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Vol. 28 August 1899
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. An introductory note on this school helps to place this article in historical perspective: Explanatory material appears [in brackets].
Folk-Lore and Ethnology
'Crazy' Spell, Chills Cured, Palsy Cured;
Latter two both mention 'Walking Boy'
Form of Divination and Pendulum
In September 1861, Mary Peake, a free Negro, undertook the teaching of literacy to the newly freed people. There were twenty students [in her first class, which was held beneath an Oak tree. The Oak became known as the Emancipation Oak in 1863, when the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was held beneath its bough. By 1863, General Butler also had secured funds to expand upon Mary Peake's program, and he founded the Butler School for Negro children, which provides a basic grade-school curriculum, along with domestic sciences.]
[In 1866, after the war had been won and slavery was abolished nationwide, Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong was appointed Superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau of the Ninth District of Virginia. Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong was appointed in 1866 to Superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau of the Ninth District of Virginia. (For an example of literate black people teaching formerly enslaved people, see also the article by Paschal Beverly Randolph on Love Charms at this site; Randolph, a Free Person of Color, was a Spiritualist and sex magician who taught emancipated slaves through the Freedmen's Bureau in New Orleans, Louisiana.) The work of the government-mandated Freedmen's Bureau system.]
[When the government cut the funding for the Freedman's Bureaus, Armstrong, who had been associated with religious missionary schools in Hawaii, called upon the American Missionary Association to build a new school adjacent to the Butler School — the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Those too young to understand the word "Normal" in this context should know that it refers to institutions where teachers are trained according to a normative curriculum, so that all graduates employ the same basic approved course materials, use the same grading protocols, and so forth. For a Normal School or Normal Institute to operate, it must have an adjacent school where young students are taught by the teacher-trainees. In this case, the Butler School provided the classrooms in which the Hampton Normal Institute student-teachers received their training.]
[In the 1870s, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was so well-known that it attracted students from all around the country, including the great Booker T. Washington, who went on to found Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881.] In 1878, a group of Native American refugees who had been imprisoned at Fort Sill at the close of the Red River War came to Hampton, and their presence was a part of this historically black institution until 1923.]
[Hampton Normal School grew in enrollment during the 1880s and 1890s, and the curriculum expanded beyond teaching to include trades such as blacksmithing, carpentry, printing, farming, and tailoring. In 1889, the Butler School became the Whittier School, but the relationship between the school and Hampton remained the same. It was in this era that we come to The Hampton School Record. The subject of "folklore" had become a topic of academic interest, first in Britain and then in America, and so the editors of the Hampton Record thought it appropriate to create a semi-regular column called "Folk-Lore and Ethnology" and to devote quite a few articles to the subject of root doctoring and conjure practice, as this web page demonstrates.]
[I realize that this has been a lengthy introduction, but it serves two purposes: First it demonstrates that the collection of hoodoo folklore was and is not the provenance of white scholars and folklorists alone; black people of the 19th century were compiling documentation on the practices themselves. Second, i know from experience that the very first sentence in this account — "The following incidents of 'conjure doctoring' were contributed by a teacher attending the Summer Normal" — has puzzled many of my students, so now you will know what it means!]
The following incidents of "conjure doctoring" were contributed by a teacher attending the Summer Normal.
[The 1899 contributor was an African-American person, probably a woman, who was taking summer courses to become a school teacher. If she was in her young twenties when she came to Hampton, as most student-teachers were, she was born in the 1870s. Her stories reach back to when she was eight years old and sixteen years old — probably between 1885 and 1895.]
A 'Crazy' Spell
Divination by Ironing Paper
Treatment by Herb Extract in Water
When I was sixteen years old I entered a terrible state of mind which caused my life to be nothing but misery. Some said that I was crazy and kept an eye on me all the while that I might not do them harm. I never lost my senses so that I did not know myself, but I was filled with all kinds of evil notions, something like this. While I would go to the well I would either contemplate jumping in, or run from the image in the water. I feared a sharp knife. If I took one in my hand, I would hasten to put it down and run. I disliked to go to church to hear the preacher because I did not think that he knew what he was talking about. I felt angry with every cause which resulted in my being in this world. I know I was not lazy, but my employment was unpleasant.
