In late October, 1935, well after midnight, a mysterious man was running across old East Church Avenue near Mulvaney Street carrying a dead chicken. A college boy, driving his car back to campus after a night on the town, collided with the dark man, knocking him down and breaking his skull. At old Knoxville General Hospital, the man was pronounced dead.
The dead man was known on the Bowery as Doc Mullins, and he was, to most of Knoxville, a mystery. On his death certificate, he was listed matter-of-factly as an “Herb Doctor.” By reputation, he was a conjurer.
By now most folks know Knoxville once had a saloon district, and that it hosted a few whorehouses. The Old City has played with that reputation for decades. But the neighborhood was a good deal more complicated than that. The neighborhood known as the Bowery also included hundreds of little shops: secondhand shops run by immigrants, some early black barber shops and movie theaters, some of the city’s first Chinese laundries, some of the city’s last livery stables and blacksmiths, and drugstores that sold things that mainstream drugstores didn’t.
It was also the epicenter of a sort of underground economy, the herb men.
They began advertising around 1890, first under the heading of “roots and herbs.” Around the turn of the century, medical science was getting more scientific, claiming to sell only the stuff that was proven to be effective and safe. Pharmacies started selling fewer roots and herbs, more factory-made pills and syrups. But many people still wanted their roots and herbs. For people who couldn’t afford doctors, herbal remedies were worth a try.
If never common, Voodoo was always around the fringes of town. The word sometimes came up in murder cases, in strange diseases reported to Knoxville General, in both marriages and divorces, when it was claimed one spouse exerted a weird control over the other. It was also implicated in some grave robberies, in some disturbed graves, heads were discovered missing from corpses. Certain heads were known to have magical powers. There was a market for heads, like there’s a market for ivory tusks.
The most visible part of the culture were the “herb men” who practiced along the Bowery–known to mapmakers as South Central Street–and in the Cripple Creek area, the bottomland just to the east of the modern Old City. There were herb women, too, like the “hoodoo queen” who practiced in a hovel near the mouth of First Creek. A mayoral delegation went to her to see about lifting the long-rumored curse off the 400 block of Gay Street, which had been visited by far more than its share of catastrophic fires. The weird character known as Mother in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree, set in the early 1950s, may not have been fictional.
But you had to know how to find her. The “herb men” had actual addresses, and did business just off a downtown sidewalk, like any retailer. Some herb men publicly foreswore voodoo, denouncing it as “against the Bible.” Some did not.
We know about most of them via listings in the city directory. We might not know much more than that except for a particularly curious newspaper columnist named Bert Vincent.
Most people who’ve been here more than 50 years remember that name. He was the News-Sentinel columnist who wrote about birds and trees and mountain people and prize watermelons. He told funny stories. As an older man he lived in the country, and had mostly country interests.
However, as a young reporter from Kentucky before the war, Vincent was fascinated with his adopted city, and especially the old section of it called the Bowery. It began hardly a block and a half from the old newsroom, and was a wellspring of stories. It was no longer the saloon district, of course, but there were still dozens of old buildings, mostly built of wood, mostly two or three stories, crowded up and down the street, now occupied by beer joints, bootleggers’ shops, pool halls, a few “eating houses.” Vincent started calling his column “Strolling” when he started strolling down there, back when when the broad-porched old whorehouses were still standing, along with Ike Jones’ Saloon, the one where the outlaw Kid Curry shot two Knoxville policemen, and when pre-prohibition advertising for long-defunct beers was still legible. Even in the 1930s, a walk through the Bowery was never predictable, and offered daily a fresh batch of stories.
Bert Vincent loved urban eccentrics, whether Italian ice-cream makers or stubborn blacksmiths, and they tended to congregate down on the Bowery. And he was fascinated with the herb men. The best known of them, over the years, was probably Uriah Jackson Hembree. He had credentials as a mountain man, but he also had a shop on South Central where he sold strange and unidentifiable objects. Doc Hembree was a legend. Vincent appreciated that fact, and did what he could to perpetuate it.
But Vincent seemed positively fascinated with another fellow, more exotic but more obscure. Vincent knew Doc Mullins for only a few months before the herb man’s sudden death, but kept writing about him for the rest of his life.
