LowCountry Root Doctors


Published:

Top left: A protection root to keep the "Haig" away Top right: Roger Pinckney Bottom left: Owner of Ye Olde Herb Shoppe Bottom right: James E. McTeer II

Until the mid-20th century, the Lowcountry was a hotbed of hoodoo. Each area had its own root doctor. Dr. Snake, Dr. Bug, Dr. Crow, PP.H. Washington, Dr. Eagle, held court openly in downtown Beaufort. Anyone could go to Dr. Eagle’s office and get a potion. Former local restaurateur saw cars lined up as far away as Alabama.

Some people have a lawyer on retainer? I have a root doctor on retainer,” said Roger Pinckney, author of “Blue Roots: African-American Magic of the Gullah People.” 
Although this West African spiritual tradition has retreated to the closet, rootwork is most assuredly alive in the Lowcountry. 
Also known as hoodoo, rootwork traveled with slaves to the Georgia and South Carolina sea island plantations. There, slaves and their descendants, called Gullah, intertwined their folk beliefs with Christianity
Afraid of slave revolt, plantation owners permitted this homegrown way of healing to continue. And even visited slave quarters for their own physical ailments. The practice flourished post-slavery, spurred on by the physical remoteness of slaves and their descendants who remained behind on the sea islands.

The ABCs of Roots and Root Doctors
Luck, love, health, prosperity, revenge, and protection from enemies and evil spirits are the most common reasons for hiring root doctors.  
Generally, they wear two hats: The herbalist dispenses ointments and potions; the conjurer applies and lifts spells. After leaving Africa, root doctors had to experiment with herbs indigenous to the South and divine new remedies.  
 Cloth sacks called “roots” are filled in secret with various ingredients, stitched up, and worn as amulets, carried inside shoes, or sewn inside clothing. Sometimes roots work their magic by being buried, placed beneath doorknobs, or otherwise tossed.  
Dirt surrounding graves, or “goofer dust,” is considered a potent base material because root doctors believe the lifeblood of the deceased inheres in the soil. Hence, for example, goofer dust surrounding a rich person’s grave bodes well for enhancing prosperity.   
Other common ingredients include herbs, powders, bones, feathers, hair, fingernails, ground pepper, etc. 
Hexes are typically accompanied by short ceremonies during which root doctors pray, incant magical words or enter a trance.

 

The High Sheriff v. Dr. Buzzard
Until the mid-20th century, the Lowcountry was a hotbed of hoodoo. Each area had its own root doctor. Dr. Snake, Dr. Bug, Dr. Crow. P.H. Washington, Dr. Eagle, held court openly at 1408 Congress Street in downtown Beaufort.
“Anyone could go to Dr. Eagle’s office and get a potion,” said Thomas McTeer, son of Ed McTeer, Beaufort County’s “High Sheriff” from 1926-1962, aka “The White Witch Doctor.” 
Harry Chakidef, former local restaurateur, saw cars lined up as far away as Alabama.
But not all root doctors were male. Many early ones were also midwives. And Dr. Eagle’s common law wife, Valerie Boles, Minerva in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” took over her husband’s practice after he died.
 “I remember a case in North Carolina where both husband and wife were root doctors,” said Jamal Touré, historian and owner of Day Clean Journeys. “He had trained his wife and she became more successful so he killed her.”
The granddaddy of them all was Dr. Buzzard. He reigned on St. Helena Island, was revered nationwide, and had a particular knack for “chewing the root” – chomping on an unidentified substance in front of intended victims. He’d often perform the ritual in court and witnesses who’d been previously prepared to testify suddenly refused.
Medical doctors began reporting patients with illnesses they couldn’t solve. People complained of being hexed. Dead animals and mysterious powders appeared on courthouse steps. “Into this seething caldron of root, spell and hex stepped the new Sheriff,” wrote Roger Pinckney in his book, “Blue Roots: African-American Magic of the Gullah People.”
There was no law against casting and removing spells, but practicing medicine without a license was illegal.
The High Sheriff never carried a gun, but was a skilled lawman. So he allowed stories of his success at collaring criminals to circulate along with speculation he was spiritually gifted. He studied rootwork, and townsfolk eventually turned to him for help. After Dr. Buzzard’s son drowned – and rumors spread McTeer rooted him – the white and black root princes made peace. Dr. Buzzard was convicted of practicing medicine without a license, paid a small fine, and agreed to limit his practice to conjuring. In “Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff," author Baynard Woods recounts Dr. Buzzard’s lawyer criticizing his client’s punishment “for what the root brotherhood had been doing with impunity for generations.”
After losing his re-election bid, McTeer saw patients regularly. During conjuring ceremonies, he wore blue-tinted glasses, wielded a carved driftwood club called a mandrake, and exploded gunpowder from behind an African mask. 
By the time he and Dr. Buzzard died, the Lady’s Island Bridge had been built. And tourists began snatching up land often lost by Gullahs unable to pay tax arrears.
“The influx tended to smother the local culture,” McTeer’s son Thomas said. 

Holy sage (top left) at the mlk herb shop in Savannah, GA. Owned by Consuelo Lawson (bottom right.) The items were used to remove roots in a ceremony along with the candle.

Retreat Underground
Today root practice exists primarily in the shadows. Twentieth-century laws and medical advancements have made practitioners even more wary of prosecution. But stigma is an equal deterrent. Some people claim they’re engaging in devil worship. 
“I think it’s because it came from black people that it’s maligned,” said Aiken psychotherapist and author of “Low Country Shamanism,” Paul Leslie. “They don’t want to be ridiculed.” Historians are hoping to change the tide of understanding. And authorities on West African culture like Greg Grant and Jim Bacote of the Geechee Kunda cultural center are trying to preserve this library of knowledge. 
But with root doctors preferring anonymity, how do you find one if you’re in the market?  
Word of mouth. Find someone who knows someone, convince them you’re a true believer, and mean it. Watch and listen. 
“Plenty of people claim to not know things and yet there’s their candles and rituals when they take you to their back rooms,” said Leslie.
Touré recalls the serendipity of meeting a stranger in Walmart who’d driven all the way from Columbia in search of Dr. Lavender, Savannah’s then resident root doctor, who’s recently deceased. Touré steered him. 
“Are you a root doctor?” I ask. Touré laughs uproariously. “I share my knowledge with people,” he said.
 “I consider myself an herbalist,” Grant said. Schooled in the use of botanicals by his godparents, Grant has used home remedies all his life. 
“A lot of men come up to me with prostate problems,” he confessed. “I tell them to get berries off the saw palmetto, steep the berries, squeeze it out and drink the liquid.” But he’s careful to add disclaimers and not dispense to anyone.
“This is where things have gotten to. You have to be PC. You never know who you’re talking to,” he laments, also recounting the medicinal qualities of rabbit tobacco or “life everlasting” for colds, toothaches and asthma; sweet gum twigs for digestion; willow twigs for headaches; and green huckleberries for skin ailments. And blackheads? Grant said people used to wash their face first thing in the morning with urine. 
When asked if he's a root doctor, Thomas McTeery said, "My wife laughs that I am. She believes the mantle” – transference of power between root doctors – “was put on me.”
“I’ll use dust off my father’s grave and something else that strikes me as important, maybe a sea shell,” he said, admitting the occasional roots he makes for sick friends. He likens the ritual to communion. 
Angel Hakim, originally from Savannah, now practices in Maryland. She advertises as a “spiritual medium.”  
“My daddy was a root doctor nicknamed Prophet,” she said, taught by Mother Kent, a dark powerful lady with snow white hair from Rocky Ford. As a child, Hakim watched pine trees bow and balls of light travel from Mother Kent’s hand while she prayed. “When she stood up, lightning danced through her living room.” 
Hakim only practices “white magic.” She communes with spirits, reads the tarot, and works with candles, oils and baths. She’ll “dress and bless” gold pieces to combat negative financial forces. When it comes to relationships, she won’t help people leave their spouses or use black magic remedies like burying roots under young trees to force relationships to grow. After all, she pointed out, what if you eventually want out of the relationship? She believes the bad energy you put out comes back to you. She will, however, help clients “coax” love along. 

Thomas McTeer

Cost
If you manage to find a root doctor, what’ll it cost in this generally cash-intensive business? 
“There are cultural parasites out there,” said Touré. “But they were there in the late 1800s, 1900s, too. We don’t have the Better Business Bureau.” He recommends taking a hard look at people with knowledge and gauging their sincerity. Hakim said rootwork requiring exorbitant sums and repeat visits raised red flags.  
Some claim the Sheriff was a fake. But he never charged, and many more proclaim him a great friend to the Gullah people.  
Still, costs vary depending on the practitioner’s skill and the complexity and gravity of your dilemma. How much you’re willing and able to pay gets factored in along with the “desperation of the person who wants the service,” Touré said. 

Two ceremonial dolls

But Does It Work?
“If rootwork were not effective, the practice would have died out centuries ago,” Pinckney wrote in Blue Root. His research suggests current belief is widespread and growing with believers exceeding 50 percent of Carolina whites and reaching 100 percent among Gullahs dealing with crises.  
“You have to believe the root is working for you in order for it to work,” said Thomas McTeer.  
The signs are out there in the Lowcountry. Houses painted haint blue. Telephones on graves. Coins left behind as offerings on Minerva’s final resting place. The innocent looking conch shell on a friend’s side table. Displaced graveyard dirt. The brown leaves of rabbit tobacco alongside country roads in November, ripe for picking. 
While a SCAD student, Bonaventure Cemetery tour guide Shannon Scott discounted the mobiles he saw hanging from trees at Colonial Cemetery as some art kid’s project. Until he got the distinct feeling “one in particular smacked of revenge.”
“We’ll get a report or two a year connected with someone’s serious belief voodoo is involved,” said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. Over the years, he’s found small dolls and bones arrayed in particular patterns. In August, a beheaded voodoo doll and bisected lizard were found outside the Tybee Police Department. Both departments followed up, but found nothing to prove conjuring. As far as they could determine. 
Scores of eyewitnesses over the years have attested to individuals so convinced of rooting they were unable to eat or drink, some ultimately dying or committing suicide. These observers have also seen sick people recover. 
Because it’s taboo, many in the Lowcountry won’t publicly admit their faith. But they won’t cross it either. “In your private life you’re not going to not believe,” Woods said.  
Most agree it’s psychologically-based. But as Woods reports in Coffin Point, Dr. Bug was convicted of practicing medicine without a license by selling charms laced with arsenic, causing heart palpitations in men who sought to avoid the World War II draft. Pinckney said Gulf War Syndrome has been credited to hexing employed by Saddam Hussein. Again, “evidence” of the two hats worn by root doctors.  
“If you’re the root doctor you have to believe down to your core, too,” Leslie said. “I feel a parallel in my work as a therapist because the likelihood of change in a patient is minimal if I don’t believe.” 
Today there’s a new root doctor in St. Helena. I have vague travel directions, but haven’t made the trip yet. Leslie said the man’s afraid he’ll die if he talks too much about hoodoo and believes the High Sheriff died because he talked way too openly. Dr. Buzzard’s successor has warned others to be careful, too, although Woods said he told him: “You can’t reveal anything that would hurt you. You’ll never know enough.”

To get read this and more, subscribe now or pick up the December/January issue of South Magazine.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

South's Greatest Moms Contest 2019

We're looking for the greatest, most authentic and sincere, southern moms. Taking nominations through February 4th!

South's Greatest Dads 2019

Show your dad some love and enter him in the South's Greatest Dads contest and get him some votes!
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Events Calendar

  • "The Prints of Dame Laura Knight" Exhibition at Telfair Museums

    Jan 19, 2019
    10:00 AM - 5:00 PM @ Telfair Museums' Jepson Center

    Telfair Museums exhibits nine prints by Dame Laura Knight (British, 1877-1970), together for the first time since they were acquired by the museum...

  • "Keita Takahashi: Zooming Out" Exhibition at Telfair Musuems

    Jan 24, 2019
    10:00 AM - 5:00 PM @ Jepson Center

    Telfair Museums hosts the first museum survey of the work of visionary videogame designer Keita Takahashi (Japanese, b. 1975). Takahashi is noted...

  • 2019 American Traditions Vocal Competition

    Feb 18, 2019
    12:00 PM - 12:00 PM @ Skidaway Island UMC & The Trustees Theater

    The 2019 American Traditions Vocal Competition (ATC) will be held Feb. 18-22, 2019. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit...

  • 2019 Groundhog Day 2.2 Mile Virtual Race

    Feb 20, 2019
    1:00 PM - 3:00 PM @ YOUR CHOICE

    February 20th is Love Your Pet Day! We want to celebrate all of the animals we love so much with a Love Your Pet Day 5K & 10K! We will be...

  • Will Gruver - LLS ALL STAR Campaign Kick-Off

    Feb 22, 2019
    5:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Service Brewing

    Come join All-Star, Will Gruver, and his band mates as they kick-off ‘Getting the Band Back Together’ for the Will Gruver - LLS ALL STAR...

  • Chefs & Chocolates

    Feb 22, 2019
    7:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Kehoe Ironworks at Trustees' Garden

    Please join Urban Hope for our 9th Annual Chefs and Chocolates Taste of Hope!

  • Fundamentals of Salsa On2 (Mambo Style)

    Jan 16, 2019
    7:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Fit912savannah

    Fundamentals of Salsa On2 (Mambo Style)    Fundamentals of Salsa On2 (Mambo style) is for beginners and advanced beginners  of this type of...

  • "A Star is Born"

    Feb 20, 2019
    7:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    The last feature in our run up to the Academy Awards Feb. 24 is, of course, “A Star is Born!!”In this new take on the tragic love story,...

  • The American Traditions Vocal Competition

    Feb 18, 2019
    7:30 PM - 8:00 PM @ Skidaway Island UMC

    The American Traditions Vocal Competition (ATC) returns for its highly anticipated 26th anniversary season Feb. 18-22, 2019. With an outstanding...

  • World of Illusion at Savannah Theatre

    Feb 21, 2019
    8:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Savannah Theatre

    The Savannah Theatre is presenting this incredible blend of comedy, close-up magic, and grand illusion featuring two dynamic, world-class acts for...

  • Savannah Black Heritage Festival

    Feb 01, 2019
    All Day @ Savannah

    The Savannah Black Heritage Festival (SBHF) is a professionally produced, multi-disciplinary festival, and it is one of the many ethnic cultural...

  • 23rd Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration

    Feb 01, 2019
    All Day @ Hilton Head Island

    The Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration showcases the rich cultural heritage of theGullah people and their history on Hilton Head Island. Hilton...

  • Balletomane: Paintings by Spain’s Antonio Torres

    Feb 01, 2019
    All Day @ R. Alexander Fine Art

    The show will be on display at R. Alexander from February 1- March 2, 2019. In conjunction with Atlanta Ballet, a special opening reception will be...

  • License to Chill Snow Island

    Nov 16, 2018
    All Day @ Margaritaville at Lanier Islands

    Margaritaville at Lanier Islands is preparing for a winter wonderland makeover that will surprise and delight local residents and travelers...

  • 2019 Race for Preservation

    Feb 23, 2019
    8:00 AM - 12:00 PM @ Forsyth Park

    Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF) is gearing up for the 2019 Race for Preservation. The 5k/10k race route begins and ends at Forsyth Park and runs...

  • Roswell Roots Arts Festival

    Feb 23, 2019
    10:00 AM - 4:00 PM @ DoubleTree by Hilton Roswell

    Come celebrate the arts at the only black art festival in Roswell. Artist from Roswell and the metro Atlanta area will express their cultural...

  • Power Yoga Principles

    Jan 05, 2019
    11:00 AM - 12:15 PM @ Savannah Power Yoga

    This class is intended for students who are new to yoga as well as those hoping to learn more about finding their best alignment in each of the...

  • Bar Food's 10 Year Anniversary Party

    Feb 23, 2019
    3:00 PM @ Bar Food

    Join us as we celebrate 10 years of business! There will be giveaways, raffles, drinks, food, and more!

  • 39th Annual Telfair Ball

    Feb 23, 2019
    6:00 PM - 12:00 AM @ Forsyth Park

    The museum’s most important and exclusive fundraiser is taking a trip from its usual location along Telfair Square this year. On February 23,...

