By Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson
Remember when they busted Miss Cleo, the Jamaican psychic whose “hotline” offered free “supernatural insight into love and money.”
Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission the two companies that ran her operation agreed to shut down, pay a fine, and forgive some $500 million in customer bills.
$500 million??? Wasn’t that insight supposed to be free?
Well, according to the FTC, Miss Cleo (who is really Youree Dell Harris of Los Angles) 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. But hey, nobody made them call. Or talk so long. $500 million is a lot of minutes, and lord knows how much more was collected and not returned.
Wanna know something else? I figure that a good chunk of that $500 million was owed by Southerners. (The only person quoted in the story I read was from Tallahassee, Fla. See what I mean?)
I figure Southerners called in because Southerners have a history of trying to hook up with the supernatural.
Back when we were colonies, down South almanacs outsold Bibles all over the place. And the most popular feature of those journals was the sections that showed readers how they could schedule everything from planting to procreating according to the alignment of heavenly bodies.
Over the years Christianity made inroads into astrology, but never wiped it out. As a result, throughout the Bible Belt you could find fortune tellers and spiritual advisors right in there among the Baptist and Methodists. Psychics claimed their gifts came from God. Preachers said they didn’t. A lot of Southerners couldn’t decide and went to folks like Henry Baysmore of Montgomery.
Baysmore was 75 years old when he was interviewed back in the 1930s. 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,” then turned around and 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.” And so, he told his visitor, “I give up preachin’.”
What did he do then? He became Montgomery’s Miss Clio.
Those were Depression years and people were uneasy. So Baysmore had plenty of visitors who “wanted to see into the future.” His insight was integrated, but his customers’ needs were different. Black clients were worried about love and relationships, white concerns were more material –”how to keep what they got … or get a hold to somebody else’s.” 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, the property will just have to go to somebody else.” So they paid up.
While Henry Baysmore gave up preaching to become a psychic, more recently, down in Wilcox County, “Dr. Black,” the “Holy Profet of God,” discovered a way to combine the two. Apparently ignoring the problem with widows, he 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 … Then Dr. Black opened the “House of Prayer and Faith,” where religion and folklore are bundled together for believers. Anyone who is “crossed up,” “troubled,” or suffering from what he calls, with a fine feeling for words, “Lost Nature,” had better take him on as their “Spiritual Reader and Advisor.” It’s a durn sight cheaper than psychoanalysis and there’s a good barbecue place close by in Furman.
Miss Cleo, of course, was in this same tradition. So are many others.
Throughout our history, 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 many sources for answers – the Bible, the Almanac, preachers, teachers, and people like Baysmore, Black, and Cleo.
Unsteady and unsure in an unsteady and unsure world, Southerners have tried to cover all their bets. They always have. They always will.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.