Since it’s spooky season, I thought we could talk a little about a Memphis urban legend…
What do you think is one of the most well known urban legends?
I’d probably say, Voodoo Village.
That’s exactly what I was thinking. And I think pretty much everyone who grew up here or has lived here for any amount of time has heard about or even ventured out to the community known to locals as Voodoo Village.
So what are some of the rumors you’ve heard about this place?
I’ve heard that when you drive there, they pull a school bus behind your car so you can’t leave. They come out and chase you with bats and machetes. There are dead animals hanging from trees. There are weird yard art objects and masonic and voodoo symbols all around the property. It’s all just very strange and spooky.
I’ve heard all those things too, and even believed them for a very long time. Admittedly, I was too freaked out to actually go all the way there to see for myself. I believe it was my friend Neeraj and I who ventured that way late one night, but we eventually turned around and came home.
But years later, I had read a little about the so called “Voodoo Village” and learned it was actually called St. Paul’s Spiritual Holy Temple. I have also read it as St. Peter’s, but I do believe it’s St. Paul’s.
As it turns out, the history behind St. Paul’s is more complicated than we thought. To understand it, we have to start with Memphis’s beginnings. But I promise we’ll get back to it.
Most of the information I got for this episode was from a book by Tony Kail called, appropriately, “A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo”. This really is a fantastic book. It’s informative and a quick read. It made me want to dig deeper into the subject, thus this episode’s topic. It’s a really cool book. I suggest checking it out. You can find it in the local section at Novel.
Memphis is known by many names. The Bluff City. The Home of the Blues. The Birthplace of Rock n Roll. The Cotton Capital of the World. The BBQ Capital of the World. But it’s also called Mojo City.
The word “mojo” comes from an object used within the practice of Hoodoo. Memphis’s Hoodoo history is not extremely well known or frankly understood, that is of course, unless you’re actually in the know.
So we started this episode talking about voodoo and now we’re talking about hoodoo. What is the difference?
Voodoo (Vodou), meaning spirit, is considered a religion or religious practice. It is similar to Hoodoo, and in one video I watched, it said that Hoodoo was born out of Voodoo.
It was brought from Africa, through Haiti, and then to America during the slave trade. It is a blend of Catholicism and African cultural and traditional beliefs. The type of voodoo we are going to be talking about for this episode is what is generally practiced in New Orleans.
There is structure and hierarchy in Voodoo. There is one God, but they do not interfere with life. But there are numerous spirits that do, and they call these spirits Loa or Lwa. Each Loa has its own area of life that it is responsible for, for example agriculture or money. Practitioners connect with these spirits when they need their assistance.
There are priestesses and priests in Voodoo. A popular Voodoo priestess was Marie Laveau. She made a name for herself by helping people from all walks of life in New Orleans. She was a hairdresser by day, but her other “side hustle” was to help people achieve their desires through her voodoo practice. She was known to help black, white, rich and poor people.
And even in her death, she is still helping people. There is a rumor that if you make a wish on her grave, and your wish comes true, you owe her a present. I, admittedly, made a wish on her tomb, and while it took some years, that wish did come true. So I actually owe her a present the next time we’re in New Orleans.
I’m sure many people have heard of this famous Voodoo Priestess. She is widely known and any time you speak of New Orleans or Voodoo, her name comes up.
She’s also an integral part of season 3 of American Horror Story. She’s played by the amazing Angela Bassett. So now any time I picture Marie Laveau, I see Angela Bassett.
While there is a popular misconception that voodoo is evil, those who practice it say it is not. There are many spirits in voodoo, and if you don’t treat them with respect, you may regret that decision, but there is no version of a devil in this religion.
Objects are not inherently good or bad, it’s what you do with them. For example, a voodoo doll can be made of a person and it can be used for healing, centering, and focusing. But it can also be used to inflict pain on others, which is what is most commonly thought of when you say voodoo doll.
Voodoo has rituals, ceremonies, and healers. They also have practices such as goat and fowl sacrifices in some of these rituals and ceremonies.
I saw a video of a spiritual medium ceremony that involved a community invoking a spirit to take the life of a person, then that person, who appears lifeless, was stored (for lack of a better word) for 3 days with no food or water, and then the community tried to resurrect them (for they were “dead” or at least comatose) in order for that person to become a spiritual medium. Apparently, in the video I watched, their ceremony worked because it appears the girl came back to life.
