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The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration was a form of make-work or subsidized employment for journalists and fiction authors who were struggling during the Great Depression of the 1930s. If a writer could show economic need, he or she would be given the job of interviewing people in various occupations and researching historical events for a grand book project in which each of the 48 states published a volume describing its own history and residents. Many well-known writers picked up extra money working for the WPA, and their names are known because the individual researchers and interviewers were credited in their typed manuscripts and in the published books.
This system of authorial accountability and credit was, however, easy enough to beat. If a writer gave a fictitious name or used a pseudonym, the government made no attempt to dig deeper and find out the author's actual legal name. After decades, the ruse was almost impenetrable and the writer's real name would be lost to history. Such was the case with "Vivian Morris," the African-American interviewer who produced the two profiles presented here, one of a West Indian conjure doctor in Harlem, and the other of a Jewish-American pharmacist who served black clients in Harlem.
When i first ran across these interviews, decades ago, i tried to research Vivian Morris, who i assumed at the time to have been a real person. I went to all the addresses listed in the article, which were in very close proximity to one another, but found that several had been torn down and built over. A search at the New York Public Library yielded no information on Vivian Morris. I knew that she wrote like a professional, that she used vivid and colourful descriptive language, and that she should have been well known, given her obvious talent. However, the copyright office had no listing of any work by her, and no one knew who she was. Having hit a brick wall, i mentally filed her WPA interviews under "mystery writer." The html code for this page was actually completed in 2009, but i never put it online, because to do so would have been to admit defeat as a researcher.
In looking over my many as-yet-unpublished but fully coded texts on 19th and 20th century hoodoo, which i am now presenting to the public with the support of my patrons at Patreon, i again regretted that i never had solved the mystery of Vivian Morris. With the internet so much improved over the past decade, and the 1940 census now online, i thought that i might make another try. So i typed her name into Google, with a few keywords, and to my surprise, i learned that not only was i not the sole researcher interested in Vivian Morris, but that the mystery had first been written about online in 2018 by the author Thomas Holt Russell -- and that he had SOLVED the mystery in 2019. I may have come two years late to the party, but i am awed and amazed by Russell's solid research and i support his conclusion 100 per cent: Vivian Morris was a pseudonym of the African-American journalist Thelma Berlack-Boozer, who at that time was the managing editor of the black-owned Amsterdam News. Apparently, not being able to show financial need because she was already employed, Berlack-Boozer gamed the system by creating a secondary persona, Vivian Morris, who worked on the government's rolls for a year and a half, producing some of the most striking interviews with African-Americans published by the Federal Writers Project. Her signature topics of feminism, justice, and labour relations, and her disdain for religion and spirituality, are just as apparent in the Vivian Morris interviews as in her work for black owned newspapers.
Rather than recapitulate Thomas Holt Russell's documentation, i am going to direct you to his own web page here. and express my admiration and scholarly debt to his research.
Thelma Berlack-Boozer conducted a wide variety of interviews for the WPA, but only two of them touch on our topic at this site, which is African-American hoodoo. As an agnostic who took a socio-political stance against organized religion, spirituality, and folklore, she was not very kind in the first of these interviews, because she was conversing with someone of whom she disapproved. Her use of tropes involving African primitivism as an "excuse" for a belief in conjure practices is lamentable, but fully in keeping with her writings in other venues. In interviewing the Jewish pharmacist who sold herbs to black practitioners, she was more respectful, probably because she was unfamiliar with medical botany and he made an excellent case for the efficacy of herbal drugs and their use in the formulas marketed as over-the-counter remedies by large laboratories. Whether or not she approved of hoodoo and herbalism, she still did a reporter's job by allowing each interview subject to speak, and for that we can be very grateful.
For ease of reading, i have broken the author's paragraphs into shorter sections, corrected obvious typographical errors, and also taken the liberty of adding headers to the various topics. The government required interviewers to obtain specific demographic information from interview subjects, but it was not always available or freely given. I have removed most of the government formatting and page numbers in order to present the material in conventional printed format. Because the interviewer and the two men she spoke with 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].
• Belief and Customs — Folklore
• State: New York
• Name of Worker: Vivian Morris
• Address: 225 W. 130th St., New York City
• Date: October 31, 1938
• Date and time of interview[s]: October 27, 1938.
• Name and address of persons if any, who put you in touch with informant[s]: Personally contacted by staff-worker..
• Name and address of person, if any, accompanying you.: [None.]
