COMPILATION FOLKLORE INTERVIEWS--RICHMOND COUNTY
Federal Writers' Project
John N. Booth,
Residencies 6 & 7,
Federal Writers' Project
Richmond County's older colored citizens, particularly the few surviving
ex-slaves, are outspoken in their firm belief concerning powers of
conjurers and root workers.
"When it comes to conjuration, don't nobody know more 'bout that, and
there ain't nobody had as much of it done to 'em as I have," said a
wizened old woman. "I know nobody could stand what I have stood. The
first I knowed 'bout conjuration was when a woman named Lucinda hurt my
sister. She was always a 'big me,' and her chillun was better than
anybody elses. Well her oldest child got pregnant and that worried
Lucinda nearly to death. She thought everybody she seed was talkin'
'bout her child. One day she passed my sister and another 'oman standin'
on the street laughin' and talkin'. Lucinda was so worried 'bout her
daughter she thought they was laughin' at her. She got so mad she cussed
'em out right there and told 'em their 'turn was in the mill.' My sister
called the other 'oman in the house and shut the door to keep from
listenin' at her. That made it wuss.
"'Bout three weeks later my sister started complainin'. Us had two or
three doctors with her, but none of 'em done her any good. The more
doctors us got the wuss she got. Finally all of the doctors give her up
and told us there warn't nothin' they could do. After she had been sick
'bout two months she told us 'bout a strange man comin' to her house a
few days 'fore she took sick. She said he had been there three or four
times. She 'membered it when he come back after she took sick and
offered to do somethin' for her. The doctors hadn't done her no good and
she was just 'bout to let him doctor on her when this 'oman that was
with her the day Lucinda cussed 'em out told her he was Lucinda's great
uncle. She said that everybody called him the greatest root worker in
South Carolina. Then my sister thought 'bout how this man had come to
her house and asked for water every time. He wouldn't ever let her get
the water for him, he always went to the pump and got it hisself. After
he had pumped it off real cool he would always offer to get a bucket
full for her. She didn't think nothin' 'bout it and she would let him
fill her bucket. That's how he got her.
"She stayed sick a long time and Mamie stayed by her bed 'til she died.
I noticed Mamie wipin' her mouth every few minutes, so one day I asked
her what did she keep wipin' from my sister's mouth. She told me it
wasn't nothin' but spit. But I had got very anxious to know so I stood
by her head myself. Finally I seed what it was. Small spiders came
crawlin' out of her mouth and nose. Mamie thought it would skeer me,
that's why she didn't want me to know.
"That happened on Tuesday and that Friday when she died a small snake
come out of her forehead and stood straight up and stuck his tongue out
at us. A old man who was sittin' there with us caught the snake, put him
in a bottle, and kept him 'bout two weeks before he died.
"Don't think Lucinda didn't have pore Mamie conjured too. Mamie took
sick just one month after my sister died. After she found out the
doctors couldn't do her no good, she got a real good root worker to
doctor on her. He got her up and she stayed up for nearly a year before
Lucinda doubled the dose. That time pore Mamie couldn't git up. She
suffered and suffered before she died. But Lucinda got her pay for all
of it. When Mamie died Lucinda come to see her and said 'some folks was
better off dead anyhow'. Mamie's daughter started to jump on her but
some of the old folks wouldn't let her.
"Lucinda went a long time, but when she fell she sho' fell hard. She
almost went crazy. She stayed sick as long as my sister and Mamie put
together. She got so bad off 'til nobody couldn't even go in her house.
Everybody said she was reapin' what she sowed. She wouldn't even let her
own chillun come in the house. After she got so sick she couldn't get
off the bed she would cuss 'em and yell to the top of her voice 'til
they left. Nobody didn't feel sorry for her 'cause they knowed she had
done too much devilment.
