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From the Southern Workman and Hampton School Record

Vol. 27 December 1898

The "Southern Workman" and "Hampton School Record" were two periodicals established after Emancipation for a readership of literate African-American students at the Hampton Normal School. For further history of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, see Conjure Doctoring and the Walking Boy where an introductory note on the school helps to place this article in historical perspective. Explanatory material appears [in brackets].

Folk-Lore and Ethnology
        in the Southern United States
        by Daniel Webster Davis


[Rev. Daniel Webster Davis (1862 - 1913) was born in slavery and emancipated while still a toddler. His parens were Randall (or John) Davis and Charlotte Ann Christian Davis, who resided in Caroline County or Hanover County, Virginia. His father died when he was young, and he moved with his mother to Richmond, Virginia. He attended public schools, and at the young age of 15, he graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School, which trained and certified school teachers. He taught at the Navy Hill School in Richmond from 1879 - 1880, and by 1884 he was on the staff of the Baker School, where he taught for the next 29 years, until his death. During the summers, when school was out, he taught at summer normal schools where teachers received continuing education. He was among the founders of the Virginia Teachers' Reading Circle, which gave rise to the Virginia State Teachers Association and ultimately the Virginia Teachers Association.

[In 1891 Davis become the editor of The Young Men's Friend, local periodical published by the separate-but-equal African-American organization of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and he served the YMCA in several office trough the next decades. He also served as the founding vice president of the Virginia Industrial, Mercantile, and Building and Loan Association. He also became a Freemason, in the then-segregated Prince Hall lodge system.

[In 1893 he married Elizabeth Eloise Smith, who was also a teacher in Richmond. They had six children, of whom three lived into adulthood. In 1894 he edited a weekly magazine called "Social Drifts," and in 1895 he published his first book of verse, "Idle Moments," which contained 37 poems. In 1896 he was ordained as a minister and became the pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Manchester, Virginia, a hamlet that was later incorporated into Richmond. In 1897, he compiled 21 of his favourite pieces from Idle Moments and added 21 new poems, which he published under the phonetic dialect title "Weh Down Souf and Other Poems."

[The next year he wrote a short memoir of the Virginia conjure doctors of his youth, which was published as part of the "Folk-Lore and Ethnology" series in "The Southern Workman and Hampton School Record" in December 1898. And this is where it begins.]

In the South, among the Negroes on the plantation, in the dark days "befo' de wah", next to an abiding faith in the reality of "hants," and an unshaken confidence in the infallibility of signs and dreams, came the most unbounded reliance in the power of the conjure doctor to exercise evil spells, and cure various diseases.

[Davis chose to spell African American English as if he were transliterating a foreign tongue. Thus "befo' de wah" means "before the war" (that is, the Civil War, which he does not specifically connect to Emancipation) and "hants" stands for "haints" or "haunts," a regional term for ghosts.]

This impecunious individual wielded an almost unlimited influence over the happiness of that part of the human family represented by the colored population, and, as a rule, was much more feared than loved by all the Negroes for miles around.

His stock in trade consisted of an exceedingly superficial knowledge of the medicinal properties of a few of the most common roots and herbs, a general idea of human nature, especially of its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, and an unlimited amount of assurance.

An essential, though not an absolutely indispensable, adjunct to success in his chosen vocation was a pair of red eyes; these peculiar optics, in the imagination of his numerous friends, being supposed to give to their happy possessor a strange and inexplicable knowledge of the occult. So important were these eyes in the successful prosecution of this vocation, that these "birds of prey" have been known to apply themselves assiduously and continuously to the bottle, that they might acquire this much to be desired "redness of eyes," the unfailing gift of nature to those who "tarry long at the wine."

His apparel usually consisted of a long and greasy frockcoat, much the worse for wear, a pair of pantaloons ornamented with patches and dark colored by age, and a vest with only two lower buttons fastened. The head was surmounted by a tall stove-pipe hat, that had "seen better days," and the whole covered by a long linen duster, having nearly the same hue as the rusty-black clothing.

