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introduction | 19th century hoodoo | 20th century hoodoo | 21st century hoodoo



by William Wells Brown, M.D. 1880


This is an extract from "My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People" by the ex-slave author William Wells Brown, M.D. (1814?-1884). It was first published in 1880, but the section extracted here is a memoir of Brown's early life as a slave in Missouri prior to about 1840, when he escaped to the North.

William Wells Brown was a prolific author; other titles he wrote include "Sketches of Places and people Abroad," "Clotelle," "The Black Man," "The Negro in the Rebellion," and "The Rising Son." The entire work is quite lengthy and can be accessed in its entirety elsewhere on the internet, as noted below. The material archived here consists of extensive comments on conjuration, tricking, and witchcraft in Missouri during the era of slavery, as practiced by a slave named Dinkie.

This is not the only book of Brown's to mention conjure: See also the extract about Uncle Frank the fortune teller from Brown's book, "Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave, Written by Himself" (1847), which also contains some genealogical and autobiographical material about Brown's early life in Missouri.

Because this 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 [in brackets].

From the Table of Contents:

[Chapter] VII.

The Goopher King--his dealings with the Devil; he is feared by Whites and Blacks. How he mastered the Overseer. Hell exhibited in the Barn.


FORTY years ago, in the Southern States, superstition held an exalted place with all classes, but more especially with the blacks and uneducated, or poor, whites. This was shown more clearly in their belief in witchcraft in general, and the devil in particular. To both of these classes, the devil was a real being, sporting a club-foot, horns, tail, and a hump on his back.

["Forty years ago" places this personal narrative in 1840, but other autobiographical information may suggest that it took place a bit earlier. The term "witchcraft" was used by both whites and blacks at that time to refer to magical practices of all types; the words "conjure," "cunjure," and "conjuration" generally referred only to African American folk magic and its practioners. The "uneducated, or poor, whites" were, at that time, and generally speaking, people of Scots-Irish descent.]

The influence of the devil was far greater than that of the Lord. If one of these votaries had stolen a pig, and the fear of the Lord came over him, he would most likely ask the Lord to forgive him, but still cling to the pig. But if the fear of the devil came upon him, in all probability he would drop the pig and take to his heels.

In those days the city of St. Louis had a large number who had implicit faith in Voudooism.

["Voudooism," as evidenced elsewhere in 19th century documents at this site, was a term used by educated and literate writers, both whites and blacks, to describe conjure or hoodoo. The intent was not to identify contemporary black folk magic with a Haitian or African religion or its pantheon, but to emphasize the perceived African or "primitive" character of its practitioners and their activities.]

I once attended one of their midnight meetings. In the pale rays of the moon the dark outlines of a

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large assemblage was visible, gathered about a small fire, conversing in different tongues. They were negroes of all ages -- women, children, and men. Finally, the noise was hushed, and the assembled group assumed an attitude of respect. They made way for their queen, and a short, black, old negress came upon the scene, followed by two assistants, one of whom bore a cauldron, and the other, a box.

["Conversing in different tongues" would seem to indicate that these slaves had been born in Africa and still spoke their various native languages.]

The cauldron was placed over the dying embers, the queen drew forth, from the folds of her gown, a magic wand, and the crowd formed a ring around her. Her first act was to throw some substance on the fire, the flames shot up with a lurid glare -- now it writhed in serpent coils, now it darted upward in forked tongues, and then it gradually transformed itself into a veil of dusky vapors. At this stage, after a certain amount of gibberish and wild gesticulation from the queen, the box was opened, and frogs, lizards, snakes, dog liver, and beef hearts drawn forth and thrown into the cauldron. Then followed more gibberish and gesticulation, when the congregation joined hands, and began the wildest dance imaginable, keeping it up until the men and women sank to the ground from mere exhaustion.

