Finding a good root doctor these days in Beaufort County is as hard as finding Dr. Buzzard’s grave.
This once-isolated land of hexes and haints now leans more on Walmart than voodoo.
But it hasn’t always been so.
In the mid-20th century, even the county sheriff was a witch doctor. J. Ed McTeer Sr. specialized in removing spells cast by Dr. Buzzard, Dr. Eagle, Dr. Bug and perhaps as many as 20 other local root doctors.
Voodoo’s web across this watery county was thick with its high concentration of enslaved Africans and freedmen.
So common was it in the Gullah culture of recent generations that writer Roger Pinckney XI of Daufuskie Island recalls hearing the phrase, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to Beaufort on you.”
Today, the old-timers say there’s just one root doctor left – Dr. Buzzard’s grandson. And today’s sheriff, county native P.J. Tanner, said, “We very seldom see it, or even hear any discussion about it.”
But it’s still here.
A 2014 police report was filed by an 85-year-old Beaufort woman who feared her neighbor had put a root (curse) on her and others, causing them to fall out of their chairs.
A year earlier, an unruly woman accused of trespassing in Aiken told a police officer she was going to Beaufort County to get Dr. Buzzard to put a root on him. She told him if he didn’t believe in voodoo, “You will when Dr. Root gets through with you.”
The reclusive voodoo priestess Minerva in John Berendt’s book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” stirred the cauldron anew, especially when the movie version came out in 1997. Her mystique captured the public’s imagination again in 2009 when she died at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.
Perhaps that’s why people still search for Dr. Buzzard’s grave on St. Helena Island, where the Lowcountry’s most famous root doctor served a national clientele until shortly before his death in 1947.
Surely, it’s why dirt has been removed, perhaps handful by handful, from around a handsome grave marker in an overgrown cemetery that bears Dr. Buzzard’s real name, Stephen Robinson. Some believe that, even after death, dirt from the grave of a conjurer possesses supernatural powers.
Pinckney says there are no voodoo practitioners on Daufuskie Island today but plenty of believers.
He’s one of them.
He claims to have used it to get others to quit talking about him. And he says he’s seen it make those who were after him get seriously ill.
Pinckney has sold more than 50,000 copies of his book “Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People.”
Our library shelves are lined with books about Beaufort County’s voodoo heritage.
They tell of its links to Africa and Haiti, with its roots in literal roots, powders and potions.
People turn to root doctors for many reasons, perhaps seeking good fortune for themselves, bad fortune for someone else or the reversal of a bad root put on them.
They pay to get prescriptions, so to speak, that are supposed to meet their needs if followed meticulously.
The books talk of a “suffering root,” “death root,” “shutmouth root,” “love root,” “chewing root,” “luck root” and “protection root.”
They tell of people seeking advice and luck on lotteries or dice.
They tell of court work, when a root doctor might sit in on a trial to silently sway a jury.
They tell of people wearing roots around their necks and of the detailed instructions and fanfare that goes with the delivery of the goods.
There is mention of “goofer dust” from cemeteries, boiled cats and the bones of a black dog.
They talk of a mixture of fear and respect for root doctors who, unlike fortune tellers, don’t put signs out front but have traditionally gotten customers by word of mouth.
Today, that word also travels by interstate and Internet.
“The new voodoo central now is Baltimore,” Pinckney told me.
His personal root doctor has a Facebook page.
But it wasn’t so long ago that Beaufort County had its own celebrity voodoo practitioner.
When Dr. Buzzard shopped on Beaufort’s Bay Street, he might have been taken for a preacher.
“He was tall, slightly bowed, benign of expression, and soberly dressed in quality black,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in a story for True magazine in 1949.
Adams was an investigative journalist, muckraker and novelist who died at his winter home in Beaufort in 1958.
Adams is one of many to record the odd workings of conjurers in his odd adopted home.
Adams was here when Dr. Buzzard and Dr. Bug got in trouble for allegedly selling arsenic-laced potions to healthy young men. It would make their heartbeats flutter long enough for them to dodge military service in World War II.
This got the attention of the feds. Dr. Bug, identified as Peter Murray, paid a $1,000 fine and $2,080.77 in back income tax, pulling it in crumpled small bills from a trunk dragged into an astonished courtroom.
Dr. Buzzard was a familiar sight at the county courthouse. He sat in trials, chewing a root, his eyes shaded by purple sunglasses. And he did this bc he was being paid to, right? To sway the jury?
But on his day in court, he hired a powerful Beaufort attorney, state Sen. Brantley Harvey Sr., to represent him. He got off with a $300 fine.
Harvey’s son, W. Brantley Harvey Jr. of Beaufort, tells in his new memoir, “Palmetto Patriot,” that when it was time to pay up, Dr. Buzzard took his father into the attic and opened a trunk. When he scooped out $5,000 in cash, “that much didn’t even make a dent in the money in the trunk.”
Dr. Buzzard – known locally as “Stepney” Robinson – worked from his 20-acre tract in The Oaks section of St. Helena Island. Clients came by boat, ox cart or in cars with tags from many states.
