by Sonya Alexander
Midwife. Traiteuse. Voodoo priestess. Hoodoo woman. Witch. Julia Brown, who was born Julia Bernard, has been labeled all these things and was most likely actually none of them. She sang a song before her death that was prophecy, and the advent of her lore. The lyrics were:
“When I die …
I’ll take the whole town with me …
when I die …
I’ll take the whole town … ”
Two survivors of the devastating hurricane of 1915, which fell on the very day Julia Brown died, were an Italian man, John Ciro, and a Black man, Milton Brown (of no relation to Julia Brown). Milton’s account in The Times-Picayune is chilling. He saw people buried alive as they were engulfed by enormous, menacing waves and swept away in their shanties, the Manchac Swamp becoming their final resting place. When it was all over, there was nothing left of Frenier.
So, while it’s true that she may have been oracular in the days before her death, and possibly throughout her life, a closer look at her story reveals little evidence that Julia Brown was anything like the Marie Laveau-esque figure who has emerged in online blogs and television shows in recent years—a woman who cursed the town she lived in before she died, and who supposedly still haunts the Manchac Swamp. With folklore, there is a fine line between legend and reality; and sometimes there is a chasm. Folk tales—an oral tradition—can evolve over time, morphing according to regional proclivity.
A quick search on Julia Brown reveals that her story didn’t even emerge into the public consciousness until 2010. Unlike the case of Marie Laveau, where first-person accounts of her performing rituals and other practices associated with voodoo exist; Brown’s mythology seemed to conveniently rise from the bog, a figment to compete with Marie Laveau’s verifiable legend.
In most accounts of Brown’s life, she is depicted as an exoticized, otherworldly persona that overshadows her identity as a living, breathing person. For example, these versions of her life almost never include the fact that, as documented in census records, she was a married, literate, Black landowner. Her husband, Celestin, was a laborer from Texas and died just a year before she did after thirty years of marriage. She also had children, all of whom would have all been fully grown by the time she died. According to Ancestry.com, she was in her forties when she had three of her children—Matilda, SE, and William. They went to school and worked: one was a tie-maker, one was a cook. None of them died during the storm.
A family such as this one—Black, literate, and land-owning—in the nineteenth-century American South was unique, especially in a region made up of mostly German immigrants. They surely stood out, and it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to surmise that they experienced their fair share of racism in the Jim Crow South. In many of the stories about Brown, it’s mentioned that she was “lonely” and she felt the town was using her for her healing gifts, so she started to resent the residents. The legends tell of the way Brown was “feared” because of her powers, but she was probably ignored because of her race. While people were apparently polite to her, odds were, they did not interact much with her.
Before 1915, Frenier (previously Schlösser), Ruddock and Wagram (later Napton) were a cluster of towns near Lake Pontchartrain. In the late 1800s, the area’s main industries were logging and agriculture, with cabbage being the prime crop. The Illinois Central Railroad served as an artery to civilization for the small township. In Wayne Norwood’s book about Frenier and the storm that destroyed it, The Day Time Stood Still: The Hurricane of 1915, survivor Helen Schlosser Burg remembered that Brown—who grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans—had family in the Crescent City, which was about 30 miles away from Frenier and easy to get to via the Illinois Central train.
Brown’s healing powers and work as a community traiteuse are a main theme in the folklore surrounding her character. During Brown’s lifetime, the town of Frenier wasn’t what we might currently think of as a small town. It was more like a settlement, with houses five to six blocks apart from each other. There were no cars or roads in the area, so, on a practical level, it would have actually been quite difficult to go from neighbor to neighbor performing midwifery or traiteur work. It also would not have been a lucrative trade. New Orleans was only a stone’s throw away and easily accessible. If Brown needed to make money as a faith healer, the Crescent City would have been a far preferable location from which to conduct her service.
According to Norwood, a retired law enforcement officer in Ponchatoula and the current owner of the Louisiana Treasures Museum, Julia Brown was just a regular person. Most of his book is made up of Schlosser Burg’s description of the tenacious storm. Norwood recounts the elder stating that Julia Brown was just “a nice lady” who sat on her porch and who everyone liked; there is no evidence of her visiting members of the community to treat their ailments.
In today’s tales of Julia Brown, there is much made of her porch, where it was said that she would sing songs in Creole—but Brown was not actually of Creole heritage. Both of her parents hailed from Maryland, and she spoke English. Everyone can seem to remember that last haunting song that she sang, but none of the other ditties she so famously performed on her porch.
The legend of Julia Brown culminates in her death on September 29, 1915, the day of the great storm. Affectionately known as “Aunt Julie” by locals, she was put to rest in a cypress coffin. Today, if one goes on a swamp tour of the area, guides like to say that her grave is located somewhere on private land in what would have been the area of Frenier. This is probably inaccurate, though, since everything in that area was washed away during the calamitous hurricane.
In speaking with Norwood, he recounted Schlosser’s memory of Julia Brown’s relatives paying 25 cents to ride the railroad from New Orleans to Frenier to attend her funeral. Many of today’s tales say citizens of the town gathered for her funeral to show respect for the “voodoo priestess” and because they didn’t want to be cursed. The population of the town was around 800 people. There was a lot of railroad construction happening the day of the storm. There’s no mention in the local paper or on any heritage site of a confluence of Ruddock and Frenier folks gathered at Brown’s funeral. Also, people knew a storm was coming, they just didn’t know how strong it was going to be; most residents were inside. Despite precautions, 28 Ruddock residents died, as did several others from the surrounding areas.
The evolution of Julia Brown’s story might, on the surface, seem like harmless folklore. But the way her identity has been altered has served to permanently shift her legacy from human being to “other,” as most Black people have been designated throughout history. She’s been transformed from housewife to “magical negro,” yet another addition to the canon of Voodoo sensationalism so prevalent in Louisiana.
Frenier doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a ghost town comprised of dead lumber, cypress trees and muddy swamp. A lone railroad track runs along U.S. Route 51 through that area, the track that used to bring goods and services to St. John the Baptist Parish locals. It’s now a perfect setting for a ghost story: desolate, steeped in tragedy, neglected. One thing is certain, though. Julia Brown is no phantasm but was a real person who suffered loss, who loved, and who had a family. All the other speculations are unnecessary lagniappe added to a conventional life. Goodnight Julia Brown. Rest well.
Featured image from findagrave.com.
Sonya Alexander is a freelance entertainment journalist, academic writer and screenwriter who began her career as a talent agent-in-training. Read more of her work here.