AFRICAN FETICH WORSHIP
AMONG THE MEMPHIS NEGROES
from "The Memphis Appeal" [newspaper] (circa 1865-1867)
This is an extract from "Seership!" by the great 19th century African American
magician and Rosicrucian,
Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825 - 1875).
Born in New York State (of parents from Virginia), Randolph
travelled the world widely as a Free Man of Color. He was a
world-renowned Spiritualist and Clairvoyant Reader, and
wrote extensively on Sex-Magic and the art of Mirror
Scrying. He also worked for Abolition before the Civil War
and helped to raise money for the Black Militias of
Louisiana during the conflict. Immediately after the war, he taught literacy
courses to newly freed slaves in New Orleans under the
auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau. When funding cuts brought an
end to the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867, he returned to his former
career as a Spiritualist author. "Seership!" was published in 1870.
The material quoted here begins and ends with Randolph's comments.
The text within quote-marks (the bulk of this page) was written
by an anonymous newspaper journalist in Memphis, Tennessee,
shortly after the end of the Civil War, a man who was apparently
both European-American and resentful of African-American freedom.
References within the text allow us to date the original publication
to a period between March 1865 and early 1867. Because this unknown author
used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly
found in the literature of hoodoo, a few explanatory notes have been added
(AFTER RANDOLPH EXPLAINS WHAT HE MEANS BY
HOODO OR VOUDOO):
In corroboration of what I have written, I beg leave to introduce, without comment,
the following article concerning "Voudooism --
African Fetich Worship Among the Memphis Negroes," from the Memphis Appeal: -
WARNING: The material on this page was written by a
European-American who was describing African-American
spirituality as an outsider. This author was racist or
race-derogatory and the conclusions he or she drew while
writing this eye-witness account are grossly offensive.
However, the text is included in full because it
accurately describes practices and customs of the
African-American South during the 19th century (albeit not
always with complete understanding) -- and it also serves as
a political reminder of how far we have some in our struggle
for race equality and respect in the ensuing years. Read
with caution and compassion.
"The word Hoodoo, or Voudoo, is one of the names used in the
different African dialects for the practice of the mysteries
of the Obi (an African word signifying a species of sorcery
and witchcraft common among the worshippers of the fetich).
In the West Indies the word 'Obi' is universally used to
designate the priests or practices of this art, who are
called 'Obi' men and 'Obi' women.
[The word Obi is more commonly spelled Obeah today.
It is the Jamaican equivalent of
hoodoo, rootwork, and conjure.]
"In the southern portion of
the United States -- Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South
Carolina and Georgia -- where the same rites are extensively
practiced among the negroes, and where, under the humanizing
and Christianzing influence of the blessed state of freedom
and idleness in which they now exist and are encouraged by
the Freedmen's Bureau, the religion is rapidly spreading. It
goes under the name of Voudooism or Hoodooism.
[The Freedmen's Bureau -- a federal governmental
agency formally known as the Bureau of Refugees,
Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands -- was created in March 1865.
As mentioned above, Paschal Beverly Randolph was employed
by the Bureau to teach literacy in New Orleans.
The Freedmen's Bureau schools were absorbed into local segregated public school
systems in September 1866 and the Bureau itself was abolished in 1867.
The "Memphis Appeal" reporter's mention of the Freedmen's Bureau helps us date
the otherwise uncited newspaper story that Randolph is quoting.
Interestingly, Randolph declined to mention his own
previous employment by the Freedmen's Bureau when he reprinted the
"Memphis Appeal" article in his 1870 book. This was typical of his
ambiguity as a bi-racial person who occasionally attempted to "pass" as "Spanish"
when dealing with Caucasian Hermetic magicians of his day, but took
his place as an African-American when working in the South.]
"The practicers of the art, who are always native Africans,
are called hoodoo men or women, and are held in great dread
by the negroes, who apply to them for the cure of diseases,
to obtain revenge for injuries, and to discover and punish
their enemies. The mode of operations is to prepare a
fetich, which being placed near or in the dwelling of the
person to be worked upon (under the doorstep, or in any snug
portion of the furniture) is supposed to produced the most
dire and terrible effects upon the victim, both physically
[The word fetich -- more commonly spelled fetish -- is of Portuguese
origin and signifies an idol or magical object of worship, particularly a small one.
It is also often used in English to refer to any spell that is worked within a bag or packet,
such as a mojo hand,
toby, conjure bag, jack ball,
nation sack or
"Among the materials used for the fetich are
feathers of various colors, blood, dog's and cat's teeth,
clay from graves, egg-shells, beads, and broken bits of
glass. The clay is made into a ball with hair and rags,
bound with twine, with feathers, human, alligators' or dogs'
teeth, so arranged as to make the whole bear a resemblance
to an animal of some sort.
