Zora and The Hunt for Hoodoo in New Orleans
Harlem Renaissance author was Gonzo, before it existed.
by Christopher Balogh
She endured a 69-hour state of no food or water. She had her finger sliced to become a blood brother with a rattlesnake. She participated in the sacrificial killing of a black sheep. Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance, buried herself in the New Orleans hoodoo community for a story.
Hurston was more than Their Eyes Were Watching God and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance. She was, unknowingly, a journalist. A gonzo journalist, before Hunter S. Thompson was even placed on this planet.
She traveled to New Orleans in 1928 on assignment for Charlotte Osgood Mason, a Manhattan matron who supported Indian and African-American arts. Hurston’s hired quest was to collect African-American lore in the South, spending time in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida (pictured), Alabama and New Orleans. Hurston wrote about her time in New Orleans in two accounts, her article “Hoodoo in America” in the 1931 Journal of American Folklore and in Mules and Men. She came to the city to engross herself in the world of Marie Laveau, the hoodoo queen, and her descendants.
The plan of attack was similar to Thompson’s account with the Hell’s Angels: get in deep.
Deep enough that the writer was more than embedded, the writer becomes part of the story and creates a personal experience. The stories are rooted in fact, but with strong gusto for getting to the meat of the story by experiencing the story yourself.
She wrote letters to Langston Hughes, one of her friends in the Harlem literati, about her experience. These letters showed her true dedication to gaining the rite of passage from the hoodoo doctors. She wrote to Hughes during her first months in New Orleans reporting that, “… things are beginning to go well now. I am getting in with the top of the profession. I know 18 tasks, including how to crown the spirit of death, and kill. “
Alain Locke, her advisor and professor from Howard University, received letters from Hurston, too. She wrote that she had been visiting every hoodoo doctor that she ever heard of, “for the sake of thoroughness.” She also wrote that, “I am using the vacuum method; grabbing everything I can see.”
Her stay consisted of five months, living in Belleville Court and meeting first with hoodoo doctor Luke Turner, who claimed to be the grandnephew of hoodoo queen Marie Laveau. Turner took her in as a pupil, where she was initiated by lying on Turner’s couch in the nude for 69 hours without food or water. She claims to have had five psychic experiences during this spiritual journey:
… I was stretched, face downwards, my navel to the snake skin cover, and began my three day search for the spirit that he might accept me or reject me according to his will. Three days my body must lie silent and fasting while my spirit went wherever spirits must go that seek answers never given to men as men.
I could have no food, but a pitcher of water was placed on a small table at the head of the couch, that my spirit might not waste time in search of water which should be spent in search of the Power-Giver. The spirit must have water, and if none had been provided it would wander in search of it. And evil spirits might attack it as it wandered about dangerous places. If it should be seriously injured, it might never return to me.
For sixty-nine hours I lay there. I had five psychic experiences and awoke at last with no feeling of hunger, only one of exaltation.
She had made her way to the belly of the beast, at first for the reader, but the ceremony became more than just an assignment; it grew into a personal adventure, one that is dually enjoyably to the writer and the reader.
During Hurston’s time with Turner, people of the community would come to them for solace, like a Catholic in confession. Except in the hoodoo religion, it wasn’t 25 Hail Marys — it was the sacrificial killing of chickens. (Hurston mentioned a townhouse at 834 Orleans St. in a letter to Hughes, the potential site for her couch experience, pictured on the right.)
This particular case involved a local woman wanting to rid of her husband’s brother. Hurston was tasked with retrieving the chickens, assist in killing them and spread their ashes on a highway. The spirits of the dead chickens were instructed never to let the husband’s brother pass inward to New Orleans ever again.
Hurston learned a death ritual from another hoodoo practitioner, Anatol Pierre. The circumstances were around a local man named Muttsy Ivins, who was paranoid of being killed because of his own adultery actions by a man who wasn’t quite happy with Ivins’ past decision making.
Ivins paid $250 for a death ritual on said man. Pierre sent Hurston to retrieve a beef brain, beef tongue, a beef heart, black cat and a live black chicken. Pierre made a concoction with bad vinegar placing it in a jar and then making a coffin six inches long. Hurston was then sent out to buy a small doll to resemble the man that was to be killed, and then to be placed in the half-a-foot coffin. Hurston and Pierre then dug another grave and entombed a live chicken and a black cat. Every night for 90 days, Pierre slept in that very grave. Hurston wrote that the man that was supposed to be killed, had died.
Hurston wrote these stories as a participant-observer. As an anthropologist, she never judged. She never defended nor did she boast on any behalf. She explained the lives of the hoodoo community as they were, not as they should have been.
These anthropological collections also fired Hurston’s characters in her fiction works, such as her exploration of presenting a black version of the Old Testament, where she portrayed Moses as a hoodoo man in Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1939.
She dug deep in the dens of the hoodoo doctors. Her doggedness set her apart from the rest of the Harlem Renaissance members. During those times, this hoodoo community was behind a closed door and very few were allowed to squeak it open. She kicked that door down and lived with what was inside.
But Hurston let the reader in with her. Not only were the extensive stories and accounts of this trip in Mules and Men, but she let readers know the secrets. There are nearly a dozen of spells, labeled as “Formulae of Hoodoo Doctors,” detailing the usual suspects of murder, getting a house rented, to make a man come home, to make people love you and more.
She said hoodoo was “burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion … It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself.” She then went on to speculate on the idea that the true number of its members will never be known, “because the worship is bound in secrecy. It is not the accepted theology of the Nation and so believers conceal their faith.”
The assignment in New Orleans was not from the ilk of newspaper editors, but from a patron of folklore. Even though later placed in publications, the notion that Osgood Mason sent her on this mission without ties to a newspaper or magazine but only needed for the account of it — might have been the newly-dug tunnel that created Hurston’s style. No limits or barriers separated her from the subject. The observations made of the hoodoos were not something that Hurston heard through the grapevine or with a sit-down interview. She lived to tell the tale about it in a way that paved the Vegas and Big Sur highways for future Gonzos to come.
Christopher Balogh is an Orlando-based writer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, Mental Floss and other outlets. Read more of his work here.
Photo credits, from top: Historic Thomas House, the oldest home in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, by Christopher Balogh; and townhouse at 834 Orleans St. in New Orleans where Hurston may have witnessed hoodoo rituals by Lou Bardel.