His shoes were invariably run down at the heels, presumably from much walking in crooked and forbidden paths; foot power being his usual mode of locomotion, since the more modern method of migration by means of horse power was not then in vogue, save by a few of the wealthier regular practitioners.

His single room served the somewhat multitudinous purpose of bedroom, kitchen, dining room, library, parlor, "office," and "consulting room." It was always kept in semi-darkness, the better to impress visitors with his mysteriousness, as well as to save the necessity of too much cleaning.

[Considering that most black people, even free persons of color, were "impecunious" during the era of slavery, the focus Davis places upon money above is a disingenuous attempt to set the scene for the root doctor's greed and the high price he charged for his services.]"

The writer many years ago, had occasion to pay a visit to the "office" of one of these "voodoo" doctors, and the picture of its peculiar appearance is indelibly fixed upon his memory. It was situated in one of the most abandoned parts of the city; over the door was a sign, bearing in uncertain hieroglyphics the inscription, "j.t. sheltun, h.p."; the h.p. supposed to stand for homeopath.

[It was a commonplace during the late 19th century for educated black authors to refer to hoodoo as "voodoo," largely in imitation of European-American scholars who had ignorantly confused the Haitian religion of Voodoo with black American folk magic. It was not intil the first third of the 20th century, when the black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston declared that the prper term was "hoodoo," that black academia recognized its error and reclaimed the word hoodoo. To this day, some black writers in academia still insist that hoodoo is "voodoo," but the overwhelming evidence from contemporary documents has made that position untenable.

[The sign reading "j.t. sheltun, h.p." is just another of Davis's derogatory digs at the presumed illiteracy of black practitioners of traditional folk medicine and curing. The doctor's name would have been J. T. Shelton, of course, and although H.P. may have been an illiterate fumble for "Homeopath" or "Homeopathist," it is just as likely that it meant then what it means now: Homeopathic Pharmacist.

[After having said he would describe the Virginia Conjure Doctors "before the war," we now must face that fact that although Davis was born as an enslaved person, he was free by the age of 3, when the war ended, and he was 36 years old when he wrote this article. Thus, his "many years ago" can be estimated to actually have taken place between 1877, when he was 15, and 1887, when he was 25. Davis did not marry until 1893, so in what follows, the fact that he says that the doctor "received us" may mean that he accompanied his mother, or a school or college friend.]

The loquacious "doctor" received us in the most flattering manner and invited us in with his most engaging smile, scenting in us, as he vainly imagined, the possibility of a fat fee. On letting our wants be known, which was simply to inquire as to the whereabouts of an acquaintance of the "doctor," the bland smile and engaging manner disappeared, but by dint of judicious remarks and manifesting a deep interest in the curiosities exhibited around the "office," we soon succeed in engaging him in what was to us an exceedingly interesting conversation and from which we learned many things concerning the operation of the conjure doctor.

Around the "office" were numerous bottles containing articles that appeared to have been taken from various individuals, dried weeds and herbs, and peculiar "charms," the possession of which, he assured us, would keep the happy possessor from all "spells" and "tricks" of other conjure "doctors."

His method of procedure we found to be about as follows: An individual, usually a woman, is afflicted with some slight disorder; perhaps a rheumatic pain, or maybe a touch of gout, brought on by high living, by faring sumptuously from the "white folks'" table.

[There is an implication that by faring sumptuously from the white folks' table, the female servant or cook has "gotten above herself" or is "getting above her station" as the saying used to go. This "high living" is punished by gout, a disease that used to be attributed to over-indulgence in fine foods.]

The application of the ordinary remedies fails to give as speedy relief as the impatient sufferer desires. Her numerous friends from adjoining plantations, or immediate neighborhood, as the case may be, gather around her to offer sympathy and advice. Among these friends there is usually one who has had recourse to a conjure doctor at various times, to cure some fancied ailment, tell a fortune, or supply her with a "hand" to prevent misfortune.

