Hard Twenty Years

Hard Twenty Years


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




The Fabled Doctor Jim Jordan

A Story of Conjure

 By F. Roy Johnson

   Conjuring & Doctoring




Hard Twenty Years

A LABORIOUS AND LEAN twenty years followed Jim Jordan’s marriage in 1900. They also were his more restless ones, covered the time when he seemed to crave the joys of the common man but was pressed by an urge to rise above him to recognition.

He and his growing family share-cropped no less than six farms, shifted from one to another. As his boys matured he devoted more of his time and head crew man for several logging men and lumber companies.

His father Isaac died unexpectedly July 3, 1904. He had been plowing during the afternoon heat. His younger daughter Jennie Mae, then fourteen, brought him a half-gallon pitcher of water; he sat on his plow beam, drank most of the water, fell backwards and was dead within a few minutes.

Isaac had bought of T. E. Vann the 148-acre Darden tract in 1902; but the family’s move from tenant status was checked. The farm was bought by Jordan and Parker of Winton when it was auctioned for subdivision among Isaac’s heirs.

JIM’S CONJURE PRACTICE remained insignificant the first ten or more years of the twenty. Even his respected Uncle Allen was conjure doctoring as a sideline. The patrons, says Allen’s son Jim, were “ignorant people who got scared when they had a little pain.” The conjure would “give them medicine to ease the pain and pull the tricks to ease the mind.” Allen usually charged $1.00 for each job, and the most he was known to receive was $5.00.

Aging Allen and his wife moved into a small house on the Will Snipes place at Menola to raise their garden and look after their chickens.

The conjure man was poor even though, as Tom Sharpe Majette (1893_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _) says, “Allen could do anything; he never had any of his doctoring to come back on him.”

Jim Jordan had some following. His sister Jennie Mae says neighbors was calling him a root doctor by 1906. “I was sixteen when I heard people tell of his strange powers. I got shy of him” although he had played with her when she was a small girl.

She was married to Horace Eley in 1909, and soon afterwards Jim asked, “Why don’t you come to see me?”

“I will,” she promised.

She did visit him at times, but when he wasn’t at work at other jobs he was usually busy at conjure, had patients and “I soon went on.”

MORE POWER came to the conjure doctor; he gained great professional respect after he went crazy and his Uncle Allen Vaughan restored his sanity.

Still prevalent was the ante-bellum belief that witches drive people out of their minds and it requires a more powerful force than theirs to void or turn the trickery.

Jim created a spectacle when he lost his mind, and the incident became the talk of the community. Elbert Boone (June 11, 1892_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _) then a neighbor on the Barrett farm three miles north of Murfreesboro, tells the story:

It was in 1912, and Jim had been drinking heavily for some time.


One night while a group of his friends were with him he went wild for no apparent reason at all. He went for old man Nicholas Gary who lived on the Cype Whitley farm nearby. Gary was so frightened he jumped over a three-foot-high yard fence backwards. Jim grew more threatening until several other men helped me hold him 0and rope him to the bed. We sat with him after midnight when he calmed down.


Next day Jim went around the neighborhood on horseback singing religious songs.

Son Rand says his father threatened the family with violence, and, “We hid all the guns, axes and knives, even the horse’s harness. But he made a rope halter for old Blind Mary and rode her to Murfreesboro.”

Jim went to Franklin, Virginia, and sought help from his Uncle Allen. The wise old conjure doctor was near 90 and living with his daughter, Mrs. Fanny Whitehead.

Allen had carried both his reputation and dignity with him to his new home and was still doctoring. He was more singular in appearance than ever and possessed the strong mind needed to help his nephew out of difficulty.

Allen’s small frame had grown thin; high cheek bones that he said came from Indian ancestry stood prominently upon his wrinkled face; a shiny bald plateau crowned the grey straight hair that rimmed his head; grey whiskers dropped bushily from his chin and tapered to a point near his waistline.

Jim was back home within two weeks. He sent his son Rand to collect worm dust from the rails of the zig-zag fence. “He made a tea of the dust, mixed it with some other stuff, drank it and got alright.”

Jim tossed aside his whiskey bottle for several years … until about 1920 when he bought his first Model-T car and drove it recklessly to his sister Emma Williams’ home at Spier’s Quarters.

His son Carey kept whiskey from his reach several days until his strong mind returned.