• Subject: Harlem Conjure Men "Sagwa" and William Weiner, "The Jupiter Man": Both informants make a living selling herbs (etc.) -- and conjure lore.
• Ancestry: "Sagwa" - West Indian Negro. William Weiner, "The Jupiter Man" - Negro
• Place and date of birth: Indeterminable.
• Family: Unknown.
• Places lived in, with dates: Could not learn.
• Education, with dates. Could not learn.
• Occupations and accomplishments, with dates: Medicine men.
• Special skills and interests: Medicine and conjuring.
• Community and religious activities: Not known.
Name of informant: "Sagwa" (Known only by that name)
Place of interview: 71 West 141st St., near Lenox Ave., NYC
The dilapidated wooden shack I visited was perched on the edge of an old junk yard in 141st Street, East of Lenox Ave., and looked as if it might collapse any moment. The huge living room sprawled dirty and unkempt and smelled of dog and cat dung. Through a partly open door that led to an adjoining room, I could see two bristling German police dogs flanked by a half dozen or more lean and hungry-looking cats. The place had an earthern floor that was damp but firmly packed, and a dank musty odor pervaded the atmosphere.
Slouched in a broken arm-chair was a huge West Indian Negro (not black but a sallow riny yellow) who weighed close to 270 pounds. His mouth was loose and sensual; his eyes, small and crafty. The thing about him that compelled my attention most, however, was his large, bloated stomach that rose and fell at intervals like some giant toy-balloon.
["Sallow" means an unhealthily yellow or light tan complexion. I cannot find a definition for the word "riny," but if it is a typo for "rimy," that means "covered in hoar-frost," and would be equivalent to the common African-American term "ashy," which refers to patches of skin that are whitish or greyish due to a dry layer of dead skin cells, which show a sharp constrast to naturally brown skin.]
I talked with him for a long time and was spellbound by all he told me but was greatly relieved when he had finished and it was time to go. Outside the night air was sweet and refreshing in comparison to the close, ill-smelling room. But I shall never forget the things I heard. If I were a true believer in fantasy, Lenox Avenue would be well populated with (and every side-street would boast) spiritualists whose side-lines would be the peddling of herbs and the brewing of weird, seething voodoo concoctions that are veiled in mystery ... a heritage from the jungles of Africa and the hot tropical climates of Haiti and the West Indies.
Even now, I am almost convinced that, no matter what your ailment, there's an herb somewhere (possibly Harlem) to cure it. My conjure man insisted on it.
"Got an ache in your joints?" he wanted to know. "If you have, boil a few mullein leaves in a pan of water and drink a cup before meals."
"Your kidneys bother you? Don't let'em. Boil a couple teaspoons of cream of tartar and flaxseed in a pint of water and drink it. You'll feel like a different person."
"Ever have trouble renting rooms or your luck go back on you? Put a handful of rice in a bag with some sycamore bark, boil and strain it then sprinkle the contents on both sides of the door-sill."
"If your husband or wife ain't treatin' you right, feedin' you cold supper or staying out nights, buy a handful of tiny red candles, smear them with maple syrup or honey, write the person's name on a piece of brown paper greased with a month old ham-skin and burn the candles under the bed. That'll fix up everything fine."
"If your boy-friend or girl-friend leaves you, take one of their old shoes, sprinkle a little "Bring 'Em Back Dust" on the soles,"
"If somebody you like act kinda cool get the egg of a frizzly chicken, boil it in spring water, take it out of the shell and beat up the yolk with a lump of sugar, starch, and Jimson weed; put it in a bag and hide it in his clothes and he'll wind up being yo' slave."
"There's a hundred different ways to bring yourself good luck or money or to put the jinx on somebody you don't like. All you have to do is cross the palm of the doctor."
Name of informant: William Weiner
Place of interview: 513 Lenox Ave. NYC
[Okay, now we have a problem. The interviewer, Thelma Berlack-Boozer, who lied about her
own identity, seems to have identified the pharmacist William Weiner as a "Negro" without
much regard to his actual ethnicity. To begin with, Weiner is a Jewish name, and although
racial intermarriage did exist at the time and there were plenty of black registered
pharmacists in the United States by 1938, the only
pharmacist named William Weiner i can locate in the 1930 Federal census in New York City
was identified as "white" on the census report, and the birthplace for both his father and
mother was given as "Russia," whch was a common origin for Ashkenazi Jewish
refugee-immigrants of that time. However, look at his address: it tells a different story
What we see here is an ethnically Jewish veteran of the First World War, a licensed
pharmacist, who is living as a lodger at 18 West 123rd Street, an old row-house between
what is now Malcolm X Boulevard and Marcus Garvey Park. At the time of the 1930 census,
this block in Harlem was occupied by immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean, and Weiner was
salaried as a drug store pharmacist, but it is not hard to believe that by 1938, when he
was 45 years old, he owned his own pharmacy on Lenox Avenue, and was able to tell "Vivian
Morris" that he had been researching the common names that black people give to herbs for
"twenty years." He spoke of his black customers as "Negroes," "they," and "the people in
Harlem," which seems to indicate that he was aware of his outsider status. But he also
spoke of Caucasians as "white people" and, funny as this may sound to white people, it is
a term of speech that is pretty typical of Jews (myself included), who do not
self-describe as "white," but think of themselves as "Jewish."
