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"Ancient beliefs still alive in Georgia

Practioners claim to offer supernatural help, but often at steep prices

By Don Schanche Jr.
The Macon Telegraph

When drug agents kicked in the door of Minnie Pearl Thomas' trailer at 5 a.m. on March 12, 1999, in the tiny community of Allentown, they walked into an eerie scene.

On the dresser in her dimly lit bedroom they found an altar. On the altar burned several candles. And on the candles were fastened written notes, asking for the spirits' help with love, money and protection from the law.

The agents were not surprised. They knew that Thomas had been to a root doctor.

It was root work. Since the earliest days of settlers and slaves in this country, the practice, which is akin to voodoo, has flourished in the South. Even in the year 2000, when modern technology has superseded the old ways and Southern culture is becoming more homogenized, root work still thrives out of view from mainstream society.

The candles were not the only root work in Thomas' house.

Peppers were scattered in space above the ceiling.

Powder was sprinkled around the door.

As they rousted the sleepy Thomas and arrested her for trafficking in crack cocaine, they learned about the powder.

"She said it was Law Stay Away powder," said Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman.

But even that was not the end of the root work.

From wiretaps and other investigative techniques, the agents knew that Thomas had buried a dead chicken on her property to protect her from harm.

"Minnie Pearl believed in it so much, she hid her dope outside where everyone could see it," Chatman said. "The people (nearby) believed in it, too. They wouldn't mess with her stuff."

The Ocmulgee Drug Task Force agents in Operation Four Corners had had cause to wonder whether Thomas' root work might have some hidden potency.

"Some of the things we tried to do didn't work. The mojo was on us," said Jeff Duncan, a Milledgeville police officer attached to the task force.

Wilkinson County sheriff's investigator Heath Bache explained that mysterious glitches nearly derailed the investigation. Batteries died in two-way radios. Video cameras quit working. While doing surveillance one day on a drug deal across usually deserted train tracks, the agents got a surprise.

"A train came through right in the middle of a deal," Bache said. "Working that case, it had me wondering. Because everything that could go wrong did go wrong. She was a strange bird."

But apparently her roots weren't strong enough to head off trouble.

Thomas, 44, also known as The Queen Pin, was a longtime drug dealer, responsible for moving four or five ounces of crack each week through the little town where Wilkinson, Twiggs, Bleckley and Laurens counties come together, said Wesley Nunn, a GBI agent who coordinates the task force. Thomas was convicted last month in U.S. District Court in Macon and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Among the others sentenced in the case was a 35-year-old ex-preacher named Sam Rozier from Dublin. After pleading guilty in May to assisting Thomas in her drug trade, Rozier is now serving an 18-month sentence at the US Penitentiary in Atlanta.

Rozier had met Thomas in 1998 and moved in with her not long afterward. He told drug agents she must have put roots on him to make him join her drug scheme.

"If he'd had his way, the roots would have been his defense," Bache said. "He really, really believed that's what happened to him."

Rozier told the agents her spell entered him through the food she fed him.

Full of remorse and shame, he told Bache: "I should-a left those biscuits alone."

The roots of root work

The agents never identified Thomas' root doctor, but suspected it was someone operating in Toomsboro or Hawkinsville.

It could have been one of many root doctors. Experts say practitioners of the ancient tradition are still scattered throughout the South.

The root doctors offer to help their clients in supernatural ways - often at steep prices.

Root work is a blend of West African religion, herbal folklore and Christian beliefs mingled together to make a uniquely Southern stew. In its most sincere form, root work taps into an ancient belief that everything in creation - every rock and every blade of grass - is filled with with spiritual significance. A practitioner with knowledge of the spirit world can tap into its power.

It's like voodoo, but different, too.

"What is commonly called voodoo is a blend of traditional West African religion with Christianity," said professor Richard Persico, a social anthropologist at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Persico specializes in rural Georgia and has interviewed several root doctors in his field work.

Voodoo, he said, is a corruption of an African word, Voudun, the word for "spirit." The voodoo practice came to America in chains, as slaves from different tribes were forced together, mixing their own beliefs with those of the slave masters. Those who came through the Caribbean developed a cosmology in which Yoruba gods took on the identities of Catholic saints.