[A "hand" is a mojo or trick bag.]

After many consultations and mysterious shakings of the head, these friends come to the almost unanimous decision that the afflicted one has been suffering from some malady that will not yield to ordinary medicine, or, as they put it, she has been "tricked."

These friends are, perhaps, doubtful of the amount of "faith" possessed by the patient, and, at first, are chary about suggesting a means of relief. Finally, some old sister whose reputation for probity places her beyond the possibility of doubt of her judgment, tells the sufferer plainly that she is the victim of conjuration, and, having had experience among this line herself, tells of a person whom she knows who might undertake to cure her for a sufficient compensation. She also states that she believes that his time is so taken up with the numerous patients that daily seek his invaluable services, that she seriously doubts her ability to secure him. This statement, coupled with the assurance that he is infallible in his cures, has the effect of whetting the desire of the patient to secure such priceless services. After much promise of secrecy, and a good bit of the hoarded treasure of the patient, transferred from its safe hiding place in some old stocking, or in a tin can placed under a certain brick in the fire-hearth, to the hands of the friend and adviser, to be given to the doctor -- for his fees are invariably in advance -- the valuable services of this Esculapius are obtained.

[Esculapius, usually spelled Aesculapius, or Asclepius, was the ancient Roman god of medicine.]

His visits, especially his first, are usually made under the cover of darkness, that the glamour of night may add to the mysterious impression he desires to make. When night comes he makes his appearance, heralded by a peculiar and prearranged rap upon the door.

On being admitted he walks across the room with a strange, sliding movement, views the patient with a critical eye, and assumes an appearance of deep mystery and profound thought. A few doleful shakes of the head complete the impression. Finally, he essays to say in a fatherly tone:

[At this point, Davis's penchant for scrambling up the dialogue of black people whom he considered to be beneath him kicks in. It was not enough to write in African-American English, he also seems to have felt it necessary to misspell the words, as if the speaker could not spell them correctly. This condescension to his own people has greatly lessened his reputation and stature among modern black scholars. From here on out, i will provide regular orthographic transliterations of the passages in African-American English for the benefit of those who have difficulty reading dialect, and especially for those to whom English is a second language and who may wish to make use of a mechanical or AI translation service.]

"Yes, hunnny, youse bin tricked."

["Yes, honey, you's been tricked.]

"I knowed it! I knowed it!" mutters the now thoroughly convinced patient.

"Youse got er inmi'."

["You's got an enemy."]

This being such an unusual thing in this wicked and unfriendly world, it calls forth distressing groans from the patient as,"Lawd a mercy!" "Is dat so?" "I didn't think I had er inmi in da worl."

["Lord have mercy!" "Is that so?" "I didn't think I had an enemy in the world."]

Assuring the patient of the truthfulness of his observation notwithstanding her incredulity, he remarks, "Dat inmi is a woman."

["That enemy is a woman."]

This brings forth more groans and ejaculations from the stricken one.

"She jellus ub de way you gits along wid whi' folks, an de kine' ub bread dat you kin make."

["She jealous of the way you gets along with white folks, and the kind of bread that you can make."]

The patient then calls to mind that somebody told her that they couldn't see how it was that her bread never failed, and this circumstance gives her more faith in the "doctor:" and his compliment tickles her vanity, and makes her a willing disciple.

This formula is changed in accordance with the varied conditions of the afflicted. Sometimes the jealousy is on account of her good looks: frequently from the fact that she has straight hair, this being one thing most earnestly desired by most females. Then again, it is sometimes her husband that the "inmi" loves, and thus she desires to get rid of the present spouse.


Single women want to have a chance to be chosen as the second one given matrimonial favor. Not infrequently it is from jealousy of the patient's power in prayer at "de meetin' house."

["The meeting house (church)"]

If the victim happens to be of a light complexion, it is always because some one is envious of her color. Care is taken to pick out something likely to be a tender spot with the patient.