[The use of the cauldron and an "explosive substance" (probably gunpwder) would seem to indicate that this was a Congo-style ceremony. Similar handlings with respect to gunpowder and cauldrons are found in Congo-derived Cuban Palo -- but note, however, that there is no animal sacrifice and no mention of drummers in this ceremony. Also there is no mention of the purpose of the ceremony or whether the "frogs, lizards, snakes, dog liver, and beef hearts" formed an offering to a deity or whether these zoological elements were being prepared for distribution as a magical potion, ointment, or charm for the use of the congregation.]

In the ignorant days of slavery, there was a general belief that a horse-shoe hung over the door would insure good luck.

[The author seems unaware that this is a European rather than an African custom.]

I have seen negroes, otherwise comparatively intelligent, refuse to pick up a pin, needle, or other such object, dropped by a negro, because, as they alleged, if the person who dropped the articles had a spite against them, to

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touch anything they dropped would voudou them, and make them seriously ill.

[It is unusual to see the word "voudou" as a verb (to voudou them); this locution underscores my contention that the word was not intended to refer to a religion or its pantheon; it is also common, i should note, to see the word "hoodoo" used as a verb (to hoodoo them).]

Nearly every large plantation, with any considerable number of negroes, had at least one, who laid claim to be a fortune-teller, and who was regarded with more than common respect by his fellow-slaves. Dinkie, a full-blooded African, large in frame, coarse featured, and claiming to be a descendant of a king in his native land, was the oracle on the "Poplar Farm." At the time of which I write, Dinkie was about fifty years of age, and had lost an eye, and was, to say the least, a very ugly-looking man.

[It is tempting to speculate that Dinkie may have been a member of the Mandinka tribe of West Africa, one-third of whom were captured and taken into slavery in the Americas, but all we actually know is that, unlike many slaves in the United States by 1840, he was a "full-blooded African." The term "full-blooded African" does not mean that Dinkie himself had been born in Africa, merely that both his parents were Africans. If Dinkie was 50 years old in 1840, he was born in 1790.]

No one in that section was considered so deeply immersed in voudooism, goopherism, and fortune-telling, as he.

[Here, in addition to "voudouism," we see the novel term "goopherism." This refers to the use of goofer dust or African killing powder as a generic term for conjuring with powders.]

Although he had been many years in the Gaines family, no one could remember the time when Dinkie was called upon to perform manual labor. He was not sick, yet he never worked. No one interfered with him. If he felt like feeding the chickens, pigs, or cattle, he did so. Dinkie hunted, slept, was at the table at meal time, roamed through the woods, went to the city, and returned when he pleased, with no one to object, or to ask a question. Everybody treated him with respect. The whites, throughout the neighborhood, tipped their hats to the old one-eyed negro, while the policemen, or patrollers, permitted him to pass without a challenge.

[Poplar Farm was a tobacco plantation located ten miles north of Saint Louis, Missouri. Elsewhere in "My Southern Home" Brown described its proprietor, his former slave-master and owner, a physician: "Dr. Gaines, the proprietor of 'Poplar Farm,' was a good-humored, sunny-sided old gentleman, who, always feeling happy himself, wanted everybody to enjoy the same blessing. Unfortunately for him, the Doctor had been born and brought up in Virginia, raised in a family claiming to be of the 'F. F. V.'s,' {'First Families of Virginia'} but, in reality, was comparatively poor. Marrying Mrs. Sarah Scott Pepper, an accomplished widow lady of medium fortune, Dr. Gaines emigrated to Missouri, where he became a leading man in his locality." Brown also noted that Dr. Gaines, although ostensibly a devoutly religious Christian, had fathered children among his slaves, which was a source of great resentment and bitter anger to his wife.]

The negroes, everywhere, stood in mortal fear of "Uncle Dinkie." The blacks who saw him every day, were always thrown upon their good behavior, when in his presence. I once asked

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a negro why they appeared to be afraid of Dinkie. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, smiled, shook his head and said,--

"I ain't afraid of de debble, but I ain't ready to go to him jess yet." He then took a look around and behind, as if he feared some one would hear what he was saying, and then continued: "Dinkie's got de power, ser; he knows things seen and unseen, an' dat's what makes him his own massa."

