Southern Spirits: Ghostly Voices from Dixie Land
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VOUDOOISM:
AFRICAN FETICH WORSHIP
AMONG THE MEMPHIS NEGROES

by Anonymous
from "The Memphis Appeal" [newspaper] (circa 1865-1867)

Paschal Beverly Randolph

This is an extract from "Seership!" by the great 19th century African American magicaian and Rosicrucian, Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825 - 1875). Born in New York State (of parents from Virginia), Randolph travelled the world widely as a Free Man of Color. He was a world-renowned Spiritualist and Clairvoyant Reader, and wrote extensively on Sex-Magic and the art of Mirror Scrying. He also worked for Abolition before the Civil War and helped to raise money for the Black Militias of Louisiana during the conflict. Immediately after the war, he taught literacy courses to newly freed slaves in New Orleans under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau. When funding cuts brought an end to the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867, he returned to his former career as a Spiritualist author. "Seership!" was published in 1870.

The material quoted here begins and ends with Randolph's comments. The text within quote-marks (the bulk of this page) was written by an anonymous newspaper journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a man who was apparently both European-American and resentful of African-American freedom. References within the text allow us to date the original publication to a period between March 1865 and early 1867. Because this unknown author 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].

(AFTER RANDOLPH EXPLAINS WHAT HE MEANS BY HOODO OR VOUDOO):

In corroboration of what I have written, I beg leave to introduce, without comment, the following article concerning "Voudooism -- African Fetich Worship Among the Memphis Negroes," from the Memphis Appeal: -

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.

"The word Hoodoo, or Voudoo, is one of the names used in the different African dialects for the practice of the mysteries of the Obi (an African word signifying a species of sorcery and witchcraft common among the worshippers of the fetich). In the West Indies the word 'Obi' is universally used to designate the priests or practices of this art, who are called 'Obi' men and 'Obi' women.

[The word Obi is more commonly spelled Obeah today. It is the Jamaican equivalent of hoodoo, rootwork, and conjure.]

"In the southern portion of the United States -- Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia -- where the same rites are extensively practiced among the negroes, and where, under the humanizing and Christianzing influence of the blessed state of freedom and idleness in which they now exist and are encouraged by the Freedmen's Bureau, the religion is rapidly spreading. It goes under the name of Voudooism or Hoodooism.

[The Freedmen's Bureau -- a federal governmental agency formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands -- was created in March 1865. As mentioned above, Paschal Beverly Randolph was employed by the Bureau to teach literacy in New Orleans. The Freedmen's Bureau schools were absorbed into local segregated public school systems in September 1866 and the Bureau itself was abolished in 1867. The "Memphis Appeal" reporter's mention of the Freedmen's Bureau helps us date the otherwise uncited newspaper story that Randolph is quoting. Interestingly, Randolph declined to mention his own previous employment by the Freedmen's Bureau when he reprinted the "Memphis Appeal" article in his 1870 book. This was typical of his ambiguity as a bi-racial person who occasionally attempted to "pass" as "Spanish" when dealing with Caucasian Hermetic magicians of his day, but took his place as an African-American when working in the South.]

"The practicers of the art, who are always native Africans, are called hoodoo men or women, and are held in great dread by the negroes, who apply to them for the cure of diseases, to obtain revenge for injuries, and to discover and punish their enemies. The mode of operations is to prepare a fetich, which being placed near or in the dwelling of the person to be worked upon (under the doorstep, or in any snug portion of the furniture) is supposed to produced the most dire and terrible effects upon the victim, both physically and mentally.

[The word fetich -- more commonly spelled fetish -- is of Portuguese origin and signifies an idol or magical object of worship, particularly a small one. It is also often used in English to refer to any spell that is worked within a bag or packet, such as a mojo hand, toby, conjure bag, jack ball, nation sack or jomo.]

Among the materials used for the fetich are feathers of various colors, blood, dog's and cat's teeth, clay from graves, egg-shells, beads, and broken bits of glass. The clay is made into a ball with hair and rags, bound with twine, with feathers, human, alligators' or dogs' teeth, so arranged as to make the whole bear a resemblance to an animal of some sort.

[The term "clay from graves" refers to the use of graveyard dirt in spell-craft.]

