Southern Spirits: Ghostly Voices from Dixie Land
introduction | 19th century hoodoo | 20th century hoodoo | 21st century hoodoo

IGNORANCE, SUPERSTITION,
AND VOODOOISM
OF THE COLORED PEOPLE
by Henry Clay Bruce

(1895)

This is an extract from "The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man" by Henry Clay Bruce. A few fragments from the Introduction and Chapter I will serve to set the scene of Bruce's youth and early life as a slave, then Chapter V, dealing with conjure, is archived and annotated in full. The entirety of the book is available elsewhere online without annotations, as noted below.

Henry Clay Bruce was born in Virginia in 1836 and raised from early youth in Missouri. After "twenty-nine years a slave, twenty-nine years a free man," he was 58 years old when he wrote this memoir and 59 when the book was published in 1895. He died in 1902.

This photograph, the frontispiece to "The New Man," depicts Bruce in his self-satisfied and well-dressed middle age, wearing what appears to be a diamond-studded stick-pin in the shape of a dollar sign.

One of Bruce's major reasons for writing "The New Man" was to argue that ignorance, superstition, and laziness could be found in equal measure among both whites and blacks, and that what he called the "high-toned Negro," the "superior blooded class of blacks" and the "ambitious freemen" of the South had more in common with their white former masters than they did with either "lazy and mean negroes" or "the 'poor white' class."

Taking Uncle Tomism to an extreme rarely found in African American writing, Bruce extolled the honor and bravery of the "faithful" slaves who defended the Confederacy against the Union:

"If there had been no superior blooded class of blacks in the South, during the dark and uncertain days of the war there would not have been the history of that band of noble selfsacrificing heroes, who guarded with untiring and unquestioned faith, the homes and honor of the families of the very men who were fighting to tighten their chains. No brighter pages of history will ever be written, than those which record the services of the slaves, who were left in charge of their masters' homes. These men will be found in every case to have been those, who as slaves would not be whipped, nor suffer punishment; who would protect the honor of their own women at any cost; but who would work with honesty and fidelity at any task imposed upon them."
Such ideas are not popular now -- nor were they then, except among whites such as Sallie M. Park, who cast a nostalgic eye back upon the days when they happily kept human beings as chattel.

But lest anyone think that Bruce came by his "fidelity" to his white former masters because he had been well treated by them, it is quite apparent that such was not the case. As he relates in Chapter I, while he was a motherless boy only 10 years old, he was hired out by his owner to work for "Judge Applegate, who conducted a tobacco factory at Keytesville, Missouri":

"[...] at Judge Applegate's I was kept busy every minute from sunrise to sunset, without being allowed to speak a word to anyone. I was too young then to be kept in such close confinement. It was so prison-like to be compelled to sit during the entire year under a large bench or table filled with tobacco, and tie lugs all day long except during the thirty minutes allowed for breakfast and the same time allowed for dinner. I often fell asleep. I could not keep awake even by putting tobacco in my eyes. I was punished by the overseer, a Mr. Blankenship, every time he caught me napping [...]."

After recounting such cruelty, Bruce's put-downs of "ignorant negroes" come across sounding less like the rantings of a race-traitor and more like the pathetic assimilationist fantasies of a shell-shocked abuse survivor, but no matter how his childhood maltreatment might excuse the man, his racial judgementalism does not hold up well against the tough political standards of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not surprisingly, his lengthy account of hoodoo is equally sour. To him it is all bunkum, fraud, and deceit -- even when it happens to work. But, to be fair, he does not spare any culture's religious or magical beliefs from savage criticism -- as he explains at the close of Chapter V, the Spirit Dances of the Indians and the witchcraft of the Europeans are just as ridiculous to him as the conjuration practices of his own people.

So why have i included Henry Clay Bruce's anti-conjure writings here? For two reasons:

First, Bruce's political obstreperousness and his virulently anti-magical oratory do not diminish his value as a witness. His reports about conjure doctoring during the era of 19th century slavery are clear, well expressed, and terminologically accurate, even when he is describing events at second hand. In particular, his accounts of a curing ceremony for the removal of "live things" and his description of the burial of a jack under a doorstep are important, given the relatively early era of their publication.