That strain of voodoo, as well as others with a Catholic flavor, are more prevalent along the Caribbean coasts and as far south as Brazil, Persico said.

But on the Georgia-Carolina coast, where Protestant European settlers took control, the religion took a slightly different flavor. It became known as root work, a reference perhaps to the importance of herbal medicine in folklore.

"There's a lot of blend of Native American and African religion and herbalism, as Indians and Africans were enslaved together," Persico said. "Religion, magic and healing were all part of the same package.

"What they all have in common is the notion that supernatural power can be invested in things."

In Georgia and South Carolina, Persico said, root work is still strongest in the coastal islands where the isolated Gullah people maintained closer ties to African tradition than did most African-Americans further inland.

But all over the South, where whites and blacks shared a common culture and developed a kind of intimacy even through the days of slavery and segregation, traces of root tradition spread. Even today, many native Georgians, white and black, can recall having warts "conjured" off their skin when they were children.

Persico said the tradition waned in white society as prosperity paid for better access to modern health care. But in many black communities, where prosperity was a long time coming, the only doctor to be found was the root doctor.

"It remained a much livelier tradition in the African-American community, and especially on the Georgia coast, but it's pretty much wherever African-Americans are," Persico said.

Root medicine's power

Persico has seen for himself the power of root medicine.

"I had a student interning in a public health facility around here," Persico said. "Three patients were brought in with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. They said they had roots on them."

When the third patient came in with the same story, the intern suggested that the doctors call Persico for advice.

"I told them, 'If she says she has roots on her, that doesn't mean she's crazy. It's an African-American religious system. Whether or not you or I believe in it, she believes in it. If she thinks it's a problem, it's going to affect her."

Persico suggested they bring in someone to lift the roots.

"They took her to a root doctor and got him to take the roots off her," he said. "She got better. At that point, she believed the medicine was going to work."

It was root work for a benevolent purpose. And that benevolence, Persico suggested, gets lost in the sinister aura that usually surrounds the mention of voodoo or root work.

"That's a little bit of Hollywood, and probably a good dose of racism," he said. "I'd say it's no more sinister than anything else."

Persico said the root tradition has two sides.

"The same person who can help you can also attack you," he said. But he noted that the same can be said of modern Western medicine.

"The same opium product that will ease your pain will also make you a drug addict," he said. "There's a parallel with roots. They can help and hurt."

Some historians believe that the evil connotation attached to voodoo originated in white slave owners' fear of an alien religion that seemed to imbue the slaves with power, dignity and confidence.

"The last thing that slave owners wanted was slaves that had any self-respect, any self-reliance," he said.

As a university professor, Persico maintains a scholarly distance from his subject, discussing it dispassionately. But he admitted that he had a gut-level response to root work, too.

"I believe I would have enough subconscious doubts that, if a root doctor put a curse on me, I would worry a bit," he said. Persico suspects he might have a psychosomatic reaction triggered by the mind's ability to influence the body.

"We all have strange things in the back of our minds at a subconscious level," he said.

A doll and a curse

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has had such a curse put on him.

In 1994, while investigating the murder of 28-year-old Adletic Glenn, Sills searched the home of her ex-husband.

"When we did a search warrant on his house, back in the bedroom he was staying in, behind the curtain, was hanging a black doll."

It was a voodoo doll. Strips of cotton cloth, dyed black, were hand-wrapped around some kind of stuffing. It was punctured by more than four dozen pins. Pinned to the doll were several names, including Sills'.

The list of names, written on a scrap of brown grocery sack paper, also contained a note: "To whom it may concern is holding him. Hang. Cut him a-loose. Or have all kind of trouble, worries yourself to death until you turn him loose."

Sills believes it was a "death root."

"We clearly knew that someone in his family had gone and paid the root doctor to get a root," Sills said. "They were not able to put a successful death root on me, 'cause here I am."

However, the suspect in the case, 30-year-old Lumpkin Glenn III, was acquitted at trial.

"Maybe it did work," Sills mused.

During that trial, the judge let Sills testify as an expert witness on root work, based on his encounters with the tradition throughout his life. Raised on his grandparents' farm, Sills recalls seeing old people with root bags and having warts conjured off his leg by an old woman. In his work as a law officer throughout Georgia, he used to see more signs of root work than he does today. It could be something as simple as three sticks set on the floor in a deliberate pattern of alignment, or a trail of powder scattered on the ground.