"The person to be hoodooed is generally made aware that the hoodoo is 'set' for him, and the terror created in his mind by this knowledge is generally sufficient to cause him to fall sick, and it is a curious fact, almost always to die in a species of decline. The intimate knowledge of the hoodoos of the insidious vegetable poisons that abound in the swamps of the South, enables them to use these with great effect in most instances.

"With the above as introductory, our readers will better understand the following, which we vouch for as strictly true in every particular. Names and exact locality (although we will say that it occurred within a few miles of this city) are withheld at the request of the lady, whom we will call Mrs. A. :--

"Some months since the only child, a little daughter of Mrs. A., who had been left a widow by the war, was taken ill with what was then thought a slow malarious fever. The family physician was called in and prescribed for her, but in spite of his attentions she grew gradually worse, and seemed to be slowly but surely sinking and wasting away. Everything that medical skill could think of was done, but in vain.

"One evening, while Mrs. A. was watching by the bedside of the little sufferer, an old negro woman, who had been many years in the family, expressed her belief that the child had been 'hoodooed.' Mrs. A. was a creole of Louisiana, and, having been from her earliest infancy among the megroes, was familiar with, and had imbibed not a few of their peculiar superstitions. In despair of deriving any benefit from the doctors, and completely baffled and worn out with the peculiar lingering nature of her child's illness, the suggestion of the woman made a great impression on her mind.

[The term "a creole of Louisiana" indicates that Mrs. A. was of mixed French and African descent, possibly also with an admixture of Native American and English. Given the time period, the term "an old negro woman, who had been many years in the family" may mean that the woman in question had formerly been a slave. Some wealthy Creoles, even though partially of African ethnicity themselves, were known to keep slaves.]

"In the neighborhood were two negroes who bore the reputation of being hoodoo men. They were both Congoes, and were a portion of the cargo of slaves that had run into Mobile Bay in 1860 or 1861.

[The notation that the two Hoodoo Men in Memphis were "Congoes" -- that is, from the Kingdom of the Congo in Central Africa -- is important, for although many scholars of the 20th century considered hoodoo to be a remnant or survival from West African religions such as Ocha (Santeria) or Voodoo (Voudun), it is quite apparent that both Jamaican obeah and United States hoodoo are primarily derived from Kongo practices and are more closely allied with other Congolese religions in the diaspora, such as Cuban Palo than they are with West African (Nigerian or Beninois) religions.]

"As usual with their more civilized professional brethren, these two hoodoos were deadly enemies, and worked against each other in every possible way. Each had his own particular crowd of adherents, who believed him to be able to make the more powerful grigats.

[The term "grigats" is an unusual spelling of the Congo word "gree-gree" or "gri-gri," meaning a spell-packet, mojo hand, conjure bag, toby, nation sack, or jomo. In America this word also appears, with its spelling borrowed from the French transliteration of the Kikongo, as "gris-gris," which is pronounced with a silent final "s" -- gree-gree -- but looks like the French words for "grey-grey."]

"One of these hoodoos lived on or near Mrs. A.'s place, and, although she was ashamed of the superstition which led her to do so, she sent for him immediately to come over to see her child. The messenger returned, and said that Finney (that was the sorcerer's name) would come, but that Mrs. A. must first send him a chicken cock, three conch shells, and a piece of money with a hole in it.

"She complied with his demands, and he shortly afterward appeared with the cock under his arm, fancifully decorated with strips of yellow, red, and blue flannel, and the three conches trigged up pretty much in the same manner. Placing the conches on the floor in the shape of a triangle, he laid the cock down in the centre of it on its side. He then drew his hand across it in the same direction three or four times. On leaving it the cock lay quiet and did not attempt to move, although it was loose and apparently could have done so had it wished.

["Trigged up" (sometimes written "tricked up") is an old term for "stylishly decorated."]

"After these preliminaries, he examined the child from head to foot, and, after doing so, brokeout into a loud laugh, muttering words to himself in an African dialect. Turning to Mrs. A., who was all anxiety, he told her that the child was hoodooed, that he had found the marks of the hoodoo, and that it was being done by his rival (who lived some miles off, although considered in the same neighborhood), and that he (Finney) intended to show him that he could not come into his district hoodooing without his permission.

"He then called the servants and every one about the place up, and ordered them to appear one by one before him. So great was the respect and terror with which they regarded him, that, although many of them obviously did so with reluctance, not one failed to obey the summons. He regarded each one closely and minutely, and asked if he or she had seen either a strange rooster, dog, or cat around the house in the past few days; to which questions they made various answers. The chambermaid, who attended on the room in which the child lay, was one of those who were particularly reluctant to appear before him or to answer his questions. He remarked this, and grinning so as to show his sharply filed teeth nearly from ear to ear, he said, 'Ha, gal, better me find you out than the buckra!'

