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Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Southern by the signs

You remember a couple of years ago when they busted TV’s Miss Cleo?

She was the Jamaican psychic whose “hotline” offered free “supernatural insight into love and money.”

Well, according to authorities, Miss Cleo (who was really Youree Dell Harris of Los Angeles) used the old “bait and switch” on folks who called in. She came on the line and told them to phone another number which, it turned out, charged them about $5 a minute.

Now I figure that many of Miss Cleo’s callers could have been Southerners.

Not only do we talk a lot (ask us the time of day and we tell you how to make a watch), we have a history of trying to hook up with the supernatural.

Many among us regularly consult the astrological section of an almanac and schedule everything from planting to procreating according to the alignment of heavenly bodies.   

Others consult folks like Henry Baysmore.

Back in the 1930s, the 75-year-old Baysmore was interviewed at his Montgomery home.  He told how he “started out to be a preacher once” and seemed on the road to success until he found that the Bible said that ministers should keep themselves “unspotted from the world.” He was OK with that until he found that the Good Book also said ministers should “visit the widows.”

That presented a problem for, he observed, if “you have ever been acquainted with any widows, you know a preacher can’t visit them and keep himself unspotted.”

So, he told his visitor, “I give up preachin’.”

What did he do then? He became Montgomery’s Miss Cleo.

Those were Depression years and people were uneasy. So Baysmore had plenty of visitors who “wanted to see into the future.” Such advice did not come cheap, $10 a session, but if they protested he simply told them, “If you can’t afford ten dollars for a little supernatural information” then they would suffer the consequences.

So they paid up.

Though Henry Baysmore gave up preaching to become a psychic, some time ago, riding through Wilcox County, I saw a sign announcing that “Dr. Black,” the “Holy Profet of God,” had discovered a way to combine the two.

Apparently ignoring the problem with widows, “Dr. Black” found scriptural foundation for his calling in First Samuel where Saul tries to figure out how to pay a seer for helping him recover some runaway asses. Figuring if Saul could, so could he, and Dr. Black opened the “House of Prayer and Faith,” where religion and folklore were bundled together for believers.

According to the sign, anyone who was “crossed up,” “troubled,” or suffering from what he called, with a fine feeling for words, “Lost Nature,” should take Dr. Black on as their “Spiritual Reader and Advisor.”

I bet business was brisk.

We all know that since forever, a sizable segment of the South’s population has believed that greater forces are at work in the world and that there are special people who can understand them. Sometimes the gifted are found in churches that focus on biblical prophecy and mystical communications like speaking in tongues. Other times these spiritual advisors are found outside any religious congregation, out on the fringes of society.

But remember, historically, it is on the fringes of society that so many Southerners have lived. And those Southerners, in trying to deal with troubling questions, have turned to the Bible, the Almanac, preachers, teachers, and people like Baysmore, and Black.

Some even called Miss Cleo – long distance.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.