You may notice this practice feels a lot like the Christian crucifixion story.
So Voodoo is practiced as a religion and appears not to be quite so hush hush. Whereas Hoodoo takes practices from Voodoo, but is generally practiced quietly.
The history of Hoodoo comes from many African cultural traditions and religious practices. Hoodoo is considered folk magic. It was brought to America during the slave trade. The enslaved people who were brought to America were from many different nations in Africa, most having varying traditions and languages. Even though they had differences, they blended together their cultures in an effort to have a sense of self and camaraderie. While on these Southern plantations, the enslaved people would take the practice of Christianity and blend it with their beliefs. And thus Hoodoo was born. In Hoodoo, there is the belief that herbs and roots have power. Practitioners believe that ancestors give you power. You must connect to your ancestors to receive power. This practice is handed down from generation to generation. It is spiritually based, but it is not a religion. Hoodoo is also known as rootwork or conjuring.
On plantations, there were some enslaved people who were known to have spiritual abilities. They would provide healing and other magical services, such as protection from harm. Over time, the practice of Hoodoo focused on love, luck, fate, and prosperity, as well as healing and protection. Those who practiced were not widely known to the public. It was and still is, generally spread by word of mouth.
These are some commonly held concepts for rootworkers and conjurers.
- -a supreme being- there is a higher “god” that is all powerful or all knowing
- -spirits of the dead- practitioners honor the dead, asking for protection or guidance. They will use graveyard dust and coffin nails to connect to the dead. They can also call on the dead to haunt or create mischief for the living.
- -rituals & magic- practitioners do rituals for good harvests, for healing, for protection, money, and then sometimes for more nefarious things. In the rituals, healers may use bones, shells, and stones to figure out the source of one’s ailment or plight.
- -power of herbs- much like the name rootworkers implies, they rely on plants, roots, and herbs to be used as medicines. Those can also be carried or worn to provide protection.
- -amulets and charms- one word that is used for such things is fetishes, from the Portuguese word fetico, meaning “made”. These fetishes are objects that represent deities and contain a spirit or power.
There are also gris-gris or mojo bags. These were bags that contained herbs, animal bones, feathers, or stones. The objects are then placed in the bags and then blessed. Many of the bags hold a spirit called “mooya” or the soul of a person. This is done by putting something in the bag that belongs to the owner, like hair, nails, or skin. It’s believed that the word “mojo” came from the word mooya. After everything is put in the bag, it is “fed” with alcohol, blood, or other liquids to nourish the spirit. Once the bag has its spiritual energy in it, it can then be used to either protect or harm. Another object practitioners like to use was a nail. They were used to try to nail down something, for instance nailing a curse down to stop it from happening.
So there is the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo. They are similar but not as interchangeable as one may think.
When did Hoodoo come to Memphis?
The earliest practice of Hoodoo in Memphis was seen in the early to mid 1800s on the Hildebrand plantation in what is now Whitehaven. The estate had 29 enslaved people living in five quarters. Years later, artifacts that were removed from the slave quarters reflected African folk practices. For instance, one object that was found was a dime with a hole drilled in it and that could be worn as a necklace to keep away evil. Coins like this were found on other plantations in Mississippi as well. There were also metal hand charms found and these were used to keep away the evil eye, and to ward off sickness and bad luck. These types of charms were also found in Nashville, St. Louis, and Mississippi.
Rootwork was seen in the mid 1850s. Those with spiritual abilities would take the bark from certain trees and roots from certain plants and grind them up to make medicines for other enslaved people. By the time Yellow Fever hit in 1878, exasperated white doctors were using some of the same roots as rootworkers to help their patients.
Those who held these spiritual abilities went by many names, some we’ve mentioned, rootworker or conjurer, but also goofer doctor, trick doctor, or healer. They could be male or female and were supernaturally called. Those with physical deformities were oftentimes seen as gifted with powers. So if you were to visit a rootworker, you may notice they had a prominent birthmark or speech impediment. Many of those who were “called” apprenticed with established practitioners.
Now we’ll get into some stories about Memphis’s Hoodoo culture.
