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Which Witch?

When stationed abroad, Foreign Service Officers may face dangers such as carjackings, bombings, or even assassination attempts. However, for some, the most serious threat may be a supernatural one:  being cursed by a local witch doctor. The supernatural threats encountered by FSOs must always be taken seriously; otherwise, one risks temporal pain and spiritual punishment (probably even greater than dealing with HR).

Fred Coffey, Jr., was serving as a Public Affairs Officer in Surabaya, Indonesia, when locals sought out a witch doctor to bring about his demise. While working in Kuala Lumpur as a Political Officer (1969-1973), John Helble was forced to seek help in performing an exorcism on his house when word came out that his home was cursed. 

Dorothy Kidder was lived in Rio de Janeiro from 1946-1949 when her husband was stationed to Brazil; while there her and her family was forced to deal with local witches cursing their home. While working for the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire from 1966-1968, John Pielemeier learned of the consequences of visiting cursed areas when he came down with a severe illness that was predicted by local witch doctors.

Coffey was interviewed by G. Lewis Schmidt beginning in September 1990. Helble was interviewed by Thomas F. Conlon starting in April 1996. Kidder was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi beginning in June 1998. Pielemeier was interviewed by W. Haven North beginning in September 1997.

You can go here to read about Halloween in the Foreign Service, black magic in Brazil, and other humorous Moments.


“They had gone to a witch doctor and had paid him so much money to remove me from the scene”

Fred Coffey, Jr., Public Affairs Officer, Surabaya, Indonesia 1960


e end of December 1960 we were transferred to Surabaya.…We then had a great period in Surabaya for the next three and a half years, in terms of personal enjoyment, and friends made, and feeling of accomplishment with our USIS [U.S. Information Service] program….

Surabaya was a tumultuous place in terms of the Communists and the economic deprivation of the area. We were having demonstrations against USIS right along. One of the things the Communists didn’t like was our library; we had some 16,000 books in our library and some 500 to 700 visitors every day, ranging from students, government leaders, military, professional types, labor leaders, etc.

It was a very effective operation and one of the few windows to the outside world available to these Indonesians, young and old, important and not so important.

The Communists had made a big raid on USIS, threw many of the books into piles on the front porch and burned them. This infuriated the Agency, of course; books are not meant to be burned, although we may have had some experience in that in earlier years.

Carl Rowan, then director, ordered USIS Surabaya closed, which we did. I might say that — again on a personal basis — there was some excitement, too. When I first got there and we started working with the military and the English clubs, the undercover police of the Surabaya police force came around and told me that the communists had marked me for extinction, and that I either had to leave or be prepared for a tough time, that they would try to provide me personal security, however.

I opted, of course, to stay, and I had guards with me, in front of the house, escorting me to work, staying around our building, for many months. The Communists, of course, were not successful in getting rid of me at that point, but I had another little bit of a trial with Javanese mysticism.

We found that two of our mobile picture people were charging to show films. They’d go out to a sugar factory some place and charge people so many rupiahs to see the films, something which we didn’t know about and which was prohibited. A man came in one day from a sugar factory to pay his bill, which exposed the whole problem. We had to fire two people, which led to firing of two others who had been stealing equipment.

About a week later one of the people who had been fired told me that they had done a terrible thing and I was in grave danger. They had gone to a dukun, a witch doctor, and had paid him so much money….to remove me from the scene. He was going to use his powers to do so, and his powers included that I would either be dead or out of the country in 30 days.

Again I chose to weather out this little storm, and I was told later that had I been a believer I might have succumbed of mental illness, because that’s the way it works.

“I have made contact with the ‘evil force,’ and there is no question that it is a ‘force’”

John Helble, Political Officer, Kuala Lumpur, 1969-1973

HELBLE: The week after we moved into the new house the cook got sick. It seemed to be a bronchial complaint, with a little fever and so on. Ultimately, she decided that when she cleaned her room after we arrived in the new house, she had touched a little glass bowl that had some ashes in it. She concluded that those ashes were a talisman burned by a Malay servant of the previous residents of the house.

The Malay servant had lived in the same room that our cook now lived in. The Malay servant had not wanted to leave the house. When obliged to leave because the family she was serving was leaving, she had sought the assistance of a Malay bomoh –someone who might crudely have been described as a witch doctor. So the Malay servant of the previous residents of the house sought the assistance of the bomoh to ensure that she could, in fact, stay at the house.

He allegedly gave her this talisman to burn, telling her that this would help her to stay in the house. Of course, this didn’t have the desired effect, from her point of view. However, our Chinese cook felt that she had been contaminated by this, and it was causing her to be ill.

This situation went on for several weeks. I thought that it was all a joke. However, one day I came home, and Joan said, “They’ve left and they’ll never come back, because this is a ‘bad’ place now.”

I really bemoaned the loss of two extremely capable members of the household staff — and particularly that marvelous cook. However, it seemed that there was nothing to be done about it. We offered them more money, but they said that that had nothing to do with it.

