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Sheriff of the Dark Arts (Pt. I)

One of Beaufort County’s most colorful characters was also the top lawman in the county— High Sheriff J. E. McTeer. Better known as “Boy Sheriff,” McTeer assumed the position at age 22 when he replaced his father James McTeer, who died after winning reelection in 1924. The younger McTeer served as Sheriff of Beaufort County for 37 years.

The Boy Sheriff served during years of conflict when racial tension, segregation and lynching were frequent occurrences. And with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, prohibition made rum running and moonshine lucrative for some, but dangerous to those charged with enforcement of the law. But if you did run afoul the law in the Lowcountry back then, you could always hire a local witch doctor to cast a hex on any witnesses set to testify against you in court, There are newspaper accounts of witnesses dropping to the floor in convulsions, or running from the courtroom clawing at their skin as if they were on fire.

Strange days, indeed.

Witch doctors (aka “root” doctors) were thought of as the poor man’s psychiatrist. As most locals viewed modern medical professionals with a jaundiced eye, if they felt someone had put a root on them (i.e. sick), they’d seek out a witch doctor and his powers to “cure.”  McTeer also believed that if you couldn’t find a witch doctor to “take the root off” you’d suffer persistent hallucinations, and in some cases the result was insanity.

In his book “High Sheriff of the Lowcountry,” McTeer said the concept of Root and the Black Arts was entrenched and active when he became sheriff, and these arts were part of many of his dealings with the black and white citizens in his jurisdiction. The Sheriff let it be known that he only had the power to “take the root off” since he was a Christian. Locals knew that putting the root on “was the work of the Devil, “ and he explained that if he accepted work putting the root on, the root would turn on him.

McTeer studied and practiced a form of Lowcountry folk magic called hoodoo, also known as “root magic,” which he began to learn early in life while being raised by two Gullah witch doctors on his family’s 400-acre plantation. His grandmother was also a medium to the spirit world. Only a select few can be a witch doctor, sorcerer or root doctor, and you have to have the gift or “the mantle.” This is usually passed down to a relative who has shown clairvoyant abilities, and this was the case with McTeer. When he was eleven the witch doctors living on the plantation began teaching him about roots, spells and witchcraft.

“Fate and the environment in which I lived did not leave me much choice in which form of the occult practices I would follow—African Witchcraft,” said McTeer in his book.

…to be continued in Pt. II.

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