Post-colonial America was the backdrop for one of the most extraordinary cultural confrontations. The story of human migration and environmental challenges is as old as human existence, but never before in the history of the human race had so many different peoples, their myriad languages, cultures, customs, and beliefs been thrown together so quickly and so chaotically in a new land, facing an environment strange and yet familiar in equal measure. This applies not just to the pioneers who pushed westwards in the mid-nineteenth- century, for it is often overlooked that much of the Eastern seaboard was also virgin country to Europeans at the time. Swathes of woodland in New York State, for instance, were turned into farmland through the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrant families during the 1800s. Poverty, starvation, and disease were the lot of many, yet within a generation towns were founded, industries created, roads built, and a myriad churches and prayer houses constructed. In many respects, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settlers faced the same environmental difficulties, cultural encounters, and social tensions as the seventeenth-century colonists. It is no surprise, then, that the magical beliefs that both comforted and concerned the early settlers were as relevant to the lives of Americans two and three centuries later. In other ways the experience was very different. In the push westwards Europeans were confronted with unfamiliar landscapes and new peoples. With the growth of the slavery system during the eighteenth century, African influences became deeply engrained in the magical and medical cultures of Europeans, while relationships with Native Americans deepened as trade, encroachment, settlement, and state building accelerated. The rapidly expanding cities of the nineteenth century were the destination for millions of new arrivals.
Faced with survival in these challenging environments it is not surprising that those recently settled in the countryside, often forming isolated communities with none of the familiar medical services, magical experts, and communal structures to cope with misfortune, initially resorted to their homelands for succour. So when, in 1885, Mrs John Solomon, of the Swedish community of Belgrade, Minnesota, suspected her lingering illness was due to witchcraft she wrote to friends in Sweden for advice about an appropriate witch doctor. One being suggested, she then wrote to him in Sweden enclosing a lock of her hair and a fragment of her clothing. The witch doctor wrote back that she had been bewitched by an old woman who frequently went to the Solomon’s house. This fitted the description of Mrs Solomon’s aunt, who was then publicly accused of witchcraft. New life in an urban environment could be equally isolating and disorientating. Who to turn to for magical help? When, in 1901, the sister of Peter Calebrese, of 138 Ewing Street, Chicago, fell ill due to supposed witchcraft, she did not seek relief locally but returned to her family home in Italy to see if the spell could be negated.1
Cultural misunderstandings about healing rituals and magic charms occurred in the multi-ethnic environments and dense housing of rapidly expanding towns. In the summer of 1871 a Dutch family moved from Grand Rapids to Watson Street, Detroit. It was not an area with a significant Dutch population and the family spoke no English. The name of the family seems to have been Stupemeyer—or that was at least how a local policeman pronounced it. After a few days Mr Stupemeyer was struck down with a fever and his wife tried a variety of home cures that struck neighbours as quite bizarre and worrying. One woman saw him holding a bag of ash in one hand and a cup of cold water in the other. The idea it seems was that the ash would absorb the fever, which would then be quenched by mixing with the cold water. Concerned neighbours who were unable to communicate with the couple called in the local doctor, but his help was also declined. Others offered to stay up and tend the gravely ill man but Mrs Stupermeyer just shook her head to say no. Finally, after several days, a man who could speak Dutch was brought in and threatened her with arrest if she did not let the doctor tend to her husband.
Margaret Carr of Pittsburgh found herself in a tricky situation in the autumn of 1867 due to similar neighbourhood incomprehension. Carr’s grandchild was sick with a respiratory infection know as croup. To cure it she purchased a black cat from which she took three drops of blood to rub into the child’s inflamed and swollen throat. This was a fairly well-known cure for various afflictions. The author of a history of Virginia recalled in the early nineteenth century that it was a common sight to see black cats with cropped ears and tails due to the practice of obtaining blood from them to cure the skin infection known as erysipelas. The practice was widespread in Britain and Ireland too. It was noted in 1825, for example, that three drops of blood from a black cat’s tail was a very common cure for epilepsy amongst the ‘lower orders’ of London and Essex. So in some American communities the procedure would have attracted no suspicion at all. But evidently some people in Carr’s Pittsburgh neighbourhood were unfamiliar with the cure; for them the desire for cat’s blood was proof of witchery. Fearful of retribution, Carr requested the intervention of the authorities. Her lawyer William Owens brought twenty witnesses to court to testify as to the benign nature and efficacy of the cure, and so dispel the suspicions of witchcraft.2 In the 1920s the New York Board of Health were baffled by the sudden demand for dog fat. An investigation was launched which found that it was being used in a folk remedy to cure tuberculosis.3 A search through ethnomedical sources shows that the ingestion of dog fat was a widespread practice in Poland, Russia, and other parts of Eastern Europe. It would have been a peculiar practice to those of British or Irish origin, though.
