150 years ago Jacob Cooley ordered his African American slave Hosea to build a chest for his first child. Hosea set to work, crafting a wooden chest of some remark. For some unknown reason his master was displeased with his efforts and beat his slave to a pulp, killing him. Cooley’s other slaves vowed to avenge the death of their friend and sprinkled the dried blood of an owl in the chest and had a ‘conjure man’ curse the chest. As if by magic, Cooley’s first born died in infancy and over the forthcoming years a total of seventeen deaths were attributed to the chest. Eventually the curse was lifted by a ‘conjure woman’. The chest can be found in the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort.
An elegant mahogany veneer chest of drawers, hand- carved by an African-American slave 150 years ago, resides in the Kentucky Historic Museum at Frankfort. Crafted in the Empire style, the chest has glass knobs on its four drawers. Nothing about its outward appearance gives any hint that tragedy has stalked its existence. That it's known to historians as the "conjured" chest. Two decades before the Civil War, the family of one Jacob Cooley lived a sumptuous life as wealthy Southern planters. Jacob owned many slaves and farmed thousand of acres.
He was also an evil, dispicable man who frequently beat his slaves for the slightest infraction of his stringent rules. Jacob Cooley ordered one of his slaves, an excellent furniture maker named Hosea, to construct a chest that would be used for his firstborn child. For some unknown reason, Jacob was angered at Hosea's finished product and beat him so savagely that he died a few days later. Cooley's slaves, led by an old "conjure man," placed a curse on the chest for all future generations. One drawer was sprinkled with dried owl's blood, and a "conjure" chant was sung.
All those associated with the chest would fall within the curse's evil power. Although Jacob Cooley himself evidently escaped the malevolence, his descendants were not as fortunate. The baby for whom the chest was built died soon after birth. The chest was in his nursery. His brother inherited the chest, and he was stabbed to death by his personal servant. Jacob Cooley had another son, John, who inherited one of his father's many plantations. The young man led a serene bachelor's life until a vivacious young woman, barely out of her teens came into his life.
Her name was Ellie and she soon married John, nearly three times her age. The couple inherited the conjured chest. Knowing of the tragedies that had befallen her husband's siblings, she put the chest in an attic. Meanwhile, Jacob Cooley's youngest daughter, Melinda, eloped with a waggish Irishman named Sean. With nowhere to live, Melinda turned to Ellie. John and Ellie had done well and had accumulated several farms in Tennessee. They turned over one of these to Sean and Melinda to work. While Melinda bore her young husband a brood of children and worked from sunrise to sunset, Sean came to loathe the dullness of farm life.
Ellie Cooley tried to help, but Sean's rebuffs made her presence unwelcome. To try to bring some beauty into Melinda's dreary existence, Ellie snet over her father-in-law's chest. It had been in her attic for a very long time and nothing had happened. She'd almost forgotten the chest's legacy. Perhaps the "curse" was only a lot of talk. Within days, Sean deserted his wife for the bright lights of New Orleans. Melinda was disconsolate. She took to her bed with an "ailment." There, Melinda soon died, an exhausted, grey-haired woman barely out of her thirties.
Shortly after his wife's death, Sean was struck in the head by a steamboat's gangplank and died. The conjure chest had claimed it's third and fourth victims. The couple left many orphaned children. John Cooley was given the job of traveling to Tennessee to assign the youngsters to other family members. The youngest, a baby named Evelyn ran up to him, her tiny arms outstretched. John took her to live with his own family in Kentucky. Little Evelyn grew into a beautiful and intelligent young woman. When she turned sixteen, Evelyn passed an examination that provided her with a teaching certificate with which she took over a one-room schoolhouse.
She met and married a Scotsman, Malcolm Johnson, barely two months after she began teaching. As a wedding present, Ellie presented her niece with Jacob Cooley's handsome chest. And the evil passed to a new generation. Evelyn Johnson had children and even adopted a young orphan, a girl named Arabella. The curse was all but forgotten. Evelyn had the chest but didn't find it necessary to use right away.
However, after Arabella married some years later, Evelyn put the girl's bridal gown in the chest. Shortly thereafter, Arabella's husband suddenly died. That was the beginning of a series of horrible events visited upon Evelyn and Ellie. Arabella's child died after her baby clothes had been put in the chest. Evelyn's daughter-in-law, Ester, married to her oldest son, put her wedding attire in the chest. She died. Evelyn's Aunt Sarah knitted a scarf and gloves to give her son for Christmas. While walking along a train trestle, he fell off and was killed a few days before Christmas.
Two other tragedies befell Evelyn's immediate family, a son-in-law deserted his wife and a child was crippled for life in a bizarre accident. Yet Evelyn's husband, Malcolm, was a success. A small man, always courteous to those around him, he parlayed a shrewed Scottish sense of thrift into a burgeoning business empire that at it's height, consisted of mills, houses, a coal yrad, wharf and dry goods store.
Malcolm was an extraordinarily wealthy man when he died. Despite her material comfort, his wife was haunted by the memories of those around her who were struck down or stricken in some other way by hardship. She took her own life. Eleven persons. The "conjure" chest was taking it's toll. As the twentieth century unfolded, the chest was inherited by Virginia Cary Hudson from her grandmother, Evelyn Johnson. Mrs. Hudson thought tales of the "curse" were heresay. She was wrong. Her first baby's clothes were put in the chest. She died. Another child's clothes were tucked in a drawer and she contracted infantile paralysis. Another daughter's wedding dress was stored there, and her first husband ran off. A son was stabbed in the hand. He had clothes in the chest.
A friend of the family put hunting clothes in it. He was shot in a hunting accident. And so it went. Sixteen victims, all of whom had one thing in common: some of their personal clothing had been put in the conjure chest. Mrs. Hudson wanted to put an end to the curse. She found what she had hoped would be the solution in the form of an old friend of hers, an African-American woman named Annie. Annie understood curses and conjures. The spell cast by Hosea's faithful companions would be broken only when three conditions were met. First, Mrs. Hudson would have to be given a dead owl without her having to ask for one. Secod, the green leaves of a willow tree had to be boiled from sunup to sundown. The dead owl had to remain in sight.
Third, the boiled liquid was then to be buried in a jug with it's handle facing east, toward the rising sun, below a flowering bush. A stuffed owl given to Mrs. Hudson's son by a friend accomplished the first requirement. Mrs. Hudson plucked leaves from a nearby willow tree and boiled them in a large, black pot. The owl kept watch from a kitchen counter. At dusk, old Annie and Mrs. Hudson took the jug and, with its handle pointed east, buried it beneath a flowering lilac bush outside the kitchen window. Annie said they would only know if the curse had been broken if one of them died before the first full days of fall. Annie died in early September. The seventeenth, and last known victim. The final private owner of the conjure chest was Mrs. Hudson's daughter, Virginia C. Mayne. Though she may have been skeptical of the curse, and knew fully the story of its "lifting" by Annie and her mother, she never stored anything in the chest and kept it hidden in her attic. The Kentucky History Museum has it now. Mrs. Mayne donated it to the museum in 1976. According to museum registrar Mike Hudson, "The chest is in storage in our vaults, awaiting the time when it fits into a new exhibit." Supposedly the curse has been removed. Has it? Tucked safely in the top chest drawer is an envelope... with a cluster of owl feathers inside. The museum isn't taking any chances.