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Atlanta Riots and the Origin of Magic

In the the Malay Peninsula, when a magician wants to dispose of an enemy he makes an image like a corpse, a footstep long; then, to achieve his purpose, he follows this recipe: "If you want to cause sickness, you pierce the eye and blindness results ; or you pierce the waist and the stomach gets sick. If you want to cause death, you transfix the head with a palm twig; then you enshroud the image as you would a corpse and you pray over it as if you were praying over the dead; then you bury it in the middle of the path which leads to the place of the person whom you wish to charm, so that he may step over it." The case of the Malay magician is not unique; it is, indeed, fairly typical of primitive culture, belonging to the vast array of facts designated by J. G. Frazer, that archmaster of the "Magic Art" among modern anthropologists, as homeopathic magic.

Culture is notoriously but skin deep. Beneath the thin veneer of civilization lie dormant the ferocious instincts, the crude emotions, the ghost-haunted thoughts of our human and pre-human ancestry. Provide the setting, and a gathering of parliamentarians will behave like a gang of streetboys or like a Hock of sheep. The case of Leo M. Frank, the Atlanta boy tried for the murder of Mary Phagan, convicted, and saved from the gallows by Governor Slaton's sensitive conscience, provides numerous illustrations of such recrudescence of savage mentality.

A curious instance is recorded in the morning papers. We read:

            At Marietta, where the family of Mary Phagan, the victim of the factory murder, resided, a great indignation meeting was held, and Governor Slaton was hanged in effigy. A life-sized dummy was strung to a telegraph pole on the public square, bearing this inscription: 'John M. Slaton, King of the Jews and Georgia's Trait or Forever.'
            At Newman the effigies of Frank and Governor John M. Slaton were hung to a giant oak in the park at the Union Station to-night and set on fire, after which they were dragged blazing through the principal streets, accompanied by about fifty automobiles. Later the charred effigies were hung to the Chautauqua sign which is stretched across the street at the Court House.
            Later the effigy was removed from the telegraph pole by a small crowd of men and burned .in the public square near the base of the monument to the late Senator Alexander S. Clay. The police made no attempt at interference. …

A cold chill contracts our civilized veins, as the ghost of the Malay magician flits by smiling his approval. The analogy is indeed a close one, with one point of difference: the Malay savage believed in the fatal efficacy of his rite; the Georgia rioters show no such confidence, but, to vindicate more modern ideas, try to get at the Governor with their bricks.

The case is instructive and might clarify our ideas about the origin of magical rites. Numerous latter-day theories have clustered about the rites of homeopathic magic; laws of association of ideas were invoked, savage incapacity to differentiate between a thing and its likeness, and what-not; the psychology of primitive ideas about magic is interesting but complex. Fortunately it need not concern us here, for the Atlanta rioters do not believe in magic—but they made the effigy and burned it. The magic faith was lacking, but the magic rite occurred, and was enthusiastically acclaimed. No doubt the rioters in their lusty indignation were burning to lay their hands on the Governor; but they found him well protected. So they made an effigy and burned it (although they had no thought that that would hurt the Governor).

This is the crux of the whole matter. The act was the objectivation of a wish, carried out in a social setting, under the stress of violent emotion. Such, we may believe, was also the origin of magic. Im Anfang war die Tat. The first magic act was a spontaneous expression of a passionate desire. As to the faith in the efficacy of the act, we must consult savage mentality. The French sociologist, Durkheim, would have us believe that the faith was the result of a raised social consciousness born of the common participation in the magical act. The enhanced feeling of solidarity was pleasurable, hence the act must have been successful. The French savant may be mistaken. An act which in the twentieth century requires the frenzied emotionalism of a mob, when transferred into an age saturated with potentialities of magical belief may have been performed by a solitary savage, as indeed it is still performed in some remote corners of the globe.

Without altogether discarding Durkheim's conjecture, another element may be invoked: the experience of an accidental success. Granted the potentiality of a faith in magic influence, granted the occurrence of a magical act, conditioned as suggested above, and an accidental success would carry all the weight of irrefutable evidence, which henceforth no amount of adverse experience could dislodge.

The Atlanta rioters did not believe that the burning of the effigy would hurt the Governor. But suppose that through some unfortunate accident Governor Slaton had died on the day of the burning, or on the next day. Would there still be no believers in homeopathic magic among the rioters of Atlanta?

This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.