In looking through a lot of the folk tales collected by Vance Randolph I keep seeing this name pop up: Gram French. She makes an appearance in several folk tales, all collected from different people, some from Arkansas and others from Missouri. She’s portrayed as a character who is almost half witch and half healer. Sometimes she’s helping people out; sometimes she’s cursing a strawberry patch. Her use of both traditional folk magic and simple cunning make her the perfect model for an Ozark healer, so it’s no wonder she figures into so many folk tales.
While I’m well aware that this post will be quite long, I’d like to take the time to set down here all of the stories I’ve found so far that feature Gram French. She’s an amazing and interesting character and a model of Ozark Mountain women.
“Betsey and the Mole Skin” from “Pissing in the Snow” by Vance Randolph. Told by Bob Wyrick, Eureka Springs, Ark., May, 1951. He heard it near Green Forest, Ark., about 1910.
One time there was a fellow going with a pretty schoolmarm named Betsey, and they was the lovingest couple you ever seen, only he done considerable grumbling. The trouble was that Betsey liked to play with his pecker, but she wouldn’t let him get it in her very often. She says that diddling is sinful, and ain’t much fun anyhow. “Listen, Betsey,” says he, “a man’s tool needs oil every so often, or else it will turn on him like a wild varmint.” But the schoolmarm just laughed, and she says that’s nothing but superstition, which all educated people have give it up long ago.
A girl like that will run a man crazy, so finally he went to see Gram French. The old woman told him what to do, so then they killed a mole and skinned it. The fellow put the mole skin on his pecker, and it fit like a glove, with the sharp teeth sticking out front. That night him and the schoolmarm went a-walking, and soon as Betsey got her hand in his britches she begun to cry. The follow just lit a match and showed her how it was, and he says, “I’m going to the doctor tomorrow and have an operation.” The schoolmarm figured he was ruined forever, and she knowed it was all her fault.
So then the fellow went to town, and stayed two or three days. When he got back his family organ was good as new, because he had took the mole skin off. Betsey was mighty happy about him being cured, and she says we better not take no chances from now on, and I will do whatever you say. So the schoolmarm give him all he wanted after that, and they never had no more trouble.
“Old Black-Oak Knows Best” and Ozark folk tale from “Stiff as a Poker” by Vance Randolph. This folk tale was collected from Mr. Frank Payne of Galena, MO, November, 1932.
Once upon a time there was a pretty girl named Josie, and her folks was well fixed but they had trouble with the law, so the town boys didn’t come around much. There was a young farmer name of Pete wanted to go with her, but Josie wouldn’t do it because she figured them high-collar town boys was better. She give old Gram French two dollars for a charm, but it didn’t do no good. Finally Gram told her to hang the charm on the old black-oak at midnight, and then say a little rhyme.
When Josie come to the old black-oak she done just like Gram told her, and then set down to see what happened. Pretty soon she heard a voice away up in the air a-mumbling. Josie was kind of scared, but she stood still a minute and listened. There was some more mumbling, and then the voice says, “You got to marry Pete.” Josie run for home when she heard that and never told the folks nothing.
The next night she went back to the old black-oak and done just like Gram told her, and then set down to see what happened. Pretty soon she hears some more mumbling up in the air, and then the voice says, “You got to marry Pete.” Josie went home and thought about it a long time.
The third night she went back to the old black-oak and done just like Gram told her, and then she set down to see what happened. Pretty soon she heard something a-mumbling up in the air, and then the voice says, “You got to marry Pete.” Josie went home just like she done before, and never slept a wink all night.
Next day she went and told Gram French what happened. “If you heerd the same thing three nights a-runnin’, you better go ahead an’ marry Pete,” says Gram. “What’s the use to marry a fellow like that?” says Josie. “Why he ain’t got a pot to cook in, or a window to throw it out!” Gram just set and looked at her awaile. “Old black-oak knows best,” she says. “It takes more’n pots an’ windows to make a good husband.” Gram didn’t say no more, and Josie didn’t return no answer.
Josie told the folks she knowed all the time it was Pete a-talking out of the old black-oak, and she says Gram French must have put him up to it. But Pete just grinned, and he never did admit nothing. Him and her got hitched in the dark of the moon, all right. But the neighbors say they done about as good as any other married folks.
“Three Silver Legs” from “The Talking Turtle” by Vance Randolph. Told by Mrs. Mary Burke of Springfield, MO., December, 1935.
One time there was a girl up on Honey Creek got something the matter with her, and she couldn’t walk a step. The girl looked just as healthy as ever, but she had to lay in bed all day long. The folks give her a whole bottle of medicine, but it didn’t do no good. Doc Holton says he can’t find nothing wrong with her legs, only she is paralyzed. He told em she might get well all of a sudden or else maybe she would just stay like that. After Doc went back to town old Gram French come over, and Gram says somebody has planted bad feathers in the path. What she meant was that an Indian woman throwed a spell on the girl’s legs.
