Storytelling Festival favorite Art Johnson shares the tale of The Combustible Woman.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. Colonial Williamsburg's Storytelling Festival is an annual celebration of the spoken word that grows in size and popularity each year. Art Johnson, a festival favorite, returns to the program to whet our appetites for this fall's tales.
I didn’t ask you last time, Art, but to you, what’s the best part of storytelling?
Art Johnson: I don’t know if I can give it to you in just one item. I think telling the story, and then watching the audience’s reaction to the story – watching how they love it, and smile at it, or they’re in awe of it. It’s just great watching their reaction. A storyteller’s only as good as his audience.
Lloyd: I guess that would leave you with certain favorite stories because the reaction is so good.
Art: I think I do have a couple of favorite stories that I like to tell, just because I love to see their reaction and sometimes it’s a delayed reaction while they’re thinking about it, or sometimes it’s an immediate reaction. But yeah, I do have favorite stories I like to tell.
Lloyd: What story are you going to tell us today?
Art: I’m going to tell you, it’s called “The Combustible Woman.” It’s a story that was in the newspaper here in the 18th century about something that happened to a woman in Italy.
Good day to you. I was just sitting here reading The Gazette. Don’t get me wrong now, I don’t read real well, but I’s like a chicken, I pecks at it, but I gets it all in. I was reading about this here woman in Italy. Ya’ll ever heard tell of a place called Italy? They say it’s just like here, but you know it ain’t here. They say there was a woman in Italy, and every morning she got up, she would rub camphor all over her body. At night before she’d go to bed, she’d rub camphor all over her body. Wake up in the morning, first thing she’d do – rub camphor on her body. Now I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t know what camphor was.So I went to Dr. Galt. I say, “Dr. Galt, what is camphor?” He said, “Matthew,” that’s me, he said, “Camphor is what most of the ladies want. They come in claiming they’ve got the rising phlegm and cough. And he gives them a little jar of camphor. But what they really does is, the ladies take the little jar of camphor, goes home, get behind closed doors, and puts it on themselves to keep the wrinkles down.”
So this here woman was rubbing that camphor every morning when she got up, and at night before she’d go to bed. Wake up in the morning, rub it on herself, and then at night before she go to bed. But at night after she would put it on herself, she would reach back over on her nightstand and she would drink a great big mug of rum. Way I figure it, it was to help her ease to bed a little bit better. She lived above stairs in a tavern. At night when she would come in in the evenings before going to bed, the tavern keeper would hand her the great big mug of rum. Then in the mornings when she would go below stairs, she would hand him back the empty mug.
That’s the way they did things. Until one morning, she didn’t come below stairs. That made the tavern keeper notice. He decided to go above stairs and check on her. When he goes above stairs, he knocks on the door. He gets no answer. Knocks on the door again, gets no answer. Now he’s thinking. He knows he saw the lady go above stairs the night before, because he handed her the mug of rum. He knocks one last time. When he doesn’t get an answer, he pulls out his key, unlocks the door. The moment the seal on the door cracks, a smell so foul came out that there room – knocked the man out. Can you imagine smelling something so bad that the first time you puts a nostril on it, it knocks you out? I did have one man tell me his wife’s feet smelled that bad. Well, the wife, she came above stairs, woke the husband up, and the two of them went in the room to see what was causing that there odor.
The moment they opened the door, all they saw was yellow mist. Yellow mist on the walls, yellow mist in the air, yellow mist everywhere. But won’t no signs of the lady. They keep walking around. Finally they get to the other side of the room. There, between the wall and bed, was this great big pile of black ashes. Say it stood about two pig high – that’s one pig on top of each other – and in front of the ashes were two bare feet. Burned off right at the shinbone, just right there, just burned off right there, right at the shinbone. Well, as they was about to leave, something tapped the tavern keeper’s wife’s shoulder. Hit her on the shoulder just like this. When she looked around to see who it was, she didn’t see nobody. She happened to look at the ceiling, and there, dripping from the ceiling in great big globs, what looked like cooked chicken fat, mm-hmm, cooked chicken fat. Well that was enough for the tavern-keeper and his wife to leave. He went and fetched the doctor.
The doctor come to the room itself, sees all the yellow mist everywhere, sees the pile of black ashes with the two bare feel burned off at the shinbones, just right there, just right there, just right at the shinbone. He sees what looks like cooked chicken fat dripping from the ceiling, but he also sees what nobody else saw: that the mug of rum, the mug was empty. Meaning the lady had drunk the rum. Well the very next day, in this here place, Italy, it say that the tavern keeper say that the doctor say that what happened to that there woman is that her nerves went to frictioning. Lord, I hope I don’t die like that. Whoo! Nerves went to frictioning.
