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



In this installment of "Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog," we take a sneak-peek look at an upcoming page that will eventually be on display to the public. As a Patreon supporter, you have access to the page one full year before the public does.

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From the Southern Workman and Hampton School Record

Vol. 24 July 1895

(Collected in 1878)

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, 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
        Conjuring and Conjure Doctors
        in the Southern United States
        by Leonora Herron

[Here we have one of the oldest descriptions of rootdoctoring and root doxtors collected by African-Americans and published for, an African-American audience. As is explained, althouth the publication date here is 1895, the collection of the material and its first publication took place in 1878. In this short article, despite its condescension toward "supuerstition" and "ignorance," we see, in brief outline form, a sort of field guide to conjure doctors: who they are, how they get their powers, the scope of their work, and how to idenify them.

In what follows, i have broken long paragraphs into shorter ones, re-ordered a few sentences without deleting any text, and added sub-headings to organize the material for easier review.]

The following paper read at the April [1895] meeting of the Hampton Folk-Lore Society, was compiled from a series of essays on Conjure-Doctors written in 1878 by students at Hampton, some of which were then published in the Southern Workman.

African Origins and European Admixtures

The Negro's belief in conjuration and magic is very probably a relic of African days, through strange and incongruous growths rising from association with the white race, added to and distorted it from time to time, till it became a curious conglomerate of fetichism (sic.), divination, quackery, incantation, and demonology.

Why Conjure Doctors are Needed

Overt and natural means of obtaining justice being forbidden the Negro, was it surprising that, brought up in ignorance, and trained in superstition, he should invoke secret and supernatural powers to redress his wrongs and afford him vengeance on those of his fellows whom envy, jealousy, or anger prompted him to injure?

The agent of this vengeance was usually the Conjure Doctor.

The Sources of Conjure Knowledge

The source of these powers is but ill defined.

The Devil

One authority says: "I have always heard that those doctors sold themselves to the Devil before they were given this power."


Another, in speaking of a certain old woman who was a conjure doctor says: "She said she had a special revelation from God, as do all the conjure doctors I have ever heard of."

A Seventh Son with Seven Cauls

One rather noted conjure doctor described by several of our writers, claimed his power in virtue of being the "seventh son of a seventh son," and having been "born with seven cauls over his face."

A Teacher

It is said by some, however, that women who conjure sometimes give instruction in the art, and that if a conjure doctor is asked where he got his teaching, he will tell you of some old person who has been dead for years as having been his teacher.

[In 1878 in the state of Virginia there was no mention of a path to conjuring through initiation. This accords with my experience 100 years later; the concept of hoodoo initiations appears only in accounts that draw upon or derive from Haitian or Cuban sources.]

The Doctor's Repertoire: Conjuring and Curing

The conjure doctor's business was of two kinds; to conjure, or "trick," a person, and to cure persons already "conjured." Powers of all kinds are attributed to these doctors.


They were appealed to upon the least pretext to exert their powers in the former way. Jealousy or envy of a more fortunate neighbor or associate was a frequent cause for appealing to the conjure doctor, who would be requested to "trick" the object of the ill feeling. A quarrel between the two neighbors, even over the merest trifle would result in a visit to the conjure doctor and the subsequent illness, or death perhaps, of one of the parties.

Intrusion of Live Things

Others are told of who "can trick, put snakes, lizards, terrapins, scorpions and different other things in you, fix you so you can't walk, can't sleep, or sleep all the time, and so you can't have any use of your limbs.

Induction of Blindness and Insanity

They could put you in such a state that you would linger and pine away or so that you would go blind or crazy."


The healing art in various degrees is their gift, and the so-called "diseases" which they possess exclusive power to cure are, as one of our informers puts it, these tricks, spells, and poisons.

Love and Reconcilliation

Love affairs gave plenty of employment to the conjure doctors, as they were believed to be able to "work their roots" so to make one person return another's affections, and if the affair resulted unhappily, the slighted party sought revenge in having the other "tricked" so that no rival should be more successful.

Ameliorating Injustice, Assisting Escape from Slavery

In slavery times, there are frequent records of the conjure doctor's being appealed to to save the slave from punishments, to enable the man to escape the "patrolers" in the case of a runaway, [or] to enable him to return home without suffering from his master's anger

Snake-Charming, Shape Shifting, Revival of the Dead, Opening Locks

The power of snake-charming seems to be quite generally attributed to them. One is told of who claimed that he could turn a horse to a cow, and kill a man or woman and bring them to life again by shaking up his little boxes. He could also whistle in the key hole after the doors were locked and make them fly open.


The Conjure Doctor's Appearance

In all these cases there was the most implicit faith in the conjure doctor's power. Disliked and feared as these men and women were, gruesome as were the beliefs about them, the confidence in their abilities was unbounded; and deliberate open impostors as most of them evidently were, they were nevertheless able to wring from their victims the money they could so little spare from the needs of every day life.

Man or Woman, White or Colored

The individual might be a man or a woman, white or colored, but was found in every large white community, where, though held in fear and horror, his supernatural powers were still implicity believed in.

[The above may come as a surprise to internet "gatekeepers" who claim that only African-American people can (or should) practice hoodoo.]

Tall, Dark, and Red-Eyed

Some curious things are told of the personal appearance of these doctors. Almost all agree that they are unusually tall and very dark; and a distinguishing mark seems to be extreme redness of the eyes.

One describes them as "always on the lookout, full of superstition, and long, exciting tales."

Looking Into the Distance

Another one calls them "singular and queer, seeming always in a deep study, looking at some distant object," and adds: "I never seen one that could look a man straight in the eyes. They never sleep like any one else. It's more like the sleep of a cat. At the slightest noise or pain they are up telling their fortunes to see if any one is trying to injure them."

Unusual Appearance and Accoutrements

One conjure doctor is pictured as having the remarkable gift of "turning as green as grass moss, when he was just as black as a man could very well be: his hair covered his neck, and around his neck he had a string, and he had lizards tied on it. He carried a crooked cane. He'd throw it down and he would pick it up and say something, and throw it down, and it would wriggle like a snake, and he would pick it up and it would be as stiff as any other cane."

Sanctified, with Leathern Bags

In one account, the conjure doctors are represented as "going along looking very sanctified, with leathern bags on their arms. They are not called conjure doctors in their presence but are addressed as doctor. They seem to have exacted respectful treatment, for we have testimony that a conjure doctor meeting a person who refused to bow to him, would threaten to conjure the person.

This material is reprinted from

Southern Workman and Hampton School Record

Vol. 28
August 1899

[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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