This is an extract from "Charms And Charm-Medicines," a world survey (and condemnation of) folkloric talismans, written by Mrs. L. D. Morgan for "Catholic World" magazine in 1886. The article itself is quite lengthy, and only one paragraph relates to African American root work, but it is a relatively early citation for the word "hoodoo" and it describes an unusual form of bottle spell or toby -- a spherical metal ball containing conjure items.
A few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].
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.
As a modern instance of the African belief in charms we noticed not long ago in a Maryland paper that a certain William White -- colored -- having been arrested for wife-beating, there was found on his person a spherical metal case about the size of a goose-egg, covered first with yellow, then with black leather. One end being open, the contents were seen to be composed, to all appearance, of hair, quicksilver, pins, and a greasy substance. He cheerfully explained that this was his "hoodoo," and that he had worn it for many years with great effect. For once it seemed to have failed him; but William was probably not wanting in the credulity of his countrymen, and doubtless continues to believe as firmly as ever in his wondrous charm. How difficult it is for civilization to eradicate such inherited tendencies, how much easier to wear a charm than to submit to the dictates of the most unexacting religious creed!
[From the description, this spherical metal ball seems to be an urban form of the more traditionally African-style "conjuring gourd" described by Thaddeus Norris in 1870. The contents resemble those of a contemporary nation sack or mojo bag for fidelity, so William White would seem to have created his "hoodoo" for the purpose of keeping his wife faithful and breaking up her relationships with other men. The hair would have been a magical link to her body, the quicksilver or elemental mercury to bring results rapidly, the pins to cause her pain if she were unfaithful. The "greasy substance" would have been an old-style condition ointment, probably made with magical herbs in a substratum of lard, petrolatum, or lanolin. By the 20th century, this type of solid ointment had largely been replaced by hoodoo dressing or anointing oils.]
This material is reprinted from
Catholic World [magazine]
Volume 43, Issue 255
New York, N.Y., Lawrence Kehoe, editor
Text of the full contents of this magazine is online at
Transcribed by the "Making of America" project,
-- which consists of 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles --
and is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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