"We're not seeing much of it anymore," Sills said. "And the average police officer seldom recognizes it when he sees it."

In Sills' opinion, "the root doctors are pure con men. What goes into it is whatever the 'right' ingredients are at that time. There is no consistency.... It's whatever the 'physician' prescribes at the moment for the person he's getting ready to take the money from. There is not a Merck manual you can go to look up 'Getting your husband to do right and not go see other women' and fill the prescription."

Because the term "doctor" comes up in root work, some might ask whether root doctors ever run afoul of state medical licensing authorities.

Under state law, anyone who "holds himself out to the public as being engaged in the diagnosis or treatment of disease or injuries of human beings" without a license is committing a felony and can be subject to a $1,000 fine and two to five years in prison.

But it appears that Georgia's root doctors are operating beneath the radar screen of the medical establishment.

Gary Cox, planning director for Georgia's Composite Board of Medical Examiners, said, "To our knowledge, no one is really aware of the medical board going after a traditional root doctor."

Nor are authorities aware of root doctors being prosecuted for fraud.

The secrecy in which they operate may be one reason why.

"Most root doctors won't talk about it because it is a con," Sills said. "Is it a con that someone willingly goes into? Obviously. The stock in trade is mystery and persuasion....

"While I don't believe in voodoo, the mind is a powerful thing," Sills said. "If you believe in it, whether or not it's real, it has an effect.

He recalled a striking encounter with root work that demonstrated its ineffectiveness ... but also left a shred of doubt.

More than a dozen years ago, when he was a police detective in DeKalb County, Sills said he participated in a mass raid on the old numbers racket called "the bug." He and another officer went to serve a warrant on a woman at an East Atlanta apartment.

After knocking unsuccessfully, "finally I rared back and kicked that door," he said.

Inside the apartment, they found their suspect sitting on the bed. Two or three candles were burning. A trail of white powder encircled the bed.

Confronting the officers, the woman warned, "Stop! You can come no further. I am protected."

Apparently she was not protected quite well enough.

"She went to jail," Sills said. But he added another detail suggesting the woman's protectors might have been able to harass if not completely thwart the law:

"I cut my leg real bad, kicking through the door."

Voodoo at the courthouse

Although Sills isn't seeing much root work in Putnam County, it's popping up in other communities not far away.

In June, the McDuffie County Commission took official action to ban root work from the courthouse.

"The courthouse had been voodooed several times," said County Clerk Annette Findley. The problem started about two years ago. Just as each new term of court was about to begin, Findley said, someone would leave a peculiar calling card at the courthouse door.

"They would always use some kind of brown substance," she said. "To me it looked like coffee grounds. People said it was some kind of spice. The people would break three eggs on top of it. It was gooey, messy."

Along with the glop, the visitor or visitors left a trail that looked like sparkling glitter up to the courtroom.

"Once they even put it on the judge's bench," Findley said. "It got to the point where employees started getting nervous, and one even threatened to quit. Something had to be done."

A County Commission's ordinance, passed June 7, makes no mention of root work, only vandalism. And the commission's minutes refer only to "the recent incidents at the courthouse." But everyone knew the commission, in its proper, procedural manner, was attempting to perform a kind of exorcism.

Advisers take to the air

Perhaps coincidentally, McDuffie County is home to a "spiritual adviser" named the Rev. Sister Joyce.

Her radio advertisements on WVKX, Love 103.7 in Irwinton, consist of a personal testimonial delivered in urgent tones by a woman named Teresa.

"I was sick and suffering," Teresa says in the radio spot. She says she visited doctors who could not cure her.

"People who I thought were my friends were my enemies," she says. "Devil Worshipers, they were working evil voodoo curses and spells, trying to destroy me and my family." They were trying, she says, to force her into an "insane asylum."

Then she went to see the Rev. Sister Joyce.

"When I did, I was healed that very hour."

The Rev. Sister Joyce is one of at least three spiritual advisers whose ads air on WVKX. Its morning gospel programming and afternoon hip-hop target a primarily black audience in east central Georgia.

