Do We Have Voodoo in Savannah?
I often get asked while leading our Savannah ghost tour about Voodoo. Do we have Voodoo in Savannah? In order to answer, I have to first explain the difference between Voodoo, which is spirituality mixed with Catholicism, and hoodoo, which is not mingled with religion. Hoodoo is what we have here in the Savannah area, and it was practiced by the Geechee people.
The Geechee culture is a remnant from what was once a society of black slaves. The area they call home stretches from Savannah southward to an area just below the Ogeechee River, from which they draw their name. Often times this culture is mistakenly called ‘Gullah’, but in actuality the Gullah people exist in an area to the north of Savannah, between Daufuskie Island and Charleston, South Carolina. The two peoples are similar, but not interchangeable: both are rooted in slavery, but the Geechee people have a history and tradition all their own.
Freed after the Civil War, these Island people would often group near the coast where both fishing and farming was plentiful. The community developed their own dialect—one similar to the pronunciations elucidated in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. In addition to what amounted to their own language (also called ‘Geechee’, or ‘Geech’ for short), this culture also had an elaborate belief system through their African descent that stretched back before the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt. These beliefs are centered on a deep spirituality, believing in both ghosts and in a type of magic cast by charms, potions and amulets.
This magical ability to cast spells is called ‘conjuring’, or ‘casting roots’ (pronounced “con-juh-ing” and “casting ruts”). A magic spell itself is called a ‘conjure’. The spell is often cast by burying a bag or bundle on the property of the unsuspecting victim. There are also ways of conjuring involving secret potions to drink, powders, nail clippings, and that most powerful of talismans—graveyard dirt. Someone skilled in the art of casting spells is called a root doctor, or a witch doctor. They can be employed if you feel that magic is being used against you. They will protect you from evil… for a fee.
However, a witch doctor is very different from a witch, which is often called a ‘boo-hag’ or simply a ‘hag’. Not to be confused with the Hollywood version, witches in this tradition look no different from regular people. Witches are more akin to modern-day vampires, because the belief is that they not only suck blood, but also steal the life-force or essence of the victim. To have your essence or blood stolen by a witch is known as ‘being rid’ or ‘ridden’. If someone looks poor or sickly, the assumption is that a hag stole that person’s energy in the middle of the night; they are being “rid by a witch.”
One example of this took place in the 1940s. On the eastern edge of town there is an area that used to be called Old Fort. A man named Jack Wilson had married a girl named Evie, even though another woman, Malinda, had shown a lot of interest in being his bride. A few months into the marriage, Jack and his new bride were beginning to feel weak and tired. Jack noticed that he would feel more tired upon waking than he had when he went to bed, so he began to suspect that he was the target of a witch. He didn’t tell Evie what he suspected, deciding instead to lay a trap. He went to bed at the usual time, but he only pretended to sleep. He had taken to bed with him a large axe-handle, which he put alongside himself under the covers. His wife dozed off, and for a long while nothing happened. Just as Jack himself had started to fall asleep, he heard the window in the bedroom slide open. He could hear someone or something enter the room. Jack remained motionless and waited. He felt something walking on the bed, so he opened his eyes and saw a large black cat on the bed between him and his sleeping wife. It climbed onto Evie, and she began to cough and choke in her sleep.
That is when Jack decided to jump out of bed and swing the axe handle at the cat. He hit it in the side and it screamed with rage and pain—but it was a woman’s scream! The cat scrambled off the bed and leapt out of the window into the night. Jack ran to his wife to help her.
Jack put his hunting dog on the scent of the cat. He took the axe handle along, too. The dog followed the trail about half a mile, stopping at some bushes. The dog began to snarl and bark. Jack pushed the bushes aside and found Malinda. She was lying on her side, with three broken ribs. When she saw he still had the axe handle in his hand, Malinda begged Jack: “Please don’t hit me again, I promise to leave you and Evie alone!”
If you start thinking that this tradition is gone, consider what I personally witnessed one night while driving a lonely back road near Beaufort SC: people digging in a graveyard at midnight, with their only light source a single flickering candle lantern. This was definitely some hoodoo going on. I locked the doors of my truck and hit the gas!
So the answer to the question: “Do we have Voodoo in Savannah?” is complicated by the fact that the Geechee practice hoodoo, not Voodoo, i.e. there’s no Catholicism rolled into it. But the answer ultimately is yes, our Lowcountry is a magical, and sometimes terrifying, place.