The terminology of magic and witchcraft provides a fascinating indication of the often imperceptible cultural exchanges that took place. Every immigrant brought and used the language of his or her homeland, so no doubt Poles, Croatians, and Swedes in America continued to complain of the czarownice, vjestice, and haxor in their midst. But English, German, Native-American, and African- American terms would come to diffuse widely across the population. The Native- American ‘pow-wow’ is thought to be of Algonquin origin, and seventeenth- century English colonists used it to refer to Native-American medicine men, although it also had a meaning as a communal, ritual meeting. By the twentieth century its usage was widespread amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch to describe a distinctive type of folk healer or ‘doctor’ who used magic charms, herbs, and the Bible, with the act of healing being described as ‘pow-wowing’. But while the word derived from Native Americans, the practices concerned did not.4 It is likely that the term became pervasive thanks to its inclusion in the title of a popular printed collection of charms of German origin, the Long Lost Friend. The term ‘power doctor’ recorded in the Ozarks for a similar category of magical healer probably derives from ‘pow-wow’.5
While the German term ‘braucherei’ to describe the same faith-based healing as pow-wow medicine did not permeate beyond the German speaking community, the term for a witch, ‘hex’ (hexerei, witchcraft), became engrained in American popular idiom. As was observed in a study of American speech in 1935, ‘the word hex seems as well established in the English of the region as the word pretzel or sauerkraut’.6 The spread of its usage beyond the German community was in no small part due to the newspapers’ adoption of the term as a noun and verb in the regular reports of Pennsylvania Dutch witchcraft that were broadcast across the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They described people as being ‘hexed’ or bewitched, while ‘hex slayer’ was used to label those who murdered suspected witches.
The English terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ are, of course, the most dominant terms in American popular usage to describe these malign magic workers, though we need to be aware that they do not necessarily equate exactly with Native - American or African-American conceptions. The Navajos, for instance, have distinctly different categories of harmful magic that, it has been argued, cannot be appropriately described by the umbrella term of ‘witchcraft’. The titles of ‘cunning-man’ and ‘cunning-woman’ to describe those who combated witches, while widespread in England, do not seem to have retained their common usage across the Atlantic by the nineteenth century. ‘Wise woman’ and ‘wise man’ were more widely used, but no more so than terms such as ‘witch master’ and ‘witch doctor’ that were uncommon in colloquial English speech. ‘Witch master’ probably derives from the German ‘Hexenmeister . The term ‘repeller’ crops up in one source from twentieth-century Kentucky. This is intriguing, for the only analogous term in a British context is the west Cornish term ‘peller’, which was first recorded in print in 1849. Although a Cornish language origin for it has been proposed, it is most likely a contraction of the English words ‘repeller’ or ‘expeller’.7 Many Cornish miners made their way to America in search of work during the mid-nineteenth century, and played a major role in the industry’s development. The widely respected skills of the Cousin Jacks, as the Cornish were known, meant they filled positions as foremen, bosses, and engineers as well as labourers.8 Some undoubtedly found themselves employed in the rich coal mines of Kentucky, and so it is possible that the state’s repeller was of Cornish heritage. The Cousin Jacks interviewed by the folklorist Richard Dorson in the old copper and iron mining communities of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1946, still used the West Country term ‘ill wish’ to mean ‘bewitch’, though the couple of instances of witchcraft he collected concerned people back in Cornwall.9
In contrast, ‘conjure’ and ‘conjurer’—the latter title used particularly in Wales and southern England, became the most widely employed terms in nineteenth- century African-American magic. The ‘conjure doctor’ fulfilled a similar role to the cunning-folk of Europe, in that they healed, detected stolen property, provided charms and spells to provoke love, cured bewitchment, and counteracted witches. More so than British cunning-folk, however, they were also thought to bewitch people when angered or for a fee.10 The eclectic range of magic they practised borrowed from European and Native-American beliefs, with a strong emphasis on the Bible.
