conjure doctor

The Oliver Marable case.

I happened upon this Notice signed by Columbus E. Artis, one of the principals of the undertaking firm Artis, Flanagan & Batts, in the Wilson Daily Times. Who was Oliver Marable? What was his “case”? What were the “false reports being circulated”?

Wilson Daily Times, 14 December 1925.

Here is Marable’s death certificate:

Filled out largely in C.E. Artis’ bold, readily recognizable hand, it states that Marable died 4 December 1925 in Spring Hill township; was about 55 years old; was married to Bettie Marable; resided at 717 Manchester Street; was born in Henderson, N.C., to Grand and Cornelia Marable. In a different script, Marable’s cause of death: “fracture of base of skull accidentally incurred in a cave-in of earth.” 

Or was it accidental at all?

An inquest held into Marable’s death revealed a bizarre set of facts. On a Friday evening, Marable, who lived on Roberson Street in East Wilson, was miles away in Springhill township digging with a dozen other men for “buried treasure.” Later that night, Marable’s battered body was taken to C.E. Artis and his business partner Walter E. Flanagan, who were preparing to bury him when the police intervened. 

When Artis and Flanagan could not produce a death certificate, the police halted the funeral and contacted the coroner, who went with several county officials to the dig site. Dissatisfied with the accounts of witnesses as to what had happened to Marable, the coroner ordered an inquest. A jury traveled out to Tobe Hinnant‘s farm in Old Fields [Springhill?] township, where they found a “huge hole” in a field near a creek bank. 

The witnesses, who had been digging the hole with Marable, testified that he had been killed when the hole’s sidewalls caved in, but the jury found foul play involved. 

The physician who conducted a post mortem of Marable’s body concluded he likely met his death from a skull fracture, but had also suffered a broken arm, collar bone, and femur and contusions of the back, neck and face.

The police arrested seven people in connection with Marable’s death. Tom Boykin, conjure doctor Richard Pitts and Amos Batts [who was both Marable’s brother-in-law and the third business partner of C.E. Artis] were held without bond; William Edwards, McKinley Edwards, Tobe Hinnant, and John Hinnant bonded out. The story these witnesses told: conjure man Pitts showed up in Hinnant’s neighborhood, claiming that there was buried treasure nearby. Hinnant said he had often dreamed of such a thing, and Pitts said he could locate it. Hinnant pointed out the X in his dreams, and Pitts performed a divination with mineral oil. Though it is not clear how the rest of the treasure hunters were assembled, digging commenced. When the tip of a seven-foot augur embedded itself in a wooden object, the treasure was found. Marable died during the attempt to dig it out. The jury viewed the stuck augur, several shovels, and some sounding rods, as well as a length of white cord festooned about the perimeter to keep out the “haints” lingering in a nearby cemetery in use during slavery. (The jury concluded the augur was more likely stuck in a coffin lid than a treasure chest.) On a side note, investigators also found a large hole, filled in, in Marable’s back yard on Roberson Street, evidence of an earlier search.

Wilson Daily Times, 9 December 1925.

The next day, Raleigh’s News and Observer reported that the jury had adjourned without a verdict, but with a recommendation that Pitts be held pending investigation by a lunacy commission. (Per the Times the same day, Pitts “in his many trips and ‘treasure hunts’ in and around Wilson county had poisoned the minds of many of the negro inhabitants in regards to buried treasure and hidden pots of gold. In many cases sections of the county Pitts has ‘engineered’ treasure hunts, receiving pay for his ‘knowledge’ while honest negroes work in good faith at the task of uncovering the treasure which is never found.”) Everyone else was released. The jury had gone back to the site to find that it had been tampered with. The augur and divining rods were gone, and someone had thrown four feet of dirt into the hole. Several convicts were put to work to shovel out the dirt, but Marable’s pick could not be found. Amos Batts had testified that he did not know about the digging until Marable had died, but when told that Marable had his hand on the money when the pit collapsed, joined the enterprise. (Presumably by agreeing to bury Marable reporting the death or issuing a death certificate.) Someone named Lee Pearce testified, but no details as to what.

Five days later, the matter was dropped. Most of the 20 witnesses had testified to hearsay, Tobe Hinnant’s six-year-old swore he had never accused his father of killing Marable, and county officials gave ambiguous testimony about whether they had seen blood in the pit. The jury was hopelessly confused. Hinnant was freed, leaving only Pitts in jail, presumably for his chicanery.

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  • Oliver Marable

In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab 501 Lucas al

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab Robinson nr Stantonsburg rd

In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab 501 Robinson

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 501 Robinson Street, Oliver Marable, 56, oil mill laborer; wife Betie, 48; and daughter Hattie, 7; plus brother-in-law John Batts, 52, oil mill laborer.

  • Tobe Hinnant  
  • Amos Batts
  • Richard Pitts
  • Tom Boykin 
  • William Edwards and McKinley Edwards — in the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 609 South Railroad Street, rented for $16/month, farm laborer William Edwards, 52; wife Lillie, 49; son McKinly, 28, worker at Hackney Body Company; McKinley’s wife Maggie, 25, farmworkers; and his son Bernard, 6.
  • John Hinnant

Colored persons buried in the Thomas graveyard.

Some Black Families of Wilson County, North Carolina, a compilation of The Hugh B. Johnston Working Papers published in 1997 by Wilson County Genealogical Society, contains a list of “Colored Persons Buried in the Old Thomas Graveyard on the Drake Thomas Farm.” The Old Thomas Graveyard, located just east of Wilson off N.C. Highway 42, is also known as the Toisnot Baptist Church cemetery. Per a marker in the cemetery: “Thomas Graveyard. Many early members of Toisnot Baptist Church lie near in unmarked graves. The Thomases continued to bury here for a century after the church was moved in 1803. …”

Here annotated, the list includes:

  • Charles Bynum, born 1825, and Caroline Bynum, born 1826 — they were former slaves of Colonel Robert Bynum and were both reputed locally as “conjure doctors”

In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Charles Bynum, 45, farmer; wife Caroline, 34; and sons Richard, 3, and Isaac, 17. (In a duplicate entry in the same township: Charles Bynum, 38; wife Caroline, 39; and sons Isaac, 16, and Rich’d, 3.)

In the 1880 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Charles Bynum, 49, farmer; wife Caroline, 48; and son Richard, 14.

  • Isaac Bynum, son of Charles, was born in 1853 and died February 13, 1915.

In the 1880 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Isac Bynum, 27, farm laborer.

On 3 September 1882, in Gardners township, Isaac Bynum, 28, of Wilson, son of Chls. Bynum and Cynthy Thorn, married Laura Bynum, 31, of Wilson, daughter of Tart Bynum and Rhody Bynum.

Isaac Bynum died 13 February 1915 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 1848 in Wilson County to Chas. Bynum and Caroline Thorne and was a widower. J.B. Farmer was informant.

  • William “Will” Weaver, Sr., born 1854, died September 2, 1930.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Tarboro Road, farm laborer William Weaver, 56; wife Celia, 48; and sons Charlie, 16, and Iversen, 11.

William Weaver died 2 September 1930 in Coopers township, Nash County. Per his death certificate, he was 78 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to William Weaver and Fannie Weaver; and was married to Sealy Weaver. Informant was Frank Weaver, Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

  • George Weaver, son of William Weaver, born 1875

George Weaver died 27 January 1941 at Mercy Hospital, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 9 March 1887 in Edgecombe County to Bill Weaver and Annie Williams; was a farmer; and was the widower of Mary L. Weaver. Contrary to Johnston’s assertion, George Weaver was buried in “Bynum cemetery,” Wilson County. James Weaver, 301 Finch Street, was informant.

  • Johnnie Weaver, son of William Weaver
  • Louis Williams, a native of Pitt County

In the 1870 census of California township, Pitt County, North Carolina: Louis Williams, 25; wife Delphia, 20; and children Emily, 6, Willis, 4, and Ben, 2.

In the 1880 census of Farmville township, Pitt County: Lewis Williams, 32; wife Delphia, 35; and children Jenny, 15, Willie, 12, Ernold, 10, Lewis, 7, Mariah, 5, Jerry, 3, and Pattie, 1.

