Daniel Young’s conviction for obeah highlights the importance of mass-produced books, particularly those published by the Chicago-based de Laurence publishing company, in twentieth century forms of spiritual work. The company was founded by Lauron William De Laurence, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1868. It published a mixture of magic, spiritual, and occult books, often plagiarising other authors. The company also distributed other works and magical implements through mail order, creating a mass market and an international customer base.
Daniel Young, from St Vincent, was convicted in Trinidad in 1931. The Port of Spain Gazette reported that he was arrested in a raid of ‘an alleged obeah stronghold at Petit Bourg in San Juan’ and charged with ‘obtaining money by the assumption of supernatural powers.’ A man called Rufus Headley and a woman called Soomaria were used as decoys, with Soomaria requesting Young’s services. The police waited outside while Young worked with Headley and Soomaria, and then raided his house, catching him in the ‘act of exorcising an evil spirit which was troubling the woman-decoy. He was doing this with a quatro and guitar, sitting before a quantity of lighted candles resting on a book.’ The police searched Young’s premises and found bottles of red liquid, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, the Bible, and various letters addressed to Mr Young, Brother Young or Dear Young. These letters came from various parts of Trinidad thanking Young for his work, with the majority of the letters coming from the oil fields. Daniel Young was one of many migrants who had come to Trinidad from other parts of the Caribbean, including his own St Vincent, in search of work. As Patrick Bryan describes, more than 46,000 migrants lived in Trinidad in the early 1930s, most of them working in the oil industry.
The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, found in Daniel Young’s possession, was a popular de Laurence edition of a book of magic spells, or grimoire, which first appeared in eighteenth century Germany. In the nineteenth century, The Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses and similar works spread throughout Europe and were also published in the United States of America. Although they purported to be lost biblical books of Moses, no trace has been found of them before the eighteenth century. In the 1930s thousands of paperback copies of the books were produced, but, as Owen states, de Laurence’s name ‘remained indelibly associated with it.’ They became popular amongst parts of the African diaspora, becoming a central text for Rastafarians. The reggae band Toots and the Maytals released a song called Six and Seven Books of Moses (1963) which stressed their importance by listing them after the first five books of the bible and Joshua, Judges and Ruth.
Daniel Young’s case show that practitioners of ritual and spiritual healing who were prosecuted for obeah used magic and healing rituals from a variety of sources, not just those originating in Africa. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people of the African diaspora fused traditions from a variety of sources including a range of European mystical publications. The mass production and international distribution practised by the De Laurence company contributed significantly to this.
De Laurence magic and occult books were widely found in the Caribbean; so much so that the phrase De Laurence was commonly used as shorthand for obeah. Owen Davies, who has studied the international distribution of grimoires, states that ‘Delaurence was and is respected in West Africa but in the Caribbean he achieved mythical status.’ In 1940 a range of books were banned in Jamaica under wartime emergency controls of information. De Laurence publications were included in this list of banned books, although most of them were explicitly political works such as communist and trade unionist material. In the 1970s newly elected Prime Minister Michael Manley removed many of these publications from the list of banned books but significantly maintained the ban on the de Laurence books, which remain banned in Jamaica to this day. In Trinidad de Laurence publications were also banned but copies could still be found at a high price. De Laurence publications were used in Orisha worship and also inspired the development of some Spiritual Baptist symbols in Trinidad.
Articles and Books
Bryan, Patrick. ‘Proletarian Movements (1940-90)’, in Brereton, Bridget, Teresita Martinez-Vergne, and René A. Römer. General History of the Caribbean: Volume V. Paris: UNESCO; London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2004.
Davies, Owen. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Davies, Owen. ‘Owen Davies’s top 10 grimoires’ The Guardian website, Wednesday 8 April 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/08/history, site accessed 18 November 2012
Elkins, W. F. ‘William Lauron DeLaurence and Jamaican Folk Religion.’ Folklore 97:2, 1986, pp. 215 -218.