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May 29, 2013

The Trial That Gave Vodou A Bad Name

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary  artist’s sketch–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in  February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From  Harper’s Weekly.


It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet  friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital.  Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into  the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery,  who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.


The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason  that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for  eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an  example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of  a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And  also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as  he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands,  its African past and, above all, its folk religion.

President Fabre Geffrard, whose efforts to reform  Haiti ended in disappointment when he was accused of corruption and forced to  flee the country by a violent coup.

Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of  these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined  with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in  backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests  never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the  violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the  history of the New World.

Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It  was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the  British traveler Hesketh  Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and  believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.”  For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof  that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.

It was hard to conceive of a case more likely to bring vodou, and Haiti, into  greater disrepute than the murder that was being punished that Saturday in 1864.  The killing had taken place in the village of Bizoton, just outside the gates of  Port-au-Prince, and—at least according to the newspaper stories that fizzed over  the world’s telegraph wires that spring—it was the work of a wastrel by the name  of Congo PelÉ, who had sacrificed his own niece in the hope of winning favor  from the vodou gods. Little is known for  certain of the affaire de Bizoton. No trial transcripts survive,  and the truth (as Kate Ramsey observes in her study of vodou and Haitian law)  was long ago lost in a miasma of prejudice and misreporting. The most detailed  account of the murder came from the pen of Sir Spenser St John, who was the British charge  d’affaires in Port-au-Prince at the time—and St John’s account helped  define Haiti as a place where ritual murder and cannibalism were commonplace,  and usually went unpunished. The charge proved so influential that, as recently  as 2010, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of the  capital could still be blamed on a supposed “pact with the devil”  that the country had signed by turning to vodou.

Sir Spenser St John, British charge d’affaires in  Haiti during the 1860s, compiled by far the most detailed account of the Bizoton  affair, and believed implicitly in the reality of child sacrifice by “vaudaux”  worshipers.

For St John, who said he had “made the most careful inquiries” into the  murder, the affaire seemed straightforward and hideous. PelÉ, the  diplomat reported, had been “a labourer, a gentleman’s servant [and] an idler”  who had grown resentful at his poverty and was “anxious to improve his position  without exertion on his part.” Since he was the brother of a noted vodou  priestess, the solution appeared obvious. The gods and spirits could provide for  him.

Sometime in December 1863, Jeanne PelÉ agreed to help her  brother. ”It was settled between them,” St John wrote, “that about the new  year some sacrifice should be offered to propitiate the serpent.” The only  difficulty was the scale of Congo’s ambition. While “a more modest man would  have been satisfied with a white cock or a white goat…on this solemn occasion it  was thought better to offer a more important sacrifice.” Two vodou priests were  consulted, and it was they who recommended that the PelÉs offer up the “goat  without horns”—that is, a human sacrifice.

Jeanne PelÉ did not have to look far for a suitable victim. She chose her  sister’s child, a girl named Claircine, who St John says was 12 years old at the  time. On December 27, 1863, Jeanne invited her sister to visit Port-au-Prince  with her, and, in their absence, Congo PelÉ and the two priests seized  Claircine. They bound and gagged her and hid her beneath the altar of a nearby  temple. The girl stayed there for four full days and nights. Finally, after dark  on New Year’s Eve, an elaborate vodou ceremony was held. At its climax—St John  says—Claircine was strangled, flayed, decapitated and dismembered. Her body was  cooked, and her blood caught and kept in a jar.

Writing a quarter of a century later, the diplomat spared his readers none of the unpleasant details of  the bloody feast that followed; perhaps he calculated that they would not wish  to be spared. He also set out the evidence that had been assembled against the  PelÉs and their associates, together with details of other cases that proved, he  thought, that the murder was not an isolated incident.

Vodou paraphernalia in a modern temple. Image:  Wikicommons.