It was literally true, this man was his own master. He wore a snake's skin around his neck, carried a petrified frog in one pocket, and a dried lizard in the other.

A slave speculator once came along and offered to purchase Dinkie. Dr. Gaines, no doubt, thought it a good opportunity to get the elephant off his hands, and accepted the money. A day later, the trader returned the old negro, with a threat of a suit at law for damages.

A new overseer was employed, by Dr. Gaines, to take charge of "Poplar Farm." His name was Grove Cook, and he was widely known as a man of ability in managing plantations, and in raising a large quantity of produce from a given number of hands. Cook was called a "hard overseer." The negroes dreaded his coming, and, for weeks before his arrival, the overseer's name was on every slave's tongue.

Cook came, he called the negroes up, men and women; counted them, looked them over as a purchaser would a drove of cattle that he intended to buy. As he was about to dismiss them he saw

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Dinkie come out of his cabin. The sharp eye of the overseer was at once on him.

"Who is that nigger?" inquired Cook.

"That is Dinkie," replied Dr. Gaines.

"What is his place?" continued the overseer.

"Oh, Dinkie is a gentleman at large!" was the response.

"Have you any objection to his working?"

"None, whatever."

"Well, sir," said Cook, "I'll put him to work to-morrow morning."

Dinkie was called up and counted in.

At the roll call, the following morning, all answered except the conjurer; he was not there.

The overseer inquired for Dinkie, and was informed that he was still asleep.

"I will bring him out of his bed in a hurry," said Cook, as he started towards the negro's cabin. Dinkie appeared at his door, just as the overseer was approaching.

"Follow me to the barn," said the impatient driver to the negro. "I make it a point always to whip a nigger, the first day that I take charge of a farm, so as to let the hands know who I am. And, now, Mr. Dinkie, they tell me that you have not had your back tanned for many years; and, that being the case, I shall give you a flogging that you will never forget. Follow me to the barn." Cook started for the barn, but turned and went into his house to get his whip.

At this juncture, Dinkie gave a knowing look to

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the other slaves, who were standing by, and said, "Ef he lays the weight ob his finger on me, you'll see de top of dat barn come off."

The reappearance of the overseer, with the large negro whip in one hand, and a club in the other, with the significant demand of "follow me," caused a deep feeling in the breast of every negro present.

Dr. Gaines, expecting a difficulty between his new driver and the conjurer, had arisen early, and was standing at his bedroom window looking on.

The news that Dinkie was to be whipped spread far and near over the place, and had called forth men, women, and children. Even Uncle Ned, the old negro of ninety years, had crawled out of his straw, and was at his cabin door. As the barn doors closed behind the overseer and Dinkie, a death-like silence pervaded the entire group, who, instead of going to their labor, as ordered by the driver, were standing as if paralyzed, gazing intently at the barn, expecting every moment to see the roof lifted.

Not a word was spoken by anyone, except Uncle Ned, who smiled, shook his head, put on a knowing countenance, and said, "My word fer it, de oberseer ain't agwine to whip Dinkie."

Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed, and the usual sound of "Oh, pray, massa! Oh, pray, massa!" heard on the occasion of a slave being punished, had not yet proceeded from the barn.

Many of the older negroes gathered around Uncle Ned, for he and Dinkie occupied the same cabin,

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and the old, superannuated slave knew more about the affairs of the conjurer than anyone else. Ned told of how, on the previous night, Dinkie had slept but little, had closely inspected the snake's skin around his neck, the petrified frog and dried lizard, in his pockets, and had rubbed himself all over with goopher; and when he had finished, he knelt, and exclaimed,--

"Now, good and lovely devil, for more than twenty years, I have served you faithfully. Before I got into your service, de white folks bought an' sold me an' my old wife an' chillen, an' whip me, and half starve me. Dey did treat me mighty bad, dat you knows. Den I use to pray to de Lord, but dat did no good, kase de white folks don't fear de Lord. But dey fears you, an' ever since I got into your service, I is able to do as I please. No white dares to lay his hand on me; and dis is all owing to de power dat you give me. Oh, good and lovely devil! please to continer dat power. A new oberseer is to come here to-morrow, an' he wants to get me in his hands. But, dear devil, I axe you to stand by me in dis my trial hour, an' I will neber desert you as long as I live. Continer dis power; make me strong in your cause, make me to be more faithful to you, an' let me still be able to conquer my enemies, an' I will give 'you all de glory, and will try to deserve a seat at your right hand."