So we hired a replacement cook, and that cook also became sick within a week or so. We then had the water checked, we had various inspections made, but the second cook left us. A third cook was hired, lasted for three days or so, and left. Then we ran into what was really a dry hole. We couldn’t find anybody who would work for us.

However, the other thing that I haven’t mentioned is that we had an exorcism done by C. C. Too. He was the Director of Psychological Warfare Planning in the Ministry of Home Affairs. He had been trained by the British in the war against the Communist guerrillas.

He was a very clever fellow and was considered by most people to have extraordinary powers. When he heard the story of our problems at a dinner at the Ambassador’s, he said, “I have to come over and do a ‘job’ on your house.”

Well, I thought that it was a joke, but my wife said, “We’re going to try it.” So, on the next day, he visited our house and explained to Joan what he was going to do. Joan called me at the Embassy and said, “He’s going to come over at 7:00 p.m. tonight. He said, ‘Invite any friends that you want, and they can witness this.'”

So we lined up a dozen friends, all on the spur of the moment, all of whom knew about the problem. They came over. C. C. Too explained to the group that he was convinced that this involved an evil force –not a ghost, but an “evil force.”

The question was whether C. C. Too’s powers were greater than the powers of the bomoh, the Malay witch doctor who had brought the evil force into the house. So he went into what I can only describe as a period of deep concentration — not quite a trance. He told us that we could keep talking, so we sat there on our verandah. (Bomoh in 2014)

After about 45 minutes he said, “I have made contact with the ‘evil force,’ and there is no question that it is a ‘force.’ It is not a ghost. Now I have to demonstrate to the ‘force’ that I have greater powers than he who controls the ‘force.’ I have to repel him.” So he went on in this way.

A little after 9:00 p.m. he said that he had succeeded in repelling the ‘force’ from the house. It was no longer there. He could not be certain how long it would stay away. It could return. It might be in three days, three months, or maybe it would never return. He said that he couldn’t tell that.

However, if it returned, we should contact him, and he would come right back. At this point we had two young women who had just started working for us as domestic servants two days before. They were going to leave us that day, when Joan convinced them that we have a very strong man coming to take care of this problem. They decided to wait.

They watched the whole ceremony from a distance, a few feet away from the kitchen door. After it was over, he went over to them and explained to them what he had done and said that everything was all right.

Then he went next door to the companion house, where another American officer lived, got their servants out of their quarters, explained to them what had happened, and said that this house was now free of the evil force. Here was the psychological warfare expert, getting the word out on the bamboo telegraph as to what had happened.

“You HAVE to have the place exorcized or you have to have some SEMBLANCE of exorcism”

Dorothy Kidder, Foreign Service spouse, Rio de Janeiro, 1946-1949

KIDDER: Charlotte [Kidder’s daughter] began to be strangely ill. She got more and more so. Oh, I should preface the fact that I came to Belèm with the children about nine months later than Randy [Ambassador Randolph Kidder], who’d already been installed, because it was very hard to determine that we were going to do this thing in that we had so many conflicting reactions and advice in Washington.

“What? You’re taking children to the Amazon? Why, it’s infanticide.” “What? You’re not taking your children? Why, you’re cowardly.” Back and forth it went. Finally we just decided we’d go and try it out for three months, and if it was all that bad, well then I’d have to come back. But of course I never did come back. But a situation developed which was unfortunate to say the least.

I get there. I didn’t get along with Randy’s cook, whose name was Ydalhia. I made the mistake of firing her. Also I made the mistake of going out right afterwards, not realizing that after I had gone, imprecations by Ydalhia were made throughout the house — that she was going to put a “hex” on it, that we would know that Ydalhia was working against us.

And, strangely enough, before long it began to happen.

I knew nothing of it; nobody said anything to me about Ydalhia’s imprecations. And Charlotte became sickly, but really quite sickly, and feverish. We had addressed ourselves to the medical unit at the Val de Caes, which was a wartime unit of ours which saw about planes flying down to cross over to Asuncion and then go on over to Dakar.

In addition the Rubber Development Corporation had a medical unit. We addressed ourselves to a nurse there. Nobody could diagnose this strange fever the child had. One afternoon she and I were lying on the bed, my husband having gone back to the office. And literally it was like holding a little bird’s hand, a little claw; it was a terrible sensation.

I remember I was in a pique dressing gown — I’ll see it all my life – and there was a long drive leading down to a straight path bordered with perfectly horrible zinnias. I can never see zinnias no matter what they’re like — you know they grow rusty, they’re the only thing that does; rusty at the bottom.

Well, the bell rang at the gate and the garden boy Pedro went down to open the gate, actually more a portal than a gate. He opened it and then struggled to shut it again. And I sort of wondered what had happened.