Before asking whether Claircine really was sacrificed to African gods—let  alone whether cannibalism was a normal part of vodou—it may help to know a  little more about the place that the religion held in old Haiti. Vodou was, to  begin with, the faith of most Haitians. As late as 1860, the country was only  nominally Christian; the urban elite may have been more or less Catholic, but  the mass of people in the countryside were not. Bible teachings posed awkward  questions in a slaveholding society; thus, while the old French colony’s  hated “Negro Code” had made it compulsory to baptize new slaves within eight  days of their arrival, most plantation owners made no real attempt to  Christianize them. Nor was it easy for any religion to take root in the  brutal conditions in which most blacks worked. The climate, back-breaking labor  and fever killed 10 percent of Haiti’s half-million-strong population every year  and severely curtailed fertility. This meant, as Laurent Dubois notes, that  fully two-thirds of the slaves in Haiti on the eve of the revolt of 1791 had  been born in Africa. They brought with them their African religions, and  scholars of vodou believe that its Catholic trappings were implanted not in  Haiti, but in the coastal regions of the Congo, where local rulers converted to  Christianity as early as the 15th century.

Matters scarcely improved after independence. Most Haitian rulers professed  Christianity—they believed it important to identify with the free nations of the  west. But they also insisted on a Haitian clergy, not to mention the right to  appoint bishops. That the Catholic Church would not concede, with the result  that in 1804 a schism occurred between Haiti and Rome. Since there were then no more than three  churches still standing amid the rubble of the revolution, and six priests in  the entire country, little progress was made in converting the people of the  interior in the years before this breach was healed with a concordat signed in 1860.

The handful of clergymen who did serve in Haiti during these years were  mostly renegades, Dubois writes: “debauched opportunists who got rich selling  sacraments to gullible Haitians.” Vodou thrived in these conditions, and it was  hardly surprising that when Geffrard’s immediate predecessor, Faustin Soulouque, was nominated as president in 1847, Haiti  found itself ruled by a former slave who was an open adherent of the African  religion.

Faustin Soulouque—better known as Emperor Faustin I  (1849-1859)—was the first Haitian leader to openly support vodou. A former  slave, he derived “mystical prestige” from his association with the  religion.

Knowing a little of the effects of the schism, and of Soulouque’s dubious  12-year regime, makes it easier to understand why Fabre Geffrard was so anxious  to prosecute the principals of the affaire de Bizoton—and to label  Claircine’s killers as vodouists. The concordat signed in March 1860 committed  the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion—and the executions of  February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place  just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from  Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code  PÉnal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added  that “all dances and other practices that…maintain the spirit of fetishism and  superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the  same penalties.” Under Geffrard, attempts were also made to curb other customs  likely to upset the pope: the public nudity that was still common in the  interior, and a 99 percent illegitimacy rate that was accompanied (Dubois says)  by “bigamy, trigamy, all the way to septigamy.”

Geffrard was equally anxious to distance himself from Soulouque, who in 1849  had made the country something of a laughingstock by crowning himself Emperor  Faustin I. He was not the first Haitian emperor—that honor belongs to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had ruled as Jacques I between  1804 and 1806—and although Murdo MacLeod argues that he was a shrewder ruler  than most historians allow, he is usually portrayed as a buffoon. Lazy and  poorly educated, Soulouque, it was widely believed, had been hand-picked by  Haiti’s senate as the most malleable possible candidate for the presidency;  unable to obtain a golden crown, he had been elevated to the throne wearing one made of cardboard. Once in power, however, the  new emperor derived (MacLeod says) significant “mystical prestige” from his  association with vodou. Indeed, it was widely thought he was in thrall to it,  and St John noted that

during the reign of Soulouque, a priestess was arrested for having  promoted a sacrifice too openly; when about to be conducted to prison, a foreign  bystander remarked aloud that probably she would be shot. She laughed and said:  ‘If I were to beat the sacred drum, and march through the city, [there is] not  one, from the Emperor downwards, but would humbly follow  me.’

A “sorcerers’ passport,” offering safe passage to  vodou initiates, obtained by Albert MÉtraux during his anthropological field  work in Haiti in the 1940s. Kate Ramsey notes that the Haitian secret societies  that issue these passports are linked to vodou and still form an active  alternative (“nighttime&rdquo system for delivering law and justice to their  adherents.