Voodoo or Voudou is, strictly speaking, a form of religious worship of West African origin that continued in New Orleans into the late nineteenth century, but it came to be widely used by the media to describe any form of African-American and sometimes European magic.11 The term ‘hoodoo’ may be a variant spelling of voodoo’, although it has also been suggested that it derives from the West African word juju for magic. Hoodoo came to represent the same range of magical activities as practised by the conjure doctors, including the malevolent overtones. It was quite widely adopted as a noun, adjective and verb, with white miners referring to divining rods as ‘hoodoo sticks’ during the late nineteenth century for example. A range of other terms were also known in regional contexts across the South. ‘Goomer doctor’ was used in parts of the Ozarks and beyond. The adjective ‘goomered’ to mean bewitched was also in use in the early nineteenth century. Possibly of African origin, it was also uttered by whites in the Carolinas. In the early nineteenth century the South Carolina plantation owner, Mason Lee, who was originally from North Carolina, used it. As we will see later, Lee’s will was contested, and when the term ‘goomered’ was used by his acquaintances in court it left one reporter completely baffled as to its meaning.12 The word ‘tricked’ was also used in African-American communities to describe the casting of spells both benign and malign, though most often as a synonym for bewitched. The term crops up in a report dated 1822 on the murder of an African American for witchcraft. His assailant believed the man ‘had tricked’ him and his wife.13
In Louisiana the West African word gri-gri for charms was well established in African-American language, as was wanga for the practice of both good and bad magic.14 Under French influence, wangateur and wangateuse developed as names for male and female practitioners. One final term of note is ‘goopher’ or ‘goofer’, used quite widely in Georgia and the Carolinas to describe the magical use of the dead. It probably derives from the Kongo word kufwa meaning ‘to die’, but in America it had a broader sense. Graveyard dirt used in magic was known as goopher dust, and ‘goofering’ was to walk over a goofer or trick-bag containing graveyard dirt, hair, broken needles, and the like that activated a curse. The goopher doctor, like a conjure doctor, was someone who could both create goopher bags but also remove the curses.15
Europeans and Africans had accrued a huge store of knowledge about the healing and magical properties of animals and plants over the millennia. This was transmitted orally, via manuscripts, and then, in sixteenth-century Europe, by printed herbals, healing manuals, and books of secrets.16Some, but by no means all, of this knowledge was irrelevant in the American environment. Thomas Short’s Medicina Britannica, published in England in the 1740s, noted that amongst the many healing properties of the plant Herb Paris was its action against witchcraft, but the Philadelphia edition of 1751 reminded readers that the plant did not grown in the American provinces.17
Still, much was also familiar to the new arrivals. The alligators in the swamps of the eastern and southern states may have been strange beasts to many Europeans, but for West African slaves they were pretty much the same as the crocodiles in their homelands. So they knew how to exploit them as a source of food and medicine, including the use of the gall bladder as a poison. Then there were animal equivalents, so that German Americans transferred the healing properties of badger grease to that of the skunk.18 The European rowan and service tree, the berries of which Thomas Short noted were ‘formerly the dernier Resort against Witchcraft’, had close relatives in parts of America.19 European settlers also found hazel trees (Corylus americana) in north-eastern America similar to those in Europe, and so continued to exploit its anti-witchcraft properties. In the Ozarks crosses made from hazel twigs were a frequent sight nailed in bams and stables.20
New arrivals to America also brought plants that enabled them to continue traditional practices. Angelica, for example, was widely used in Europe for its antiwitchcraft properties, and became a staple of the colonial herb garden. In the mideighteenth century, the Pennsylvania apothecary and printer Christopher Sauer wrote in his German-language Compendious Herbal that ‘it has been discovered through everyday use that angelica provides a particularly good remedy for injuries brought about by witchcraft’.21 Sauer was clear about using European angelica rather than native-American varieties, which also had curative properties and were used by the indigenous population. In some cases imports had a major impact on the country’s agricultural development. The Goober or goober pea, otherwise known as the peanut, is a good example. Now a staple American snacking food, in African and early African-American belief it was associated in some contexts with witchcraft and bad luck.22
But American fauna and flora presented fantastic new medical and magical possibilities. Tobacco was one of the earliest examples, of course, but there were many more. One we shall encounter later is the puccoon or blood root (Sanguinaria canedensis), found along the eastern seaboard. This produces a red sap which was used by Native Americans as a dye and in herbal medicine. In African-American folk magic it was considered to bring good luck if rubbed on the body.23 This is not the place to engage in an extensive discussion of herbal medicine, so let us instead concentrate on two aspects of America’s fauna and flora, snakes and roots, which illustrate the exchange of knowledge between Native Americans, African Americans, and Europeans, and how it generated new expressions of magic.