Central was a street of one-half addresses, where a shopkeeper would operate cheap out of the back of a building, or the side, or a sagging second floor.
“Doc Mullins” had a shop at 318—or 318 1/2—South Central Street. It was right off the sidewalk, but records suggest he shared a building with a larger business, Blaine and Pearl McGhee’s “eating house,” a simple restaurant for the African-American clientele. The McGhees occasionally got in minor trouble for bootlegging, as most restaurants in the Bowery did in those days, almost 30 years after local prohibition went into effect.
In the odd, cluttered, aromatic shop next to McGhee’s was where you could find Doc Mullins himself. As Vincent described it, “Dried roots and plants were piled high on his floor and hung thick on his walls.”
The herb man would welcome him formally. “I’m Dr. Mullins,” he greeted Vincent with a bow from his waist and a sweeping gesture with his hand. “I’m guaranteed.”
Doc Mullins is a provocative contradiction, a man about whom we can say little for sure. Most often referred to as “R.D. Mullins,” his formal first name was Ralph, or, more likely, Richard. He was either in his 40s or 50s. We can’t even tell with certainty what color he was.
In those days, newspapers almost always referred to a black man’s race. The absence of the word “Negro” in a newspaper story strongly suggests, by omission, that the subject is white. The Knoxville Journal story about his death calls him a Negro, but neither of the News-Sentinel about his fatal accident refer to his race. In just two of his seven known columns about Mullins, Vincent refers to him as a “Negro.” But in most of the newspaper articles over the years, the lack of reference to race would leave a reader of the era with the impression that he was white. The City Directory lists him with a “(c)” for “colored.”
Mullins told people he had previously lived in New Orleans, which was famous for voodoo, but in his last column about Mullins, Vincent claimed the herb man was really from the Caribbean islands. In that story, told in deep retrospect 27 years after Mullins’ death, Vincent refers to him as “a West Indian, with dark skin and keen eyes.”
Trying to figure him out after his death, Vincent ascertained that Mullins lived with his wife up on Flag Pole Hill, off West Baxter, on the edge of Lonsdale. They called it Flag Pole Hill because there’d been a tall flag there when it was a U.S. Army training camp during the Spanish-American War. By the 1930s, it was the location of the city incinerator, where people took their dead dogs and cats and horses to make them disappear.
But it sounds like Doc Mullins spent most of his time down on the Bowery.
Down there, he sold an amazing variety of ingredients. According to Vincent, he carried powdered bat ears, scorpion tongues, rattlesnake fangs, shells of owl’s eggs, screech-owl gizzards and tails, roasted tips of bat wings, dust of wild-boar tusks, and “the scorched ends of the ears of rabbit’s he’d caught at midnight in some graveyard.”
He sometimes showed off a mysterious “sea onion” from the Canary Islands. He trafficked in an herb he called “devil’s shoestring.” Some modern sites say that was a kind of viburnum.
“I fix a tonic from this which will set devils in the mind of anyone who drinks it,” he told Vincent, “and in nine days if this person don’t get the wandering fever so much that she leaves town, I’ll pay you $10.” Some of his spells seem to have directed at freeing his patients of inconvenient women.
That visit, apparently Vincent’s first, took a sinister turn. In a hushed voice, Mullins told Vincent something else he could do, though he never did so “unless in very exceptional cases.”
“Now, you bring me four strands of hair from the top of a woman’s head, and let me work with them strands, and if in nine days she don’t fall dead, I hopes I may die.”
He told Vincent he had no respect for Knoxville’s other “voodoo doctors.” Only he was the real thing, he said, because he had practiced in New Orleans.
Sometimes Doc Mullins made fun of what he did, said it was just for fun. Mullins had a distinctive laugh that Vincent appreciated. “Yaw, haw!” he would say. “Now, Sir! I got too much sense to believe in such foolishness. I just play with the stuff. That’s all!”
But sometimes, as if a shadow passed over him, he became very serious. “When he was in one of those moods,” Vincent wrote in 1935, when Mullins was still alive and keeping shop, “Doc would shut the door, and in the eerie darkness would talk in strange undertones as if afraid evil spirits were listening. On one of these occasions, Doc showed me a soft bag, smaller than a quarter-filled tobacco sack. The cloth of the bag was deep red velvet.” In the bag, said Mullins, was a particular combination of things: “Powdered lizards’ tongues, powdered hair from a woman’s head, jimson weed and boarhog root.”
