Robinson’s specialty was “chewing the root” in court, a practice designed to protect criminal defendants from guilty verdicts or harsh sentences.
The title “Dr. Buzzard” has been claimed by numerous root workers (practitioners of West African–derived folk medicine and magic, commonly referred to as voodoo, hoodoo, or conjuring) along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. The most well-known, if not the original, Dr. Buzzard was Stephany Robinson, an African American from St. Helena Island who began practicing root work in the early 1900s. He continued attracting clients, both locally and from around the country, until his death in early 1947. According to legend, Robinson’s father was a “witch doctor” who had been brought directly to St. Helena from West Africa, despite the antebellum ban on the importation of slaves from Africa. He was said to have wielded enormous spiritual power, which he passed on to his son.
Robinson’s specialty was “chewing the root” in court, a practice designed to protect criminal defendants from guilty verdicts or harsh sentences. This practice brought Robinson in conflict with J. E. McTeer, sheriff of Beaufort County from 1926 to 1963. McTeer attempted to charge Robinson with practicing medicine without a license but failed when his primary witness went into convulsions on the witness stand. McTeer’s subsequent attempts to convict Robinson failed until, according to McTeer’s memoirs, the sheriff began studying root work and promoted the rumor that he himself was a powerful “doctor.” When Robinson’s son drove his car into a causeway and drowned, Dr. Buzzard called a truce and promised to give up medicine but not “spells.” When Robinson died, he passed on his business to his son-in-law, who was known locally as “Buzzy.” Other root workers apparently borrowed the name Dr. Buzzard, hoping to cash in on Robinson’s notoriety, and a practice that began during his life continued long after his death.
Hyatt, Harry Middleton, ed. Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork. 5 vols. Washington, D.C., 1970–1973.
McTeer, J. E. Fifty Years as a Low Country Witch Doctor. Beaufort, S.C.: Beaufort Book Company, 1976.
Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. 2d ed. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 2003.