Occasionally, books are published in the U. S. that can best be described as “oddities” which acquire a kind of cult following. Their popularity has little to do with literary merit, even though they frequently have much to say about social and cultural matters. Essentially, they appeal to our fascination with the bizarre, morbid and extraordinary.
Some notable examples are: In Advance of the Landing by Douglas Curran (extraordinary photographs and interviews with people who believe that an alien invasion is imminent); and Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (a bizarre photographic journey which depicts the impact of the Depression on Wisconsin’s rural farm life). Oracle of the Ages is a biography of Georgia “witch and fortune-teller,” Mayhayley Lancaster, who died in 1955.
According to the author, Dot Moore, there are a significant (though dwindling) number of people who not only remember Mayhayley but are willing to talk about the tall, thin woman with one eye who lived in a Heard County shack with her sister and “told fortunes” on weekends. In fact, the visitors who came requesting a personal audience in the 1940s and early 50s often stood in lines that stretched away into the woods. Neighbors noted that Atlanta and out-of-state license plates were common.
Those who witnessed Mayhayley’s “performances” invariably commented on her physical appearance: slender, homely, dressed in an old army coat with epaulet’s and a military cap. She also customarily kept a marble in her empty eye socket and would sometimes remove it, polish it on her sleeve and pop it back into place. She also kept a menagerie of cats and dogs that slept on the porch (the dogs went to church with her).
Essentially, Mayhayley claimed to be able to find lost items: wedding rings, jewelry, money, lost cattle and missing people. Although there were occasional “misreadings,” the majority of the old woman’s prophetic statements were uncannily correct and specific. For example she instructed one visitor who had lost a valuable ring to go home, “walk to the end of the porch on the right side and look down.” She often described the physical characteristics of a thief (frequently a relative or former employee) and, on several occasions, she located stolen cattle that had been sold in another state.
Mayhayley’s closest associates also revealed that fortune-telling was not the oracle’s only source of income. She “played the numbers” and made an impressive sum by selling lottery numbers that “had a high probability of being winners.” At one time, Mayhayley taught school. At another time, she came into the possession of a set of law books and, after a period of study, began to operate as a lawyer. She also ran repeatedly for political offices, including the Georgia Senate.
Although Mayhayley continued to live in her shack for most of her life, she acquired a considerable amount of land and money. Due to her distrust of banks, she concealed her money in random places, including hen’s nests and jars buried in the garden or the surrounding woods. After being robbed repeatedly, her relatives and the local law officers forced Mayhayley to retrieve the money and put it in the local bank. Moore gives a marvelous account of how the money was collected (along with a generous amount of chicken manure and dirt), counted ($30,000) and deposited in the local bank. Most of her neighbors continued to believe that she had considerable wealth that was never found.
The incident that brought Mayhayley national prominence concerned a murder trial at which the Heard County oracle was called as a witness. Indeed, Mayhayley’s testimony contributed to the conviction and execution of John Wallace, a prominent Georgia farmer who was also a former customer of Mayhayley’s. Wallace often sought her advice regarding missing livestock. In time, the murder trial served as the basis for a book, Murder in Coweta County (1976) by Margaret Ann Barnes. The book, in turn, inspired a made-for-television movie (1980) starring Johnny Cash, June Carter (who played Mayhayley Lancaster) and Andy Griffith.
A number of noted figures found their way to Mayhayley’s porch, including Tallulah Bankhead, Ferroll Sams and Celestine Sibley. Eventually, Celestine became an ardent fan and did a series of articles on Mayhayley for the Atlanta Constitution. Many years later, Sibley stated, “She was a fortune teller, an astute businesswoman and the closest thing to a genuine old-fashioned witch that I ever saw.” In addition to collecting an impressive assortment of defenders, Mayhayley frequently volunteered information about the location of missing persons, including victims of drownings. During the notorious Mary Fagan Murder Trial in Atlanta (1913), she offered her services as “an attorney and oracle.”
When Maylayhey died in 1955, she left a number of unresolved legal issues that spawned a contested will and considerable bitterness among her relatives. Her estate was valued at $200,000, the majority of which she left to her sister, Sallie, and there was considerable talk about the Oracle’s sly comments about “deposits in other banks under fictitious names.”
Death did not silence the rumors that continued to circulate about the Oracle. One notes that her head was removed prior to burial and sold for an excessive sum ($1 million) to a medical research center that hoped to discover the source of Mayhayley’s powers. In addition, the grave has been vandalized a number of times by people seeking souvenirs or talismans of the old woman’s prophetic talents.
One of the best anecdotes in Oracle of the Ages is told by the author who recounts a day when her father came on Mayhayley trudging along on a road near her home and offered her a ride in his car. The old woman accepted and, on arriving in her front yard, turned to look at the children in the back seat.
“These two boys will grow up to be lawyers,” she said (they did). Then, pulling the little girl (Dot Moore) into her lap, she laughed and said, “And this one will grow up to write something about me.”
Oracle of the Ages by Dot Moore. NewSouth, Inc., 2007. 164 pages.