In a telephone interview, the Rev. Sister Joyce said her full name is Joyce Adams. And she hastened to correct any misimpression her ads might have left.

"I'm not a psychic. I'm a spiritualist," she said. "I do counseling, mostly on drugs, alcohol and money, kind of like a psychiatrist."

She said she doesn't put "roots" on people, nor does she take them off.

"A lot of people believe they have roots on them," she said. "I do counseling to help them believe there's no such thing."

She repeated, "There's no such thing."

Adams said she knows of some spiritual advisers who charge exorbitant fees up front, but she is not one of them. She said she charges a flat fee of $25 per hour.

"Most sessions go into two hours," she said.

Adams said she is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

As for the claims in her ad, she said, "It's just my advertisement. It's spiritual counseling. I am a full-blooded Christian. Everything I do is strictly through Jesus Christ."

The Secretary of State's Office of Examining Boards has a record of three Joyce Adamses in Georgia. Two are registered nurses; one is a cosmetologist. None of the three is a marriage and family therapist or is listed as operating in Thomson.

Others who advertise spiritual advice on WVKX include Sister Nina in Milledgeville and Sister Maria in Sandersville. They were not as forthcoming.

Sister Maria, contacted by phone in Sandersville, said she would have to check with her husband before granting an interview.

"I can't do anything without my husband," she said.

A day later, when she called back, her husband, Freddie, came on the line. He declined an interview.

"I don't think we'd be interested in something like that," he said. He explained that spiritual advisers formed a kind of union in the past five or six years and agreed not to advertise in one another's territory. An interview with The Telegraph would infringe on spiritualists in the Macon area, he said. But he saw no conflict in advertising on a radio station that reaches well into Macon.

Efforts to reach Sister Nina were unsuccessful. A man who answered her phone said she would not be available for several days.

Reggie Smith, station manager at WVKX, said the sisters are good customers.

"They pay cash up front and they monitor their commercials religiously," he said.

But business aside, Smith takes a dim view of their work.

"They're targeting the unfortunates of society who are looking for some sort of brass ring, some sort of hope," he said. "They target their wares to the disadvantaged."

He said he heard of one spiritual advisor who bilked an elderly, senile man for thousands of dollars. His family didn't find out until after he died, and they discovered the checks he had written to her.

Smith doesn't discount the spiritual advisers entirely.

"It's like car dealers," he said. "You've got some good and some bad. You've got some in it for faith and some in it for profits."

And he noted that even mainstream religion has its hucksters and charlatans who swindle their followers.

"Personally, I believe God will work for you if you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior," he said. "That's hard to discuss with someone if they're going to someone who says, 'For $5,000 I will raise the dead.'"

Voodoo dolls, bundles of yellow roots and Tarot cards are among the items for sale at the Candle Store, owned by a Southern Baptist, in the Cherokee Shopping Center in Macon.

Buying a mojo

The commercial end of supernatural practices isn't hard to find in the Macon area.

In the middle of downtown, Colors on Cherry sells a variety of candles and other paraphernalia associated with magic. So does a sister store, A Touch of Magic in Warner Robins.

Kacy Baughier, co-owner of both stores, said her clientele comes from several different traditions: the New Age practitioners, into crystals and the like; older people following the European tradition of Wicca; and root work followers, who are mostly African American.

"I think rather than going away, it's getting more prevalent," she said. Concerning root doctors, she said, "I'd say there are quite a few out there. Mostly what you're going to find is an elder who has lived in a community and built up a reputation."

She added, "On the voodoo thing, we stock a lot of 'Come to Me Oil' or 'Money Oil.'" She also sells John the Conqueror oil and roots, plus a few herbs. And she is not above selling some graveyard dirt or coffin nails.

Her customers, she said, "may be superstitious enough that they won't go get it. I will."

"All of it," she said, "is dressing to focus your energy. If you believe it works, it works for you."

But to find the mother lode of root work supplies in Macon, one must visit The Candle Store in the Cherokee Shopping Center on Pio Nono.

Behind an ordinary-looking exterior in a tiny strip of shops, a customer finds a cascade of candles, oils, powders, incense, mojos, kits and literature centered in the arcane world of roots and voodoo.