I cannot be certain that William Weiner, the Jewish pharmacist living in Harlem in
1930, is the same William Weiner who owned his own drugstore in Harlem in 1938,
who was identified by Thelma Berlack-Boozer as "the Jupiter Man," a "Negro" -- but i do
believe that such is the case. I cannot say whether Berlack-Boozer simply misidentified
the race of a dark-complected and curly-haired Russian Jew as "Negro" based on where he
lived and worked, or whether she falsified the data, as she had falsified her own name, in
order to collect a check from the government for interviewing "Negroes." In any case, the
interview is valuable and adds a lot to our understanding of black folk-names for medical
plants. I also happen to think that it is a further example of a subject that i have been
researching for forty years, namely the part played by Jewish pharmacists in
supporting and sustaining African-American herbology, folklore, curing practices, and
magical rites throughout the 20th century.
Was he called "the Jupiter Man" because he was a Jew? Was he jovial? Did he practice
Solomonic seal magic? Did he wear a Star of David necklace that looked to someone like the
second pentacle of Jupiter? No answers ... just questions. I don't think we will ever
know, and i will return to the topic of his identity after the interview, but for now,
here is the story of Mr. Weiner, the Jupiter Man.]
Name: William Weiner
Birth Year: abt 1893
Age in 1930: 37 [37 years old in 1930, hence about 45 years old in 1938]
Birthplace: New York
Marital Status: Single
Relation to Head of House: Lodger
Home in 1930: Manhattan, New York, New York, USA
Street Address: West 123rd Street
House Number: 18
Able to Read and Write: Yes
Father's Birthplace: Russia
Mother's Birthplace: Russia
Able to Speak English: Yes
Industry: Drug Store
Class of Worker: Wage or salary worker
War: WW [World War I]
What we see here is an ethnically Jewish veteran of the First World War, a licensed pharmacist, who is living as a lodger at 18 West 123rd Street, an old row-house between what is now Malcolm X Boulevard and Marcus Garvey Park. At the time of the 1930 census, this block in Harlem was occupied by immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean, and Weiner was salaried as a drug store pharmacist, but it is not hard to believe that by 1938, when he was 45 years old, he owned his own pharmacy on Lenox Avenue, and was able to tell "Vivian Morris" that he had been researching the common names that black people give to herbs for "twenty years." He spoke of his black customers as "Negroes," "they," and "the people in Harlem," which seems to indicate that he was aware of his outsider status. But he also spoke of Caucasians as "white people" and, funny as this may sound to white people, it is a term of speech that is pretty typical of Jews (myself included), who do not self-describe as "white," but think of themselves as "Jewish."
I cannot be certain that William Weiner, the Jewish pharmacist living in Harlem in 1930, is the same William Weiner who owned his own drugstore in Harlem in 1938, who was identified by Thelma Berlack-Boozer as "the Jupiter Man," a "Negro" -- but i do believe that such is the case. I cannot say whether Berlack-Boozer simply misidentified the race of a dark-complected and curly-haired Russian Jew as "Negro" based on where he lived and worked, or whether she falsified the data, as she had falsified her own name, in order to collect a check from the government for interviewing "Negroes." In any case, the interview is valuable and adds a lot to our understanding of black folk-names for medical plants. I also happen to think that it is a further example of a subject that i have been researching for forty years, namely the part played by Jewish pharmacists in supporting and sustaining African-American herbology, folklore, curing practices, and magical rites throughout the 20th century.
Was he called "the Jupiter Man" because he was a Jew? Was he jovial? Did he practice Solomonic seal magic? Did he wear a Star of David necklace that looked to someone like the second pentacle of Jupiter? No answers ... just questions. I don't think we will ever know, and i will return to the topic of his identity after the interview, but for now, here is the story of Mr. Weiner, the Jupiter Man.]