[It would appear from this speech that Dinkie had sold his soul to the devil, possibly at a crossroads.]

With bated breath, everyone listened to Uncle Ned. All had the utmost confidence in Dinkie's "power." None believed that he would be punished,

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while a large number expected to see the roof of the barn burst off at any moment. At last the suspence was broken. The barn door flew open; the overseer and the conjurer came out together, walking side by side, and separated when half-way up the walk. As they parted, Cook went to the field, and Dinkie to his cabin.

The slaves all shook their heads significantly. The fact that the old negro had received no punishment, was evidence of his victory over the slave driver. But how the feat had been accomplished, was a mystery. No one dared to ask Dinkie, for he was always silent, except when he had something to communicate. Everyone was afraid to inquire of the overseer.

There was, however, one faint chance of getting an inkling of what had occurred in the barn, and that was through Uncle Ned. This fact made the old, superannuated slave the hero and centre of attraction, for several days. Many were the applications made to Ned for information, but the old man did not know, or wished to exaggerate the importance of what he had learned.

"I tell you," said Dolly, "Dinkie is a power."

"He's nobody's fool," responded Hannah.

"I would not make him mad wid me, fer dis whole world," ejaculated Jim.

Just then, Nancy, the cook, came in brim full of news. She had given Uncle Ned some "cracklin bread," which had pleased the old man so much that he had opened his bosom, and told her all that he got from Dinkie. This piece of information flew

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quickly from cabin to cabin, and brought the slaves hastily into the kitchen.

It was night. Nancy sat down, looked around, and told Billy to shut the door. This heightened the interest, so that the fall of a pin could have been heard. All eyes were upon Nancy, and she felt keenly the importance of her position. Her voice was generally loud, with a sharp ring, which could be heard for a long distance, especially in the stillness of the night. But now, Nancy spoke in a whisper, occasionally putting her finger to her mouth, indicating a desire for silence, even when the breathing of those present could be distinctly heard.

"When dey got in de barn, de oberseer said to Dinkie, 'Strip yourself; I don't want to tear your clothes with my whip. I'm going to tear your black skin.'

"Den, you see, Dinkie tole de oberseer to look in de east corner ob de barn. He looked, an' he saw hell, wid all torments, an' de de debble, 'wid his cloven foot, a-struttin' about dar, jes as ef he was cock ob de walk. An' Dinkie tole Cook, dat ef he lay his his finger on him, he'd call de debble up to take him away."

"An' what did Cook say to dat?" asked Jim.

"Let me 'lone; I didn't tell you all," said Nancy. "Den you see de oberseer turn pale in de face, an' he say to Dinkie, 'Let me go dis time, an' I'll nebber trouble you any more.' "

This concluded Nancy's story, as related to her by old Ned, and religiously believed by all present.

Page 77

Whatever caused the overseer to change his mind regard to the flogging of Dinkie, it was certain that he was most thoroughly satisfied to let the old negro off without the threatened punishment and, although he remained at "Poplar Farm," as overseer, for five years, he never interfered with the conjurer again.

It is not strange that ignorant people should believe in characters of Dinkie's stamp; but it is really marvellous that well-educated men and women should give any countenance whatever, to such delusions as were practised by the oracle of "Poplar Farm."

The following illustration may be taken as a fair sample of the easy manner in which Dinkie carried on his trade.