"Just 'fore she died, Lucinda was so sick and everybody was talkin'
'bout it was such a shame for her to have to stay there by herself that
her youngest daughter and her husband went to live with her. Her
daughter was 'fraid to go by herself. When she died you could stand in
the street and hear her cussin' and yellin'. She kept sayin' 'take 'em
off of me, I ain't done nothin' to 'em. Tell 'em I didn't hurt 'em,
don't let 'em kill me.' And all of a sudden she would start cussin' God
and anybody she could think of. When she died it took four men to hold
her down in the bed."
"I've been sick so much 'til I can look at other folks when they're sick
and tell if its natural sickness or not. Once I seed my face always
looked like dirty dish water grease was on it every mornin' 'fore I
washed it. Then after I washed it in the places where the grease was
would be places that looked like fish scales. Then these places would
turn into sores. I went to three doctors and every one of 'em said it
was poison grease on my face. I knowed I hadn't put no kind of grease on
it, so I couldn't see where it was comin' from. Every time I told my
husband 'bout it he got mad, but I never paid too much 'tention to that.
Then one day I was tellin' a friend of mine 'bout it, and she told me my
husband must be doin' it. I wondered why he would do such a thing and
she said he was just 'bout jealous of me.
"The last doctor I went to give me somethin' to put on my face and it
really cleared the sores up. But I noticed my husband when my face got
clear and he really looked mad. He started grumblin' 'bout every little
thing, right or wrong. Then one day he brought me a black hen for
dinner. My mind told me not to eat the chicken so I told him I wanted to
keep the hen and he got mad 'bout that. 'Bout two or three days later I
noticed a big knot on the side of the chicken's head and it bursted
inside of that same week. The chicken started drooping 'round and in a
week's time that chicken was dead. You see that chicken was poison.
"After that my husband got so fussy I had to start sleepin' in another
room. I was still sick, so one day he brought me some medicine he said
he got from Dr. Traylor. I tried to take a dose 'cause I knowed if it
was from Dr. Traylor it was all right, but that medicine burnt me just
like lye. I didn't even try to take no more of it. I got some medicine
from the doctor myself and put it in the bottom of the sideboard. I took
'bout three doses out of it and it was doing me good, but when I started
to take the fourth dose it had lye in it and I had to throw it away. I
went and had the doctor to give me another bottle and I called myself
hidin' it, but after I took 'bout six doses, lye was put in it. Then one
day a friend of mine, who come from my husband's home, told me he was a
root worker and she thought I already knowed it. Well I knowed then how
he could find my medicine everytime I hid it. You see he didn't have to
do nothin' but run his cards. From then on I carried my medicine 'round
in my apron pocket.
"I started sleepin' in the kitchen on a cot 'cause his mother was usin'
the other room and I didn't want to sleep with her. Late at night he
would come to the window and blow somethin' in there to make me feel
real bad. Things can be blowed through the key hole too. I know 'cause I
have had it done to me. This kept up for 'bout a year and five or six
months. Then 'cause he seed he couldn't do just what he wanted to, he
told me to get out. I went 'cause I thought that might help me to git
out of my misery. But it didn't 'cause he come where I was every night.
He never did try to come in, but us would hear somebody stumblin' in the
yard and whenever us looked out to see who it was us always found it was
him. Us told him that us seed him out there, but he always denied it. He
does it right now or sometimes he gets other root workers to do it for
him. Whenever I go out in the yard my feet always feel like they are
twistin' over and I can't stop 'em; my legs and knees feel like
somethin' is drawin' 'em, and my head starts swimmin'. I know what's
wrong, it just what he had put down for me.
"When I get up in the mornin' I always have to put sulphur and salt and
pepper in my shoes to keep down the devilment he puts out for me. A man
who can do that kind of work give me somethin' to help me, but I was
s'posed to go back in six months and I ain't been back. That's why it's
started worryin' me again.
