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NOTES ON THE MEMPHIS HOODOO
ROOT DOCTOR MADAM MYRTLE COLLINS

This web page is a supplement to my research into the folk-lore fieldwork conducted among African-Americans by Harry M. Hyatt in the late 1930s. For a description of his work, see my introduction to Harry M. Hyatt's five-volume collection of oral histories.

Hyatt did not attach the names of his informants to their statements, but some information about their identities and where they lived can be gleaned from his introduction and reminiscences in Volume One, and supplemented by internal references throughout the five massive and unindexed volumes of "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork." .

The information on this page is a supplement to my web page about my attempts to identify Harry M. Hyatt's African-American rootwork informants. On that page you will see these two entries for Madam Collins:

Memphis, TN

  May 24 or May 25, 1938 (Tuesday?)

#926 -  Mrs. Myrtle Collins / Madam Collins of 651 Stephens St. (now 
         Stephens Pl.), a professional root worker, was interviewed here 
         for the first time, cylinders [B45:19 - B51:1 = 1503 - 1509];  
         she was the only person interviewed twice. Her later interview  
         was as informant #1538 on cylinders [D96:1 - D110-2 = 2779 - 2793]. 
         See Volume Two, pages 992-1024. Her business card appears in the
         unnumbered pages at the end of Volume Two. 
         Madam Collins told Hyatt that she had studied spiritual work by 
         mail order and had received a diploma from the Rociscricians
         (AMORC) in San Jose, California ("de White Brothers"). She also 
         offered to teach rootwork for a fee and described paying for
         teachings and buying formulas from other root doctors (including 
         Doctor Cicero Reed, a white doctor of San Jose, California 
         (deceased by 1938), to whom she had paid $25.00 for the recipe for 
         a three-ingredient bath to restore men's lost nature.) 
         
Memphis, TN (second trip)

  Interviews were conducted at the home of Mrs. [-] Jones. Edward
  Bufford, Jr. stayed at her house too.

  October 24, 1939
  
    #1538 - Mrs. Myrtle Collins / Madam Collins of 651 Stephens St. (now 
          Stephens Pl.), a professional root worker, was interviewed here 
          for the second time (cylinders [D96:1 - D110-2 = 2779 - 2793) 
          She was the only person interviewed twice and given two 
          informant #s. 
          Her earlier interview was as informant #926; 
          (cylinders B45:19 - B51:1 = 1503 - 1509])
          See the entry at #926 for further details.
          See Volume Two, pages 992-1024.

The question of where Madam Collins got her diploma was engendered by these passages in her interview:

Harry M. Hyatt:

(Have you any special name by which you are known? Your name may be Mary Jones. Are you known as Mary Jones, your real name, or are you called Madam So-and-So?)

Myrtle Collins:

No, ah'm not called a madam. Ah go by mah name as Madam Collins. That's whut's on mah license an' diploma. [...] Any time yo' have yore diploma an' yore degrees why yo' kin teach anybody. Yo' have a diploma tuh teach anybody whut chew want to because yo' paid fo' yore license on yore diploma.

Harry M. Hyatt:

(You paid for your license. To this firm?)

Myrtle Collins:

Yes sir, ah have paid fo' mah license outa St. Joe's [San Jose], California, an' ah have a diploma on it from de White Brothers from St. Joe's, California.

Culture clash! She may have thought Hyatt was asking her if she was called a brothel-keeper -- "a madam." She says she is "not called a madam," but goes by her name "as Madam Collins." However, note below that her business card reads "Mrs. Myrtle Collins," not "Madam Collins." Due to the racial caste system in place at the time of these interviews, we will often hear people trying to be "agreeable" to Mr. Hyatt, with consequent confusion as to what they really meant.

Correspondence classes in occultism, mysticism, and allied arts go back to the 19th century. Among the outfits that granted diplomas and certificates by mail order prior to World War Two there were several competing groups known Rosicrucians and Brotherhoods (The Rosicrucian Fellowship, The Rosicrucian Order AMORC, The Rosicrucian Brotherhood, The Triplicate Order a.k.a. the Brotherhood of Eulis, The Brotherhood of Light a.k.a. the Church of Light, and The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor). In addition, there were many other mail-order teaching groups and individuals with their own unique names, such as The Ordo Templi Orientis, The Crystal League a.k.a. The League of Silence, Guidance House, Mazdaznan, and L. W. DeLawrence.

It has been suggested that Collins may have gotten a diploma from a pair of white men, from a pair of brothers named White, or from a spiritual supply house in San Jose called "White Bros." I think that all three of these explanations are highly unlikely.

Hyatt spelled the words as he believed Collins said them, "the White Brothers," with a capital W and a capital B. If he had thought Collins meant that the men were generically "white" in skin colour, he would have spelled it "the white brothers." If he had thought that she meant a pair of brothers surnamed "White," he would have capitalized the W but not the B. Also, while White Bros. (spelled like that) was once the name of a small chain of gasoline stations in the West, it was not the name of a 1930s spiritual supply company in San Jose, to the best of my knowledge, nor, more to the point, did Hyatt spell the name White Bros., as if he thought it was a commercial concern.

