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Saturday, March 27, 2010


"GOOFER DUST is a compound that has long been used by Southern root doctors and conjures to work so-called Enemy Tricks. A proprietary mixture of Graveyard Dirt, Sulphur Powder, Rattlesnake Skin, and powdered herbs, GOOFER DUST is alleged to Jinx an Enemy in Family, Money, Job, and Health Matters. Folks well-versed in such doings tell us that they have picked up a person's Footprint, mixed it with GOOFER DUST and stopped the mixture up in a bottle, which they have then hidden in the crotch of a tree where it could not be found. Others claim that they have sprinkled GOOFER DUST around an enemy's home, in the yard, or even in the bedroom, to cause Hard Luck and Trouble.

Goofer Dust is a very old African-American hoodoo curio used to trouble, harm, or kill an enemy. In particular, it can cause the victim's legs to swell up and medical doctors will not be able to effect a cure. Recipes for making it vary, but it is almost always a mixture of simple natural ingredients, usually including Graveyard Dirt, powdered sulphur (which can give it a yellowish colour) and salt. Subsidiary ingredients may include powdered snake heads or snake skin "sheds," red pepper, black pepper, powdered bones, powdered insects or snails, and greyish, powdery-surfaced herbs such as mullein and sage. In the past, some formulas for Goofer Dust included anvil dust, the fine black iron detritus found around a blacksmith's anvil. A modern substitute for this now-uncommon ingredient would be magnetic sand, which is also black in colour.

A continuum of shared and overlapping ingredients links Graveyard Dirt to Goofer Dust, and thence to Hot Foot Powder and Crossing Powder -- but of all of them, only Goofer Dust is said to contain both Graveyard Dirt and snake skin.

As Robert Farris Thomson indicates in his works on Congo folk-magic, the word goofer comes from the Kikongo word "kufwa," which means "to die." Among older hoodoo practitioners, this derivation is very clear, because there "goofer" is not only an adjective modifying "dust" but also a verb ("He goofered that man") and a noun ("She put a goofer on him"). As late as the 1930s, goofering was a regional synonym for hoodooing, and in North Carolina at least, the meaning of the term was broadened beyond spells of damage, illness, and death to include love spells cast with dominating intent. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the specificity of Goofer Dust's connection to graveyard dirt was lost and the term became a general name for any sachet powder used to cast a harmful spell.

A euphemistic word for goofering is "poisoning," which in this context does not refer to a physical poison but to a physical agent that, through magical means, brings about an "unnatural illness" or the death of the victim. Even more euphemistic is the special use of the verb "hurt," which in my youth was often defined as "to poison," with the tacit understanding that "to poison" really meant "to goofer." The more general verbs "fix" (meaning to prepare a spell) and "trick" (meaning to cast a spell) are also applied to goofering.

The 1939 blues song "I Don't Know" by Cripple Clarence Lofton elucidates the identicication of "poisoning" with goofering:

Gettin' sick and tired of the way you do
'Time, Mama, I'm gonna poison you
Sprinkle goofer dust around your bed
Wake up some mornin', find your own self dead.
Goofer Dust spells -- like similar tricks involving Graveyard Dirt, Hot Foot Powder, and Crossing Powder -- are quite African in character, deriving from African foot-track magic, a form of sorcery in which one "hurts" or "poisons" a victim "through the feet." Undoing the jinx may involve ritual bathing, floor washing, or sweeping to remove the Goofer Dust. Sprinkling salt in the corners of the house is also an antidote.
Although in Memphis a locally popular method to use Goofer Dust is to put it an unwanted lover's mattress to "hurt" him, the most common way to employ it, as described in both the catalogue and the song lyric above, is to sprinkle it around the enemy's home where it will be stepped on and rise up through the foot to "poison" the legs. Alternatively, it can be placed in the victim's sock or shoe when he or she is not looking. If this is not possible, it can be mixed it with the enemy's footprint dirt and the resultant mixture corked up in a bottle to stop the victim in his tracks or bring on an unnatural illness, buried in a graveyard to kill him, or thrown into a crossroads to drive him out of town. While it is theoretically possible to sprinkle goofer dust into food that will be eaten by the victm, this is actually not a common way to deploy it because the ingredients -- which may include dirt, sulphur, and red pepper -- would be noticable to the palate. Occasionally Goofer Dust is placed inside a protective mojo bag or wound inside a jack ball as part of a coercive love spell, but these are fairly uncommon usages. Most of the time the intent is more sinister, and the application is external.

When a victim is goofered, a number of things can happen. The victim may start having bad luck, lose his or her job, suffer from sexual impotence or mental confusion, or develop a chronic disease such as tuberculosis, diabetes, angina, gout, or high blood pressure. Of all of these problems, the relationship between goofering and diabetes is the clearest and most direct: the symptoms of poisoning through the feet are identical with those of diabetic edema and diabetic neuropathy.

One of the first signs of leg-centered or "classic" goofering is a sharp pain in the feet or legs. This is followed by swelling and an inability to walk. A really severe case of poisoning will leave the victim crawling around on all fours and howling like a dog. Medical doctors may provide palliative relief, but they can't really help a person who has been goofered. Unless the victim is cured by a root doctor, death may result.

In the blues song "Black Dust Blues," composed by Selma Davis and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and recorded by Ma Rainey in 1928 for Paramount, the singer, who has been "fixed" by a rival with a powder thrown on her door step, develops a classic case of goofering: she has "trouble with [her] feet" and ends up "walking on all fours." Thanks to Chris Smith (chris@skerries.demon.co.uk) for the transcription.:

Ma Rainey

It was way last year, when my trouble began
It was way last year, when my trouble began
I had done quarrelled with a woman, she said I took her man

She sent me a letter, said she's gonna turn me round
She sent me a letter, said she's gonna turn me round
She's gonna fix me up so I won't chase her man around

I began to feel bad, worse than I ever before
I began to feel bad, worse than I ever before
Lord, I was out one morning, found black dust all round my door

I began to get thin, had trouble with my feet
I began to get thin, had trouble with my feet
Throwing dust about the house whenever I tried to eat

Black dust in my window, black dust on my porch mat
Black dust in my window, black dust on my porch mat
Black dust's got me walking on all fours like a cat
Two 1930s oral history accounts in which goofering victims were "walking on all fours" can be found on my page about the famous root worker Aunt Caroline Dye
"She could have you walkin' like a hawg; any kinda which-way,
she could make you walk on two legs again."
-- Will Shade (Son Brimmer) interview

"Ah had a cousin, she lived in Oil Town, Arkansas
{Oil Trough, Arkansas}. She got poison, see. {She was
poisoned by some sort of trick or spell.}. Dis woman had
her howlin' [like a dog]. Now,
Ah know this fo' a pus'nul fac'. She wus howlin' an'
sometimes she jis' crawlin' on her knees, see."
-- Harry M. Hyatt's Informant from Little Rock, Ark.

Many old-time root workers say that wearing Devil's Shoe String root twigs or a silver dime in the shoe or at the ankle will provide magical protection against any form of "unnatural poison" rising up through the feet. A silver dime may also be worn on each ankle as a warning device: if the coins turn black, someone has laid out Goofer Dust and you have stepped in it. Since formulas for goofer dust, Hot Foot Powder, and Crossing powder often contain sulphur, which turns silver black, this seemingly magical alarm system has a firm grounding in chemistry.
The following documentation on the varied recipes for making Goofer Dust comes from "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork," a 5-volume, 4766-page collection of folkloric material gathered by Harry Middleton Hyatt, primarily between 1935 and 1939.