Adelicia Acklen and the Witch Rumors

Due to Project X, I’ve been thinking a lot about the rumors of Adelicia Acklen’s supposed status of being a witch, which comes and goes throughout time.  I think I’ve decided that it’s tied to three things.

One is that, even if you had slaves because it was just what white people did, the level of Adelicia’s first husband’s involvement in the slave trade was kind of beyond the point where you could pretend like it was a benign institution. And, when he died, that all became Adelicia’s money, all earned on the backs of a massive slave trade. Her husband really was the boogyman. “Well, we don’t sell our slaves. We don’t mistreat them. We don’t split up families. etc. etc.” But Franklin did. The things that even slaveholders acknowledged were wrong were how Franklin made his money. So, there had to be some way of making clear the Franklins were somehow different than everyone else, not just at the far end of a spectrum they were all on. She’s a witch.

Two is that Adelicia signed prenuptial agreements with her other husbands that protected her money from them. It’s kind of an enormous–though not unheard of–no-no for a woman to keep control of her assets, especially when she has no children who need that money protected for them. Heaven forbid a woman not just be a conduit for property transfer between men. Definitely probably witchy.

Third is that Southerners believed in a version of what would become the Prosperity Gospel. What they were doing was moral and right and sanctioned by God, as evidenced by how well it made money for them. And here’s Adelicia–cousin to Rutherford B. Hayes, mother to a Louisiana congressman, the wealthiest woman in the South with access to every medical advance of her time, and she couldn’t keep kids or husbands alive. But if wealth is an indicator of God’s blessing, how do you make sense of Adelicia’s suffering? If you need to believe that your wealth is an indication of God’s blessing, that your life is as wonderful as it is because you are doing God pleasing things, what do you do with this example that completely contradicts it? Oh, right, she’s a witch. God doesn’t actually love her.

I think that this explains not only why people sometimes think Adelicia is a witch, but why the rumors come and go. It’s a rumor that needs something going on in our time that we’re uncomfortable with. For instance, I heard the witch rumor after I moved here, in the early 2000s, right after a decade of Dead Man Walking–the book, the movie, play, opera, etc–all set in Angola penitentiary, a place that would not exist if Adelicia hadn’t sold the Angola plantation to the state of Louisiana.

And now, we’re not only in the era of prosperity gospel, but back to talking about whether rich people deserve everything they have, whether they somehow work so much harder than the rest of us–whether, in fact, people’s monetary value does reflect their value as people. So, it’s not surprising that stories about Adelicia are turned again to her being evil or occult.