Then the door burst open again, enfolding Pedro, and up the drive, came this woman, Indian, with a kind of insolent evil; you could just feel it in the walk. She clapped her hands, which as you recall was the way to ask for entrance; she did. Then I heard the little maid downstairs calling up “Dona Ruth, Dona Ruth” quietly so as not to disturb Charlotte and me. And Dona Ruth went downstairs, then she came up in a few minutes, looking very drawn.

“That woman,” she said, “was applying for the position of cook.” And while I was talking to her, it was very strange. Herminia, who was the laundress, came from the laundry. She stood at the back window. And Teresa, the little maid, didn’t leave the door leading into the room where I was sitting, talking to this woman.

And just as she said that, we heard Pedro, the garden boy who’d opened the garden door, who never spoke, calling with great anxiety in his voice, “Dona Ruth, Dona Ruth!”

Meanwhile, I had seen this woman leave. Dona Ruth came downstairs, then came back up in a minute, and she said, “You know, this is it, it’s really very serious.”

That was Pedro asking me, “You didn’t keep her, you didn’t keep her, did you?” “No,” said Dona Ruth, “we didn’t.”

“Ahhh,” said Pedro, “she is such bad news. She comes from the island of Marajó and she is a witch. And she is sent by Ydalhia, who fears that the imprecations are going too slowly, and she was to enter our service and accelerate them.”

Dona Ruth came to me and said to me, “You know, Mrs. Kidder, you are going to have the place exorcized. Because if you don’t, everything is going to wither around you. The rest of the staff will leave, and nobody will serve you in the market, and you will just be a pariah.”

I said, “Well, Dona Ruth, I can’t do that. As you know, the authorities don’t recognize black magic. How can we go along with it?”

She said, “Well, I don’t know what to do but I suggest that you call Mrs. McCray.”

Mrs. McCray, a wonderful lady, Nora McCray, was the wife of a British official who was the director of a streetcar network… So I went downstairs — I can remember trying to remove my hand from Charlotte’s very hot little hand — and going down the stairs to the telephone, which was on the wall. I woke Norma McCray from a siesta — a thing you never did — and told her what had happened.

She said, “Yes, Dottie, this is very, very serious. You HAVE to have the place exorcized or you have to have some SEMBLANCE of exorcism. Something has to happen.”

I thought, “Nora, I don’t know what it can be, what it can be, because Randy can’t lend himself to this situation.” Nora said, “I don’t know, but think about it.” And an idea came.

Our property backed up on the property of a monastery, and the monks had very much hoped to entice Mike to be one of their pupils in a sort of daycare thing they ran. And to do so would have been in competition with what I was trying to do in the barn behind the house with Calvert system.

But they did not desist, and they would frequently invite Mike over the fence by putting a ladder on the monastery side and a ladder on our side and Mike would go up, and he’d see all the interesting things that they had over there like animals of one kind or another.

And it suddenly occurred to me, “This is our one chance — that Mike could invite them to come see our animals — we did have some chickens, a turtle tank, a few rabbits, and probably enough to interest the monks anyway from the curiosity of wanting to see how we lived.

So that was planned for a certain Sunday, late Sunday morning. And I kept all the staff in. We put up the ladder and we ceremoniously invited them over. We arranged with Mike how they would walk by the pen where the rabbits were, and the pen with the chickens, and by the turtle tank and underneath the avocado tree and right through the center of the house, then back into the barn where our “schoolhouse” was.

There they would be offered a collation. I had my heart in my mouth as I watched them go back up the ladder, over the wall, down the other side. At which moment Mike waving, we all waving, saying goodbye and the staff standing around looking pretty impressed. There was no holy water scattered, there were no prayers made; just this presence. And then we let the staff out.

And the next day we had a very nice person present herself as cook. Charlotte’s fever receded.

 “I was paralyzed because I had gone to the sacred forest without the permission of the witch doctor”

John Pielemeier, Peace Corps Cote d’Ivoire, 1966-1968

PIELEMEIER:  During the last year of my teaching experience, the story began to circulate among my students that I had gone to the “sacred forest” without the permission of the village witch doctor.

In fact, I did go out to the sacred forest with Petit Jean, an Ivorian who ran a little African restaurant. He wanted to show me some things there. He told me a story that when the French tried to build a road through the sacred forest, some little gremlins came up out of the earth and blocked the bulldozers. According to the Ivorians, the gremlins broke the plow blades of these big machines.

So, the sacred forest was still there. Probably a month or two after my visit to the sacred forest, I contracted a form of paralysis diagnosed as Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The onset occurred at the end of the school year, just before Christmas, in the middle of the night.

I had strange prickly sensations up and down my legs and instinctively felt that I immediately needed to get myself to Abidjan, six or eight hours away by road. Eventually, it became clear that this paralysis wasn’t going to go away. I lost all motor function in my legs and shoulders. I had to be medically evacuated from the Ivory Coast and never saw my students again.

I was told later on by some of my friends among the teachers that the story flourished that I was paralyzed because I had gone to the sacred forest without the permission of the witch doctor.