Hoodoo, Conjure and the Search for Treasure in Memphis Tennessee
A March 15, 1947 Palm Beach Post ran an article titled ‘Voodoo Rites and Devil Oil Shield Memphis Diggers Seeking Treasure’. The article describes how a group of gold miners had hired conjurers to aid them in locating buried treasure. George Washington Lee, a well-known African-American civil rights activist shared with reporters that he had infiltrated a ring of treasure hunters who hired conjurers and rootworkers from storefronts on Beale Street in Memphis. Lee shared that members of the group would ritualistically anoint themselves with various magical oils before hunting for gold. Conjurers would then utilize dowsing rods known in an effort to locate buried treasure. Conjurers also utilized obscure materials in their hunt including dried reptiles, snake’s tail and a live chicken. The chicken was reported as being offered up as a gift to the spirit that guided the hunters to their gold.
This was not the first or last time that treasure hunters in Memphis utilized folk practices in their efforts to locate buried treasure. As early as 1875 there are reports of hoodoo practitioners digging in downtown Memphis for treasure that was alleged to have been buried during the war. Later in 1954 a group of men using conjure related materials were arrested after digging up a lot on private property in Memphis in search of buried treasure. Police discovered the group using materials including pine crosses, goose feathers and brimstone to obtain guidance from the spiritual realm in their pursuit of buried treasure.
Famed anthropologist Zora Neale-Hurston in her study Hoodoo in America spoke of many techniques used by conjurers to locate buried treasure. One cultural informant advised Hurston on how to use the herb known as ‘World Wonder Root’ as a means of seeking out treasure. Folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett in his classic Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro tells of how conjurers in the Delta would speak of the power of ‘Ha’nts’, ghostly specters that have the power to locate concealed treasure for those that show them respect. Author of the epic 5 volume Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft & Rootwork Anglican Minister Harry Middleton Hyatt documented a number of informants using hoodoo related practices to locate treasure including dowsing rods, a compass and Catholic Saint imagery.
Treasure hunting as a theme in hoodoo culture could be seen in publications tailored for the conjure culture. Many classical books and grimoires sold in hoodoo curio shops and documented as used by practitioners such as the Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses contain symbols and instruction on using spirits to locate treasure. The book tells of the seal of Arielis that is not only used to compel others to do your bidding but is also used to bring forth treasures from land and sea.
The opening of one popular version of the book The Black Pullet opens with an advisory that speaks of hunting treasure as it reads ‘Comprising the Science of Magical Talismans and Rings; the art of Necromancy and the Kabbalah, for conjuring the aerial and infernal spirits, sylphs, undines and gnomes, for acquiring knowledge of the secret sciences; for discovering treasures, for the gaining of power to command all beings, and for unmasking all evil spells and sorceries.’ Lastly, a hoodoo curio shop favorite Anna Riva’s Secrets of Magical Seals features a number of seals that could be used to supernaturally locate hidden treasures.
The ability to locate hidden treasure using southern African-American folk techniques has been well documented. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with Miss Jessie, an elderly rootworker from West Tennessee. She shared with me a personal story about treasure hunting she had experienced. The following is a transcript from an audio interview I performed with Miss Jessie back in 1993.
“ I was asleep in bed and about three o’ clock in the mornin I hear this banging on my door. I got my gun and went to the door. I said “What you want?” and this man said “Miss Jessie, the spirits done told me there’s some treasure buried in yo front yard. Can I dig it up?” I opened the door and there’s this man standin out there with a light. I said “yeah but you better not mess my yard up!” He said “alright” and he start to dig. He dug up a box with some money in it sayin “Miss Jessie, I found it! Here lemme give you some of it.” I said “no, the spirits told you, they want you to have it.” And he went on.” I asked her “How did the spirits tell him?” She said “there’s this thing, like a piece of wood and it swings on a string. He let that swing back and forth an the spirits tell you what to do.”
Today the pursuit of buried treasure seems like a relic of the past in an age where kids no longer even play with toy maps and the mention of buried treasure conjures up retro images of pith helmets and pirate’s booty. Perhaps today’s buried treasure is found in the locating and preserving of the rich cultural history of southern hoodoo and the lives of those who cultivated it throughout the South.
Let us continue digging…