The "doctor," having come off victorious in this preliminary skirmish, assumes an air of deep meditation, and closes his eyes as if in a trance.

The patient, in the meanwhile, is complaining of pains in various portions of the body. Suddenly the "doctor" bends over the sick one, and, pointing to a particular spot, says in an oracular voice:

"De pain am right dar."

["The pain am right there."]

He strikes it exactly, and the patient, forgetting that she has told him that much herself, stretches her eyes in wonder and admiration, and the last vestige of doubt disappears as mist before the morning sun.

He then announces that a certain mysterious bottle, containing some peculiar charm that affects the patient as long as it is safely concealed, has been buried in a certain place on the premises. The mind, always ready for the strange and unknown, believes this statement at once, and groans come from the patient. The dire results of a failure to move this "trick" are explained upon until the sick one is struck with horror. Snakes will infest her, the hair will all fall out, the body will slowly waste away, and a lingering death will be the final outcome, if it is not speedily removed. But there is "balm in Gilead," and he will undertake this exceedingly hazardous task for a reasonable compensation. He being the only person able to remove it with all the evil results pertaining thereto, according to his own indisputable statement, his services are indispensable. The bargain is soon consummated, and the patient's exchequer is considerably depleted.

He bargains to remove it at 12 o'clock the following night, this being the hour at which tricks are most susceptible to removal. Promptly at the appointed time the "doctor" arrives, with his "trick," previously prepared in his "laboratory," safely enclosed in his coat sleeve. The blood of a fat chicken is supposed to the best possible locator of tricks, though a duck, or even a turkey at the season would not be despised. The fact that the fowl afterwards serves as a savory meal for the impecunious "doctor" may, to some extent, influence this choice.

The chicken is duly killed, and some of the blood sprinkled in the palm of the left hand of the "doctor." With the forefinger of the other hand he strikes the blood, and the direction in which the blood spurts is supposed to locate the "trick."

[Dowsing by means of the blood of a bird is no longer common in the United States. For another form of dowsing used by 19th century African-American rootworkers, see Conjure Doctoring and the Walking Boy. ]

The doctor goes there alone and digs for it: he must go alone, for "tricks" are very sensitive and exceedingly bashful in the presence of strangers. Having dug the hole, and safely planted his "trick," he calls for an admiring audience to see him remove it. They come forward and see an ordinary bottle partly covered in the dirt: inside of it is usually found a heterogeneous mixture of dissimilar articles: -- a knife blade; pins, curiously bent; broken and rusty needles; pieces of red flannel; red pepper; perhaps a small snake; and whatever the ingenuity of the "doctor" may suggest to mystify and awe the ignorant uninitiated.

[The bottle described here is neither "a heterogeneous mixture of dissimilar articles" nor is it "whatever the ingenuity of the 'doctor'" may suggest to mystify and awe the ignorant uninitiated." It is, rather, a fairly standard hoodoo bottle spell which is walked over as a form of foot track magic. The only part of it that Davis failed to describe is the personal concern that links it to the victim, although in this case, the piece of red flannel may have been a fragment cut from the victim's long winter underwear or menstrual pad, both of which were commonly made of red flannel at that time. If the red flannel was intended to be the enwrapment of the cursing curios, then other personal concerns of the victim -- perhaps hair, urine, fingernails, or toenails -- would be included. Similar bottles and bags are still made to this day, more than 150 years after Davis saw such a bottle; full descriptions for making and using them can by found in "Bottle Up and Go! The Magic of Hoodoo Container Spells in Boxes, Bags, Bowls, Buckets, and Jars" by Catherine Yronwode and Lara Rivera.]

Sometimes the "doctor" comes one night and buries his "trick" and finds it the next with the same ceremony in the presence of all who may come.

For another "consideration" he will undertake to hang Haman on the gallows prepared for Mordecai, and he plants the same trick at the door of the enemy, along with all the ills to which, but for his skill, the patient would have been subjected.

