Since the release of Backwoods Witchcraft, it has been apparent that many folks have been confused by the titles of mystic workers in Southern Appalachia. To help extinguish that confusion and misinformation, I’ve decided to share with y’all here a piece of my second book Doctoring the Devil: Notebook of an Appalachian Conjure Man (2021, likely).
In Backwoods, I interchanged the titles on purpose to lay seed for the second book. Titles such as Power Doctor, Granny witch, and Conjuror were used together in mass throughout the texts. Here I will bring clarity to that, because as it seems the virus has slowed some things down, I think it best to let this information be known now and here to further stop any confusion. For those confused on what your ancestors did, or what they would be considered, this post is for you. Not everyone who knew how to heal with herbs did so professionally, nor did that mean they subscribed to a spiritual belief in the herb’s magical powers. Not everyone who prayed by faith believed in witchcraft, and not everyone who did heal by faith and did believe could cure the witchcraft.
Much like the Pennsylvania Dutch have powwows, hexes (witches), and hexenmeisters, we also have faith healers and witchdoctors; witches and witch-finders. We had human doctors and cow doctors, yarb doctors (aka root doctors), hex doctors (another term for a conjuror) and root workers. This blog aims to differentiate them. It was a hard task to put to page due to a lot of overlapping, but I think this will be beneficial for the community.
In writing Backwoods, it was my intention to cast it in the light of the eyes of an outsider for better understanding, because outsiders often do not know the difference in Appalachia between a yarb doctor and a witchdoctor, or a faith healer and a prophet/seer. That it why I interchanged the wordage, for when the second book came out and we went “farther up the mountain” more things could come into clarity. However, it is apparent that the heirs of this work today have little understanding as well, so I figured since things are delayed with the virus, I would go ahead and share this portion of the book with y’all.
I first began on this bit of my quest for answers in the hills when I learned of Harvey Miller, pictured above. He was my Mamaw’s neighbor near Pigeon Roost, NC. He was interviewed for the Frank Brown Collection because of the many stories he held. Because of this he was nicknamed the “Sage of Pigeon Roost”. He had a story about the Turkey Witch of Pigeon Roost, one of many witches, healers, and conjurors named that I have found, of which hopefully a list can be included in the second book to show the wide spread range geographically and chronologically in the area. I’ve numbered over 120 so far.
In the story he tells, he was gone hunting to find turkeys and any time he started to aim at one with his gun, this other turkey would sneak up on him and peck at his leg. Of course he wouldn’t shoot it close range cause that ain’t hunting. But every time he went up on the hill to try and get him one, this particular turkey always showed up. So finally he got so fed up he shot at it over and over again but not one bullet could hit it.
For this he determined it was a witch. So he set himself to make a silver bullet and he did. The next time the turkey showed up, he shot at it and wounded it in the leg but it ran off. He finally got himself a turkey.
A few days later, news came about a woman who lived up the ridge a bit named Phoebe Lingerfeltz. She had come down with rheumatism and was bed ridden for a while. Harvey Miller determined that she was a witch, the turkey he had shot. Phoebe walked with the limp for the rest of her life.
It wasn’t uncommon for there to be belief in witches were my Mamaws family was from. Many folks still today keep witches marks (simple five-pointed stars, usually made from sticks or tobacco sticks) either over their front door or as a prominent decoration on the front of the house to ward off witches and their spells.
But this led me to thinking: why were some folks feared and others respected. What vast chasm of differences could there have been to separate them? The following excerpt from my second book will explain.
Excerpt from Doctoring the Devil: Notebook of an Appalachian Conjure Man, by Jake Richards.
“Degrees of Practice
I’m going to explain the difference between each degree of practitioners here, but be mindful they often cross and intersect a lot, examples of which we will see later. So there may be some faith healers who are also yarb or root doctors, using herbs to heal as well. There may be some root doctors who are also root workers, using roots to aid not only the body but also the mind and soul. Furthermore, anyone could be a little bit of all: a faith healer who uses roots to heal and to bring money, love, or justice. Then they may stay separate altogether based on upbringing and personal belief: I’ve met some faith healers who’d have nothing to do with working roots based on the belief that it’s evil or that they couldn’t handle the power, while there are also tales of yarb doctors disbelieving that roots can draw money or that you can conjure the dead or other spirits. So this isn’t a set color pallet, but an array of beliefs and degrees of practice found in each separated only by the hills our ancestors lived between.