[The informant was suffering from suicidal ideation, a form of mental illness. She carefully avoids directly stating that church bothered her because "every cause which resulted in my being in this world" — namely, God's plan, as expounded in church — seemed wrong to her. In the next episode of her story we will learn that she had been struggling with psychosomatic symptoms of distress since the age of eight, when she was attacked by another girl.]
My mother was anxious about me all the while, and was advised to consult a "root doctor" in the matter, which she did, and found that the crafty "hand" had been at work for me. Here is how he found out who tricked me. He took a clean sheet of paper and rubbed a warm iron over it which caused the outline of one or more persons to appear. He read from the drawing that I was "hurt" and that a young man did it, because he wanted to marry me, and he saw no chance for it, and he was afraid that some one else would get me. This story made my mother feel hopeful of my recovery.
[The root doctor's divination seems like a bit of charlatanry, employing some form of invisible ink, such as Lemon juice, to create an image which is revealed when heat is applied. Nevertheless, the result was a useful diagnosis, with treatment to follow.]
The "root doctor" put in a bottle a little water and a few drops of something simple (for there was not much taste to it) and advised me to take five drops three times a day.
I got well in a few days.
[The treatment seems to have been an herbal extract or tonic. It is unfortunate that we do not know what it was, but a few guesses can be made, given the time period. Traditional herbalists often prescribed a mild laxative herb like Senna combined with mood elevating herbs, such as Ephedra (Mormon Tea), Ginseng (Sang Root), Licorice, Basil, Rosemary, Mint, and/or Guarana, if they felt the patient suffered from "lassitude" (depression). On the other hand, if the patient was over-excitable, they would prescribe a mild laxative herb like Senna coupled with calming anti-anxiety herbs, such as Cannabis (which was legal at the time), Vandal Root (Valerian), Chamomile, Skullcap, Lavender, and/or Passionflower. These could be administered as teas, tablets, or tinctures; the root doctor in this case employing a curative tincture diluted in water.]
Divination by Walking Boy
Treatment by Herb Tea and Ointment
When I was about eight years old a little girl threw a brick at my head which cut it very badly, and when I showed the wounds to my mother she became very angry, and took the broom, ran out to the girl, and gave her several raps over the head. In about three months I began to have chills and they lasted me eight years. The strange part of my story is how they were cured.
[Now we learn that the young school teacher-in-training had suffered from "chills" for eight years before her fall into suicidal ideation, and it seems that the cure for the chills occurred at around the same time as the cure for her suicidal thoughts, when she was sixteen.]
My mother was instructed that the chills were put on me by the hand of the wicked, and she being anxious about my welfare, employed a conjuror to take them off me. When he came he demanded part pay before entering in business, and that part being settled, he went to work.
The first thing he did was to take out of his pocket the "walking boy" which was to assist in finding the direction of the enemies or friends Ñ in this case the one who put the chills on me. The "walking boy" is a bottle with a string tied to its neck, deeply colored that you may not see what the doctor puts in it Ñ something alive you may know, which enables it to move or even flutter briskly, and this makes you certain of whatever fact the doctor is trying to impress.
[The Walking Boy is a form of pendulum, and its use is a form of dowsing. Modern folks tend to think of pendulums as divination tools employed indoors at a table, over maps, photos, or charts, but their use out of doors to locate hidden treasure, water courses, oil, and minerals dates back to the Middle Ages. In form, the Walking Boy is very like the Swedish Spiritus or Spertus bottle or box, used by healers in the trolldom tradition. In both cases, a small animal Ñ typically a large insect with strong legs — is kept captive in a container, and its movements provide diagnostic guidance to the conjurer. For more on the Swedish Spiritus, see the book "Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition" by Johannes Bjorn Gardback or the condensed account in "Bottle Up and Go!: The Magic of Hoodoo Container Spells in Boxes, Bags, Bowls, Buckets, and Jars" by Catherine Yronwode and Lara Rivera. These references are not intended to imply that African-American root doctors got the idea for the Walking Boy from Scandinavian folk healers, just that this is a very old form of divination. A similar use of captive arthropods for divination is the Spider oracle of Cameroon.]