The folks didn’t believe much in things like that, but finally they give Gram two dollars. Just before midnight she got to muttering charms, but nobody couldn’t understand what Gram said only the Devil and his helpers. When the clock struck twelve she opened the door, and then she begun to knock on the bed with her left hand. Pretty soon there come a answer away off in the woods and it went tum-tiddy-um-tum like them drums the Indians use at rain dances.
The girl on the bed begun to groan something terrible and the drums away off in the woods kept right on going tum-tiddy-um-tum. And here come something a-marching out from under the bed, and it was a little black soldier about fourteen inches high, with three silver legs. The little black soldier was carrying a thing like a gun but it wasn’t no gun. You wouldn’t believe it, only if you seen the thing with your own eyes.
The drums away off in the woods kept a-going tum-tiddy-um-tum, and the little black soldier kept on a-marching. The folks just set there goggle-eyed. Finally the little black soldier marched right out the door, and a big log in the fireplace broke in two so it fell on the hearth stone. Gram got up and shut the door. Pretty soon she lit the lamp, and the girl in the bed begun to kick with her legs. It wasn’t no time at all till that girl was walking around the house just as lively as anybody.
Doc Holton come out to see her next day and he says, “Well, didn’t I tell you she might get well all of a sudden?” The folks never said nothing to Doc about the drums and the little black soldier, or what the little black soldier was a-carrying neither. Doc didn’t believe in such as that. It’s one of them things you wouldn’t believe yourself only if you seen it with your own eyes.
“Strawberries Are Easy Witched” an Ozark folk tale from “Who Blowed Up the Church House” by Vance Randolph.
One time old Judge Culpepper set out a big patch of strawberries, and they done fine at first. But the Judge’s wife was mean and hard to get along with, always having trouble with the neighbors. Old Gram French come along the road selling sassafras roots, but Mis’ Culpepper didn’t want no sassafras roots, and she says Gram French don’t know enough to dig sassafras anyhow. One word led to another, and pretty soon both of them women was cussing and blackguarding loud as they could. So Gram went out in the road and drawed a little circle in the dust. Then she marked the circle with a cross, and spit on the cross. Everybody knowed Gram French could talk the Devil’s language, and they figured she was throwing a spell on Judge Culpepper’s berry patch.
Next morning the Judge got up early to look at his strawberries, and it looked like they was doing alright. The next day he was out early again, but he couldn’t see nothing wrong with the berry patch. Old Mis’ Culpepper says this gabble about witching berries is all foolishness, and Gram French could draw circles in the dust every day if she wants to, and it won’t make no difference. The Judge didn’t say much, but when he went out the third morning he seen that the leaves didn’t look right, and by four o’clock that evening every one of them fine strawberry plants was dead.
Old Mis’ Culpepper had changed her tune by this time, and she say Gram French is a witch sure enough, and the folks ought to run her plumb out of the country, or maybe shoot her with a silver bullet. But the Judge he says you come with me, and they went out to the patch, and he showed her some little white grains in the dirt. “Taste that stuff,” says he. So Mis’ Culpepper put some on her tongue, and she says it tastes like salt. “It is salt,” says the Judge, “and salt is death on strawberries, and the ground won’t grow nothing but sparrowgrass from now on. That’s what comes of cussing Gram French,” he says.
So then Mis’ Culpepper begun to holler how she is going to fix Gram, but the Judge says you have done enough fixing already, and from now on you better keep your big mouth shut. And next time Gram French comes along selling sassafras, you just give her the nickel or dime or whatever it is she wants. Fooling with them people is bad luck, he says. Do you want my new barn to catch fire mysterious and burn plumb to the ground? How would you like to see all our chickens poisoned, and the ducks too? Maybe you would rather have a dead snake in the well every few days, or some buckeye juice throwed in too drive us both crazy, he says.
It was on Wednesday the Judge told Mis’ Culpepper all this, and Saturday morning here come Gram with a little bundle of sassafras roots. They was not red ones neither, but thick white roots that ain’t fit for nothing. But old Mis’ Culpepper she took them just the same, and give Gram ten cents, and says she is mighty glad to get some good sassafras roots. So then Gram just grinned at her and went on down the road. The Judge he grinned too when he heard about it. “I ain’t educated like my wife is, but I know better than to cuss Gram French,” he says, “It’s a lot cheaper to buy the goddam sassafras.” Mis’ Culpepper figured she better do what the Judge told her about things like that, and they all been getting along pretty good ever since.
“It Sure Won’t Do No Harm” from “Stiff as a Poker” by Vance Randolph. Told by Mrs. Marie Wilbur of Pineville, MO., March, 1929.
One time there was some people up on Sugar Creek had a mighty sick young-un. Her throat was stopped up pretty bad, and she looked feverish, so the folks sent after Doc Holton. When Doc got there he seen old Gram French was ahead of him, but he never let on.