All manner of candles are lined up like a wax army, displayed in unsophisticated style in cardboard boxes labeled with photocopied block letters: Cross of Calvary, Orunla, Black Cat, Peaceful Home, Come To Me, Go Away Evil, Guardian Angel, Make A Wish and Road Opener, just to name a few.

Cardboard tubes of powdered incense are lined up, row after row: John the Conqueror, Witchcraft Killer, Victory Over Evil and Grandma's French Love Incense."

And then there are the bottles of oil: Keep Away Enemies, Do As I Say, Domination, Seven Holy Spirits and Stay At Home.

Plus there are do-it-yourself kits. The Go To Court Kit sells for $15. The Break-Up Kit ("Very Powerful - Everything You Need") goes for $16.99.

The kit for "The Lady Who Cannot Keep Men Friends," also $16.99, has these ingredients:

·1 Special Oil No. 20

·1 Swallow's Heart

·1 John the Conqueror Incense

·1 French Love Powder

·1 pink candle

·1 incense burner.

On a recent afternoon, The Candle Store was doing a brisk business. Two clerks were on duty waiting on three customers. While one man examined the green candles - green to draw fast luck and money - another looked over the selection of oils. An older woman was shopping for dream books - the keys from Professor E.Z. Hitts, Rajah Rabo and Aunt Sally that predict what number to play in the lottery, based on a person's dreams.

"I just work here - I don't believe in the stuff," one clerk said in reply to a request for an interview.

A customer was likewise skittish about being interviewed for an article on root work.

"No, I couldn't help you with that," he said, explaining that he had come to the shop only to pick up some olive oil for his church. A few minutes earlier he had been discussing the finer points of dream books with one of the clerks, and bought nearly $50 worth of miscellaneous merchandise.

He added, with an innocent tone, "You reckon they got a roots thing going on in there?"

'I could be a millionaire'

But quite willing to be interviewed was store owner Don Haywood.

The Griffin businessman is the face behind products such as the "Rev. Dr. Zachariah's Special Herbal Powder," and other brand-name oils and incense mixes like Grandma's, St. Michael's and King Solomon's. He mixes them up in the back room of his shop in Griffin.

Haywood, a 66-year-old, white Southern Baptist, looks more like a conventional church deacon than some kind of voodoo man, in his pleated pants, white jogging shoes and semi-pompadour mane of gray hair.

And indeed, his own beliefs are about as far from his clients' as east from west.

"I don't embrace this stuff myself. I sell it," he said. "It's a legitimate business."

Until 15 years ago, he had a few general retail outlets on the same corner in Griffin where his store now stands. From time to time, customers would ask for the special candles they needed for ceremonies.

He had no idea what they were talking about.

Then, by a stroke of good fortune, he happened to read a newspaper article about a drugstore in Jackson, Miss., that specialized in the candles and oils used in Southern backwoods mysticism.

"I called the druggist in Jackson. He directed me to one of the suppliers."

It was the beginning of a new calling for Haywood.

At first, he bought a little at a time.

"I didn't know what I was buying," he said.

Gradually he built up his stock, and it kept selling.

About 12 years ago, through another serendipitous contact, he met a man who manufactured the stuff. As it happened, the man's personal life was in chaos, and his business was running into the ground. But he didn't mind if Haywood looked around to see how things were done.

"I was able to ramble in the back room and learn formulas and supplies and secrets that you can't buy," Haywood said. The knowledge enabled him to begin mixing his own oils and powders.

"Once you understand the basics of it, you can improvise and mix up and use your imagination," he said.

But you have to know a few things.

For instance, the color black is used to cast off evil and remove jinxes. Blue brings peace in the home. Gold is to hold money, luck, and success. Red is for love, magnetic power, sex, strength and energy.

"If you mixed the wrong color oil, it would just sit on the shelf for months," Haywood said.

Haywood credits the power of positive thinking with the results his clients say they get from the products he sells.

"You wouldn't believe the number of times people come in and say, 'You know that so-and-so you sold me? It worked.'

"If you believe something strongly enough, you're gonna make it happen. That's what happens with a lot of these people."

While Haywood does not put his faith in candles, oils and incense, he does not belittle his customers who do.

"People have a right to believe what they want," he said.

But he added, "We don't pretend to be some kind of reader or soothsayer or prophet or anything. We're in the business of selling products."