He did a mail-order business for a while but never signed his name to a money order or check, according to Pierre McGowan, the son of St. Helena’s postmaster of that era.
He drove fine automobiles when cars were hard to come by. He peeled off the cash for a new sanctuary when a Baptist church burned on St. Helena.
They say he got his “mantle” from his father, a native of Africa, and that he passed it to his late son-in-law, who people knew as Dr. Buzzy. Dr. Buzzard said he was born with a caul, the seventh son.
Dr. Buzzard and Dr. Bug both died not long after their brush with Uncle Sam, referred to at the time as “Mr. Big.” They say Dr. Buzzard died of stomach cancer. I could not find any mention of his passing in The Beaufort Gazette of the time.
Other than fooling around with the draft board, Dr. Buzzard’s simultaneous life in the mainstream and the shadows was widely accepted.
“(Voodoo) is an established tradition,” Adams wrote, “and your South Carolinian, black as well as white, is nothing if not a respecter of tradition.”
The sheriff who practiced voodoo
J. Ed McTeer Sr. was known as the “Boy Sheriff” when he took office in 1926 when his father died. He was 22.
Not long into his 37-year tenure as sheriff of Beaufort County, McTeer saw a need to stop root doctors from practicing medicine without a license.
He called on his own experiences, being raised close to African-Americans. As a 9-year-old, he was introduced to African black magic by an elderly black couple on his family’s farm. He later gathered a large collection of books on Africa. And he became what he called a “white witch doctor,” not for the color of his skin but for his wish to counteract black magic. He believed he was more likely to help his community that way than trying to erase centuries of African traditions.
He worked only with people who wished him to remove hexes. He did not take money. And he said that after he announced his retirement from it, he still averaged three letters a day and three telephone calls a week from people across America seeking help.
McTeer and Dr. Buzzard reached a truce with mutual respect after Dr. Buzzard’s son died in an automobile accident in a storm, McTeer wrote in his 1976 book, “Fifty Years as Lowcountry Witch Doctor.”
McTeer also made it into the inner circle of Dr. Eagle, a root doctor who lived in downtown Beaufort.
Even in the late 1960s, Dr. Eagle showed the sheriff major changes in the practice. His materials were coming from mail order. Root doctors didn’t take time to sit through court trials anymore.
And at the time, both men wondered who would follow them.
Sheriff Tanner says today that McTeer used his so-called powers because it was the demand of his day. He thinks McTeer used it in law enforcement as sort of a lie-detector, or to get confessions and information.
“I’m not sure how the courts would look at it today,” Tanner said. “It might be seen as coercion.”
After the Samuel Hopkins Adams story was published, McTeer got calls from across the nation from people seeking spiritual advice.
A 2010 book, “Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff” by Baynard Woods, is to be the subject of a new TV series produced by actor Will Smith’s production company.
And last year, McTeer’s grandson called on this unusual Lowcountry brew in his first novel, “Minnow.” James E. McTeer II tells the story of a boy who must search for the grave of a voodoo man in the Sea Islands to buy a cure for his dying father.
Sheriff McTeer died in 1979, not long after he was called in for advice in the case of a headless corpse. He suspected voodoo when a body with head missing was discovered exhumed from a northern Beaufort County grave. The case was never solved.
‘Power of suggestion’
Dr. Elijah Washington of Lady’s Island grew up in the Sheldon area surrounded by the root.
Relatives practiced voodoo in the Coosawhatchie area and up near the Ashepoo River. His father kept a root around his neck.
So when Washington began studying medicine, everyone assumed he would be both a root doctor and a conventional doctor. At least one Lowcountry doctor did that, he said.
But Washington did not learn the root work and instead was a trailblazing African-American obstetrician in Beaufort for 30 years before retiring in 2005. He is now the pastor of First African Baptist Church on St. Helena Island.
He said what root doctors do is really psychological.
“It’s all about hope,” he said. “People will look anywhere for hope.”
McTeer said the same thing. He was often called a “poor man’s psychiatrist.”
The topic was broached by the Journal of the National Medical Association in a 1983 journal article available at the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library.
“Root Doctors as Providers of Primary Care” by Van J. Stitt Jr. concludes, “Voodoo and root medicine represent the utilization of the power of suggestion to its maximum. The people who have mastered this rapport with their patients or clients do not worry about compliance, nor do they have suits against them. This confidence may be attributed to alliance.
“The root doctor listens and offers approving empathy for his clients. We could possibly benefit from this primitive form of caring for our fellow human being. This may prove to help the estimated 65 percent of patients who suffer from psychosomatic illnesses.”
Washington said, “There are people who go to church every day and believe wholeheartedly in roots.”
He said one cannot truly believe in Christianity and root doctors at the same time.
But Washington said having fewer root practitioners does not mean fewer people believe in it.
He said some members of a church in a nearby county who wanted to get rid of its pastor put powder around his car and buried chickens at the church graveyard.
“But the pastor is still there.”
And so is the Lowcountry’s attachment to the root.
“It’s not going away,” Washington said. “It will never go away.”