In 1872, a former enslaved person, Rans Darden, lived on Neshoba Plantation, a community for emancipated enslaved people, in Germantown. He had a cabin, small garden, and livestock. One day he was bit by a dog, so he went to Collierville to buy a “madstone” or bezor for us Harry Potter fans, that was supposed to cure sickness from bites. He started feeling better for about a month but then he began to get sick again. He went to a medical doctor but was unable to be cured, so his friends contacted an African American doctor who worked with animals. Dr. Pigee, as he was called, determined he had been conjured and that was causing his illness. The doctor blamed Darden’s neighbor. Apparently, Darden and his neighbor had argued over one of Darden’s pigs eating the neighbors crops.
Darden’s condition got worse and he began to cry and scream uncontrollably. Members of the community thought he was going mad and they blamed Darden’s neighbor. When they felt things had gone far enough, the locals decided to hunt down Darden’s neighbor and punish him. After 300 blows from a leather whip, the neighbor died. Darden’s condition still worsened and he later passed. An autopsy was performed and his cause of death was not a conjure, but hydrophobia caused by rabies.
Side note, if you want to listen to a really great podcast episode about rabies and what it does to a person who contracts it, This Podcast Will Kill You has a great one. I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend not getting rabies and if you do or think you might get it from an animal bite, go to the hospital immediately.
Hoodoo had been blamed for several wrong doings in Memphis in the late 1800s. Another story is about a family feud between two neighboring families. The Strong family had lost a child to a mysterious illness. The mother practiced Hoodoo and used a mojo bag to connect with a spirit who told her the identity of the person that was responsible for her child’s death. When the Strong family accused the woman of killing her child, she and other family members denied it. Unfazed by the denial, the mother and her family engaged in verbal and physical abuse against the accused family, which resulted in fighting between the two. Eventually the matter was taken to court and all parties involved were placed under bond.
The Memphis Turtles (the baseball team that in a roundabout way helped start our zoo because of their mascot Natch the Bear) supposedly owed their winning ability to Memphis Hoodoo. Allegedly, the manager had their home plate dug up and taken to a local cemetery and placed in a vault with mummies, overnight. It was then brought back to the stadium, and before being replaced on the ground, four leaf clovers, horseshoes, the hide of a black cat, and several jack rabbit hind legs were buried underneath it. Apparently, this was done to break any conjure that would have stopped the Turtles from winning.
I guess that luck only lasted a short time as the Memphis Turtles only played from 1909 to 1911.
Reverand Harry Hyatt, who was for all intents and purposes a cultural anthropologist, came to Memphis to document Hoodoo culture. He interviewed numerous people about their practices and found that Memphis has a rich Hoodoo culture. One man he interviewed had to consult the spirits to see if Hyatt was safe to talk to. He made a bag filled with graveyard dirt, a lodestone (a naturally magnetic stone), broom straws, and some herbs. He then fed it with wintergreen oil. He would then ask the bag if Hyatt was safe to speak with. He told it to swing if “yes” and stand still if “no”. The bag began to swing, so the man was comfortable talking with him.
There was one rootworker that Hyatt continued to hear stories about on his journey. Caroline Dye. Now Dye didn’t live in Memphis, she resided in Newport, AR about 90 miles from Memphis. She became so popular that she had a special train line known as the Caroline Dye Special that would take passengers straight to her home. Aunt Dye, as she became known, had hundreds of people coming to visit her daily. W.C. Handy even wrote about her in a few of his songs. The gyspy woman in “St. Louis Blues” was referring to Dye. He also mentions her by name in “Sundown Blues”. “I’m going to Newport. I’m going there to see Aunt Caroline Dye.” Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band also wrote a song about her, it was called Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues.
So why was Caroline Dye so popular?
Dye learned of her abilities as a child and would help numerous people in her community. Her reputation grew from there. She would help anyone in her community that needed help. Black, white, rich, and poor would come to her for services. She helped local businessmen with their financial decisions. She would use a deck of cards to receive guidance from the spirits. She was great at locating lost things too, she even located a person once. And while most revered Dye as a talented seer, there were always some naysayers. But she’d end up telling those people something about themselves that no one else would know, and it usually convinced them. Her reputation as a seer, as well as a good businesswoman, lasted until her death.
In our previous episode, we talked about the many Blues artists that played on Beale St. Turns out, most of those musicians practiced Hoodoo themselves. Artists such as Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey II (Lillie Mae Glover) all had songs about Hoodoo. Glover was approached one night by a young girl who was being beaten by her boyfriend. Glover told her girl to get a pair of his socks and bring them to her. She did as she was told and brought the socks to Glover. Glover took the socks and laid them out and then took a glass bottle with liquid in it. She poured the liquid over the socks, asked the man’s name, and gave them back to the girl. The bottle label said “Do as I Say Oil”. She told her to put the socks in the creek and let them float away. That man will float away like those socks.