[By using the term "easy manner," Brown was pointing out that Dinkie was at his ease, not subservient to his wealthy white female reading client, as might have been expected during the era of slavery; Brown may also be indicating how easy it was for Dinkie to charge money for his services and to thus earn a private income independent of his legal status as a chattel slave.]

Miss Martha Lemmy, being on a visit to Mrs. Gaines, took occasion during the day to call upon Dinkie. The conjurer knew the antecedents of his visitor, and was ready to give complete satisfaction in his particular line. When the young lady entered the old man's cabin, he met her, bade her be welcome, and tell what she had come for. She took a seat on one stool, and he on another. Taking the lady's right hand in his, Dinkie spit into its palm, rubbed it, looked at it, shut his one eye, opened it, and said: "I sees a young gentman, an' he's rich, an' owns plenty of land an' a heap o' niggers; an', lo! Miss Marfa, he loves you."

The lady drew a long breath of seeming satisfaction, and asked, "Are you sure that he loves me, Uncle Dinkie?"

"Oh! Miss Marfa, I knows it like a book."

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"Have you ever seen the gentleman?" the lady inquired.

The conjurer began rubbing the palm of the snow-white hand, talked to himself in an undertone, smiled, then laughed out, and saying: "Why, Miss Marfa, as I lives it's Mr. Scott, an' he's thinkin' 'bout you now; yes, he's got his mind on you dis bressed minute. But how he's changed sense I seed him de lass time. Now he's got side whiskers an' a mustacher on his chin. But, let me see. Here is somethin' strange. De web looks a little smoky, an' when I gets to dat spot, I can't get along till a little silver is given to me."

Here the lady drew forth her purse and gave the old man a half dollar piece that made his one eye fairly twinkle.

He resumed: "Ah! now de fog is cleared away, an' I see dat Mr. Scott is settin in a rockin-cheer, wid boff feet on de table, an' smokin' a segar."

"Do you think Mr. Scott loves me?" inquired the lady.

"O! yes," responded Dinkie; "he jess sets his whole heart on you. Indeed, Miss Marfa, he's almos' dyin' 'bout you."

"He never told me that he loved me," remarked the lady.

"But den, you see, he's backward, he ain't got his eye-teef cut yet in love matters. But he'll git a little bolder ebbry time he sees you," replied the negro.

"Do you think he'll ever ask me to marry him?"

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"O! yes, Miss Marfa, he's sure to do dat. As he sets dar in his rockin-cheer, he looks mighty solem-colly - -looks like he wanted to ax you to haf him now."

"Do you think that Mr. Scott likes any other lady, Uncle Dinkie?" asked Miss Lemmy.

"Well, Miss Marfa, I'll jess consult de web an' see." And here the conjurer shut his one eye, opened it, shut it again, talked to himself in an undertone, opened his eye, looked into the lady's hand, and exclaimed: "Ah! Miss Marfa, I see a lady in de way, an' she's got riches; but de web is smoky, an' it needs a little silver to clear it up."

With tears in her eyes, and almost breathless, Miss Lemmv hastily took from her pocket her purse, and handed the old man another piece of money, saying: "Please go on."

Dinkie smiled, shook his head, got up and shut his cabin door, sat down, and again took the lady's hand in his.

"Yes, I, see," said he, "I see it's a lady; but bless you soul, Miss Marfa, it's a likeness of you dat Mr. Scott is lookin' at; dat's all."

This morsel of news gave great relief, and Miss Lemmy dried her eyes with joy.

Dinkie then took down the old rusty horseshoe from over his cabin door, held it up, and said: "Dis horseshoe neffer lies." Here he took out of his pocket a bag made of the skin of the rattlesnake, and took from it some goopher, sprinkled it over the horseshoe, saying: "Dis is de stuff, Miss Marfa, dat's

Page 80

gwine to make you Mr. Scott's conqueror. Long as you keeps dis goopher 'bout you he can't get away from you; he'll ax you fer a kiss, de berry next time he meets you, an' he can't help hisself fum

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doin' it. No woman can get him fum you so long as you keep dis goopher 'bout you."