Second, Bruce's voice is a clear reminder, for those who may need one, that, just as there have always been smug skeptics, arrogant atheists, and snooty social Darwinists in the white community, so have there been in the black community. Black America does not present us with a uniform good-old-days 19th century "conjure culture" of smiling Uncle Remuses recounting folktales while exotic Hoodoo Gypsy Queens prepare Love Potion Number Nine in the back room. Far from it.

For ease of reading and to facilitate annotation, i have broken some lengthy paragraphs into shorter sections. Because the 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].

[Pages 52 - 59]

CHAPTER V.

It is encouraging to note the advancement made upon the stronghold of ignorance, superstition and voodooism by the Colored people, since their emancipation from the bonds of slavery, and especially is this so to those who remember the time when a large majority; of them believed strongly in all kinds of superstition voodooism, gophering, tricking and conjuring.

[Gophering is usually spelled goofering these days, and most people pronounce it that way, but a significant number of folks still say gophering, with a long "o," especially when referring to "gopher dust" or "goofer dust." Notice that the words hoodoo and rootwork do not occur in Bruce's account and that in keeping with his assimilationist tendencies, he has adopted the white term "voodooism," as did his near-contemporary fellow assimilationist Paschal Beverly Randolph.]

I readily recall many instances wherein they were fleeced out of their little valuables or money by professional humbugs, known as conjurors, who succeeded in duping their fellow-slaves so successfully, and to such an extent, that they believed and feared them almost beyond their masters. I have known of cases where these conjurors held whole neighborhoods, as it were in such mortal fear, that they could do unto the Colored people anything they desired, without the least fear of them telling their masters. These conjurors made all kinds of boasts and threats, as to what they could and would do to anyone who dared to interfere with them or even dispute their word, or question their ability to carry out what they claimed to be able to do.

These conjurors claimed to be able to do almost anything in the line of impossibilities, even to taking lift by the winking of their eye, to make a master be kind to a slave, to prevent him from selling one, even if he desired to do so, to make a girl love a man, whether she desired him or not, to make a man love and even marry a woman if she desired him.

For a stipulated sum paid them, they would give what was called "a hand or a jack," which they claimed would enable the horde to accomplish what he desired, and at the same time protect him from all harm, provided always, that the holder had faith and followed instructions.

These conjurors claimed to be able to bury a hand or a jack under the master's door step, which would prevent him from whipping a particular slave while it was there. Of course, if that particular slave got whipped, and so reported to the old conjuror, he would promptly claim one of three things, either that someone had removed the jack, or that the fellow had failed to carry out instructions, or had no faith in the jack, and therefore was deserving of punishment.

These conjurors claimed to be able to put pain, or even permanent disability upon any one they desired, and could remove the trick put on by another conjuror, could cause live scorpions to appear under the skin of persons, and could take out those put there by other conjurors. They claimed that nearly every pain or ache was the result of conjuration, and the one sent for could take it off.

To show to what extent these people believed in voodooism, and could be fleeced, I will relate a story told me by Ike Cabel, of Brunswick, Mo. He said he was out with a surveying party about the year I852, and camped near a large plantation in Louisiana. He gave it out among the slaves that he was a conjuror, and soon thereafter his camp was besieged every night by slaves with all kinds of aches and pains, which he cured with red clay, oak leaves and salt boiled, and collected fifty cents from each.

[This is a typical "three ingredient bath," comprised of two minerals and one herb. In the 1960s in Oakland, California, i was given a similar recipe for making a boiled tea in which to bathe clients who had physical pains, using oak bark instead of the leaves and red brick dust instead of red clay; the salt remained the same.]

A man came one night claiming that he had a scorpion in his leg, and that he felt it running up and down the leg. He told the man to come the next night, which he did. The next day he wanted a live scorpion, and being afraid of it himself, he got two young white men of the party to catch one for him, promising them one-half he was to receive for the job, and of course, let them into the secret. They captured a scorpion, wrapped it up carefully in brown paper, so that it could not escape or bite, and delivered it to Ike.