I got to tell you I didn’t know what that meant, either. I went to Dr. Galt. I said, “Dr. Galt, what does it mean when your nerves go to frictioning?” He said, “Matthew,” that’s me, he said, “Everybody got nerves. Nerves is the body’s way of letting you know if something’s touching you. Say no matter where you touch yourself, you touch a nerve. And when you touch that nerve, it sends a spark of fire to the inside of your body, and right there on the inside of your body, you get a warm feeling so you know that somebody’s touched you there.” Ya’ll looking at me the way I looked at Dr. Galt when he talked to me.
See, everybody hold their hand up, and push your finger right into the middle of your hand. Notice everything on your hand is still cold, but the spot where you pushed your finger in, it’s warm. Cause you’s pushing on them there nerves. The more you push, the more the sparks from nerves send sparks of fire. Everybody rub their hands together. Now when you rub your hands together, you’s rubbing all the nerves on that side, and you’s rubbing all the nerves on that side, and makes your hand feel like it’s on fire. That’s what that meant. Now, I got to figuring. This here woman, every morning, she’s rubbing camphor on her body. Every night, she’s rubbing camphor on her body. I got to thinking: camphor, it got oil in it. What happens when that camphor, that oil, soaks into them nerves, and that oil hits that fire? Kabloosh! Instead of having little small sparks of fire, she got great big cannonball sparks going out from her body.
Now, I got to thinking. I figure that there night, that woman must have been doing some mighty good rubbing. She was rubbing that camphor all over her body. Got great big cannonball sparks of fire going off on her body – Kabloosh! Kabloosh! Kabloosh! Going off all over her body – Kabloosh! Kabloosh! Kabloosh! Then she reaches back, drinks the rum, and ka-BLAM! She blows up. Mm-hmm, blows right on up. Now, if you read the paper, the paper say she combusted. I’m telling you, she blew up. The yellow mist, that’s what happens to camphor when it burns. The pile of black ashes, that was all her body burnt down. Cause they found some bones in it. What looked like cooked chicken fat was that all her body, it blew right to the ceiling, kabloosh! But it didn’t explain to me about the two feet. Everything on that there woman either burnt up or blew up, but the two feet. Read the paper three times – took a week, but I got it in. It didn’t say anything about the feet.
Now, I talks to my horse a lot. Me and my horse, we understand these things. I tell any man, get a horse. Want to come into the house, have everybody agree with you? When the wife don’t agree, the kids don’t agree, talk to your horse. Horse always agrees. Horse always goes, “Ye-heee heh heh heh.” So I talks to my horse a lot. I say, "Horse, why don’t you think that the feet didn’t blow up?" You want me to tell you what me and the horse think? I say, you want me to tell you what me and the horse think? Me and the horse, we believe the reason the feet didn’t blow up – she ain’t put no camphor on the feet. That’s right: no camphor on the feet. I got the same question. Why didn’t she put camphor on the feet? Talked to my horse. You want me to tell you what me and the horse think? Me and the horse believe the reason she didn’t put camphor on her feet? Couldn’t reach her feet. Mm-hmm. Couldn’t reach her feet. Got right down there, stopped. That’s where the camphor was. Mm-hmm.
But let me ask you something. Have you ever heard something or done something, and about a week later it comes back into your mind and makes you want to go “hmmmm.” Well I was taking out this gentleman, and carting him, he and his wife, and I was in the middle of carting when I got to thinking about this here woman. She’s living above stairs in a tavern. You menfolk been to a tavern before, you know the kind of noise folks be making down below when they gets to drinking and thinking and talking. She’s above stairs in the tavern and she blows up. I don’t mean she blows up, she blew up. You hear me? She hit the wall. She hit the ceiling. She hit everything and she blows up. But yet, nobody didn’t say, “What was that?” If someone were to blow up over your head, wouldn’t you say, “What was that?”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying somebody should have said, “Stop. That sounds like a fat lady just blew up.” But somebody should have said something. Then I thinks about, who goin’ to clean the room? Now, if it was me, I’d hoist up the window, let the yellow mist go out the window. I’d sweep up the ashes. I’d have to get somebody for that stuff on the ceiling. But I want to know, who goin’ to pick up the feet? Would you pick up the feet? And then what you gonna do with the feet? I can see it now: the feet, buried in the graveyard. I can see what it say on the tombstone. “Here lie the feet of so-and-so. May they rest in peace.” That’s what you call going in feet first.
But I’ll tell you this: one thing is for sure, they going to bury that woman two feet deep. Well good day to you all, I best be out of here.