Today we’ll be looking at some famous personalities from the root working world. These are not comprehensive biographies, by any means. But they should at least give you some cursory information and enough information to look into the interesting lives of these conjure-folk further if you desire.
So, without further adieu, here’s Who’s Who in Hoodoo:
Historical Hoodoo Figures
Marie Laveau – Known as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” there is much folklore and little fact surrounding the powerful figure of Marie Laveau. She was a free woman of color living in New Orleans during most of the 19th century, living to be nearly 100 years old herself. She was flamboyant—holding large dances in Congo Square and appearing frequently with a large snake which she had named Gran Zombi—but surprisingly also very devout, often attending Catholic mass on a regular basis. While she is best known for her Voodoo associations, Laveau had a tremendous gift for magic, and was said to maintain control of the city through a network of informants and a healthy dose of sorcery. Zora Neale Hurston, who studied hoodooo (and Voodoo) with Laveau’s alleged nephew, Luke Turner, wrote about Laveau’s intense magical power:
“The police hear so much about Marie Leveau that they come to her house in St. Anne Street to put her in jail. First one come, she stretch out her left hand and he turn round and round and never stop until some one come lead him away. Then two come together…she put them to running and barking like dogs. Four come and she put them to beating each other with night sticks. The whole station force come. They knock at her door. She know who they are before she ever look. She did work at her altar and they all went to sleep on her steps” (Hurston, Mules and Men, Part II, Chapter 2)
Today, many people—magical practitioners or not—visit her grave in New Orleans, leaving her offerings and asking her for favors, a practice not uncommon in hoodoo. (additional info gathered from Wikipedia and R.E. Guiley’s Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft).
Doc Buzzard – There are many who claim the name “Doc” Buzzard, but the most famous one is a South Carolina root doctor from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a famed magician and healer, and was much sought after for his cures. He was also white, which sometimes surprises people. There were many inheritors to the name “Doc Buzzard,” one of the best known being a rather unscrupulous character who was eventually reigned in by…
Sheriff James McTeer – According to Jack Montgomery, who spent a good bit of time interviewing McTeer:
“Sheriff McTeer recounted a…conclusion to a psychic war he had with the famous Doctor Buzzard. McTeer ordered Dr. Buzzard to stop selling potions. This particular war of curse and counter-curses ended with the drowning death of Dr. Buzzard’s son. Soon after, Dr Buzzard visited McTeer and the two men made peace and became friends of a sort.” (Montgomery, American Shamans, Chapter 1)
McTeer was a gifted hoodoo in his own way, though he was less focused on the prefabricated potions which made hoodoo a viable commercial enterprise throughout the 20th century.
Aunt Caroline Dye – A famed hoodoo woman from Arkansas, Aunt Caroline Dye was another long-lived magical practitioner (supposedly living to the ripe old age of 108). She was cited in Harry Hyatt’s encyclopedic text on hoodoo as being a great jinx-breaker, and the Lucky Mojo page on her cites several blues songs devoted to her legendary gifts.
Henri Gamache – A pseudonym for an otherwise unnamed author, Henri Gamache is the name associated with many of the most influential texts in mid-20th century hoodoo. His “Philosophy of Fire” as outlined in The Master Book of Candle Burning is a foundational text for conjure candle rituals, and includes a good number of psalm rituals as well. Other key texts authored by Gamache include Terrors of the Evil Eye Exposed and Mystery of the Long Lost 8th, 9th, and 10th Books of Moses.
Moses – Speaking of Moses… There are many who look on Moses as the first conjure man. He was imbued with holy power by G-d, and used several commonplace tools to create miracles, not unlike the conjure men and women of recent times. Some of his “tricks” include:
- Transforming his staff into a serpent (Exodus 7)
- Turning the Nile into blood (Exodus 7)
- Summoning the Plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-12)
- Parting the Red Sea (Exodus 14)
- Bringing water from the rock with his staff (Exodus 17)
- Mounting a bronze serpent on a staff to cure venomous snake bites among the Israelites (Numbers 21)
Zora Neale Hurston was a major proponent of this view of Moses, making it a central theme in her book Moses, Man of the Mountain. In Mules and Men, Hurston describes Moses as:
“The first man who ever learned God’s power-compelling words and it took him forty years to learn ten words. So he made ten plagues and ten commandments. But God gave him His rod for a present and showed him the back part of His glory. Then too, Moses could walk out of the sight of man” (Hurston, Mules and Men, Part II, Chapter 1).
Of course, this is not the common view of Moses, but I like to at least consider the idea…but then I like to take a generally unorthodox view of lots of Judeo-Christian mythology, myself.
Zora Neale Hurston – To end, I thought I should at least mention the woman I’ve cited several times today. Zora Neale Hurston is a folklorist from the mid-20th century whose most famous book is Their Eyes Were Watching God. However much of her best work is in the study of hoodoo and Voodoo in books such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. While many of her stories are elaborations or even (possibly) completely fictional constructs, they nonetheless provide a lot of good hoodoo techniques, recipes, and philosophies. Taken with a hefty grain of salt, her work is a great way to explore hoodoo as it grew within the African-American community during the twentieth century.
That’s it for today. Tomorrow I hope to get into contemporary rootworkers. Until then…
Thanks for reading!