After rubbing the man's leg for a while with his other trick medicine with one hand, carefully holding his little animal in the other, and when ready for the final act, he looked heavenward, and in a loud voice commanded the scorpion to come out of the man's leg. Then in a few seconds he informed his dupe that the animal had come, and at the same time, and by a quick motion, freed the scorpion and brushed it from the leg to the floor, when the freed scorpion attempted to escape, and was killed and carried away by the patient after paying the three dollars.

Now it would have been a hard job to convince that poor, innocent, unsuspecting man, that he did not have a live scorpion taken from his leg. His imagination was cured, and he was satisfied, and spread the news far and wide of his wonderful cure.

[This is a classic account of a curing ceremony for the condition called "live things in you." The live things may be snakes, frogs, scorpions, or any kind of vermin, Pins and needles are also said to migrate through the legs, as described in the account of Tom Frierson, as related by Sallie M. Park.]

It is claimed that the way scorpions and other little poisonous animals or insects are gotten into the body is through whiskey. That the little scorpion is killed and laid out to dry, and when thoroughly dried is beaten into dust, and the dust put into a bottle of whiskey, and in a short time after being drank will reproduce itself, whatever it is, under the skin of the drinker. At any rate, I remember that conjurors were never asked for a drink of whiskey, and people were always afraid to take a drink from some men's bottle until the owner had drank first, "to take the poison off."

[The introduction of "live things" through poisoned food or drink is a common motif in tales of conjure both old and new.]

These conjurors practiced with different kinds of roots, seeds, barks, insects, and other strange ingredients, but polk root and green planten were among their principal remedies to take off a trick or a pain.

[Bruce is no doubt referring to Poke Root and Plantain (the low growing field herb Plantain, not the banana-relative of the same name). Poke, being a native American plant, was introduced into hoodoo by Native herbalists, who used it to relieve rheumatic and arthritic pains. Plantain is a European plant that has naturalized all over America and is made use of in Pennsylvania Dutch (German) folk magic and curing rites associated with John George Hohman's book "Pow Wows or the Long Lost Friend."]

Of course they had some queer ways of mixing things to make it appear mysterious A poultice made of polk root is said to be a good remedy for rheumatism, and these conjurors probably knew that, and put in the poultice a few harmless things to make it appear strange, and if the rheumatic pain was removed, they would claim that they had taken off a trick put there by some conjuror.

Of course different conjurors have different jacks and different "hands," but the two I saw were composed of hog-bristles, old horse shoe nails, a little red clay, salt, red pepper, red oak leaves, soaked in vinegar, then wrapped in a roll about three inches long and one inch thick, and tied with a yarn string very tightly. There is a peculiar lingo to accompany the "jack," and it varies according to requirements.

[For a lengthy account of the making of such a rod-shaped jack, including a sample of the "lingo" or "quoting in" speech that is part of its creation, see Mary Alicia Owen's description a "Luck ball.". Also note that in designating what is now often called a "mojo," Bruce utilizes the older terms "hand" and "jack."]

To show how thoroughly these people believed in conjurors, and to what extent they could be imposed upon by them, I will relate one more instance, which was told me by an old lady whose word I cannot doubt, and whom I have known for these many years, but to honor and cheer. She said that she belonged to one of two brothers living on adjoining farms in Amelia County, Va, prior to the year 1830, and that one of them was a bachelor and the other a widower, and that they loved each other dearly. That they owned about thirty slaves each, and that one of them decided to break up and take his slaves to Alabama, and made all arrangements to do so. When the day came to start, he gave the order to load the wagons and hitch up the horses, which was done, and that they remained standing, as did the slaves, until late in the afternoon, when the master came to the front door and gave orders to unload and unhitch the teams, and for the slaves to go to his brother's field to work. On the next day he left on horseback in company with another man bound for Alabama.

She said that many of his slaves did not want to go, and hearing of a great conjuror living ten miles away, made up a purse and sent for him. He came the night previous to the time set for starting to Alabama. My informant says, that he told them upon his arrival, that they had waited too long in sending for him, that if they had sent for him earlier he could have stopped all, but now he could only stop the slaves from going, and even that would depend on whether the master walked over a "hand," which he was going to put under the front door steps.