[The fact that Dinkie "sprinkled" his goopher from a snake-skin bag indicates that it was a powder, and again demonstrates that, to Brown, "goopherism" was a generic term for conjuring with powders. Also note that, because rattlesnakes are not found anywhere in Africa, but have always been much revered in Native American religion and magic, Brown is showing us that Dinkie had adopted a custom or manner of working from his Native American colleagues. Thus, in Dinkie's keeping his African goopher powder in a Native American style rattlesnake skin bag and sprinkling it onto a lucky European-style horseshoe to allow his white client to "conquer" her lover, we see an early and clearly demonstrable example of a "full-blooded African" root doctor in America incorprating Native American and European magic into the practice of conjure.]

Here Dinkie lighted a tallow candle, looked at it, smiled, shook his head, -- "You's gwine to marry Mr. Scott in 'bout one year, an' you's gwine to haf thirteen children -- sebben boys an' six gals, an' you's gwine to haf a heap of riches."

Just then, Dinkie's interesting revelations were cut short by Ike and Cato bringing along Peter, who, it was said, had been killed by the old bell sheep.

It appears that Peter had a way of playing with the old ram, who was always ready to butt at any one who got in his way. When seeing the ram coming, Peter would get down on his hands and knees and pretend that he was going to have a butting match with the sheep. And when the latter would come full tilt at him, Peter would dodge his head so as to miss the ram, and the latter would jump over the boy, turn around angrily, shake his head and start for another butt at Peter.

This kind of play was repeated sometimes for an hour or more, to the great amusement of both whites and blacks. But, on this occasion, Peter was completely caught. As he was on his hands and knees, the ram started on his usual run for the boy; the latter, in dodging his head, run his face against a stout stub of dry rye stalk, which caused him to quickly jerk up his head, just in time for the sheep to give him a fair butt squarely in the forehead, which knocked Peter senseless. The ram,

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elated with his victory, began to back himself for another lick at Peter, when the men, seeing what had happened to the poor boy, took him up and brought him to Dinkie's cabin to be resuscitated, or "brought to," as they termed it.

Nearly an hour passed in rubbing the boy, before he began to show signs of consciousness. He "come to," but he never again accepted a butting match with the ram.

[The incident of Peter and the ram shows that Dinkie was also a physical or medical doctor and healer as well as a fortune teller and conjurer.]

This material is reprinted from

My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People
Wm. Wells Brown, M. D.
A. G. Brown & Co., publishers

Text scanned (OCR) by Ellen Decker and Melissa Graham
Images scanned by Ellen Decker, Melissa Graham and Natalia Smith
Text encoded by Lee Ann Morawski and Natalia Smith
First edition, 2000
ca. 400K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

(c) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use
as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Source Description:
(title page) My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People
(spine) My Southern Home
Wm. Wells Brown, M. D.
viii, 1-253, 2, ill.
A. G. Brown & Co., publishers

Copyright, 1880,

Call number E185 .B88 (Rare Book Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

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Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers: psychic reading, conjure, and hoodoo root doctor services
Candles and Curios: essays and articles on traditional African American conjure and folk magic, plus shopping
Crystal Silence League: a non-denominational site; post your prayers; pray for others; let others pray for you
Gospel of Satan: the story of Jesus and the angels, from the perspective of the God of this World
Hoodoo Psychics: connect online or call 1-888-4-HOODOO for instant readings now from a member of AIRR
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church: spirit-led, inter-faith; prayer-light services; Smallest Church in the World
Mystic Tea Room: tea leaf reading, teacup divination, and a museum of antique fortune telling cups
Satan Service: an archive presenting the theory, practice, and history of Satanism and Satanists
Southern Spirits: 19th and 20th century accounts of hoodoo, including ex-slave narratives & interviews
Spiritual Spells: lessons in folk magic and spell casting from an eclectic Wiccan perspective, plus shopping
Yronwode Home: personal pages of catherine yronwode and nagasiva yronwode, magical archivists
Yronwode Institution: the Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology