rootwork

“So you’ll know when it’s your time to go.”

John G. Thomas’ “Wilsonia” column appeared in the Daily Times regularly during the 1930s and ’40s. A raconteur of human-interest stories, Thomas — typically, for the times — was drawn to tales of picaresque negroes living in Wilson’s colored section. In his 8 January 1937 column, Thomas introduced his readers to the sad and curious tale, derived via hearsay, of the “conjuration” of Duncan Hargrove. Just 11 months later, on 11 February 1938, Thomas revisited the story, adding considerable detail to the plight Hargrove, now called “Jake,” and augmenting his  armchair anthropologist’s analysis of rootwork, a deep-rooted African-American spiritual practice. (“You probably won’t believe that in this day and age a simple thing like a hole bored in an oak tree could kill a person by itself. Now would you? But 1938 isn’t such a far cry after all, when it comes to superstition among the negroes of the south. It was several years back when I became interested in such things over here.”)

In a nutshell: Hargrove, who lived on Carolina Street, had a “leaky heart” (valve regurgitation.) After an argument, a friend cursed Hargrove by boring a hole into a tree and pronouncing that Hargrove would live only until the tree’s bark had grown over the hole. After watching the hole with fearful obsessiveness, Hargrove traveled to Georgia and Florida searching for a conjurer to lift the “hand” placed on him. He failed and, as the old folks used to say, after “going down slow,” he died.

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Wilson Daily Times, 9 February 1937.

Now the remix, EP version, with Duncan as “Jake,” the friend as a rootworker in his own right, and the maple as an oak:

Wilson Daily Times, 11 January 1938.

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  • Duncan Hargrove — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Vance Street, D. John Hargrove, 28, fireman at machine shop; wife Vina, 25, laundress; children D[illegible], 8, Willie, 6, Jacob, 4, and John Ben, 4; mother Adline, 50, widowed laundress; brother Esaias, 30, machine shop fireman; and niece Melia A. Hargrove, 15, cook.
  • Toussaint L’Ouverture
  • Dr. Devil and Dr. Buzzard — For another story of rootwork in Wilson County, this one also involving Dr. Buzzard and a hole bored in a tree, see here.
  • Note Hardy — Note Hardy died 12 April 1977 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 4 September 1900 to Charlie Durham and Annie Hardy in Wayne County; was never married; was handicapped; and resided in Goldsboro, Wayne County.
  • Harvey Green
  • John Moore
  • John the Conqueror
  • Adam & Eve
  • mojo — see also here and (another of Thomas’ columns) here.
  • John McGill

Something just went all over her.

From an interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks (1910-2001) by her granddaughter Lisa Y. Henderson in which she explains the method Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. used to bring his estranged wife Sarah Henderson Jacobs back home to Wilson, and the aftermath:

“The one I heard about at that time was Doctor Buzzard. And he was in the country. And you had to go to him. He didn’t come to you. You go to him. And you had to take some kind of clothes that you wear next to you, if you and your boyfriend or your husband falls out and had a misunderstanding, well, he could take the clothes you wear next to you and put something on it. It looked like, the thing what I opened where came out that tree looked like little roots, just little stems from a tree, and it was on a white piece of cloth, and it was just wrapped up in it and where Papa bored that hole in the tree, and it had a bottle stopper, it was a half-a-gallon stopper. It come in a jug, one of them little cork stoppers. Well, when he bored that hole in the tree, he took that little piece of rag or clothes or whatever. Mama was – I reckon it was Mama’s. He didn’t know whether it was her clothes or whose. But he got some rags and put in there, and he wet on it for nine mornings. He’d go wet on that tree. And he corked it up with the stopper. But I reckon he must have taked the stopper out when he wet in it.

“And so Mama claimed she got sick. So she was talking to some old witchcraft person or something, he’d know what to do for her, and I think she got somebody to take her. And he told her a whole lot of junk and mess, and that’s when he said, “You look in any – you got any trees in the yard?” And she said, yes, she had a apple tree and a peach tree. So when she come home was telling it, Mama said something, and Papa said it was one of them trees out there. He had put some stuff in it, not to kill her but to make her sick. And so I said, “Well, if it’s out there, I’m gon find it.” And sho ‘nough, I went out there and saw that cork and stuff sticking up in that tree, the peach tree. I went back in the house and got the ice pick. And I prised the stopper out and sho ‘nough it was some rags and a little piece of cloth was wrapped around this little sticks and things was in there. And I was scared then after that. I said, “Lord, this here mess! What is this stuff?” And Mama claimed that when I taken the cork stopper outn that tree, she said seem like something just went all over her. That could have been a tale, but that’s what she said – seem like something fell off her. So she got better. And so, she outlived him.”

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  • Doctor Buzzard — I have not been able to identify a local Doctor Buzzard. The original, apparently, was in South Carolina, and many practitioners adopted the name.
  • Sarah Henderson Jacobs — in the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Jesse Jacob,  53, deliveryman for stable; wife Sarah, 35; daughter Annie Belle, 15; and boarders Jesse Henderson, 17, Herbert Jones, 23, both stable laborers, and Nina Fasin, 32, a housemaid. In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 606 Elmo [Elba] Street: school janitor Jessie Jacobs, 60, wife Sara, 52, and daughters [great-nieces] Mamie, 12, and Hattie May, 10. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 303 Elba, laundress Sarah Jacobs, 49, and daughter [great-niece] Hattie, 19, a servant for a private family. Sarah Henderson Jacobs died 8 January 1938 in Selma, Johnston County, North Carolina. Per her death certificate, she was 55 years old, married to Joseph Silver, and was born in Wayne County to Lewis Henderson and Margaret Carter, both of Wayne County. Informant was Hattie Jacobs of 303 Elba Street.
  • Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. — in the 1908 Wilson city directory, Jesse Jacobs is listed as a laborer living at 106 Elba Street. Jessie Adam Jacobs died 6 July 1926 at the “colored hospital” in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 25 December 1862 in Sampson County, North Carolina, to Jesse A. and Abbie Jacobs; was married to Sarah Jacobs; resided at 303 Elba Street; and worked as a janitor in city schools.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson adapted and edited for clarity. Copyright 1994, 1996. All rights reserved.

 

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.

Dr. Woodard, root doctor.

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Raleigh News & Observer, 22 June 1913.

Benjamin Woodard was possibly the “negro quack” who created such an uproar among members of the Wilson County Medical Society in 1889. Though his credentials were questioned, and even mocked, in this news brief, in the 1896 edition of Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory, Ben Woodard is listed as the only African-American physician in Wilson County:

Ben Woodard BBD

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In the 1870 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farm laborer Benj’n Woodard, 32, wife Harriet, 31, and children Edna, 13, Frederick, 9, and Venah, 6.

In the 1880 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer, Benjamin Woodard, 42, wife Harriet, 39, children Frederick, 18, Maggie, 15, and Ruth, 10, plus a servant with neuralgia named Merrit Joyner, 23.

In the 1900 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: “physician (herbal)” Benjamin Woodard, 63, and wife Harriet, 56.

In the 1910 census of Town of Wilson, Wilson County: on Moore Street, living alone, 73 year-old widower Ben Woodard, employed at odd jobs.

Benjamin Woodard died 14 December 1917 in Gardners township, Wilson County. His death certificate notes that he was born in June 1836 to Mary Woodard and Solomon Anders and that he worked as an herb doctor.