[The term "clay from graves" refers to the use of
"The person to be hoodooed is generally made aware that the
hoodoo is 'set' for him, and the terror created in his mind
by this knowledge is generally sufficient to cause him to
fall sick, and it is a curious fact, almost always to die in
a species of decline. The intimate knowledge of the hoodoos
of the insidious vegetable poisons that abound in the swamps
of the South, enables them to use these with great effect in
"With the above as introductory, our readers will better
understand the following, which we vouch for as strictly
true in every particular. Names and exact locality (although
we will say that it occurred within a few miles of this
city) are withheld at the request of the lady, whom we will
call Mrs. A. :--
"Some months since the only child, a little daughter of Mrs.
A., who had been left a widow by the war, was taken ill with
what was then thought a slow malarious fever. The family
physician was called in and prescribed for her, but in spite
of his attentions she grew gradually worse, and seemed to be
slowly but surely sinking and wasting away. Everything that
medical skill could think of was done, but in vain.
"One evening, while Mrs. A. was watching by the bedside of
the little sufferer, an old negro woman, who had been many
years in the family, expressed her belief that the child had
been 'hoodooed.' Mrs. A. was a creole of Louisiana, and,
having been from her earliest infancy among the megroes, was
familiar with, and had imbibed not a few of their peculiar
superstitions. In despair of deriving any benefit from the
doctors, and completely baffled and worn out with the
peculiar lingering nature of her child's illness, the
suggestion of the woman made a great impression on her mind.
[The term "a creole of Louisiana" indicates that Mrs. A. was
of mixed French and African descent, possibly also with an
admixture of Native American and English. Given the time
period, the term "an old negro woman, who had been many
years in the family" may mean that the woman in
question had formerly been a slave. Some wealthy Creoles, even
though partially of African ethnicity themselves, were known
to keep slaves.]
"In the neighborhood were two negroes who bore the
reputation of being hoodoo men. They were both Congoes, and
were a portion of the cargo of slaves that had run into
Mobile Bay in 1860 or 1861.
[The notation that the two Hoodoo Men in Memphis were
"Congoes" -- that is, from the Kingdom of the Congo in
Central Africa -- is important, for although many scholars
of the 20th century considered hoodoo to be a remnant or
survival from West African religions such as Ocha (Santeria)
or Voodoo (Voudun), it is quite apparent that both Jamaican
obeah and United States hoodoo are primarily derived from
Kongo practices and are more closely allied with other
Congolese religions in the diaspora, such as Cuban Palo
than they are with West African (Nigerian or Beninois) religions.]
"As usual with their more
civilized professional brethren, these two hoodoos were
deadly enemies, and worked against each other in every
possible way. Each had his own particular crowd of
adherents, who believed him to be able to make the more
[The term "grigats" is an unusual spelling of the Congo word
"gree-gree" or "gri-gri," meaning a
spell-packet, mojo hand,
conjure bag, toby,
nation sack, or
jomo. In America this word also
appears, with its spelling borrowed from the French
transliteration of the Kikongo, as "gris-gris," which is
pronounced with a silent final "s" -- gree-gree -- but looks
like the French words for "grey-grey."]
"One of these hoodoos lived on or near Mrs. A.'s place, and,
although she was ashamed of the superstition which led her
to do so, she sent for him immediately to come over to see
her child. The messenger returned, and said that Finney
(that was the sorcerer's name) would come, but that Mrs. A.
must first send him a chicken cock, three conch shells, and
a piece of money with a hole in it.
"She complied with his demands, and he shortly afterward
appeared with the cock under his arm, fancifully decorated
with strips of yellow, red, and blue flannel, and the three
conches trigged up pretty much in the same manner. Placing
the conches on the floor in the shape of a triangle, he laid
the cock down in the centre of it on its side. He then drew
his hand across it in the same direction three or four
times. On leaving it the cock lay quiet and did not attempt
to move, although it was loose and apparently could have
done so had it wished.
["Trigged up" (sometimes written "tricked up") is an old
term for "stylishly decorated."]
"After these preliminaries, he examined the child from head
to foot, and, after doing so, brokeout into a loud laugh,
muttering words to himself in an African dialect. Turning to
Mrs. A., who was all anxiety, he told her that the child was
hoodooed, that he had found the marks of the hoodoo, and
that it was being done by his rival (who lived some miles
off, although considered in the same neighborhood), and that
he (Finney) intended to show him that he could not come into
his district hoodooing without his permission.