The number of African Americans in San Jose prior to the migration of dock workers to the Bay Area during World War Two was small and the town itself was small, being just a rail center for shipping locally grown plums, prunes, cherries, and other stone fruit. Even if there had been enough black people to support a conjure shop in San Jose in 1938, the shop would not likely have sold nationwide like the large Chicago and Memphis order houses did -- and there is no reason to think it would have granted diplomas to customers.

To my mind it is 100% clear that Madam Collins is referring to receiving a diploma from a particular Rosicrucian Brotherhood long located in San Jose, California, and legally known as The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis or AMORC. This group's leaders claim to be lineage-holders in the White Brotherhood, a term popularized by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, originator of the Theosophical Society, to describe secret organizations that teach magic to a selected few students and work behind the scene for the social and political good of humanity. The fact that Hyatt capitalized the "White Brothers" and corrected Collin's "St. Joe's" to "San Jose" indicates to me that he was familiar with the organization, as well he should have been, being an Anglican minister and thus aware of spiritual trends in the nation at the time.

The AMORC was founded in 1909. It is located at 1342 Naglee Avenue, San Jose, CA 95191, USA. There are other Rosicrucian orders worldwide, but the AMORC is by far the largest in terms of membership and outreach through mail-order correspondence courses. As a public face for the mystical White Brotherhood, AMORC has conducted correspondence courses and granted mail-order diplomas in spiritual degrees since before World War One. The order advertises in magazines and newspapers to this day, all over the country. You may recognize their ads by the cool 1930s-era art deco artwork and headlines like "A Split Second in Time" and "Mysteries of the Ancients." In addition to the Supreme Grand Lodge of the AMORC, the San Jose headquarters of the organization also houses the largest privately owned museum of Egyptian antiquities that is open to the public in the USA, and possibly in the world.

Here is a relevant passage from the AMORC web site at www.amorc.com, regarding their correspondence courses; the language is virtually identical to that in use for the past 50 years:

"Since 1915, hundreds of thousands of Rosicrucian students throughout the world have enriched their lives and learned to access their own inner wisdom through our home study course in mysticism, metaphysics, and philosophy. Our time-tested system reveals the underlying principles of the universe, and teaches you how to apply these principles in practical ways in your everyday life. This ancient wisdom is centuries old, but presented in modern, easy-to-understand language that guides you step-by-step through the process of mystical development. Through study and practice of the Rosicrucian teachings, you can learn to master your life, experience inner peace, and make a difference in the world. To request a FREE introductory booklet about the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC [see the web site]."
In 1938, at the time that Myrtle Collins was being interviewed by Harry Hyatt, the founder of the San Jose AMORC, H. Lewis Spence (1874-1955), was alive and thriving -- and had written prolifically on subjects as diverse as clairvoyance, hypnotism, psychism, occultism, Celtic magic, Egyptian magic and religion, lost civilizations, and so forth. All of his books and his correspondence courses were then in print and were advertised nationwide through magazines. There is no doubt in my mind that Collins took one of Spence's correspondence courses and received a diploma for her work.

The people interviewed in Volume Two were not uneducated country folks of the type who might give Hyatt a recipe for a cleansing bath and tell him how to perform a crossroads ritual. Rather, these were professional spiritual workers, many of whom lived in sophisticated urban areas. Madam Collins, for instance, lived in metropolitan Memphis, Tennessee (a city far larger than San Jose at that time).

A number of professional conjures gave Hyatt their business cards, which he reproduced in his books. Madam Collins' business card can be found in the unnumbered pages at the close of Volume Two. It reads:

        ------------------------------------
       |                                    |
       |         Mrs. Myrtle Collins        |
       |                                    |
       |          Spiritual Doctor          |
       |                                    | 
       |              ---O---               | 
       |                                    | 
       | 651 Stephens St.    Memphis, Tenn. |
       |                                    |
        ------------------------------------
A computer generated map shows 651 Stephens to be located in the heart of Memphis' African American district of the time.



The site of the Collins home was bordered by a number of places made famous in jug band and blues songs of the 1920s and 1930s: It is south-east of Wolf River Lagoon ("Wolf River Blues" by Noah Lewis) and south-west of Stonewall Place ("Stonewall Blues" by Cannon's Jug Stompers), a few blocks due south of Beale St. 4th St, and Vance St. (all three mentioned in "Fourth Street Mess Around" by the Memphis Jug Band), and a few blocks north-east of Bunker Hill ("Bunker Hill Blues" by Frank Stokes). It is also conveniently located a short walk due west of the Elmwood Cemetery, where Myrtle Collins no doubt dug and paid for the graveyard dirt she used in conjuration.



Remember, as you read the interviews in Volume Two of the Hyatt books, that several of the professional conjure doctors interviewed there told Hyatt -- whom they believed to be a fellow student of magic -- all about their commercial mail-order sources for spiritual supplies, such as Lucky Heart Cosmetics and Curios in Memphis, Lucky Mongol Curios in Memphis, the Crackerjack Drug Store in New Orleans, and King Novelty / Valmor Beauty Supply / Famous Products in Chicago. They also revealed the sources for their diplomas as spiritualists. They even recommened magical books available by mail order that they thought Hyatt should study if he wished to pursue knowledge of magical practices beyond the confines of the African American community, as they themselves had.

Such comments are important indicators of how, in the early 20th century, urban hoodoo was evolving from a compendium of surviving African magical beliefs and practices to the multi-cultural magical and metaphysical system it is today.

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