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Voodoo Priests, Noble Savages, and Ozark Gypsies

The Life of Folklorist Mary Alicia Owen

Greg Olson

Publication Year: 2012

Folklorist Wayland Hand once called Mary Alicia Owen “the most famous American Woman Folklorist of her time.” Drawing on primary sources, such as maps, census records, court documents, personal letters and periodicals, and the scholarship of others who have analyzed various components of Owen’s multifaceted career, historian Greg Olson offers the most complete account of her life and work to date. He also offers a critical look at some of the short stories Owen penned, sometimes under the name Julia Scott, and discusses how the experience she gained as a fiction writer helped lead her to a successful career in folklore.


            Olson begins with an in-depth look at St. Joseph, Missouri, the place where Owen lived most of her life. He explores the role that her grandparents and parents had in transforming the small trading village into one of the American West’s most exciting boomtowns. He also examines the family’s position of affluence and the effect that the devastation of the Civil War had on their family life and their standing within the community. He describes the interaction of Owen with her two younger sisters, both of whom had interesting and, for women of the time, unconventional careers.


            Olson analyzes many of the nineteenth-century theories, stereotypes, and popular beliefs that influenced the work of Owen and many of her peers. By taking a cross-disciplinary look at her works of fiction, poetry, folklore, history, and anthropology, this volume sheds new light on elements of Owen’s career that have not previously been discussed in print. Examples of the romance stories that Owen wrote for popular magazines in the 1880’s are identified and examined in the context of the time in which Owen wrote them.


            This groundbreaking biography shows that Owen was more than just a folklorist—she was a nineteenth-century woman of many contradictions. She was an independent woman of many interests who possessed a keen intellect and a genuine interest in people and their stories. Specialists in folklore, anthropology, women’s studies, local and regional history, and Missouriana will find much to like in this thoroughly researched study.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-8

In June 1948, workmen began to demolish an eighty-nine-year-old house hidden away in an overgrown lot at the northwest corner of Ninth and Jules Streets in St. Joseph, Missouri. Inside, the structure had already been stripped of its ornamental fireplace surrounds and the walnut newel post and spindles that had once graced the front stairway leading to the second floor. The trash that littered the...

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One: The Queen City of the West, 1850–1860

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pp. 9-22

The life of Mary Alicia Owen is inextricably linked to the town in which she lived all of her eighty-five years, St. Joseph, Missouri. Owen’s mother, Agnes Cargill, and father, James Owen, arrived in St. Joseph while the village was still in its infancy. Mary, their old-est child, was born there in 1850, just six years after the town was ...

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Two: “Our Unhappy Country,” 1860–1870

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pp. 23-37

...reason to be optimistic as the decade of the 1860s began. From the doubt aware that, the fighting over slavery and state’s rights not-withstanding, St. Joseph continued to grow and prosper. The discovery of gold near Pike’s Peak in 1859 had brought a second wave of travelers through the community along the Oregon Trail. This ...

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Three: A Literary Life, 1870–1890

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pp. 38-53

By the time she returned to St. Joseph in 1869, Mary Alicia Owen seems to have set her sights on a career as a writer. She was fortunate in that her family’s circumstances afforded her the leisure to make life choices based on her interests rather than on the pursuit of financial stability. Women of her social standing had to be careful ...

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Four: “The White Voodoo,” 1889–1891

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pp. 54-71

To understand the cosmopolitan atmosphere that defined St. Joseph, Missouri, during the 1880s, consider the fact that the friend who lent Mary Alicia Owen the book that changed her life was the daughter of a well-known British astronomer. Olivia Proctor’s father, Richard Anthony Proctor, lived in St. Joseph from 1884 to 1887. The elder Proctor was the author of more than two dozen books...

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Five: “A Folklorist Born, Not Made,” 1891–1895

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pp. 72-84

As Mary Alicia Owen and other folklorists from around the world prepared for the Second International Folk-Lore Congress to open in October 1891—the first congress had taken place in Paris in 1889—many were concerned that the discipline stood at an academic crossroads. While the study of folklore has been traced back to the Brothers Grimm and their collection of fairy tales, which first appeared...

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Six: Noble Savages and Ozark Gypsies, 1894–1900

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pp. 85-98

Following her aborted hoodoo project, Mary Alicia Owen spent the better part of a decade focusing her research and writing on the cultures of the American Indian tribes that lived across the Missouri River from St. Joseph in the state of Kansas. This effort resulted in three major works that were published between 1896 and 1909. The first was a novel, The Daughter of Alouette, which appeared in 1896...

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Seven: Vanishing Indians, 1900–1904

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pp. 99-114

The Sac, or Sauk (Thakiwa), also known as the People of the Yellow Earth, and the Fox (Meskwaki), or People of the Red Earth, are two individual nations so closely affiliated with one another that by the 1700s many outsiders considered them to be one tribe. Part of the Algonquin language group, the Sac and Fox migrated from the ...

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Eight: “The Road to Paradise,” 1905–1935

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pp. 115-130

While she was still working on the manuscript for The Folklore of the Musquakie Indians, Mary Alicia Owen suffered the loss of her friend and mentor Charles Leland. Leland, who was living in Italy at the time of his death on March 20, 1903, had been in fragile health setbacks in the last months of his life. In July 1902, Eliza Bella...

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Epilogue: “Ever Towards the Setting Sun They Push Us”

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pp. 131-140

Now, more than three-quarters of a century after Mary Alicia Owen’s death, nearly all of her short stories, poems, and writings on folklore have slipped into obscurity. Her early works of fiction are buried so deeply in bound volumes of out-of-print periodicals that even Owen’s biographers have unearthed only her best-known story, “The Taming of Tarias.” Indeed, if it were not for...


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pp. 141-154


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pp. 155-166


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pp. 167-171

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272959
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219961

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2012