What all this means, I think, is that vodou became a fault line running  through the very heart of Haitian society after 1804. For most citizens, and  especially for the rural blacks who had borne the brunt both of slavery and the  struggle for independence, it became a potent symbol of old dignities and new  freedoms: a religion that, as Dubois notes, helped  “carve out a place  where the enslaved could temporarily escape the order that saw them only as  chattel property” during colonial times, and went on to “create communities of  trust that stretched between the different plantations and into the towns.” For  the local elite, who tended to be of mixed race and were often French-educated,  though, vodou was holding Haiti back. It was alien and frightening to those who  did not understand it; it was associated with slave rebellion; and (after  Soulouque’s rise), it was also the faith of the most brutal and backward of the  country’s rulers.

These considerations combined to help make Haiti a pariah state throughout  the 19th century. Dessalines and his successor, Henry Christophe—who had every reason to fear that the United States, France, Britain and Spain would overthrow their revolution  and re-enslave the population, given the chance—tried to isolate the country,  but even after economic necessity forced them to reopen the trade in sugar and  coffee, the self-governing black republic of Haiti remained a dangerous  abomination in the eyes of every white state involved in the slave trade. Like  Soviet Russia in the 1920s, it was feared to be almost literally “infectious”:  liable to inflame other blacks with the desire for liberty. Geffrard was not the  only Haitian leader to look for ways to prove that his was a nation much like  the great powers—Christian, and governed by the rule of law.

With all that borne in mind, let us return to the Haiti of 1864 and  the affaire de Bizoton. There is no need to assume that Spenser St  John was a wholly unreliable observer; his account of the legal proceedings that  took place that year chimes well with contemporary press coverage. There are a  few discrepancies (Claircine is stated in newspaper sources to have been seven  or eight, not 12), but the journalists’ accounts are, for the most part, more purple and more partial than the diplomat’s.

Artist’s impression of a “vodou murder”–a product of  the sensation caused by St John’s book Hayti, or, The Black Republic, which  included allegations of murder and cannibalism.

What’s most interesting about St John’s account is his admission that the  trial was open to criticism. His chief concern was the use of force to beat  confessions out of suspects. “All the prisoners,” the diplomat observed,  “had at first refused to speak, thinking that the Vaudoux would protect them,  and it required the frequent application of the club to drive this belief out of  their heads.” Later, hauled up before the judge, the prisoners “were bullied,  cajoled, cross-questioned in order to force avowals, in fact to make them state  in open court what they were said to have confessed in their preliminary  examinations.”

The beatings produced the evidence that Geffrard’s government required, but  also at least one disputed confession. It came from one RosÉide Sumera, who had  admitted to eating “the palms of the victims hands as a favourite morsel,” and  whose evidence was vital to the prosecution. Sumera, St John recalled, had  “entered into every particular of the whole affair, to the evident annoyance of  the others, who tried in vain to keep her silent,” and it was thanks to her  testimony that “the guilt of the prisoners was thus fully established.” Yet even  St John had his doubts about Sumera’s evidence: “I can never forget,” the  diplomat conceded, “the manner in which the youngest female prisoner turned to  the public prosecutor and said, ‘Yes, I did confess what you assert, but  remember how cruelly I was beaten before I said a word.’ “

The fact that RosÉide Sumera fought for her life in court does not mean  that she was innocent, of course. St John remained convinced of her guilt, not  least because physical evidence was produced to back up witness testimony. A  “freshly boiled” human skull had been found concealed in bushes outside the  temple where the ritual had apparently occurred, and the prosecutor also  produced a pile of bones and two eyewitnesses who—it was claimed—had not  participated in the murder. They were a young woman and a child, who had watched  from an adjoining room through chinks in the wall.

Haiti in the 19th century, occupying the western  third of the island of Hispaniola (French Saint-Domingue). Port-au-Prince lies  at the northeast corner of the southern peninsula. The village of Bizoton (not  marked) was directly to the west. Click to view in higher resolution.

The child’s evidence was especially compelling. It was probably at least as  important as Sumera’s in securing convictions, not least because it appeared  that she had been intended as a second victim. The girl had been  found, according to St John’s account, tied up under the same altar that  had concealed Claircine; had PelÉ not been stopped, he wrote, the intention was  to sacrifice her on Twelfth Night (January 5), the most sacred date in the vodou  calendar. Even so, the child’s statement was not complete:

She told her story in all its horrible details; but her nerves gave way  so completely, that she had to to be taken out of court, and could not be again  produced to answer some questions the jury wished to ask.

