Mary Alicia Owen
(1850? – 1935)
President of the Missouri Folklore Society, 1908-35;
click for an African-American foktale collected by Owens:
Ole Rabbit an’ de Dawg he Stole
Who could better know and value the fast-disappearing lore and history of our state’s early days, as eyewitnesses had it, and passed it on in their own words?
Mary Alicia Owen was born into a remarkable St. Joseph family, and lived with her two unmarried sisters, Luella* and Juliette,** in the house their parents erected in 1859. She could speak of the legendary Pony Express straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were: “Why, everyone always knew the first rider out was Johnny Fry. My father saw him go. Johnny had a little racing mare of his own and won most of the races run along the river bank, but he didn’t ride his own horse.”
That early awareness that she was living the end of something precious and irrecoverable led her to read Algonquin Legends of New England, and with characteristic self-confidence, she began a correspondence with its author, Godfrey Leland. The interest would lead to her appearance at an 1891 London folklore conference, where she read a paper on voodooism which was so well-received that she found a publisher for her first book, Voodoo Tales (Putnam, 1893). Many of the legends she recorded in this volume came from tales she had heard as a child from the black servants. She worked as well in the popular press, writing society columns, book reviews and short stories. She published in Century Magazine and Overland Monthly under the pseudonym of Julia Scott.
Primary works include:
Voodoo tales as told among the Negroes of the southwest, collected from original sources, introduction by Charles Godfrey Leland, illustrated by Juliette Owen and Louis Wain. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 1893, ix, 310p.
A Daughter of Alovette (n.d.)
Old Rabbit, The Voodoo and Other Sorcerers. London. 1893. (Folktales in the Bre’r Rabbit vein). Illustrated
Folk-Lore of the Mesquakio Indians of North America (review: Michelson, Truman. Current Anthropological Literature, 2 (1913): 233-237) and Michelson, Truman. Miss Owen’s “Folk-Lore of the Mesquakie Indians”. American Anthropologist, n. s., 38 (1936): 143-145.
These rare volumes are exceedingly expensive.
For a discussion of Owen’s collections: “The Mary Alicia Owen collection of Mesquakie Beadwork in, Brown, Alison, Journal of Museum Ethnography #9, May 1997.
For a more complete profile of Mary Alicia Owens, see
William K. McNeil, “Mary Alicia Owen, Collector of Afro-American and Indian Lore in Missouri,” in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal, Volume 2, 1980.
*The St. Joseph, Missouri, Public Library has copies of these publications by Luella Owen:
The Bluffs of the Missouri River. Berlin: Greve, 1900. (Located in a special case in the Reference Room.)
Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills. Cincinnati: Editor Publishing, 1898.
“Evidence on Deposition of Loess.” American Geologist, May, 1905.
The Geyser Basins of Yellowstone Park. Rome: Tipografia dell’ Unione Editrice, 1915.
Later Studies on the Loess. Des Moines, Geological Pub., 1926.
The Loess at St. Joseph. 1904. (Located in a special case in the Reference Room.)
More Concerning the Lansing Skeleton. Bibliotheca Sacra, July, 1903.
**Juliette (1858-1943) was noted for her knowledge of birds and flowers, and for her delicate watercolors. She was listed in Men of Science as holding these memberships: American Society for the Advancement of Science, Ornithological Union, Washington Biological Society, New York Academy of Sciences, and Washington Academy of Sciences. She wrote the following scientific books: Ornithology and Botany in Missouri, and Songs, Habits and Protection of Birds.(111) (Jean Eberle points out, however, that no documentation or publication data of these two works have ever been located. It is unlikely that the books were ever written. See The Incredible Owen Girls [St. Louis: Boar’s Head Press, 1977], for details of the Owen sisters.)
“Miss Juliette Owen Dies,” St. Joseph News-Press, 25 Oct. 1943.