North Europeans were no stranger to poisonous snakes in the form of the zigzag-patterned adder, but the range and deadliness of venomous snakes in America presented a new challenge for rural settlers. There was the swamp-loving cottonmouth in the south-eastern states that made the task of drainage a risky business, and the pretty but deadly coral snake. But it was the rattlesnake that understandably caused the most concern. In 1683 a French immigrant named Louis Thibou wrote that there had been much talk in England about the dangers of the rattlesnake, but in an effort to reassure his fellow Frenchman he stated that, ‘a few people have been bitten by accident, but there is a good remedy for that here and no one has ever died of their bite’.24 The early Carolina authorities and businessmen feared, nevertheless, that the rumours of the rattler’s power would put off potential settlers. Interest in them was enduring, though. In 1729 an English newspaper advertised that two live rattlesnakes, supposedly caught by American ‘Indians’, were on display in a wire cage for six pence a peek at a coffee house in Covent Garden, London. Visitors could also handle the rattle of a dead compatriot.25 It was not just the deadliness of the rattlesnake’s poison that attracted interest but its power to fascinate with its stare. While early colonial literature reported the rattlesnake as a matter-of-fact danger, from the late seventeenth century onwards there emerged a growing literature discussing the power of the rattlesnake to entrance animals and humans before it struck.26 The matter was a fitting subject for that esteemed scientific body the Royal Society. Around the same time its members were pondering the reports of second sight in the Scottish Highlands. Both were discussed in terms of the power of charming or ‘fascination’.
The occult world was still a matter of intellectual curiosity and imagination. In 1723 one colonial fellow of the Royal Society, Paul Dudley, wrote that he was ‘abundantly satisfied’ that the rattlesnake ‘charmed’ its prey into its mouth. ‘The Eye of this Creature has something so singular and terrible, that there is no looking stedfastly on him’ he asserted. Others reported how they felt sick and feeble once caught in a rattlesnake’s hypnotic glare. Christopher Witt, writing in 1735, took the argument into the realms of witchcraft discourse—‘Seeing that this fascinating Power of the Snake cannot be denied, why may it not be also allow’d in some malicious wicked old women’. Witt was an unusual individual, an English-born botanist and occultist of Germantown, Pennsylvania, but his view was probably widely shared.