"This was late at night, and, after making his 'reconnoisance,' he picked up his conches and the cock, and prepared to go, telling Mrs. A. to move the little sufferer into another room and bed. Promising that he would be back early in the morning, he left the house. At an early hour next morning he returned with a large bundle of herbs, which, with peculiar incantations, he made into a bath, into which he placed the child, and from that hour it began to recover rapidly.

[The use of spiritual cleansing baths remains an important hoodoo practice to this day.]

"He, however, did not stop here. He determined to find out the hoodoo, and how it had been used; so, after asking permission, he ripped open the pillows, and the bed in which the child had lain, and therein he found and brought forth a lot of fetiches made of feathers bound together in the most fantastic forms, which he gave to Mrs. A., telling her to burn them in the fire, and to watch the chambermaid carefully, saying that as they had burned and shrivelled up, so she would shrivel up. The girl, who had displayed from the first the most intense uneasiness, was listening at the keyhole of an adjoining room, and heard these injunction. With a scream she rushed into the room, and, dropping on her knees at Mrs. A.'s feet, implored her not to burn the fetiches, promising, if she would not, to make a clean confession of her guilt.

[Burning malevolent spell-packets in a fire is probably the most common way to dispose of tricks and ritual remains in the hoodoo tradition.]

"Mrs. A., by this time deeply impressed with the strangeness and mystery of the affair, was prevailed upon by the entreaties of the girl, and kept the 'fetiches' intact, and the chambermaid confessed that she had been prevailed upon by the other 'hoodoo man' to place these fetiches in the bed of the child. She protested she did not know for what reason, and that afterward she wished to take them out, but did not dare to do so for fear of him.

"As soon as the family physician came in, Mrs. A., completely bewildered, told him the whole affair, showing him the fetiches, and making the girl repeat her story to him. He, being a practical man, and having withal considerable knowledge of chemistry, took the bunches of feathers home with him, and on making a chemical examination of them, found them imbued with a very deadly poison.

"Meanwhile, he told the affair to two or three neighbors, and getting out a warrant for the arrest of the malignant hoodoo man, they went to the hut to arrest him. The bird had flown, however, and could nowhere be found. Some of the negroes had, no doubt, carried word to him, and he had thought it best to clear out from that neighborhood. The little patient, relieved from inhaling the poison in her pillow and bed, soon got well, and Mrs. A. has now in her possession the fetiches which came so near making her a childless widow.

"It may not be generally known to the public, but it is nevertheless a fact, that these barbarous African superstitions and practices prevail, and are increasing among the 'freedmen' not only of Memphis and Tennessee, but of all the southern States. It is the clearest proof of the inevitable tendency of the negro to relapse into barbarism when left to control himself."

So much for Voudooism. I believe this story to be true, for I have myself been a victim to the thing, but the doctor who analyzed the stuff, and found "poison," is both a cheat and a sham to hide his utter ignorance. There was no poison about it. The whole thing is purely magnetic, as I can demonstrate at will, for I know this thing from end to end.

But I have already exceeded the limits assigned to this part of my subject ...

[And here Randolph returns to the subject of magic mirrors. I tend to agree with him, by the way, that the doctor who said the feather-dolls were "poisoned" was not being honest, else how could Mrs. A. have kept them in her home as souvenirs?]

This material is reprinted from

Seership!
The Magnetic Mirror
A Practical Guide to Those Who Aspire
to Clairvoyance-Absolute

Original and Selected from Various European and Asiatic Adepts

By
Paschal Beverly Randolph.

Boston
Randolph Publishing Co.
1870

Long after Randolph's death, a reprint of this book, combined with a portion of another book by Randolph ("Eulis!") was edited and published by R. Swinburne Clymer under the revised title:

Seership
Guide to Soul Sight
A Practical Guide for Those Who Aspire
to Develop the Vision of the Soul

The Magic Mirror and How to Use It

By
Paschal Beverly Randolph, M. D.

Published by
The Confederation of Initiates
Beverly Hall, Quakertown, Pa.
1930

The latter edition is the one most commonly found; the text above appears pages 23-28 of the 1930 reprint.

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