AUNT JO(SEPHINE) MINTON (1873–1927) of the Diamond Bridge area on the Nottoway River a short distance in Virginia from Como began to collaborate with her first cousin Jim Jordan as Allen grew old. She was recognized as a good mid-wife, herb doctor and conjure woman. Her husband Bill told Mrs. Annie Mae Stancil, who lives on the old homeplace, “Your grandma was on the go so much she rode out four horses and wore out three buggies in seven years.”

Aunt Jo, as everyone came to know her, got into financial difficulties and was about to lose her farm. Jim bargained, “Alright Jo, if you teach me what you know, I’ll help you.”

Jo saved her farm and Jim learned hear practice.

They exchanged visits several years. Jim’s son Isaac said she often would come and spend the day when the Jordan family was living at the Ed Sears place on the Meherrin River about 1916.

Isaac remembers Aunt Jo as “an old timey looking stout woman who had grey hair and wore gingham prints.”

DOCTOR JORDAN status was at hand for Jim. His practice grew more mature. Soon before and after 1900 he had been making love potions to win fickle hearts of men and women while he advanced slowly into the more complicated aspects of conjure work.

Now he, like Aunt Jo, began giving emphasis to herb doctoring and supplementing with conjure work. He abandoned card cutting taught him by his Uncle Allen and turned to his cousin’s palm reading technique. His association with Aunt Jo seems to have given him a more specialized knowledge of patient diagnosis and enabled him to administer effectively a greater variety of herb and patent medicine remedies.

Nephew Olie Cooper observed the marked change. At times now Jim would remark that if he could find a certain root or medicine “I can help this patient.” Sometimes while a patient waited the root doctor “would go into the woods, stay an hour or more; come out, stop in the field and look into the sky in a study about fifteen minutes.”

While in long years past he and brother Paul enjoyed the bark of their coon dog from the swamp hollows, he now walked in the solitude of night. People said he was thinking.

Olie observed, “While others would be carrying on with ordinary talk Uncle Jim looked to me like he was in a deep study. Someone might speak to him; he’d say something back but wouldn’t strike up a conversation.”

Yet Jim’s son Rand recalls that his father would join his brother Paul in singing made-up songs. They seemed to enjoy those bearing on the fear people held for conjure

Maybe de wind,

Maybe de door,

Maybe de keyhole;

I don’t know.

But if dat (conjure) man

Cum in dis house,

I’m going out.

Old Edloe, feared as one of the greater conjure men of all times, lived four miles north of Como at Riverdale. A made-up song honored him soon after his death about 1900. It was sung a quarter of a century or more. Rand’s aunt, Mrs. Jennie Mae Eley, helps fill out the song:

I woke up dis morning

Old Edloe knocking on my door;

I bet you five dollars

He don’t knock dere any mo’.

En I don’t have ter wear

No salt en pepper in my shoes …

Since old Edloe’s gone.

Jim told his son Rand that he learned part of his conjure knowledge from old Edloe.

IN EARLIER YEARS Jeremiah Gibbons, Jr. (1891_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _) and Willie Barnes as boys helped “Cousin Jim” look for roots. Later as the doctor’s sons grew of age he showed them the roots he needed and they frequently searched the woods for them.

They sought out High John the Conqueror known as Mo Jo, the tree climbing vine, holding to the high ground whenever possible for “high ground roots prevail over the low ground ones.” Jim diced the roots into small wheels and dropped the sections into bottles of perfume. When Mo Jo had swelled the perfume possessed the power of white magic. A courting man needed only put the liquid on his necktie to become irrestible to the lady fair. Some people used the same potion to win friends, to “make them friendly and nice to you.” Few sales were beyond Como and nearby communities, but “many people wanted it.”

(Brodge Watson of Murfreesboro says black snake root had the same power as Mo Jo.)

Jim and the boys sought Low John or Lo Jo, the low vine. He prepared it like Mo Jo. The potion, however, possessed negative power; “driv folks from you;” if not used cautiously, it would turn friends into enemies. Folks bought it to “keep other folks off you.” Few people asked for Lo Jo.

Jim sold the Running John root as a charm. A section was to be carried in a person’s pocket to bring good luck.

Jim was frequently asked to make a “hand” to bring back a wayward wife or to soften a stubborn heart.

MAIL ORDER HOUSES began to sell ready prepared love powders (male, pink; female, white), Mo Jo incense, perfume, sachet and other concoctions with names like “Follow Me Boy” and “Kiss Me Again.” Yet these didn’t enjoy the popularity of the portions prepared and dispensed by the powerful conjure doctor.