"My sister was conjured by openin' the door and eatin' afterwards
without washin' her hands," an 80-year old ex-slave remarked. "She had
just come home and opened her front door and went in the house to eat
before goin' to church. She et her supper and started to church with
another of my sisters. After she had gone 'bout two or three blocks she
started feelin' sick and walkin' as if she was drunk. My sister tried to
make her go back home but she wouldn't. When they got to church she
couldn't hardly get up the steps and they warn't in church over fifteen
minutes 'fore she had a stroke. Somebody took a car and carried her
home. She couldn't even speak for more than a week. The doctor come and
'xamined her, but he said he didn't see nothin' that would cause her to
have a stroke. He treated her for 'bout two weeks but she didn't get no
better. A friend told us to try a root worker. She said she knowed one
that was good on such things. Us was afraid at first, but after the
three doctors us had tried didn't seem to do her no good, us decided to
get the root worker.
"The root worker come that Wednesday mornin' and looked at her, but he
never touched her. He told us she had been hurt, but he could have her
on her feet in 'bout a week or ten days. He didn't give her no medicine,
and he never come back 'til after she was up and walkin' 'round. She got
up in 'bout seven days, and started talkin' earlier than that. The root
worker told her she had got conjured by puttin' her hands on somethin'
and eatin' without washin' 'em.
"She got along fine for 'bout three years, 'til one day she got home
from work and found her house open. She thought her son had gone out and
forgot to lock the door. When he come home he told her he had not been
back since he left that mornin'. She knowed she didn't forget to lock
it, so she guessed somebody had jus 'bout gone in through the window and
come out the door. But it was too late then 'cause she had et what was
left in the house and had drunk some water.
"That night she had her second stroke. Us sent for the same man who had
got her up before, but he said he doubted gettin' her up this time
'cause the person had made a good job of it by puttin' somethin' in her
water and t'eat. He treated her, and she got strong enough to sit up in
the house, but she soon had the third stroke and then he give her up.
She died 'bout two months later.
"I know you don't know how folks can really conjure you. I didn't at one
time, but I sho' learnt. Everytime somebody gets sick it ain't natchel
sickness. I have seed folks die with what the doctors called
consumption, and yet they didn't have it. I have seed people die with
heart trouble, and they didn't have it. Folks is havin' more strokes now
than ever but they ain't natchel. I have seed folks fixed so they would
bellow like a cow when they die, and I have seed 'em fixed so you have
to tie them down in bed to die. I've got so I hardly trust anybody."
Estella Jones thinks conjurers and root workers are much more skillful
now than formerly. "Folks don't kill you like they used to kill you.
They used to put most anythin' in you, but now they got so wise or
afraid that somebody will know zactly what killed you, 'til they do it
slick as a eel.
"Once a man named John tried to go with a girl but her step-pa, Willie,
run him away from the house just like he mought be a dog, so John made
it up in his mind to conjure Willie. He went to the spring and planted
somethin' in the mouth of it, and when Willie went there the next day to
get a drink he got the stuff in the water. A little while after he drunk
the water he started gettin' sick. He tried to stay up but every day he
got wuss and wuss 'til he got flat down in bed.
"In a few days somethin' started growin' in his throat. Every time they
tried to give him soup or anythin' to eat, somethin' would come crawlin'
up in his throat and choke him. That was what he had drunk in the
spring, and he couldn't eat nothin' or drink nothin'. Finally he got so
bad off he claimed somethin' was chokin' him to death, and so his wife
sont off and got a fortune teller. This fortune teller said it was a
turtle in his throat. He 'scribed the man that had conjured Willie but
everybody knowed John had done it 'fore the fortune teller told us. It
warn't long after that 'fore Willie was dead. That turtle come up in his
throat and choked him to death.
"Some folk don't believe me, but I ain't tellin' no tale 'bout it. I
have asked root workers to tell me how they does these things, and one
told me that it was easy for folks to put snakes, frogs, turtles,
spiders, or most anythin' that you couldn't live with crawlin' and
eatin' on the inside of you. He said these things was killed and put up
to dry and then beat up into dust like. If any of this dust is put in
somethin' you have to eat or drink, these things will come alive like
they was eggs hatchin' in you. Then the more they grow, the worse off
"My aun't son had took a girl away from another man who was going with
her too. As soon as this man heard they was going to marry, he started
studyin' some way to stop it. So he went to a root worker and got
somethin' and then went to this girl's house one night when he knew my
cousin was there. Finally when he got ready to leave, he was smart
enough to get my cousin to take a drink with him.