He has only two stores, the one in Griffin and the one in Macon.

But he said the market has vast potential.

"We're not even tapping the surface. I could take you to just about any major city and put up a candle store and be a success from Day 1. The potential to expand is unlimited. If I was 20 years younger, I'd be a millionaire from this thing. That's one of the beauties of this business. There is no competition. They're not going to Wal-Mart or Kmart to buy this stuff."

He added, "It's the most fascinating thing I've ever done, and by far the most lucrative."

As it stands, he has his hands full just keeping track of the two stores.

Haywood said he has been trying to sell the Macon store, but when people see its seedy appearance, they can't believe it's making money.

Haywood said the appearance is deliberate.

"You get too upscale, it runs 'em away," he said.

Haywood said most of his clientele is black, although there are a few whites and a growing number of Hispanics.

Most, he said, have one thing in common: "The majority of people who believe this are undereducated people."

While he has no qualms selling the items in his store, he hates to see his clients defrauded in bigger ways.

"There are a lot of scoundrels that come in here and buy this stuff and call themselves prophets or seers or whatever. They just rip these people off like you wouldn't believe. They don't care anything about telling these people, 'Bring me $1,000 and I'll take your case. I'll get your boyfriend out of prison or help you win the lottery or get your girlfriend back.' It's sad that people fall for that."

He draws the line at selling medical goods.

"I don't sell nothing for ailments," he said. "I tell 'em, 'You need to go see a doctor.'"

Haywood said he's on the verge of setting up a mail-order catalog, which will further add to the profits and workload. Other mail-order suppliers, he said, sell the candles and oils at double what he charges.

"I'm cheaper than anyone in the Southeast," he said.

Haywood said his family isn't thrilled about his line of work.

"I'm strictly a Southern Baptist and very involved in it. My wife is very uncomfortable with me doing this, and has been for a long time."

But he harbors no fears about fooling with products that may represent spiritual forces.

"I know what's in most of it," he said. "There's nothing that can hurt you. This is kind of like a kid walking through a graveyard. If you let your mind run away, you can hurt yourself. But there's nothing in walking through a graveyard that will hurt you."

Respect for ancient beliefs

If businessman Don Haywood sees the root work tradition strictly as a business opportunity, Macon physician Harold Katner sees something deeper.

Katner, nationally known for his work treating AIDS patients in Middle Georgia, said he has great respect for the cultural belief system that underlies traditional herbal and spiritual practices bound up in root work.

"I've even incorporated it in my practice with people who believe that sort of thing," he said.

Katner, whose background is in anthropology, studied a mixture of European folk medicine and West African beliefs while at school in New Orleans.

Katner's most touching experience with root work, he said, came through a Georgia woman who had AIDS. Although she would come to the hospital, she wouldn't come to him for treatment.

A nurse explained, "Somebody put roots on her, and she's afraid."

Compounding her tragic circumstances, she was being beaten regularly by her husband, who believed she had infected him.

"I hear you got roots on you," he said. "I can take 'em off."

Katner said he performed a ceremony with her and gave her a blessed candle to burn if anyone messed with her.

Her husband called Katner later and asked, "What did you do to my wife?"

Katner recalls telling him, "Somebody put roots on her, and I took 'em off. And I told her to call me back if anybody hurt her."

When the woman lay dying of AIDS, Katner went to pay a house call as he customarily does. The family treated him with overflowing, exuberant gratitude. He found it puzzling - after all, despite his best efforts, she was dying.

A relative explained, "Ever since you took the roots off her, her husband never beat her up again."

Katner was stunned.

"The son of a gun was so afraid of me, he wouldn't touch her," he recalled.

It also gave him a deeper appreciation of the root tradition.

"The beauty of this social system is that it gave women a lot of power," he said. "A woman could go to the root doctor and be protected. There's a reason why these belief systems existed."

He said there is a simple chant that sometimes goes with a Louisiana ceremony to conjure away warts. The petitioner asks the moon, "As you get big in the sky, make my wart go away."

Katner said it taps into an ancient sense of the universe's order, a primordial impulse to pay tribute to the moon and stars.

"What you're listening to is something so ancient and awesome and the belief is so strong," he said. "It's a truly awesome belief system."