He told Vincent it was his Mojo, his “conjure bag,” and that it protected him from harm.
“He talked in awed whispers. He said nothing ever could harm him while he wore this conjure bag on a string around his neck. Neither fire, nor floods, nor lightning, nor winds could hurt him. Nor anything made by man– razors, knives, bullets. He was immune.”
Death was always around on the Bowery, and there was a lot to be immune from. Vincent said his location was known to be a place where an earlier herb man who had died suddenly. It’s hard for the historian to guess which one that was. 318 South Central had been home to several herb men, over the years.
In any case, Mullins did come to a sudden end, that night when he was crossing the street with a dead chicken under his arm, and was hit by a UT student in a car.
That was the story Vincent kept telling over and over for 27 years, but not always exactly the same story. Sometimes he changed details. Sometimes he used Doc Mullins’ name, sometimes he did’t. Sometimes he changed the ingredients in the conjure bag. In the early versions, Vincent said he called the hospital, and learned that Mullins’ wife had possession of the clothes he was wearing. Vincent visited her at her home up on steep Flag Pole Hill, to find out for himself whether he was wearing the conjure bag, and said the widow broke out in a laugh. “Mr. Vincent,” she said, “my husband didn’t believe in none of that stuff. He told me lots of times, and he’d laugh, as to how he was just a-foolin’ you.”
In one version he told seven years later, Vincent implied that Mullins had his conjure bag on him, around his neck, that fatal night, but it just didn’t work.
But in a version he told 15 years after the accident, Vincent left out the story of the skeptical widow, and said he went to the hospital himself the night of the accident and the newspaper columnist was allowed to inspect the body with an intern, and that “the Negro voodooist” was not wearing the conjure bag when he was killed. That made a spookier story.
“Old Doc had ventured forth without his charm,” Vincent wrote. “Now he was dead. And that didn’t prove anything, either. It was, however, interesting. To me, at least.”
Vincent was a little bit of a conjure man, himself.
But in his tellings he never mentioned one irony about Mulllins’ death, and may not have known about it. The young student who hit the voodoo doctor and killed him was originally blamed for fault in the accident. Apparently he had good luck in sidestepping the manslaughter charge. He stayed in college and went into medicine. Five years after the accident, he was an intern at Knoxville General, the same hospital where Doc Mullins had died. The man who killed Doc Mullins enjoyed a long and respected career as a medical doctor in Knoxville. I don’t know the moral of that story.
It took some doing, and assistance from three librarians at the McClung Collection, but we finally located Doc Mullins’ death certificate. Probably filled out with the help of his sensible widow, Beatrice, under “Color or Race,” he is described as “Col.” The form asks for a birthdate, and it’s left blank. Maybe Beatrice didn’t know that, but it lists him as 49, not 55, as the newspaper reported. The form asks for a Birthplace, “City or Town,” but maybe she didn’t know that, either. They recorded “Ala.” That was where Beatrice was from, too. He was to be buried in La Grange, Ala., just a few miles south of Muscle Shoals.
And for profession, he’s listed as “Herb Doctor.” According to the form he’d been in that profession for 25 years. He must have started working at it when he was about 22.
Most of the Bowery has been wiped clean for decades. The site of Doc Mullin’s conjure shop is now, roughly, the site of a dog park. Walk your dog to the far southern end of it, and if your terrier twists his nose, maybe he’s detecting a last little whiff of roasted bat wing.
The home Doc Mullins once shared with Beatrice, on Flag Pole Hill, is on a steep street most of us would have a hard time driving to, West Fourth Avenue. It’s up above where the City Dump is now. Today, there’s no longer a house at their old address on Flag Pole Hill. It’s now the location of a cell-phone tower. Another generation’s Mojo.
There’s also a Missionary Baptist Church up there. It’s one of the hundred jagged little places most of us will never see, that nonetheless offer astonishing views of our city.
~Researched and Written by Jack Neely
Great piece. More on Bert Vincent please. My grandfather had one of his books, and he’d read The Wharping Log Chains tale to scare us when we were children.