All root doctors, however, are not conjure men. William Weiner, for instance, who operates a root and herb store and is known to Harlemites as the Jupiter Man, is a registered pharmacist.
"I didn't know much about roots and herbs twenty years ago," he told me when I had explained my visit, "but I've learned."
[This date of "twenty years ago" seems to link William Weiner, the Jupiter Man, to William Weiner, the Jewish pharmacist who took part in World War One and subsequently served a black clientele in Harlem for about 20 years by the time of the interview.]
"If I have a touch of the grippe, do you think I take some coal tar preparation like aspirin? No sir. I hurry up and take a dose of boneset. Many very old Negroes make a tea of it. Boneset, that's one name for it, the same thing as Indian sage or thorough-wort, or sweating plant. It sets your aching bones all right. Try it next time you get the shivers."
[Eupatorium perfoliatum, Sweating Plant, Thorough-Wort, or Common Boneset is one of about 50 species in the Eupatorium genus, which is a member of the Asteraceae or Daisy Family. It has a long history of use as a remedy for colds and the shivering chills that accompany fevers.
"I guess I've got more herbs and roots in my store now than I've got regular medicine. Of course, some of the herbs they use here in Harlem are regular medicines under different names. To tell you the truth, I've gotten so I like the herb names better. Which would you rather take, cascara or sacred bush? It's the same thing. Some of my customers have a dozen other names for cascara, like bear berry bark, pigeon berry bark, chittem wood, and so forth. I like sacred bush better."
[The common name Cascara Sagrada literally means "sacred bark." The plant's txonomic binomial is Frangula purshiana and it is one of about 35 species in the Rhamnaceae or Buckthorn family. Cascara Sagrada is a stimulant laxative that causes muscle contractions in the intestines, which help to gently relieve constipation.]
"It takes a long time to learn all the names. You have to be careful. Take bear's root. That's something else. You take that for dropsy. Some people call it robin's rye, hair cap moss, or golden maiden's hair."
[Hair Cap Moss, Robin's Rye, and Pigeon Wheat are some of the many common names applied to any of the 50 or more species in the Polytrichum genus of the Polytrichaceae Mosses. Dropsy is an older name for edema or swelling caused by fluid retention in body tissues, and in times past "cardiac dropsy" referred to the edema that can accompany heart failure. Edema is often treated with diuretics, and Jupiter's Hair Cap Moss (Polytrichum juniperinum is considered a powerful diuretic; it has also been prescribed to promote urination in cases of bladder stones.]
"But poor robin's plantain is something different from robin's rye. Poor robin is used for warts. It's an astringent. Another name for it is rattlesnake weed."
[Robin's Plaintain, Hawkweed, and Rattlesnake Weed are common nams for Hieracium venosum, a close relative of Dandelion, in the Aster or Daisy family. It is indeed an astringent.]
"If you want cinchona, you ask for quinine. My herb customers have a better name. They call it priests' bark, which goes way back to the Medieval Latin, Pulvis jesuiticus. See, they know more about the history of medicines than most doctors."
[There are 23 species in the Cinchona genus, in the Rubiaceae or Coffee family; no doubt the species Mr. Weiner was indicating was Cinchona officinalis, the historical source of the anti-malarial drug quinine.]
"Most white people don't know how much they depend on herbs. There's been a widely advertised cough medicine on the market in recent years, for example. It's a good medicine. But what's it made from? Extract of thyme. Before most people ever heard of it, the people in Harlem were buying 10 cents worth of thyme and making a brew when they got a bad cough."
[The genus Thymus, in the Lamiaceae, Labiatae, or Mint family contains 350 species. Mr Weiner was probably indicating Thymus vulgaris or Common Thyme, which is aromatic and has culinary uses. It contains an essential oil called thymol that possesses anti-microbial properties and, prior to the deveopment of antibiotic drugs, it was used to combat baterial infections in wounds or in the throat and lungs.]
"It's the same way with ephedrine jelly. That's a popular cure for colds. It's nothing in the world but an extract of ma huang, a Chinese herb. In Harlem, they've been using ma huang ever since I can remember."
[Ma Huang is the Chinese name for Ephedra sinica, perhaps the most powerful stimulant plant commonly used in folk medicine. Due to its content of the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which have the side-effect of drying up of nasal passages, it is useful in the treatment of the runny nose and cough of a common cold. Closely related sspecies, such as Ephedra vulgaris and Ephedra nevadensis or Mormon Tea, are not as high in alkaloid content, but they are certainly energizing. All of the Ephedras belong to the Ephedra genus, which is the sole member of the Ephedraceae family.
