One of the most exotic, mysterious, and little understood religions out there is that of what is known as Vodou in its native Haiti, also called Voodoo by the mainstream. Voodoo in one form or another can be found across a wide swath of the Caribbean and its neighboring locales, including areas in the southern United States such as New Orleans, and its traditions and history run deep. Perhaps no other religion or belief system has attracted to it so much attention and misunderstandings, and Voodoo remains steeped in spooky imagery and dread, although not always warranted. Here we will look at the tale of a powerful Voodoo practitioner who held the region in the grip of fear, was almost unmatched in magical prowess, and who seems to have stuck around even after death.
Although it has roots that stretch way back, possibly up to 6,000 years in Africa, Vodou in the nation of Haiti as it exists today originated in the history of the slave trade of the region. Slaves were brought from the Western coast of Africa to Haiti by the original Spanish and French colonialists, and most of these slaves hailed from a hodgepodge of different ethnicities and cultures, forming a mixing pot of beliefs, traditions, and religions. These various traditions gradually mixed with the predominantly Christianized, Roman Catholic captors and missionaries throughout the 16th to 19th centuries to create a hybrid of African beliefs and those of the Christian colonialists, with certain Christian elements such as an almighty creator and Saints merging with more polytheistic and pagan ideas such as gods, ghosts, and spirits called lwa. Indeed, the whole notion of “Voodoo magic” revolves around the worship of and devotion to these entities, as well as the channeling of their energies.
While many may think of Voodoo as being confined to Haiti and New Orleans, there are variations of it all over the world, including West Africa, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, among others. One place that many may not imagine to be a hotspot for Voodoo activity is the state of South Carolina, but back in the late 1800s, it was very much alive in the city of Charleston, which was every bit as steeped in Voodoo traditions as more well-known places such as New Orleans. Here in Charleston, Voodoo priests and sorcerers reigned supreme, their powers feared and often the ones really running things behind the scenes. Politicians and police turned to them for help, and much of the time nothing happened without their approval. To be a Voodoo shaman, or bokor, in Charleston at the time was to be feared and respected, and the most feared and respected of all was a man called John Domingo, also known widely as “The Black Constable.”
The legend and tales of Domingo are so vast and wild that it is often hard to unravel fact from fiction, but he certainly was a real person who really did exist. A huge man with a somewhat disheveled appearance and who often wore a Union greatcoat, he supposedly looked almost like a vagrant but had an undeniable, potent presence and charisma about him. He was the kind of man who could quiet a room with a nod or even a look, and looking at the powers he was said to have it is not hard to understand why. For instance, he was said to have the power to command the weather, in particular the winds, to the point that merchants and sailors often came to him to ask for safe passage. If he was displeased, Domingo would conjure up great storms to send seamen to their deaths. He was also well known for his ability to dole out curses, or conversely love spells, as well as spells for bringing wealth or those for long life, all of which he would dispense to his own ends or at a price for others. Domingo was also a healer, said to be able to cure any disease or mend any disability. Even more impressive still was his purported ability to raise the dead, and it was said that he had an army of undead zombies at his disposal. Indeed, most of the workers at his home were said to be zombies, and one of the most feared things about him was the threat that he could make anyone into a zombie, a very grave fear at the time that inspired terror.
There were numerous other rumors about him as well. He was thought to be an African prince once sold into slavery by the name of High John de Conquer, who had used his wizardry to trick the gods and ensure his escape, and his power was said to spring forth from an arcane looking, serpent-shaped silver ring he wore at all times, claimed to have been forged on the banks of the Congo River and imbued with the power to directly conjure up the lwa. Domingo did nothing at all to discourage the rumors and stories about him, indeed he actively promoted them, and by 1880 he was legendary and greatly feared in the region and beyond. Even the police and other sorcerers were terrified of him, and his clout was truly unrivalled at the time. Just the very threat that he might curse someone or use his necromancy on them was enough to make people bow down to him, and indeed his nickname “The Black Constable” comes from the fact that he was the ultimate law in Charleston. However, nothing lasts forever.
One day it is said that Domingo used his powers to stop two thieves, after which he supposedly lifted each man up in one hand to show anyone watching just how powerful he was. If he had ended things there it would have been merely one more showing of his magical might, but his subsequent hubris would ultimately be his downfall. According to the tale, as Domingo held up the squirming thieves for the gathering crowd of awed onlookers to see, he proclaimed that he was even more powerful than the lwa or even Jesus, which got a very angry supernatural response. Domingo was allegedly grabbed and strangled by unseen hands, which then lifted him into the air to throw him down to the ground, after which he withered away to an emaciated husk, and then into dust, much to the horror of the people gathered around.
In the years after this apparent death it seems as if the Black Constable wasn’t quite done yet. He was often reported ambling about at night in the shadows, either a ghost or resurrected through his dark powers of necromancy. He would continue to haunt Charleston in this manner until his house was eventually demolished, after which he vanished, leaving behind quite the tale, indeed. We are left to wonder, who was John Domingo, the Black Constable? Was he really able to do the things that were claimed, and where does fantasy end and reality begin? Whatever the case may be, he is certainly mentioned along with the great historical figures of Voodoo and will always have a prominent place in Voodoo lore and the legends of Charleston.