A few weeks later, Glover was visited by another young girl asking for help. She had told her that she heard Glover helped the girl who was being abused by her boyfriend and he ended up leaving the next day, so she knew Glover could help her too.
Guess Ma Rainey was good at more than just singing.
It’s no wonder Memphis has such a strong Hoodoo history because we were home to some of the largest Hoodoo product companies. Think back to our story about Earnestine and Hazel’s. Originally, Pantaze Drug Store was located there and they sold various cosmetics and other products geared toward the African American community. It was run by Abe Plough, and he was a good friend of Joseph Menke, the chemist who owned Keystone Laboratories, which we’ll soon find out is a Hoodoo manufacturer. You’ll remember that Plough started his business with $125 of borrowed money and quickly turned his patent medicine business into a thriving business, acquiring St. Joseph’s Aspirin, Coppertone, and Maybelline. He also became a huge philanthropist. One of his “medicines”, Plough’s Mexican Heat Powder, was a common ingredient with Hoodoo practitioners.
Was all his luck in business simple luck, or was it something else?
There were several Hoodoo product manufacturing companies to come out of Memphis. American Chemical Manufacturing Companies offered a selection of Hoodoo related products. One section of the catalog featured “Curious, Roots, Oils, Lodestones”. They sold powders, herbs, incense, and oils.
Keystone Laboratories was started in the early 1920s to fill the need for African American cosmetic products. They hired African American employees to help sell their products. While they helped distribute cosmetic products, they also offered an array of Hoodoo products.
Curio Product Company and Hi-Hat were both subsidiaries of Keystone that sold Hoodoo products.
Keystone was eventually bought by Lucky Heart Laboratories. In 1944, Lucky Heart bought American Chemical and manufactured their products as well. Lucky Heart became a booming business. They filled over 1000 orders a day for cosmetics and Hoodoo products. They sold books popular in Hoodoo culture and products like Mojo Love Drops Perfume, Lucky Lovin Perfume, 7-11 Dice Perfume as well as others that were guaranteed to work. Lucky Heart stood behind their products. If anyone could prove that their products were not authentic, they would be paid $1000.
Clyde Collins Chemical Company offered Hoodoo related products through door to door sales. It was like Avon for Hoodoo. While purchasing cosmetic products, customers could also purchase oils, lodestone, rabbit feet, and roots.
Lucky Heart Cosmetics still exists in Memphis, but when looking at their website, I didn’t see anything that alluded to the company still dabbling in the Hoodoo industry anymore, or do they…
There are a couple businesses in Memphis that still do. One of the most famous is A. Schwabs. Legend has it, Leo Schwabs, the founder’s son, was looking for a solution to the overbearing smells that wafted in the store from the various eateries on Beale. A friend directed him to A.A. Vantine out of New York. They had an incense that would cause any scent to vanish by just burning a little cone. The incense worked, so he ordered more product. The company sent him other promotional items, some of them Hoodoo related. Schwab decided to set up a little display to see how they would sell. Well, they sold like hotcakes. Schwab would end up carrying over eight tons of Hoodoo related products, taking up most of their storage space. From candles to oils, artifacts to herbs, Schwabs sold it all. Although most people who purchased the products usually referred to their practices as mojo or spiritualism, avoiding using the term Hoodoo. As of the production of this book, 2017, Schwabs still employs a rootworker to make “hands” for those who ask.
Just down the street from Schwabs is Tater Red’s Lucky Mojo and Voodoo Healing shop. While this is a unique gift shop visited by many tourists, they have more than just things you’d find on Michael Scott’s toy shelf. There is a large collection of candles, powders, oils, and voodoo dolls for your conjuring needs.
Another well known establishment that offers Hoodoo products is Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley. Dr. Charles Champion is a pharmacist, who graduated from Xavier University College in New Orleans. He not only practices western medicine but also herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies, and he also offers many Hoodoo related products such as miracle gambling oils (which could be purchased on your way to Tunica to help you to win), herbs, roots, candles, and other curios. Dr. Champion turned 90 in 2020. His business is run primarily by his daughters these days.