Them granny-women can smell sickness ten mile off, and old Gram French always run over and took charge before the doctor come. And then when Doc got there he’d find the patient a-puking up slippery-elm bark, or maybe all gaumed up with a cow-dung poultice. Doc Holton says Gram French has killed more people than the James boys, but what could he do about it? Gram hated Doc worse’n a rattlesnake, but she always acted nice as pie when he was around. She’d just grin at him and say, “Well, Doctor, these home remedies of mine may not do no good, but they sure won’t do no harm.”
Mostly Doc never said much, but this time he’d been up all night, and wasn’t feeling well no how. When he found a dirty stinking rag tied round the sick girl’s neck it made him pretty mad. “What the hell’s this?” says he. Gram just grinned at him, same as always. “Just a old dirty sock, Doctor. The best thing I ever seen for throat sickness. It might not do no good, maybe, but it sure won’t do no harm.”
Doc didn’t return no answer, and he never paid no more attention to Gram till the sick girl was took care of, and he seen she was going to be all right.
Pretty soon Gram spoke up again. “I been havin’ a misery in my stomach lately, an’ catnip tea don’t seem to take hold like it used to. What do you recommend for such as that, Doctor?”
Doc looked at Gram’s tongue and asked her a few questions, and then he says for the girl’s mother to fetch him a good big meat-rind, with plenty of fat on it. “My goodness, Doctor,” says Gram, “I never heard tell of usin’ a meat-rind for stomach trouble in all my sixty years of nursin’ the sick!”
When the woman come back with the meat-rind, Doe passed it over to Gram. “Tie this on your old rump,” says he, “and leave it there till it stinks as bad as this dirty sock. It may not do no good,” he says, “but it sure won’t do you no harm,”
The old granny just set there plumb flabbergasted, and Doc throwed the dirty sock in the fire, a-washing his hands careful with stuff out of a bottle. He looked mighty pleased about something. But they do say that Gram French never spoke another word to Doc Holton as long as she lived.
“She Always Answered No” from Vance Randolph, collected from Marie Wilbur of Pineville, MO in June 1930.
One time there was a pretty girl with red hair, and she kept house for her daddy because her mother had run off with a peddler. And there was a boy named Jack that wanted to go with her, but the old man told her to say ‘No’ every time a boy asked her a question. So when Jack says, “Can I come and see you Sunday night?” the pretty girl answered “No.” And when he says, “Will you go buggy riding with me?” she says, “No.” So then he says, “Well, do you want to get married?” but the pretty girl says “No” again. Jack seen he was not getting nowheres, be he didn’t know what to do about it.
Jack though about this awhile, and then he went to see old Gram French and give her two boxes of snuff. Gram listened while Jack told all about his troubles, and then she says, “Well, you better go marry one of them girls at Gizzard Springs, and let the redhead go.” But Jack says to hell with Gizzard Springs, and if he can’t get the pretty girl with the red hair he don’t want no woman at all. And then he begun to talk like he is going to hang himself in the barn, or else maybe he will run off and join the army. Gram just set there until Jack quietened down, and then she told him to go and ask the redhead three questions. She made him say the questions over till he learned all three of them by heart, to make sure there wouldn’t be no mistake.
When Jack got to the house he seen the old man was not at home, and the pretty girl was out in the barn looking for eggs. So he says, “Do you want to live single all your life?” and the pretty girl with the red hair says “No.” Then Jack spoke up again and he says, “Do you want to marry anybody except me?” The pretty girl looked kind of funny when she heard this one, but finally she says, “No.” When it come to the third question, Jack took a big breath and he whispered in the pretty girl’s ear. She jumped like she was shot and hollered “No!” at the top of her voice. Then she looked at Jack, and they both busted out laughing. So Jack just grabbed the pretty girl with the red hair and throwed her right down in the hay. They was as good as married right then and there.
When the girl’s daddy come home, she told him all about what had happened and how she answered “No” every time, but Jack had got the best of her just the same. The old man grumbled considerable, but after while he says, “Well, if a boy is smart enough to figure out them three questions, he ought to make a fair-to-middling husband anyhow.” And so Jack and the pretty girl with the red hair went to town and got married, and they lived happy ever after.
Finally, Vance Randolph alludes to the death of Gram French in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“The witch master’s immediate purpose is to check the particular ‘bewitchment’ which is injuring his client, but his ultimate intention is to kill or permanently disable the witch. When a witch dies, every jackleg witch doctor in the country claims credit for causing her death. When old Gram French was killed by falling off a bluff, an amateur conjurer in our neighborhood stalked solemnly about with rabbit blood on his forehead for several days. ‘But ever’body knows,’ a village loafer said scornfully, ‘that the pore half-wit never even seen Gram!’”
We may never know who old Gram French was or whether she was a real person or just another character in old folk tales. I still hope to do some work in the Randolph/Parler archives housed in the special collections department of the University I currently attend and work for, so maybe I’ll be able to find out some more information about her. But what I do know is that she represents the wise woman of the forest, part healer, part counselor, part trickster, who was both loved and feared by the community around her. She’s the perfect example of the Ozark folk healer, a woman trapped between being a witch and a saint, just depending on who you talk to. I may never find out the full story of Gram French, but I’ll always look at her as a kindred spirit.