As for the young woman who had, for obscure reasons,  accompanied the girl to the ceremony, her testimony was at best equivocal. She  confirmed that the feast had taken place, but according to at least one account,  also confessed to eating leftovers from the cannibals’ meal the next morning.  The public prosecutor admitted to St John that “we have not thought proper to  press the inquiry too closely” in this woman’s case, adding: “If full justice  were done, there would be fifty on those benches instead of eight.”

If much oral testimony was debatable, then, what of the physical evidence?  That a human skull and several bones were produced in court seems undisputed;  that they were Claircine’s, though, appears less certain. Ramsey suggests  that they may have been the remains of some other person—who may have died of  natural causes—prepared for some other ritual. (see editors’ note  below) And some accounts of the trial are curious in other ways. St John  states that the other bones were “calcined” (burned) but still intact, whereas  New Zealand’s Otago Witness—in a typical example of the contemporary  news coverage—reported that they had been “reduced to ashes.”

Port-au-Prince, photographed in the 20th  century.

As for the allegation, made by St John, that cannibalism was a normal feature  of life in 19th century Haiti: the evidence here is thin in the extreme. Writing  in The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909, John T. Driscoll  charged—without providing details—that ”authentic records  are procurable of midnight meetings held in Hayti, as late as  1888, at which human beings, especially children, were killed and  eaten at the secret feasts.” Close reading, though, shows that there  are only two other “firsthand” accounts of vodou ceremonies involving  cannibalism: one from a French priest during the 1870s, and the other from a white  Dominican a decade later. Both are unsupported; both are suspect, not least  for the claim that both supposed eyewitnesses penetrated a secret religious  ceremony undetected, wearing blackface. Unfortunately, both were also widely  disseminated. Added to St John’s accounts–which included the charge that “people are killed and  their flesh sold at the market” in Haiti, they profoundly  influenced Victorian scribblers who had never visited the island. In 1891,  observes Dubois, “one writer admitted that he had never actually seen a Vodou  ritual, but he nevertheless described [one] in vivid detail–complete with  practitioners ‘throwing themselves on the victims, tearing them apart with their  teeth and avidly sucking the blood that boils from their veins.’ Each day, he  wrote, forty Haitians were eaten, and almost every citizen of the country had  tasted human flesh.”

Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, a noted adventurer and  cricketer, visited Haiti in 1899.

This matters. Ramsey and Dubois, to name only two of the historians who see  Claircine’s case as central to Haiti’s history, both argue that it helped to  create perceptions that have lingered to the present day. The idea that Haiti  was uncivilized and inherently unstable was used to justify an American military  occupation that began in 1915 and ran for 20 years; many even today remain  convinced that the depressing aspects of the country’s history were products of  its innate “backwardness” and not, as scholars of Haiti argue, the real problems  that the country faced during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Much, certainly, can be attributed to the crushing burden of debt imposed by France in 1825 as a condition of recognizing  independence. This indemnity, which amounted to 150 million francs (about $3  billion today), plus interest, compensated slaveholders for their losses—so, as  the Haitian writer Louis-Joseph Janvier furiously observed, his people had paid  for their country three times over: in “tears and sweat,” as captive labor; in  blood, during the revolution, and then in cash, to the very men who had enslaved  them. As late as 1914, Dubois notes, 80 percent of the Haitian budget was  swallowed up by interest payments on this debt.

All of which does make the executions of February 1864 a transforming moment  in Haitian history–so much so that it was perhaps appropriate that they were  botched. Wrote Spenser St John:

The prisoners, tied in pairs, were placed in a line, and faced by five  soldiers to each pair. They fired with such inaccuracy that only six fell  wounded on the first discharge. It took these untrained men fully half an hour  to complete their work… [and] the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost  turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings…. They were seen  beckoning the soldiers to approach, and RoseÍde held the muzzle of a musket to  her bosom and called on the man to fire.

Editors’ note, June 12, 2013: The sentence above referring to  Kate Ramsey and physical evidence at the trial has been stricken-through because  it is incorrect. She made no such suggestion.


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