In the 1900 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Lewis Williams, 62; wife Delphia, 64; and children Lewis, 23, Pattie, 20, Jerry, 19, Lena, 17, Isaac, 15, Eddie, 13, Emmie, 11, and Odie G., 9.

  • Delphia Williams, wife of Louis and daughter of Jerry Smith and wife Annie Smith of Pitt County
  • Jerry Williams, son of Louis Williams

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: on Wilson Road, farmer Jerry Williams, 40; wife Mary, 28; and children Edward, 10, Martha, 8, Maggie, 5, and Jerry, 1.

In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Jerry Williams, 48; [second] wife Martha, 38; and children Eddie, 18, Martha, 14, Maggie, 11, Jerry Jr., 7, Lucille, 5, and Nestus, 1.

In the 1940 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Jerry Williams, 60; wife Martha, 50; and children Eddie, 30, Jerry, 21, Lucille, 17, Ivy, 15, Nestus, 11, and Wade, 4.

Jerry Williams died 1 December 1946 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 January 1882 in Wilson County to Louis Williams of Edgecombe County and Delphia Williams; was married to Martha Williams; and, contrary to Hugh Johnston, was buried in Rest Haven cemetery. Jerry Williams was informant.

  • Mary, wife of young Jerry Williams, was born in 1894 and died on March 5, 1920.

Mary Williams died 5 March 1920 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 28 years old; married to Jerry Williams; was born in Edgecombe County to Tony Sharp and Sarah Wasten.

  • Alex Ray, son of George and Hannah Ray, was born in 1851 on the ancestral plantation of Captain Culbreth in Cumberland County and died on the George W. Thomas farm on January 15, 1941.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Alex Ray, 62, widower, farmer.

In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Alex Ray, 75, widower, farmer.

In the 1940 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Alex Ray, 90, widower, farmer.

Alex Ray died 15 January 1941 in Wilson township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born in Cumberland County, North Carolina, to George Ray and Hannah Ray; was 89 years old; and was a farmer and a widower. Informant was Lizzie Williams. He was buried in Thomas cemetery.

  • Jenny Williams Thomas, wife of Jordan Thomas and daughter of Louis and Delphia Williams, was born in 1867 in Pitt County, and died on the T. Drake Thomas farm on February 9, 1925.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Jordan Thomas, 53; wife Jennie, 50; nephews Jerry Williams, 13, and Nathan Williams, 7; and uncle Arner Williams, 80.

Gennie Thomas died 9 February 1925 in Gardners township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 57 years old; was married to Jordan Thomas; was born in Pitt County, North Carolina, to Lewis Williams and Delphia Williams, both of Edgecombe County; and farmed for Mrs. W.L. Banks. Jordan Thomas was informant.

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Like most negroes, she was full of superstition.

In 1891, Rev. Owen L.W. Smith‘s sister, Millie Smith Sutton, shot and killed his wife Lucy Smith at point-blank range, believing that Lucy had poisoned her son.

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Wilson Advance, 9 July 1891.

On 5 November, the Advance reported that Smith had been found “mentally deranged” at the time she killed Smith and was committed to the insane asylum in Goldsboro.

The Wilson Mirror offered more on 11 November:

This tragedy had sequels.

Six years later, Sutton’s walking companion, Nettie Vick Jones, was stabbed to death on the street by her husband, A. Wilson Jones.

Ten years later, on 22 November 1901, the Times reported that Sutton had been released from the hospital and had returned to Wilson and, with Carrie Pettiford, had threatened the life of her brother’s newest wife, Adora Oden Smith. (In the 1900 census, Carrie was a boarder in the Smiths’ home.) Both were arrested.

Hoodoo’d.

8-25-1911

Wilson Daily Times, 25 August 1911.

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In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Dolison Powell, 58; wife Sallie, 50; and children Dorsey, 15, Wiley, 13, and Howard, 12.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, on Saratoga Road, Dolison Powell, 68, wife Sallie, 62, and son Wiley, 24.