"You can pay a lot of money for a widely advertised tonic laxative. People around Harlem who know about herbs could tell you to get some dandelion root, rhubarb, sacred bark and a little May apple root and make your own. Ten to one, if you took this home-made remedy, you'd feel much better."
And so, after these two little visits, you can readily see why I have been almost converted to the cause of roots and herbs. So much so that I am impelled to make a further, more exhaustive, search for the fascinating conjure lore of Harlem.
[Having gone out on a limb in stating
my belief that the pharmacist William Weiner, the Jupiter Man, interviewed in 1938,
is the Jewish pharmacist William Weiner who lived in Harlem in 1930, i am going to take
one further step over the cliff of speculation.
As many of my readers know, the most mysterious hoodoo author of all time is the unknown
"Lewis de Claremont" or "Mr. Young," a pharmacist who wrote the book "Legends of Incense,
Herb, and Oil Magic" in 1936, and who owned the Oracle Products Company, which
manufactured hoodoo supplies and sold a full line of roots and herbs for conjure and
medicine. In my edited reprint of this important book, i made my case for "Lewis de
Claremont" being a Jewish pharmacist with antiquarian and Orientalist interests in the
history of medicine. For full details, i recommend that you buy the book and read my
The Oracle Products Company of "Lewis de Claremont" was not only one of the most important
suppliers to the black conjure community on the East Coast, selling both wholesale and
retail, it was also known for carrying two non-hoodoo lines of goods, Chinese
pharmaceuticals and Jewish spiritual supplies. The former included Chinese Wash, as well as
Bat Nuts, dried Sea Horses, dried Star Fish, and other articles derived from Chinese Traditional
Medicine. The latter included miniature Torahs, Solomonic and Mosaic seals, menorahs, and
mezuzahs. I have searched New York City directories for forty years in an attempt to find
a pharmacist living in Manhattan in the 1930s who was familiar with Chinese medicine,
served primarily black customers, referenced Medieval pharmacopoeias, and was Jewish. Mr.
Weiner, with his casual (and accurate) mention of Chinese Ma Huang, his Medieval Latin
name for Cascara Sagrada, his pharmacy licence, his Russian-born Jewish parents, and his
location in Harlem, is the very first person i have found who fills the bill. He may not
be "Lewis de Claremont," but "Lewis de Claremont" was someone very much like him, if not
As many of my readers know, the most mysterious hoodoo author of all time is the unknown "Lewis de Claremont" or "Mr. Young," a pharmacist who wrote the book "Legends of Incense, Herb, and Oil Magic" in 1936, and who owned the Oracle Products Company, which manufactured hoodoo supplies and sold a full line of roots and herbs for conjure and medicine. In my edited reprint of this important book, i made my case for "Lewis de Claremont" being a Jewish pharmacist with antiquarian and Orientalist interests in the history of medicine. For full details, i recommend that you buy the book and read my evidence there.
The Oracle Products Company of "Lewis de Claremont" was not only one of the most important suppliers to the black conjure community on the East Coast, selling both wholesale and retail, it was also known for carrying two non-hoodoo lines of goods, Chinese pharmaceuticals and Jewish spiritual supplies. The former included Chinese Wash, as well as Bat Nuts, dried Sea Horses, dried Star Fish, and other articles derived from Chinese Traditional Medicine. The latter included miniature Torahs, Solomonic and Mosaic seals, menorahs, and mezuzahs. I have searched New York City directories for forty years in an attempt to find a pharmacist living in Manhattan in the 1930s who was familiar with Chinese medicine, served primarily black customers, referenced Medieval pharmacopoeias, and was Jewish. Mr. Weiner, with his casual (and accurate) mention of Chinese Ma Huang, his Medieval Latin name for Cascara Sagrada, his pharmacy licence, his Russian-born Jewish parents, and his location in Harlem, is the very first person i have found who fills the bill. He may not be "Lewis de Claremont," but "Lewis de Claremont" was someone very much like him, if not his doppelganger.
This material is reprinted from
American Life Histories:
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936 - 1940
Thanks and acknowledgements to Thelma Berlack-Boozer for interviewing Sagwa and William Weiner, to Thomas Holt Russell for solving the mystery of "Vivian Morris," to my husband nagasiva yronwode for help with graphics, and to all of my Patrons who support this work financially, and thus give me the time i need to create these free web pages.
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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