Taking into account the actions and practices by the other working folks prior, there’s a bit of both folk magic and conjure done by each, whether some are aware of it or not. The degrees of faith healing, root doctoring, and conjuring often over lap one another. The Faith Healers pray to the angels and to God to aid in healing, using bible verses, so naturally it includes a certain degree of conjuring, not only in the aspect of calling on spiritual aid but also in hand movements or superstitious practices as well, such as my grandfather using an egg to take out a fever by passing the egg over the head a certain way with prayers; he was not only praying to God for relief, his hands were working in the relief by conjuring the fever out and into a more suitable home that can take its heat: the egg. Sometimes the healer would give the person restrictions on diet or activities based on superstitious belief.
For example, for swellings it would be recommended to abstain from fish or anything caught from the water until the third Sunday after the swelling subsided. In the case of burns, folklore often recommends the common people to refrain from lighting fires or using matches and lighters by the belief the fire may re-enter the burn ; or popping the blister until after the sun goes down so it won’t hurt or fester. Preachers also sometimes resort to divination to speak with God and the spirits through bibliomancy: opening the bible to a random page and verse after a question or need has been stated to find the answer or solution on said page. Nana and Papaw did this and said if you ask a question and you open the Bible to any verse in read, where Christ is speaking, or to a verse that begins “and it came to pass” then that is a strong yes to the question.
The Yarb or Root doctor, also sometimes called a Remedy Man, were those who healed with herbs and usually didn’t stick with the simple physical medicine of pills and herb, and these were numerous throughout the region. Just about any one could take up a copy of Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, get a horse, a bag, a lancet, a few drugs and other tools to name himself a doctor or physician. Gunn specifically wrote the book for these folks, in the case that a “trained” physician couldn’t be reached it taught you what to do until such a time. Because the normal man could do this, the varying degrees of method and belief in their practices are numerous. If you’ve been having a run of luck with your health, they might’ve recommended a certain herb or concoction for the illness but also may have advised you take castor oil for a certain number of days, due to the belief that castor oils helps purge the body, it will also help remove jinxes or tricks too. Certain tricks were also hidden in food and found their way in effecting the body by polluting the blood or stomach. In Appalachian folk medicine and medicinal belief, many still believe today that diseases are caused by many things whether dead animals, food, bathroom fumes, dead ancestors, demons, and spells. There’s a lot more depth to it, so that’s reserved for a different conversation. What you need to understand is that the blood allegedly becomes polluted by organic matter that comes into the body via the air or in food and drink. This in turn can set up disease by creating imbalances in the body or it may cause food to get lodged in the intestines and begin to rot. Here also dietary restrictions may be given: don’t eat chocolate or drink coffee because it can make rheumatism or arthritis worsen.
Back in the day, tricks such as powdered spider eggs, horse hair, and other such things were introduced into someone’s food to conjure them. Spider eggs were often cooked into dumplings or powdered in with ice cream, so again dietary restrictions were advised if this was thought to be the suspect. The work then gets in the body and pollutes it and they become “rooted”, “witched” or “hexed.” Since conjure and folk magic sometimes crossed into the realm of the yarb doctor or herb healer, they also utilized herbs, purgatives, and washes to help expel “roots” from the body. Now the Yarb or Root doctor could also be seen praying or reciting bible verses while creating teas, salves, compresses, or doing divination to understand the severity of the person’s illness and to see if they’ll make it. The Cow or Horse doctor sometimes not only employed herbs, but also prayers and sometimes knew a thing or two about curing the evil eye or witchcraft when a cow gave bloody milk or a horse couldn’t stand. In this way, some would take an herb, usually powdered with other things, and they would administer it either by putting it in a wound on the beast, give it in drinking water, or simply dust the beast from head to tail to cure the ailment, whether of physical or spiritual origin.
Next, we have the Witchdoctor, the Witch Finder, and Hex/Conjure Doctor or Rootworker. The Witchdoctor was primarily a person who cured the effects of witchcraft or conjures in both man and beast; however he was often times also a Rootworker or Conjurer who folks would go to for luck in money, love, and court cases among other things, including curses. The practices of the Conjurer in the general south varied greatly, especially coming into the early twentieth century when products such as powders and oils were marketed to the public from Memphis to Knoxville to Johnson City, TN; from Fayetteville, Virginia to Boone, North Carolina in drug stores and specialty shops alike. Along with these one could find many “guidebooks” telling you how to win the lottery with lucky dream numbers in dream books, popular during their time here, that also have dream meanings; curio catalogues professing the powers of roots and charms such as a lucky rabbits foot or galax root, and other books showing you how to work “spells” or “black magic” with lamps and candles. Among these titles were Egyptian Secrets by Albertus Magnus, The Long Lost Friend by John Hohman, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses (which was highly tabooed), and another was one my grandfather owned called the Ten Lost Books of the Prophets, a set of ten compiled volumes, about thirty pages each, which processed to contain the magical knowledge of Solomon, Jesus etc.
To my families knowledge, he only owned a couple of them instead of all ten. Which volumes he used is unknown as the covers don’t seem to have detailed their volume number. He also owned a book called The Guiding Light to Power and Success by Mikhail Strabo which spoke of using candles and bible verse to achieve love, success, money, and to curse one’s enemies.
Because these guidebooks were highly marketed, and contained influences from many cultures whether African or Hebrew, this may be the reason behind some similarities to such works published and those continued in some communities. Much like medicine, I wouldn’t put it past folks to have taken up a couple of these and simply started conjuring, along the way professing their power over other competition, especially in the urban areas such as Knoxville.
Next on our list: The Witch Finder. The Witch Finder was specifically a person who specialized in not only doctoring the witchcraft afflicting a person, but also in finding the person who sent it. Whether it was using a picture of the suspect nailed to a tree, a wire hoop, or cutting with a knife the urine or milk of the afflicted, they’re specialty was in drawing and forcing the witch to come forth no matter what in order to visit the home, usually to borrow an item such as salt, sugar, or bread; anything to try and keep a charm over the afflicted person; which I have found to be true. Once your work on someone has been undone or reversed, the ties you used, whether hair, nail clippings, or worn clothes become useless. The witchdoctor has called their spirit back from the item and it’s no longer tied to them, which warrants another visit to the person’s home to try and get something else to use to “keep a hold on them.”
The next “mystics” are those with the Sight. Many folks born a certain way are said to be able to speak with the dead and have knowledge of events either past, present or future. Many of these conjuring folk posses the gift, but not every person with the Sight does anything other than warn family and friends or possibly read for people. These are the Fortune-Tellers. They may knowingly take up this work and read for people or often times they don’t know of it and will often end up being a top person in the church who speaks prophecies over people or their situations, bringing the Holy Spirit through to enact change. In this way, they would utilize a form of conjuring by bringing in not any spirit but The Spirit for a person. By speaking prophecies or testifying, they use the spoken words as their prayers and petitions and enactments on the situation. Not only saying what will be, but ensuring it as well.
The Conjuror, Rootworker or Hex Doctor, according to folk belief and stories, was the most feared in the community next to the Witch. He was tolerated because folks were under the assumption he didn’t get his powers from the Devil, but they were still cautious around him and sometimes even in speaking of him. For many, conjure folk weren’t always equated to the Devil, but they also wasn’t always seen sitting in the pews on Sunday neither. This scared folks more cause they didn’t know for certain who he “answered to” or who his “Master” was; because he worked for himself. He worked roots and minerals and animal parts into “sachet” (sa-shay) bags and powders to employ the root, either for or against you, all the while whispering and muttering charms and enchantments and statements known only between him and the spirits he kept company with. The Conjuror knew the spirits much like you know your family members, because often they were his family, ghosts of Ancestors long gone and recently left, who aided, advised, and consoled him. With these roots and the know-how of twisting Nature’s hand, he could bring you money or love; favor in court or bring illness to your enemies. Or you.
Even the law had trouble getting these folks for the practice of what they called medicine without a license, such as the case of the famous Dr. Buzzard. The Conjure man was the hillside Capone for folks here. Don’t mess with him and won’t mess with you. And if anyone came look for such a person with bad intentions, folks kept zipped cause they believed what the doctor had done for them can be undone just as quickly.
A community standard
Some only worked “good” magic, while others worked tongue-in-cheek on those who did them wrong. It was a popular belief in all of the south that God has just as much to do with it as you do, so if something bad happened to your enemies it was in His will! The Conjuror is the person folks turn to when they believe they have been cursed. Family and friends think they have gone crazy and the medical doctors can’t figure out why their legs are swelling or their guts feel like they’re being pulled out. The Conjure Doctor was the last resort for many and still is. Runs of bad luck and illness can decimate a person’s entire livelihood here so they had to act quick, and for Appalachian Americans, God’s timing just ain’t quick enough sometimes, so they’d go to the Conjure man or Conjure woman’s house to see what was the matter and to persuade the Spirits.
Now people of this profession in this degree of witchcraft and mystical practices often exemplified many of these degrees of conjuror, witchdoctor, and witch finder.
Some Conjurors or Rootworkers simply used herbs in a spiritual way, showing no regular use of their medicinal value aside from the common household remedies folks are raised on in our culture. Some Conjurors can not only cure witchcraft or find out who did it, they can “put the witch under” meaning in the grave using their same work. Other times, folks were simply Witchdoctors like Ed Mcteer of South Carolina who only used “white witchcraft” as he called it to remove the curses and jinxes of other Doctors in the area. Still yet, some people could only find out a witch or person behind the matter but didn’t have the capability of reversing the work.
Now here also resides the “folk witch,” whom we’ve spoke of a couple times. Witches were viewed with distain in much of Southern Appalachia. In every community, there was always one person, male or female, who was not trusted or disliked by the rest of the community for one reason or another, which is often inflated in tales and stories as they get passed down so those reasons are most likely of a mundane origin, like some small confrontation. Either way, this was the attitude upheld by the community: they believed this outcast person shouldn’t be trusted because they were odd and kept to themselves, which usually lead to the accusation that they were dealing with the devil for their powers of spells and knowing.
Here’s the kicker, Appalachian witches were conjurors and rootworkers as we can see from the old stories of them entertaining spirits and of folks going to them to get roots for money and love as well as cursing. The same work of the accepted conjuror or rootworker. Now that’s not to say everybody just loved the conjuror up and down, they were simply held at a better status in the community than the witch. Folks tolerated them and the idea of what they do. However, caution was thick in the air of the communities when it came to conjurors and witchdoctors because some of them were said to “turn” from God and work with the Devil, or work with both, although their titles rarely changed after the fact. But what about the witch? Only the most desperate would go to them. Most folks would’ve rather had a conjuror come stay in their home, cook them food and eat at their table than to have anything to do with the witch!
The Folk Witch
So both the conjuror and the witch did the same works. They used the same roots and worked for the same causes. They visited the same graveyards and crossroads or often times dealt with the same spirits. The only distinction ever seen in the old folk tales and stories, when compared, is the group belief or attitude of the community about that individual and the tales that sprung up around them. We can see the same phenomena occur throughout history across the world where folks held in high regard in the community do the same thing as those as the bottom of the social latter. The former often gets by without folks batting an eye, however the latter is shunned, called names, excommunicated, and sometimes denied service from shops in town. They are isolated for doing the same acts committed by a better man. Sometimes, these allegations were utterly false and the said “witch” wasn’t one at all!
Even to the words used we can see this divide: conjure and folk magic, that done by normal folks and those respected in the community never really had a name; faith healers tried for someone’s health, the practice of the yarb doctor was simply called superstition by their western medical superiors, and the Witchdoctor simply did work or roots on your behalf. However, when something bad was done to someone spiritually, it was and is called witchcraft, because that name carries the same feeling surrounding the folk witch. It is still witchcraft even if its sender is another respected Witchdoctor. Let this all sink in before we move to the stories and tales, so you can better understand us and the work we do behind closed doors. While the witch and the conjure doctor are often confused, the witch mostly did works of retaliation in return for wrongs done against her. The conjuror was for hire however, furnishing folks with spells to get money, find lost items or livestock, taking off witchcraft or cursing folks. While the witch mostly harmed animals and hurt one’s luck, the conjuror worked on people more in comparison of the old stories.
Due to the civil war in the south, many records were lost or destroyed. It’s been proposed that this is the reason why there’s only a small handful of witchcraft convictions recorded in southern Appalachia, however there are no written documents detailing the execution of a person as a witch; these are left for speculation. So in Appalachia, the limit of the witch hysteria, according to recent interviews by the Tennessee Folklore Society and current cultural currents, seemed to stay at excommunication and public disgrace for the outcast, with a little religious condemnation thrown in for flavor.
Furthermore, the person’s reputation often times never rested on a foundation founded on their actual acts, but on the assumptions and exaggerations of the superstitious community: the place where baby-eating, broom-flying witches come from. These exaggerations often included the Appalachian folk witch turning into a beast such as a black or white cat solid in color, a white deer, a boar hog, a turkey, or a possum just to name a few. This also included such impossible acts as flying through keys holes and slipping from their skin to ride people at night, which was the blame for people sleep walking.
This is largely the reason we cannot truly know the practices and methods employed by the Folk Witch: nobody would associate with them. Therefore, these tales are exaggerated simply for entertainment, as storytelling is a huge part of Appalachian culture, and often times they have no standing in the real practices of these outcast, aside from very few first-hand accounts gathered such as Ray Hicks’ story of a fortuneteller who told his fortune with tea leaves, titled The Mountain Fortuneteller. Other tales detail how one can become a witch such as shooting a homemade silver bullet at the full moon while renouncing the Almighty; standing on the oldest grave and renouncing the Church in order to meet the Devil, tales of them turning into animals, the list goes on. Another method of seeing these hidden details and truths of a possible real practice is by comparing them to other similar stories and accounts regarding yarb and conjure doctors, whose stories often have more footing in the real world and outnumber that of the Folk Witch. They did, after all, do the same works.
Aside from the convicting and often impossible activities of the witch, elements of folk magic were and are largely used by the common people such as hanging a horseshoe above the door for luck and to avert witches or keeping a jar of money by the door to draw prosperity. However, some things require professional aid from someone who was trained in the higher manners of conjure and talking with the spirits either by self or through family. That’s when folks turn to the Rootworker or Witchdoctor, someone more powerful than they are in creating change and moving roots. They’re the ones born for it because they just have the Gift. Just like jobs, we have specialties about us. Some folks are better at working roots for justice or money as opposed to protection or love for other people. I myself am better at protection than I am at love work. But back in the day, folks often made their living off this so they were a bit territorial over their area and their clientele and wouldn’t often recommend another worker.” End excerpt.
So now that you know the degrees of practice in AFM, it is my hope this can better help you determine what degree your relatives fit in. With my family, my great grandfather James Morgan was a conjuror as far as I can tell by the photo we found of him with a doll adorned in black feathers. Mama and nana have often used conjuring on folks for various reasons, but papaw never did as far as I know. He was a faith healer, he healed by the spirit, by stopping blood and healing burns.
His mother was likely a conjuror as well, always had lamps lit and burning some sort of musky powder. Mamaw Morgan, James’ wife, often made dolls out of corn cobs and hid them. I’ve also come to find out that one of my ancestors is known as a folk witch, complete with devil deals and weird spirit behavior! My Papaw Lonas, my great grandmothers father, knew a lot about herbs. We don’t know if he made cures for people, so he may or may not have been a yarb doctor.
While I can never know for certain, I am proud to have create this mapping of the degrees to help make it easier for others to possibly determine the influence of this work in their own families and communities. Past histories regulated these practices to superstition and entertainment when in actuality they were sometimes the sole income for those special folks in the day. Before now, no one has paid attention to the actual people who did this, how they did it or what they believed. My second book aims to fix that.
And remember, my inbox is always open should you need help with this in your own family!
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Photos courtesy of the Mitchell County Historical Society of North Carolina