Old Florida Folk Magic: Granny Midwives, Hoodoo & Folk Remedies (Pt 2)
Six months ago, I set off on a journey into the mysterious world of old Florida folk traditions, herbalism and spiritual practices. The time spent researching, asking questions, and doing footwork was well spent and the results? Fascinating and enriching. In this edition of Old Florida Folk Magic, I take you back in time to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To a time when granny midwives were the healers and faith was a large part of healing and daily life in the sunshine state.
Who Were Florida’s Granny Midwives?
When I first began asking questions about folk magic traditions in Florida, I was told by many that it didn’t exist. That it was either a different form of Hoodoo or centered on Spiritualism. One individual told me he thought there might have been a “granny” magic tradition but that it was very much a closed-off practice or it had died years ago.
In a routine search through the Florida archives, I came across an intriguing 5-page “book” by a woman named Jule O. Graves. It turns out Graves was Florida’s first certified nursing midwife and spent part of her life recording granny midwife folk treatments for pregnancy and childbirth. As I read the document, I realized an unique folk magic tradition was alive and well in Florida through the folk remedies and practices of its early granny midwives as recent as the early twentieth century!
The Granny Midwife’s Role and Tragic Downfall
Granny midwives in Florida existed long before physicians became the mainstay of public health. They were women trained by their mothers or grandmothers to treat pregnant and laboring women. BUT they also treated everyday ailments like the cold, flu and fevers. Most documents will have you believe midwives only cared for pregnant women – this is historically untrue and perpetuates the idea that women’s only place in the medical field is with “women’s ailments” like childbirth.
Sadly, the granny midwives of early Florida were pushed out by the physicians in the twentieth century. After years of nursing midwives pleading with the state to develop a certification for their trade, the state finally gave in but completely changed the granny midwife tradition. It either forced these women into an education system where many of their skills were stifled OR it arrested the women who had already practiced for decades if they refused to concede. A book titled “In the Way of Our Grandmothers” details the sad story and is worth a read for midwives, nurses and women everywhere.
Granny Midwives’ Remedies
A pattern emerged as I read Graves’ collection of granny midwife remedies – sympathetic magic. This is a type of magic in which remedies and rituals assume that like attracts like. For instance, to “cure after-pains, place a knife or sharp scissors under the mother’s bed to cut the pains.” Or to stop bleeding after childbirth, tie a black string around the waste.
Like attracting like isn’t new concept, however. Southern Conjure and Hoodoo both employ sympathetic magic and it seems the granny midwife tradition in Florida employed similar practices. The mainstay of a Florida granny midwife’s practice, however, was her faith. The granny midwife believed her connection to God or Spirit would aid in the healing process. Prayers and chants were often said during childbirth and other visits.
Other intriguing granny midwives’ folk remedies include:
- To ensure a quick and painless delivery – the mother should wear her “old man’s hat” or straddle his lap!
- To dress the umbilical cord, one is to use soot, cobwebs and axle grease
- Mullein leaves were rubbed on legs or used as poultices to lessen swelling of the feet during pregnancy
- Shirt tea was a tea made from steeping a man’s sweaty shirt and given to “sweat out” a fever
- Bone set weed tea reduces fever
- For asthma – take the child into the woods and find a pine tree. Nail a nail into the tree above the child’s head and as the child grows the ailment will transfer into the tree
- For a retained placenta, blow into a blue bottle and place the mother on top of hot chicken feathers
- Cool fevers with the laying on of hands
- Snake oil cures snake bites
- Using horse hair or string in knot magic, then burying the knots to cure warts and other ailments
Midwife Remedies Similar to Hoodoo and Conjure
The granny midwife remedies that struck me as similar to Conjure or Hoodoo used things like dirt dauber nests, the power of trees, herbs and more. There are similarities because the granny midwives of early Florida were mostly of African American descent just like the Hoodoo and Conjure practitioners in other southern states. Many had families who settled in Florida following the abolishing of slavery, and of whom brought the old folk ways with them. People used what they had on-hand or what they could find in nature to ease symptoms and cure ailments.
Because of folklore, I believe some form of Conjure or Hoodoo was prevalent in the state of Florida even before the time of the granny midwives. One particular Florida folk tale, called Uncle Monday, supports my theory. Uncle Monday was a runaway slave who lived with the Seminole tribe in the late eighteen hundreds. He was known by the Seminoles as a powerful Conjure-man who led them to many victories in battle. He knew how to cast spells for any reason. Read more about Uncle Monday here.
Zora Neale Hurston: Florida Hoodoo Was Alive and Well
Hurston is one of the most well-known female folklorists and anthropologists. A few of her award-winning works from the early twentieth century include Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tell My Horse. In addition to collecting folk tales and being a brilliant writer, Zora took a life-long interest in folk magic. Her journey into the world of Hoodoo-Voodoo began in Florida where she learned from local Hoodoo practitioners. Hurston details her Hoodoo beginnings in the last chapter of Mules and Men. In one story, a Hoodoo conjure-woman took Zora into the home of a couple to show her how to break up a marriage by “laying a trick” (casting a spell).
But the Florida writer’s journey didn’t end in the sunshine state – she went on to be initiated into the Hoodoo-Voodoo tradition in New Orleans by a man who claimed to be the great nephew of the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau! Her initiation was nothing short of fascinating, which can also be read in detail in her work Mules and Men.
Thanks to Brave Women Like Hurston and Graves
Because of women like Zora Neale Hurston and Julia Graves, we have glimpses into Florida’s past. These women thought it important to record the old ways once practiced in Florida. Even when no one else would. Hoodoo, Conjure and granny midwifery thrived during the early settlement of the sunshine state. And it’s alive and well today because of a new generation of people practicing the ways of their ancestors. Perhaps there are still grannies who are passing their knowledge to their descendants, and I hope there are. BUT if not, it’s our duty to study and record folk traditions to, at the very least, keep their memory alive. Zora and Julia would have wanted that.
- Treatments and Remedies Used by Midwives in Florida and Georgia, Circa 1942 by Jule O. Graves
- In the Way of Our Grandmothers by Debra Anne Susie
- Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
- Florida Memory – State Library and Archives of Florida
- A Treasury of Southern Folklore by B.A. Botkin