"He then called the servants and every one about the place
up, and ordered them to appear one by one before him. So
great was the respect and terror with which they regarded
him, that, although many of them obviously did so with
reluctance, not one failed to obey the summons. He regarded
each one closely and minutely, and asked if he or she had
seen either a strange rooster, dog, or cat around the house
in the past few days; to which questions they made various
answers. The chambermaid, who attended on the room in which
the child lay, was one of those who were particularly
reluctant to appear before him or to answer his questions.
He remarked this, and grinning so as to show his sharply
filed teeth nearly from ear to ear, he said, 'Ha, gal,
better me find you out than the buckra!'
"This was late at night, and, after making his
'reconnoisance,' he picked up his conches and the cock, and
prepared to go, telling Mrs. A. to move the little sufferer
into another room and bed. Promising that he would be back
early in the morning, he left the house. At an early hour
next morning he returned with a large bundle of herbs,
which, with peculiar incantations, he made into a bath, into
which he placed the child, and from that hour it began to
[The use of spiritual
cleansing baths remains an important hoodoo practice to this day.]
"He, however, did not stop here. He determined to find out
the hoodoo, and how it had been used; so, after asking
permission, he ripped open the pillows, and the bed in which
the child had lain, and therein he found and brought forth a
lot of fetiches made of feathers bound together in the most
fantastic forms, which he gave to Mrs. A., telling her to
burn them in the fire, and to watch the chambermaid
carefully, saying that as they had burned and shrivelled up,
so she would shrivel up. The girl, who had displayed from
the first the most intense uneasiness, was listening at the
keyhole of an adjoining room, and heard these injunction.
With a scream she rushed into the room, and, dropping on her
knees at Mrs. A.'s feet, implored her not to burn the
fetiches, promising, if she would not, to make a clean
confession of her guilt.
[Burning malevolent spell-packets in a fire is probably the most common way to
dispose of tricks and ritual
remains in the hoodoo tradition.]
"Mrs. A., by this time deeply impressed with the strangeness
and mystery of the affair, was prevailed upon by the
entreaties of the girl, and kept the 'fetiches' intact, and
the chambermaid confessed that she had been prevailed upon
by the other 'hoodoo man' to place these fetiches in the bed
of the child. She protested she did not know for what
reason, and that afterward she wished to take them out, but
did not dare to do so for fear of him.
"As soon as the family physician came in, Mrs. A.,
completely bewildered, told him the whole affair, showing
him the fetiches, and making the girl repeat her story to
him. He, being a practical man, and having withal
considerable knowledge of chemistry, took the bunches of
feathers home with him, and on making a chemical examination
of them, found them imbued with a very deadly poison.
"Meanwhile, he told the affair to two or three neighbors,
and getting out a warrant for the arrest of the malignant
hoodoo man, they went to the hut to arrest him. The bird had
flown, however, and could nowhere be found. Some of the
negroes had, no doubt, carried word to him, and he had
thought it best to clear out from that neighborhood. The
little patient, relieved from inhaling the poison in her
pillow and bed, soon got well, and Mrs. A. has now in her
possession the fetiches which came so near making her a
"It may not be generally known to the public, but it is
nevertheless a fact, that these barbarous African
superstitions and practices prevail, and are increasing
among the 'freedmen' not only of Memphis and Tennessee, but
of all the southern States. It is the clearest proof of the
inevitable tendency of the negro to relapse into barbarism
when left to control himself."
So much for Voudooism. I believe this story to be true, for
I have myself been a victim to the thing, but the doctor who
analyzed the stuff, and found "poison," is both a cheat and
a sham to hide his utter ignorance. There was no poison
about it. The whole thing is purely magnetic, as I can
demonstrate at will, for I know this thing from end to end.
But I have already exceeded the limits assigned to this part of my subject ...
[And here Randolph returns to the subject of magic
mirrors. I tend to agree with him, by the way, that the
doctor who said the feather-dolls were "poisoned" was not
being honest, else how could Mrs. A. have kept them in her
home as souvenirs?]
This material is reprinted from
The Magnetic Mirror
A Practical Guide to Those Who Aspire
Original and Selected from Various European and Asiatic Adepts
Paschal Beverly Randolph.
Randolph Publishing Co.
Long after Randolph's death, a reprint of this book,
combined with a portion of another book by Randolph ("Eulis!")
was edited and published by R. Swinburne Clymer under the revised title:
Guide to Soul Sight
A Practical Guide for Those Who Aspire
to Develop the Vision of the Soul
The Magic Mirror and How to Use It
Paschal Beverly Randolph, M. D.
The Confederation of Initiates
Beverly Hall, Quakertown, Pa.
The latter edition is the one most commonly found;
the text above appears pages 23-28 of the 1930 reprint.