Biography of John Bennett (1865-1956), who collected African American ghost stories for his influential book “The Doctor to the Dead.”

African American ghost stories like “I Don’t Feel Dead Yet!” were inspired by similar tales in the collection The Doctor to the Dead by John Bennett (1865-1956). Like Georgia’s Joel Chandler Harris, Bennett had a keen interest in African American folklore. He set out to collect the stories he heard from black storytellers while living in Charleston, South Carolina.

Like Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales, stories in The Doctor to the Dead may have been lost to time were it not for Bennett’s interest in a then-undervalued culture.

A Transplanted Northerner

John Bennett was born in Chillicothe, Ohio one month after the end of the Civil War. He had ambitions to be an artist, and took several jobs over the years to help finance his dream. These odd jobs included taxidermy, traveling with a band, and writing. Journalism was his most successful endeavor, as he found consistent work writing stories for newspapers and magazines.

Cover of Two Scholarly Friends co-written by John Bennett
Two Scholarly Friends co-authored by John Bennett (right)

While writing for St. Nicholas Magazine in 1891, Bennett contributed a series of children’s stories known as Master Skylark. These stories were later published in book form, which became a huge success. This enabled Bennett to move to New York City to study drawing, although he kept writing to pay the bills. Before he finished his second novel, however, he suffered gas poisoning in his New York rooming house. His doctor advised him to leave the city and recuperate down South in Charleston, South Carolina.

Although he was a stately Northerner with Union sentiments, John Bennett found acceptance within the literary circles in Charleston. He eventually became one of the true forces behind the Charleston Literary Renaissance. Bennett helped form the Poetry Society of South Carolina and served as curator of the South Carolina Historical Society. He also became a mentor to future successful Southern writers like DuBose Heyward.

Origins of The Doctor to the Dead

While living in Charleston, Bennett became fascinated with the alternately grotesque and poignant ghost stories he heard from the black population. Many black people in Charleston at the turn of the century were servants and unskilled laborers. But they had retained the superstitions and folk culture of slavery times.

At dusk, sitting on the front porch of a black storyteller’s home, Bennett would watch with fascination. Under the glow of a lit pipe, the black teller would, without any flowery preamble, ease into his spooky tale: “Now le’s we talk about one time…”

It wasn’t just the fantastical elements of these ghost stories that attracted Bennett. It was also the honesty with which they dealt with death. Here, death, loss and loneliness were realities of life. And the story characters dealt with them with grace, understanding and, occasionally, good humor.

Bennett considered the oral storytelling tradition of the coastal black population to be the true heart and soul of South Carolina’s literary tradition.

To the rest of Charleston, however, these stories passed by unnoticed. Bennett was concerned that the few remaining pieces of these Gullah tales would quickly die away, and he set out to do something about it.

Cover of The Doctor to the Dead by John Bennett
Cover of The Doctor to the Dead by John Bennett. Image courtesy of The Gibbes Museum of Art

A Gullah Story Collector

For over three decades, Bennett collected the bits and pieces of these stories. He even attempted to write them in the original Gullah dialect to help preserve the language. But he soon realized that a larger audience would have a hard time digesting this “alien” dialect. So in the completed work, he translated all but three of the stories. In doing so, he readily admitted the quality of the original tale was lost in translation to “academic English.”

The completed work, The Doctor to the Dead, was finally published in 1946. In stories like “The Thirsty Dead,” “The Measure of Grief” and “When the Dead Sang in Their Graves,” Bennett, with the help of his storytellers, captures the elements of pathos and beauty which not only characterize the figures in the stories, but the essence of the American South itself.

The Doctor to the Dead may not be as well known as similar collections like The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Nevertheless, it belongs in the libraries of any serious scholar of Gullah folk culture.

Leave a Reply