She says the old conjuror went to the front door steps of the great house about twelve o'clock that night, dug a small hole under the ground step, took from his pocket a little ball, talked to it a while in a whisper, then kissed it and put it in the hole, and covered it carefully and came away. That the slaves, she among them, watched the old master next morning, until they saw him come down the steps and walk around a while, then go back over this particular step. That they were then satisfied that the old master could not take them anywhere, and he did not.

I was never able to convince my dear old lady friend that all conjurors were humbugs, and this one was among them, and that it was purely a matter of chance so far as he was concerned.

[The burial of a mojo bag, hand, jack, or bottle spell under the doorstep where the target will walk is among the best known examples of foot track magic in hoodoo. Given how well and dramatically quickly this trick worked in the instance described, it is no wonder that Bruce could not convince his friend that conjure is bunk.]

I do not want it understood that these conjurors were believed in by all Colored people, for there were a large number of intelligent ones, who paid no attention to conjurors, even defied them, told them that they were humbugs and liars.

These conjurors were a shrewd set of fellows, and on that account alone were enabled to fool the less informed. They were industrious, and hard working, and faithful servants, and of course received no punishment, and were keen enough to point to this fact as evidence of the power of their jack in keeping their master under control, when, as a matter of fact, it was their faithful service alone that protected them from the lash.

There have been cases where Colored people took sick from some cause, and imagined themselves tricked or poisoned by some one, and the white doctor, unable to do them any good, gave up the case, and the patients, believing themselves poisoned and therefore incurable, have died, when they might have been saved, if the white doctor had only thought for a moment, and instead of giving up the case, announced himself a conjuror, and proceeded to doctor his patient's mind.

Superstition in some form has always existed, especially among illiterate people, regardless of color, and the more illiterate the greater the amount of superstition, and as a case of strong evidence of this, I point to the "spirit dance" by the Indians of the far West, where the excitement created by it has been so great, that an uprising was only kept down by the vigilance of the regular army. While conjuring, tricking and gophering, and the like, were believed in by the slaves, and spirit dances and other forms of superstition were practiced by the Indians, the American white people believed as strongly in another form of superstition called "witch craft," that they burnt innocent men and women at the stake.

In order to show that education and intelligence are the great powers which have been the means of dispelling the gloom of superstition and voodooism among the Colored people especially, I will state that the Colored people of Missouri, particularly those of Chariton, Howard, Carroll and Randolph counties, were above the ordinary slaves in the more extreme Southern states in intelligence and education, and did not believe in voodooism or conjuration nearly as much as those in old Virginia, and when one was brought to Missouri who claimed to be able to exercise those miraculous powers, he was immediately laughed and openly defied by all excepting a few of the more illiterate. I recall one instance where a man named Magruder, who owned about forty slaves, which he brought to Brunswick, Missouri, from Virginia, and bought land near the town and settled thereon. Among his slaves was an old, whiteheaded, crippled man, known as a conjuror. He claimed to be able to do many mysterious and impossible things, and among those who belonged to his master he was believed and feared, but the Colored people in that vicinity laughed at him, defied his threats, and denounced him as an old humbug, for in truth such he was, and when those who believed in him saw him defied and denounced, and his inability to carry out his threats, they took courage and denounced him too. When he saw his business assailed and himself defied, with no more opportunity to gull the people, he gave it out that his favorite plants and roots did not grow or could not be found in that country, and that alone was the reason why he could not practice his profession. The truth of the matter was, that the Colored people in that state were more intelligent than those from whence he came, and therefore could not be easily humbugged.

This material is reprinted from


The New Man.
Twenty-Nine Years a Slave.
Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man.
Recollections of H[enry] C[lay] Bruce
York, Pa.
P. Anstadt and Sons
1895

Specifically, i have copied and annotated Chapter V from the online edition at
http://docsouth.unc.edu/bruce/bruce.html:


The New Man.
Twenty-Nine Years a Slave.
Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man:
Electronic Edition.
Bruce, Henry Clay, 1836-1902
Funding from the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition
supported the electronic publication of this title.

Text scanned (OCR) by Krista Eberl
Text encoded by Don Sechler and Natalia Smith
First edition, 1997.
ca. 400K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
1997.
(c) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use
as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Call number E444 .B9 1895 (Rare Book Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

SOUTHERN SPIRITS: GHOSTLY VOICES FROM DIXIE LAND
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