The treatment for my chills was a tea, and an ointment of his own preparation. The tea was made out of herbs fried in hog's lard.
After being thus treated, as I had good faith in the "doctor," the chills vanished.
[Again the names of the herbs used in the tea and ointment are not named, but traditional herbs employed for chills include Basil, Rosemary, Horehound, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Hyssop, Marjoram, Oregano, Thyme, Spearmint, Peppermint, and Sage (all twelve of them in the Mint family), as well as Elderberry, Sampson Snake Root (Echinacea), Lemon Grass (Fever Grass), Licorice, Eucalyptus, Yarrow, and the warming spices Black Pepper, Ginger, and Cinnamon.]
Divination by Walking Boy
Treatment by Destroying Buried Trick Bag
An old man once was ill with palsy as they thought, and after spending much money employing medical doctors and getting no relief, he was advised to change treatment. He employed a conjuror who came with his "walking boy." The doctor with "boy" in hand ordered a man to bring a hoe and dig where he would order him to, that he might earth up the thing that caused the man's illness.
After he had walked over and around the yard several times with the "boy" suspended, it was thought by many that he would not be able to find the buried poison, but as they were about to give up their pursuit, the "boy" fluttered and kicked as though he would come out of the bottle. Then the doctor ordered the man to dig quickly, for the "trick bag" was there. On the order being obeyed, the poison was found. It was rusty nails, finger and toe nails, hair and pins sewed up in a piece of red flannel.
[We don't know where our informant was raised, because Hampton students came from almost anywhere in the country, but her use of the word "trick bag" for a mojo is suggestive. Tricking is a widespread synonym for hurting, poisoning, cunjering, root working, witchcrafting, or hoodooing, but to call a mojo hand a trick bag is uncommon. In 1893 Mary Alicia Owen recorded the contents of a "tricker bag" he had been taught to make by a family slave named Aunt Mymee during her childhood in Missouri in the late 1850s or early 1860s. The term is also found in Louisiana, where Earl King wrote and recorded the song "Trick Bag" for release in 1962. So our informant was probably from the deep South, and likely from a state located west of Virginia..]
[It is safe to assume that the fingernails, toenails, and hair found in the trick bag were those of the victim, who was being tormented by the rusty nails and pins. Such rusty nails, whether or not they come from a cemetery, are often called "coffin nails" in hoodoo, and are used to create painful or even deadly physical conditions.]
[I wish we knew the name of the Normal School student who contributed these accounts of 19th century hoodoo. Alas, her name is lost to us. A debt of gratitude is also owed to the editors of the Workman and Hampton School Record for collecting the articles in the "Folklore and Ethnology" series.]
[By the way, the Hampton School evolved with the times. In 1930, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute's name was changed to Hampton Institute. There were budget cuts during the Great Depression of the 1930s and in 1940 the Library School was discontinued and the Nursing School was transferred to a local hospital for administration. That year the Institute also began to shake off the remnants of its founding by paternalistic whites, as black faculty members were for the first time promoted to the ranks of department heads and other administrative roles. World War Two saw an upswing in enrollment, due to federal funding for war training. After the war ended, the buildings that had been added during the war were purchased by Hampton and continued in use. In 1949 Hampton finally had its first black president.]
[Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, agricultural and trade programs were discontinued and higher-level courses were added, in subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, mass media, and computer technology. The first M.B.A. program was added in the 1970s. Enrollment rose, and in 1984, with its curriculum base greatly enhanced and the academic success of its students well regarded both nationally and internationally, Hampton College became Hampton University.]
[Oh, and the Emancipation Oak still stands.]
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