Snakes played a significant role in Native-American myth, but there was confusion at the time as to whether the notion of the rattlesnake’s powers of ocular fascination derived from Native-American belief. Rattlesnakes were certainly used in some cursing rituals. Amongst the Shoshoni, during the late nineteenth century, people who wished to cause harm cooked the heads of rattlesnakes on hot coals, along with other ingredients, and placed the mixture in a buckskin bag. Whoever wore the bag could kill people by looking intently at them while muttering a charm. A Zuni witch was accused of making a missile from rattlesnake hearts, which she directed at children.27 It is clear, though, that settlers borrowed much from Native-American treatments for rattlesnake bites. A British herbal published in 1790 noted in its entry on Rattlesnake Root (Polygala senega), ‘we are indebted for our knowledge of this plant, and its virtues, to the Indians’.28 As its name suggested, the twisted yellow root of this perennial plant was considered a cure for rattlesnake bite by the Seneca, but was also used more widely for inflammation, fever, and as an expectorant. Commerce was created with one South Carolina physician advertising in 1750 that he would give five shillings for a pound of snakeroot.29 By the nineteenth century, Polygala senega was being exported to Europe for sale in druggists and chemists shops. Yet, there was reluctance on behalf of some to give credence to Native-American cures. This was alluded to by a correspondent to the Virginia Gazette in 1738, who found ‘many Persons railing against the Rattlesnake-Root... some through Disrespect to the Discoverer’. The correspondent, however, was convinced that it had saved the lives of himself and many of his slaves from pleurisy and the ague.30
By the 1800s Native-American herbal knowledge formed the basis of much of the published manuals of American pharmacy.31 This is evident in medical guides such as Abel Tennant’s 1837 Vegetable Materia Medica. Tennant recalled that his knowledge of one plant was ‘obtained from a man who was taken prisoner by the Indians when small, and to whom the Indian doctor gave a full account of the plants used by them in curing diseases’.32 One important contribution to the medicine chest was the use of pinkroot or Indian pink, which the Cherokee called Unsteetla, to cure the widespread problem of intestinal worms.33 There are numerous others, such as the Louisiana Houma Nation’s use of an infusion of magnolia leaves for cramps, which was adopted by the Cajun population.34 ‘Indian doctor’ became a title to describe any purveyor of medicines purportedly or actually obtained from Native Americans. There were numerous, often itinerant practitioners who claimed in newspaper adverts, handbills, and on the stump, to have learned their knowledge during captivity by or long association with the Nations. One Peter Carlton advertised in a German-language Philadelphia newspaper in 1:775: ‘Peter Carlton, doctor according to the Indian method, lives on Christopher Mussel’s plantation... While held captive by the Indians for fourteen years, he learned their medical methods, and he now gives treatment and also instruction’. Another Indian doctor named Cook, who settled near the town of Union, Maine, around 1805, claimed he obtained his herbal medicines from a medicinal garden cultivated and then abandoned by the Indians.35
Tennant recorded six species of plant under the heading of‘snakeroots’, all of which possessed curative properties beyond snakebite, including the cure of gangrene, fevers, stomach upsets, and measles.36 Snakeroot could also be used in unorthodox ways. In 1901 a quack doctor named Thomas Everhart joined an Atlanta chain-gang for a month after defrauding an African-American woman of $3 for professing to cure her of deafness by rubbing snakeroot powder on her ears.37 Most of the plants were so named because of the serpentine form of their roots. Their association with snake bites was, therefore, an example of the doctrine of signatures, a global concept understood by cultures that shared no common religious or intellectual origin. It encapsulated the idea that the shape and colour of plants that were similar to parts of the animal kingdom or symptoms of bodily illness had an associated curative value.
Europeans learned not only from Native Americans but also the African- American peoples they had enslaved. West African medical traditions, like those of Native Americans, placed considerable emphasis on the use of roots in both healing and spiritual matters. The two groups interacted closely with each other. After all, significant numbers of Native Americans were enslaved during the early eighteenth century and intermarriage was not uncommon. Some Native- American tribes also practised slavery. Economically and culturally both peoples were more reliant on the natural resources around them, while the European Americans of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were increasingly locked into the commercialized medical world of patent medicines and under the influence of the expanding medical profession. Necessity and confidence, furthermore, made them more willing to experiment. Indeed, empirical knowledge of herbal medicine was one route to freedom. One of the most popular herbal cures for snakebites was created by an African-American slave named Caesar, who was freed and paid an annuity by the South Carolina General Assembly in the mid-eighteenth century. The cure was based on the juice from the roots of plantain and horehound, both of which were recorded as being used by the Seneca as snakebite remedies. Dr Caesar gained legendary status over the ensuing decades, and his remedies for snakebite and poison were printed in Carolina newspapers and in almanacs produced in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.38