"That next mornin' the boy was feelin' a little bad, but he never paid
too much 'tention to it. Next day he felt a little wuss, and everyday
from then on he felt wuss and wuss 'til he got too sick to stay up. One
day a old lady who lived next door told us to try a root worker who
lived on Jones Street. This man came and told us what was wrong, but
said us had waited too long to send for him. He give us some thin' to
'lieve the boy of his misery. Us kept givin' this to him 'til he finally
got up. Course he warn't well by no means and this medicine didn't help
his stomach. His stomach got so big everybody would ask what was wrong.
He told everybody that asked him and some who didn't ask him 'bout the
frogs in his stomach. The bigger these frogs got, the weaker he got.
"After he had been sick 'bout four months and the frogs had got to be a
pretty good size, you could hear 'em holler everytime he opened his
mouth. He got to the place where he wouldn't talk much on account of
this. His stomach stuck out so far, he looked like he weighed 250
"After these frogs started hollerin' in him, he lived 'bout three weeks,
and 'fore he died you could see the frogs jumpin' 'bout in him and you
could even feel 'em.
"T'ain't no need talkin'; folks can do anythin' to you they wants to.
They can run you crazy or they can kill you. Don't you one time believe
that every pore pusson they has in the 'sylum is just natchelly crazy.
Some was run crazy on account of people not likin' 'em, some 'cause they
was gettin' 'long a little too good. Every time a pusson jumps in the
river don't think he was just tryin' to kill hisself; most times he just
didn't know what he was doin'.
"My daughter was fixed right here under our noses. She was married and
had five little chillun and she was the picture of health. But she had a
friend that she trusted too much and this friend was single and in love
with my daughter's husband. Diff'unt people told Liza 'bout this girl,
but she just didn't believe 'em. Every day this girl was at Liza's house
'til time for Lewis to git off from work. She helped Liza wash, clean
up, iron and cook, but she always left at the time for Lewis to git off
"This went on for more'n a year, but I kept tellin' Liza to ween off
from this girl 'cause I seed she didn't mean her no good. But Liza was
grown and nobody couldn't tell her nothin'. I think she had Liza fixed
so she would be crazy 'bout her. People can make you love 'em, even
marry 'em when if you was in your right mind you wouldn't give 'em a
thought. Anyhow Liza went on with the girl 'til one afternoon while she
was comin' from the store she seed Lewis and Edna goin' in a house
together. He come home 'bout three hours later, and when Liza asked him
why he was so late he told her they had to work late. He didn't know she
had seed him and she never told him.
"After this she started watchin' him and Edna, and she soon found out
what folks had been tellin' her was true. Still she never told Lewis
nothin' 'bout it. She told Edna 'bout seein' 'em and asked her to please
let Lewis alone. Edna made up some kind of s'cuse but she never let him
alone, and she kept goin' to Liza's house. When things finally went too
far, Liza spoke to Lewis 'bout it and asked him to leave Edna alone. He
did, but that made Edna mad and that's when she 'cided to kill Liza.
Lewis really loved Liza and would do anythin' she asked him to.
"One day Edna come to see Liza, after she had stayed away for 'bout
three weeks, and she was more lovin' than ever. She hung around 'til she
got a chance to put somethin' in the water bucket, then she left. People
can put somethin' in things for you and everybody else can eat or drink
it, but it won't hurt nobody but the one it's put there for. When Liza
drunk water, she said it tasted like it had salt-peter in it. When she
went to bed that night, she never got out 'til she was toted out. She
suffered and suffered and we never knowed what was wrong 'til Edna told
it herself. She took very sick and 'fore she died she told one of her
friends 'bout it and this friend told us, but it was too late then, Liza
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