Some conjure doctors were recommending chewing of “heart’s root” to soften a person’s heart and for better luck in trading and courting. “Shame-weed,” a kind of vetch considered highly “sensitive,” was still better. A person would chew it, spit the juice on his or her ands and shake hands with the coveted one.

“Shame-weed” had the power to correct a wayward woman. Chewing was good; but the roots could be dried, powdered and sprinkled in her path. A dried and powdered added made the stuff “raily powerful.”

Formulas to attract and repel were near endless and each conjure doctor had his preferred kind.

JIM MADE CONJURE DUST during his early practice, and it shows up at times throughout his career. Some folks called the potent powder goofer dust, other gummer dust. The dust was red or brown and smelled like snuff. Jim was a chain snuff dipper, and some folks ventured the dust was snuff mixed with other ingredients. The stuff was either sprinkled about in prescribed fashion or packed into a goofer-bag.

READY WITH AND MOTHER WIT belonged to Doctor Jordan. Carl C. Lawrence of Murfreesboro says the doctor became respected among his white friends as a man “who possessed great natural knowledge.” Lawrence gives an example:

About 1914 when Jim was working for my brother Southall Lawrence one of my sows grew wild in the woods and ran across the Meherrin River to the north where she produced a litter of eight pigs. Loggers told me where I could find her, but I could catch neither the sow nor the pigs. Jim offered to help.


“Mr. Lawrence, if we can get the pigs by their tails and not touch their bodies, they won’t squeal.”


I had never heard of such wisdom. We follow his advice, put the pigs in the cart one by one without frightening the others. The sow became gentle. Jim caught her by the tail and I got her by the legs, and together we put her in the cart.

Doctor Jordan’s sister Jennie Mae was impressed from her early years by his power of penetration and depth of understanding. “I sometimes tried to play tricks on him but always failed. He used to say, ‘I can look at you and tell when your are telling the truth.’ ”

SECRETIVENESS in the doctor’s conjure work and a frank and objective manner in personal and business matters made him seem a man with a double personality.

He was known to be accommodating and helpful to others; fair and liberal in business.

While attending Mill Neck Church, says Robert Riddick, “he would shake hands, talk to all alike … floor members, deacons and preacher. He’d always ask folks how they were getting along.”

Yet some of his friends were telling “strange stories.” The doctor could “cast off spells, get you out of trouble, find things, perform magic, and treat with medicine.” If you had any problem, he could give you relief.

A LIGHTNING BALL induced Jim to enter the conjure business one legendary story holds.

Peter Edwards (October 16, 1895_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _), a neighbor and lifelong acquaintance, says that Jim found his ball as a young man while working in a swamp. Lightning had hit a cypress tree; the rent bark rolled into a ball. The find was considered exceptionally rare, for lightning normally shatters the bark of a tree it peels. The belief prevailed a person finding so powerful a charm no longer would have to toil at hard labor.

JAMES EDWARD LAWRENCE (March 3, 1881_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _) of Murfreesboro says Jim’s hard and reckless life proved a great value in his practice as a root doctor. He had been in frequent difficulties “and he knew what to do to get other people out of trouble.”

Memory was another important asset. Ed recalls that Methodist Presiding Elder Stroud of Wilmington visited Murfreesboro in 1902. He spoke at the old Negro Methodist Church on Broad Street; told a story of how he had helped restore a fussing couple to harmony. The husband sought his advice. The minister told him to make some sassafras tea and fill his mouth with it each time his wife began to “jaw.” The remedy was effective, for the husband couldn’t “jaw” back.

Fifty years later when fabled for his conjure power Jim was at the Red Apple Service Station in Murfreesboro on business. One of a group of bystanders asked him the nature of his work; and A. L. Blanton recalls his reply:

I can’t do nothing in the tricking business, but if they (his patients) want to believe it, that’s up to them.

He gave an example:

A man came to me and said, “I want you to stop my wife from fussing; if you can’t, I’ve got to leave her.”


I told him I thought I could help.


“How much will it cost?: he asked.


I said twenty-five dollars.


“It sure will be worth that much.”


I went outdoors and pumped a bottle full of water and returned with it to my office. I told him to take a mouth full and hold it each time his wife started fussing.


“It sure did work,” the man told me later.

Jordan explained to his listeners, “It takes two to make a fuss.” But as he motored away one of his listeners remarked, “I bet that woman learned her husband had gone to Jim Jordan and got scared.”

Source: F. Roy Johnson • The Fabled Doctor Jim Jordan • © Copyright 1963 •Johnson Publishing Co.• Murfreesboro, N. C.

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posted 14 May 2006 / update 23 June 2008



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