
~~Melinda became the third victim of the curse, dying of worry and overwork before she was forty.
~~The Cooleys received word shortly after her death that her loutish husband, Sean, had been killed when a steamboat’s descending gangplank hit him in the head.
John Cooley and his wife, Ellie, adopted one of Melinda’s orphans, a little girl named Evelyn. Evelyn married at seventeen; Ellie gave the happy couple the conjure chest, perhaps hoping that the previous deaths had only been coincidental. They weren’t.
Evelyn and her husband adopted a young orphan themselves, a girl named Arabella. Evelyn stored Arabella’s wedding dress in the chest.
~~Within months, Arabella’s husband and only child died within weeks of each other.
Another bride in the family, Evelyn’s daughter-in-law Esther, also stored her bridal finery in the chest. Esther died shortly thereafter.
An aunt knitted a scarf and gloves for her son’s Christmas present one year, and with Evelyn’s permission stored the gifts in the chest. The boy was killed shortly thereafter when he fell from a train trestle.
One of Evelyn’s biological daughters was deserted by her husband after storing some items in the chest.
One of Evelyn’s younger children was crippled in a freak accident when its clothing was put in the chest.
Evelyn, overwhelmed by the spate of deaths in the family, yet not seeming to realize the chest as the common denominator in all the tragedies, took her own life. She was the eleventh victim of the conjure man’s curse.
Eventually, sometime in the early twentieth century, Evelyn’s granddaughter inherited the conjure chest. She scoffed at the notion of a curse on the lovely piece of furniture–until her firstborn died after its layette was stored in the chest.
Eventually, after several other accidents and violent deaths raised the total of fatalities associated with the chest to sixteen, this owner, Virginia Cary Hudson, consulted an old friend of the family, a black woman called Annie.
Annie, as it happened, was a conjure woman.
She told Mrs. Hudson, after hearing the story, that three conditions would have to be met before the curse could be lifted:
. . .someone would have to give Mrs. Hudson, unprompted, a stuffed dead owl.
. . .a pot filled with leaves from a willow tree would have to be boiled from sunrise to sunset, with the owl sitting nearby.
. . .and then, the likker off the boiled willow would have to be poured into a jug and the jug buried under a flowering bush, with the jug’s handle facing east, toward the morning sun.
Within a short time, Mrs. Hudson had the owl; a family friend had given one to her son.
She and Annie got together and boiled the willow leaves while the owl stood guard nearby, then buried the jugful of likker under a lilac bush, then in full bloom, with the handle facing east.
And then, they waited to see if the curse had been lifted. Annie told her that, if one of them died shortly, they would be the last.
Annie died the September following that strange lifting of the curse. She was the seventeenth, and last, known victim.
Mrs. Hudson’s daughter, Virginia Mayne, was the last private owner of the chest. She never used it; after storing it in her attic for many years, she finally, it’s said, gave it to the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort in 1976.
And there it remains. At last report, it had never been put on display, remaining in storage. And the museum staff, they say, have placed a powerful talisman against the curse in that old blooded drawer, where the owl’s blood was placed so long ago: a handful of feathers from an owl.
The story of the Conjure Chest and its dreadful curse comes from Michael Norman and Beth Scott’s 1994 book Haunted America.