[To "hang Haman on the gallows prepared for Mordecai" refers to the Book of Esther in the Bible; Haman, the prime minister of the Persian king Ahasuerus, plotted to hang his Jewish rival Mordecai, and to kill all of the Jews held in Persian captivity. This scheme was thwarted by Modechai's young cousin, Esther, who was "passing" for Persion as the king's wife. When Esther revealed the plot (and her own race) the king gave her the power of life or death over her enemy Haman, and she chose his death by hangiing on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai.]

Finally, by reason of the application of the ordinary home remedies, and the aid of Nature, the patient is, in the course of time, restored to health, and the skill of the "doctor" is lauded to the skies, and numerous other patients secured.

["The ordinary home remedies" would have included both Native American and European-American herbs and roots, either wid-gathered or purchaed at a pharmacy. These old remedies form the basis of the medical side of hoodoo practice because few African herbal medicines survived in African American practice, as they were tropical in habitat and Norh America, like Europe, is located in the temperate zones. ]

Should, however, the patient be so inconsiderate as to die, the blame is never laid at the door of the "doctor," but her demise is attributed entirely to her own lack of faith in the efficacy of the doctor's removal. The unfortunate patient is henceforth held up as a terrible example of the dire results that come from a lack of faith in the wonderful power of a conjure doctor.

This peculiar practice was almost wholly, though not exclusively confined to the Negroes, a relic, no doubt of barbarism brought from their native African home.


[Davis's over-the-top sarcasm and condescension are wearying and distasteful, but here, leaving aside such slurs as "barbarism," he does make a good point: African American bottle spells, as well as the cures which consist of digging up the buried tricks, do owe their origins to Africans. Hoodoo also includes another family of curing, the vomiting cure that rids the patient of "live things" in the body, and that has its basis in Native American spiritual doctoring. Taken together, these two ancient methods of cursing and curing give conjure its unique multicultural form.]

[And here, as the 19th century was drawing to a close, Davis paid rightful homage to colleges like the Richmond Colored Normal School, shown at left, from whence he had graduated with a teaching certificate and embarked on a lifelong career as an educator, and to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which printed this article and raised up generation after generation of black teachers, activists, and career professionals.]

This, then, was the Negro doctor of the past, only divided by a few years from the glorious present, with its skilled Negro physician in every town, village, and hamlet. This new doctor is a graduate of the best schools and colleges of the land, and plies his vocation with the most flattering success.

No less remarkable is the change in his constituency. He succeeds not by the aid of tricks and arts, but in consequence of splendid knowledge of materia medica, and the absolute confidence of an intelligent people of his own race.

This glance at the past but serves to emphasize the magnificent present, and to point to a still more glorious future.

If education and contact, under God, accomplished so much in so short a space of time, who will dare say that the Negro's education and enfranchisement is a failure?

[Davis's connection to Hampton continued after the publication of this article. In 1902 and 1904 he taught a course on "Negro Ideals" and history at the Normal School's summer sessions for teachers.]

[In 1903 Davis was elected Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Virginia (Prince Hall). In addition to his many social and educational ventures, he was also a political speaker. He identified as a Repubican at a time when the G.O.P. was "The Party of Abraham Lincoln," and his approach to racial integration fell between the equalitarian activism of W. E. B. DuBois and the accomodationist progressivism of Booker T. Washington. He was a popular lecturer and he was chosen to present a rebuttal to an address that President William Howard Taft gave in Richmond in 1909.]

[His health began to fail in 1910 and he retired from teaching at the age of 48. He died in 1913 of chronic nephritis, aged 51. The black public schools of Richmond were closed on the day of his funeral. In 1915, two black elementary schools, in Richmond and Staunton, were named in his honour, in 1937 Davis Road was named for him in Hampton, and in 1938 the Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University) named its laboratory high school for D. Webster Davis as well.]

This material is reprinted from

Southern Workman and Hampton School Record

Vol. 27
December 1898

[My sincere gratitude to Eoghan Ballard of the University of Pennsylvania for supplying this material in the form of a photocopy from microfilm. ]

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