The Broom Closet on South Main calls itself a metaphysical shop, not really Hoodoo. However, it sells various spiritual products such as incense, candles, stones, and oils, as well as offering services like Tarot readings, aura and chakra readings, and meditation. They also run Historical Haunts Memphis service. We have taken several of their tours and they are awesome!
So now, let’s get back to where this episode began, St. Paul’s Spiritual Holy Temple.
It’s the 1950s and Washington “Doc” Harris starts to build a spiritual temple on his two acres of land. Doc was said to be of African and Native American descent. One of his buildings on the land was used as his healing office and the other was a temple that he and his grandson Mook designed, using an array of symbols. Many were Masonic symbols known only to Harris because he was a 33 degree mason. These symbols conveyed moral and philosophical concepts. The brightly colored and interestingly built art of stars, moons, and crosses were constructed out of wood, plastic, metal, and other items. The inside of the temple was adorned with satin and silk cloth. Members of the church would dress in satin robes and caps.
Doc was considered a spiritual healer and people would come from all over to visit the temple to receive healing and/or assistance. He would provide healthcare for those who could not afford it. His form of healthcare, though, required cooperation from the sick. Doc would meet with the patient and pray for them. He’d then instruct them to wash their souls and come back in two weeks. This consisted of taking three baths per week at the same time of the day. The patient would put a cup of salt, a half gallon of red vinegar, a small box of baking soda, and a cup of graveyard dirt into the bath. Then they must bathe with a white towel and repeat the Lord’s prayer. The patient also had to cleanse themselves internally by drinking a cup of sage tea everyday and eating a raw egg with a tablespoon of oil.
After the two weeks were up, they came back and Doc told them to continue their baths but to get the graveyard dirt from the middle of the grave about half a foot deep, and then refill the hole.
I couldn’t find where it said how long to do this or what help it did in curing them, but maybe it was to cleanse their souls so that God was able heal them.
Unfortunately, by the 1960s, St. Paul’s got the reputation for Voodoo practice, probably due to the secretive nature of Harris’s establishment and unusual yard sculptures. It became almost a rite of passage for teenagers to drive down that dark road and see if anything spooky happened. Rumors of ghosts from human and animal sacrifices, zombies, black magic, and Voodoo rituals spread like wildfire.
Who knows how these rumors actually started, you know how kids make stuff up, but they continued on into my highschool days in the 90s.
But apparently those allegations could not be further from the truth.
It’s said that Doc would actually try to remove black magic and conjure work for clients. His practice was based in songs and prayers from traditional Christian churches and mixed with spirits from African and Native American spiritual backgrounds.
His grandson attributes his grandfather’s abilities as a gift from god, it is not voodoo.
Once the rumors began to take hold, people started harassing the members of the community and vandalizing the property. Doc was investigated and fined for practicing medicine without a license and then negligence and malpractice after an 8 year old boy passed away while he was treating him for stomach problems. After that time, he started to become more secretive about his practice.
Doc passed away in 1995, but his family has continued to run and take care of the temple and surrounding property.
So it is apparent, from the description of St. Paul’s, that they are not practicing Voodoo. I guess you could call it Hoodoo, but maybe just call it spirituality. It’s probably a good idea to leave the community of St. Paul’s Temple alone. To be honest, I can’t say that I’ve even thought much about it since high school.
You may not understand it and it may look strange, but it’s really not the best idea to go joyride down to see it. You can find Youtube videos with Washington “Mook” Harris, Doc’s grandson, that explains the temple and shows you around the property if you’d really like to know what it looks like inside the fences.
And that is the story we unearthed!
We hope you enjoyed this episode about St. Paul’s Temple and Memphis’s Hoodoo history! This was a really fascinating story to research. I was going down all kinds of rabbit holes. It took a while to write just because I kept getting distracted reading about other stuff.
And as always…
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Disclaimer: We are not historians, we are simply two people who are interested in memphis history. We have done research and are trying to provide accurate history as best we can. There is a possibility some of these statements are incorrect, but we have tried to verify all the info so that we are not putting out any untrue info. To the best of our knowledge, what we are saying is correct, but let us know if you have any things to add or correct. In the show notes, you will find links to the articles we used and book titles, etc to gather our information.
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Tony Kail.(2017). A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers & Spirituals. The History Press.
Laura Cunningham. (2009). Haunted Memphis. The History Press.