Across the slaving colonies during the mid-eighteenth century fears grew about the occult use of poisons. In 1756 the Charleston physician Alexander Garden wrote to Charles Alston, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University, requesting ‘what information you could about the African Poisons, as I greatly and do still suspect that the Negroes bring their knowledge of the poisonous plants, which they use here’.39 Ordinances and edicts were instituted prohibiting slaves from practising herb medicine to stem the perceived epidemic of poisoning of plantation owners and their staff. Conjure was now viewed as an act of rebellion. South Carolina instituted a law in 1751 ordering ‘That in case any slave shall teach or instruct another slave in the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, herb, or other poison whatever, he or she, so offending, shall upon conviction thereof, suffer death’. Similar legislation was introduced in Georgia and some French colonies.40
A series of trials during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries confirm that poisoning was employed as a weapon against both white plantation owners and also against fellow slaves. Those charged with poisoning were often also accused of conjuring, such as a Virginia domestic slave and reputed conjurer named Delphy who was executed in 1816. She was said to have slipped a decoction of pokeroot, a plant with toxic compounds that was commonly used as an ingredient in cancer cures, into her mistress’s coffee every morning. The poisons used were usually herbal in nature; laws prevented druggists and chemists selling to slaves such notable European poisons as strychnine and arsenic. But snakeheads, in which poisons was thought to reside, were also mentioned in cases. A North Carolina bondman and conjurer, tried in 1800 for the murder of a white slave holder, was overheard expressing a ‘wish for a Rattle snake’s head’ to make a powerful poison. Poisons need not be ingested to be deemed effective. A slave in Mecklenberg County was transported after attempting to poison his master by beating some leaves with a rattlesnake’s head and leaving them on the master’s doorstep.41
While poisoning had long been considered an adjunct of witchcraft in Europe from antiquity to the courtly intrigues of the medieval and early modem aristocracy, accusations of the use of natural poisons were far from ubiquitous in those witch trials concerning the common people. The fear of accepting food stuffs or being touched by suspected witches was widespread, but the way such contamination was thought to operate was rarely described in the language of ‘poison’ as distinct from bewitchment. Cunning-folk and other magical healers were occasionally prosecuted for prescribing potions to deliberately poison clients for one reason or another, but in the West African sorcery tradition the relationship between witchcraft and the use of poison was inseparable. Witches were commonly thought to enact their malicious work through the direct and ritual use of poisons. One early nineteenth-century missionary working among the Bassa tribe of Liberia, observed that ‘they live in much dread of being poisoned, and, as they seem generally to connect this poisoning with witchcraft, they wear on their bodies something furnished by their grigri men’.42The judicial use of poison to try African witches was also much reported during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The suspects were made to swallow poison either voluntarily or forcibly; if they died they were guilty, if they vomited it up and survived they were innocent. So Europeans came to equate poisoning with Africanness. Writing in 1803, Thomas Winterbottom, a physician posted to Sierra Leone in the 1790s, noted that the English lower classes believed that poison naturally accumulated under the fingernails of black people, which they used to destroy their enemies.43
White fears of conjure poisoning seem to have calmed down by the midnineteenth century as the slavery system crumbled, but it remained prominent in African-American tradition. An African American from Wilmington, North Carolina, interviewed in the twentieth century illustrates this nicely. ‘I’ve been hurt by a woman’, he said. Well, I wus poisoned in good fashion. I liked to died’. The regular doctor did not help, so he cured himself with a drink of silk root, blacksnake root, and devil-shoestring root, and bathed in a concoction of cherry bark, red oak bark, and dogwood root after which he threw the water in the direction of the sunrise. Poisoning in a conjure context did not necessarily mean the victim had ingested or touched a poison. The act of poisoning could be achieved at a distance by burying substances in the ground, throwing them in the river, or hanging them up.44
The American term ‘root doctor’ was bom out of this eighteenth-century medical exchange in the southern states, and became a common term used by African-American healers along with the more generic title of ‘yarb’ or ‘erb’ doctor. It subsequently became culturally and geographically diffuse. Sixteen people described themselves as ‘root doctors’ in the 1880 census, all were male, ten were white, and six black. Root doctor William Baker, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was bom in Prussia and Ulf Nydrum, of Ludington, Michigan, was a Norwegian.45 There were, of course, many more root doctors operating than these, and many women amongst them. Very few of those who ended up in court or were reported in the newspapers turn up in the census, which is not surprising considering their itinerant status and sometimes shady practices. Some stuck strictly to natural herbal cures, but other root doctors were involved in magical activities known as ‘root working’, in which sense they were no different to conjure and hoodoo doctors. We will return to all these characters in a later chapter.