  • 21st SMA Angels Charity Gala

    Feb 23, 2019
    All Day @ Kehoe Metal Building at Trustee’s Gardens

    We hope you will join us for our 21st SMA Angels Charity Gala on Saturday, February 23rd at the Kehoe Metal Building at Trustee’s Gardens. It...


Show More...

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Scenes of the South

Hearts for Healing Gala

The Faith Equestrian's Annual Hearts for Healing Gala at Tybee Wedding Chapel on Friday evening started out with a bang as the Free Spirit Orchestra' violin twins played their rendition of some of the greatest musical hits. The attendees were reminded what the event was all about as the founder Bonnie Rachael was recognized after story after story was shared to a room of teary eyed party-goers. Congrats to event director Bonnie Karr and her amazing team for a job well done!

The Cure Gala

Sisters on a journey sold out to a crowd of over 600 mainly female partygoers as they celebrated a night dedicated to finding a cure for childhood cancer.This special dinner featured unique, individually-themed table decorations, a silent auction, live auction, and a room full of big generous hearts. The event was held at the beautiful trustees garden, Charlie Morris's masterpiece of a venue.

Southern Coast Heart Ball

The American Heart Association's 22nd Annual Southern Heart Ball took place on February 2, 2019 and celebrated all the life-saving advances made so far while raising funds to continue to further AHA's mission. The black-tie gala brought together more than 400 guests to enjoy a night of dining, dancing, live entertainment and both live and silent auctions. Those in attendance got to hear the story of Lily Cochran, who was born with several congenital heart defects. Her father, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, also had a heart disease and was honored at the event.

PUTTING Away Crime

On Saturday, January 12, 2019 Savannah helped McGruff the Crime Dog take a bite out of crime at the Crimestoppers Savannah's 3rd Annual Putt Putt Mini Golf Tournament held at Island Miniature Golf and Game on Wilmington Island. Proceeds went to helping fund rewards for the Crimestopper's anonymous crime tip line.

Dining in the Dark

On Saturday, January 12, 2019, the 3rd Annual Dining in the Dark event presented by The Charles C. Taylor and Samir Nikocevic Charitable Foundation benefitting the Savannah Center for Blind and Low Vision, was held at the Embassy Suites/Downtown Savannah.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day 2018

Savannah's 39 Rue De Jean celebrated Beaujolais Nouveau Day, the official end of this year’s growing season. Harvest is complete and vintners—especially in France—are ready to celebrate the completion of the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau is a red wine that is annually released on the third Thursday in November. Nouveau wine undergoes a very short fermentation process, and yields an extremely fresh and fruity wine.

A Chefs Collaborative

This five course dinner held at Pacci Italian Kitchen and Bar allowed guests to taste exceptional flavors steeped in tradition. Included were the culinary skills of Chef Adam Barnett of The Katharine Brasserie & Bar, Winston-Salem, NC, Chef Robert Hoffman of Angeline’s Charlotte, NC, Chef Daniel Gorman of The Henley Nashville, TN, Chef Sebastien Rondier of Brabo, Alexandria, VA, and Chef Lauren Teague of PACCI Italian Kitchen + Bar.

East and West BBQ

A whole hog BBQ showcase, from two of the south’s most legendary Pitmasters, Pat Martin and Sam Jones. Hosted by Alida Hotel this event was a fabulous juxtaposition between Eastern North Carolina style BBQ and Western Tennessee style. Made possible by the Savannah Food and Wine Festival.

Savannah Food & Wine Fest

Hundreds came to experience Southern charm and hospitality, Savannah Style. The South's best culinary happenings - one exceptional week in Savannah. Iconic and historic coastal venues provided the perfect backdrop for gourmet and fun. South magazine captured the experience at the VIP tent.

Big Wig Boat Bash

Savannah's Riverboat, The Georgia Queen set sail to host the final fundraiser for the 2018 class of Big Wigs, together raising over $100,000 for the Susan G. Komen Coastal Georgia Foundation. This evening included heavy hors d’oeuvres, beverages, a silent auction, music and dancing and a contest to crown the Biggest BigWig! Contest categories included: The Biggest Wig, The Pink Ribbon Award and Best Pink Personality.