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Called conjure doctors, spiritual mothers, or root doctors, the descendants of African slaves still use herbs, potions, and spells to cure ailments and influence the events in the lives of people. Under a variety of names—hoodoo, voodoo, rootwork—practitioners still offer their services in rural areas of South Carolina and Georgia.
The Gullah People
The descendants of African slaves formed a unique culture in Georgia and South Carolina and it's within that community that root doctors did their work. There are perhaps 250,000 Gullah people today, also known as Geechee, who preserve their culture, which is a mixture of West African folklore and Christianity.
The ancestors of today's Gullah people—those who survived the inhuman trans-Atlantic voyage—live on the Sea Islands along the Atlantic seaboard from North Carolina to northern Florida.
Writing for the ThoughtCo, Katherine Schulz Richard notes that “The Gullahs of the past and present have an intriguing culture that they deeply love and want to preserve. Customs, including storytelling, folklore, and songs, have been passed down through generations.”
The practice of root doctoring was, and still is, part of that culture.
Root Doctor Work
People call on root doctors for a variety of services—some are looking for a cure for an ailment, others are seeking love or wealth, a few may want revenge against someone they believe has wronged them. Such demands call for two different sets of skills.
Ointments and potions are the areas of expertise for herbalists; if you want a spell cast on an enemy, or one lifted, then the conjure doctor is the go-to person.
John J. Beck (The Encyclopedia of North Carolina) writes that “The root doctor traditionally treats natural ailments with various remedies made from such plants as mint, jimsonweed, sassafras, and milkweed. Some remedies have genuine medicinal properties, while others are at least soothing, and the psychosomatic effect of any remedy cannot be underestimated.”
Dealing with someone under the influence of a spell is more complex. The conjure doctor must first diagnose the nature of the spell and draw on his or her store of knowledge to devise counter measures. Sometimes, this involves concocting what is called “goofer dust.” This is soil gathered from the side of a grave mixed with other ingredients such as powdered snakeskin.
For believers in the power of conjure doctors, goofer dust is not to be messed with. It is a powerful item in hoodoo practice and is used to bring harm, and even death, to an enemy. Combined with the correct incantations, it can be used to fend off a goofer dust hex.
There are numerous vendors selling goofer dust on the internet; perhaps descendants of the charlatans who used to peddle snake oil.
Root Doctors Today
At around the middle of the 20th century, root doctoring started to go into decline, but it still has its devotees in rural areas. However, new laws about practicing medicine without a license have driven the remaining root doctors underground.
Roger Pinkney grew up in Gullah country and has written about the culture in his 2003 book Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. In the book he writes that “If rootwork were not effective, the practice would have died out centuries ago.” To underline his belief that it works he keeps a root doctor on a retainer, just as other people might do the same with a lawyer.
Pinkney is not the only one. He estimates that almost all Black people in the Carolinas dealing with a crisis believe in rootwork; he adds that half the white population there also give credence to the practice.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner backs up Pinkney, saying police get reports of people dabbling in voodoo. Officers sometimes find bones arranged in particular patterns and others see unusual objects hanging from trees.
Meet Doctor Buzzard and Others
Today's root doctors like to stay out of the limelight, unlike Dr. Buzzard.
Stephany Robinson lived on St. Helena Island, South Carolina and used the name Dr. Buzzard in his professional capacity as a root doctor. He started to practice in the trade in the early 1900s and was busy with clients from across the United States until his death in 1947. One of his specialties was influencing the outcome of trials on behalf of clients.
In court, Dr. Buzzard would make a show of chewing down on a certain root. The witness against his client would suddenly develop complete memory loss about the events surrounding the alleged offence. The tactic only worked on those who believed in the power of rootwork.
Such was his notoriety that other practitioners of the dark arts of hoodoo copied his name as a means of boosting their businesses.
The small town of Como, North Carolina was where James Spurgeon Jordan (1871-1962) was known as “an enemy of Ole Satan.” Styling himself as a doctor, he was the son of former slaves who taught him about herbalism and spiritual healing. Denise M. Alvarado, author of an Anthology of Conjure, writes of Dr. Jordan that “He was successful in gaining the admiration of medical doctors, business and professional people, and law enforcement authorities. He also garnered an impeccable national reputation among conjure clientele as an honest man and powerful conjurer.”
Aunt Caroline Dye was born into slavery around 1843 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her owner moved to Arkansas along with her slaves. As a root doctor and spirit medium she drew huge crowds to her healing ceremonies. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Historian John Quincy Wolf wrote that, in a 400-mile radius from Newport (Arkansas), 'Aunt Caroline' was as well-known as President Woodrow Wilson.” So many people travelled from Memphis, Tennessee to see her that the train carrying them was called “The Caroline Dye Special.”
It's easy to be skeptical about the powers of root doctors. However, according to the Christian Post “93 percent of those who regularly attend religious services said they believe prayer heals . . .”
Perhaps, it's as well to follow the advice of Roger Pinkney who says, “It's better to not not believe in rootwork.”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine describes Gulf War Syndrome as “a widely used term to refer to the unexplained illnesses occurring in veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.” Symptoms include fatigue, diarrhea, musculoskeletal pain, skin rashes, and cognitive problems. According to author Roger Pinkney, some people believe that Gulf War Syndrome results from a hex cast by Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein.
- During the Great Depression people were sent out to interview surviving slaves and record their memories. Henry Barnes was interviewed in Mobile, Alabama and he recalled, in the vernacular the researchers used, the activities of a root doctor: “Atter I was nearly growed, dere was a gal name Penny what been down sick a long time an' dere was a cunjer doctor wukkin' on her tryin' cyure her, but her wan't 'greeable, so he let her die. Den a boy, name Ed, he had a mis'ry in he foot, an' hit went up he leg an' he cripple. Dere was a hoodoo doctor in de forks o' 'Bigbee Ribber come tend on him, an' he tol' ebber'body git outten de house 'cep'n' him an' Ed an' de Debil. He cyured Ed smack well.”
- “The Gullah or Geechee Community of South Carolina and Georgia.” Katherine Schulz Richard, ThoughtCo, April 10,2019.
- “Root Doctors.” John J. Beck, The Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006.
- “Low Country Root Doctors.” Beverly Willett, South Magazine, December 1, 2016.
- “Dr. Buzzard.” Stephen Criswell, South Carolina Encyclopedia, July 22, 2022.
- “Celebrated Mediums and Conjure Doctors.” Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, June 2, 2020.
- “ 'Aunt Caroline' Dye (1843?–1918).” Robert D. Craig, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, April 5, 2022.
- “Slave Narratives.” guttenberg.org, released May 2, 2011.
- “77 Percent of Americans Believe in Healing Power of Prayer; Far Fewer Believe in Creationism.” Ravelle Mohammed, Christian Post, September 8, 2011.
- “Conjure Doctors and Spiritual Mothers.” Denise M. Alvarado, conjuredoctors.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor