Most Mizzou students are probably familiar with the name Middlebush, a major building on the MU campus. Built in 1959, it sits at the well-trod corner of 9th Street and University Avenue in Columbia. The U-shaped structure, generally home to classes from the College of Arts & Science, is named after the University of Missouri’s longest-running president, Dr. Frederick A. Middlebush. He had joined Mizzou in 1922 as an associate professor of political science and public law.

Middlebush was a major player in Missouri and the country. He was a member of President Harry S. Truman’s anti-Communist Committee on the Present Danger, which also included Edward R. Murrow, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Samuel Goldwyn.

He was also a water witch.

Folk magic was a defining practice of Ozarks culture from the beginning of European settlement, and the practice of water witching—commonly called dowsing in Missouri—is just one example. These practices are not scientifically backed but are sworn by adherents to get results. You might assume this sort of thinking died out thanks to the scientific revolution and its aftermath, but practical, science-minded Missourians have been using folk magic for decades.

The Water Witch

“Nearly all of the old settlers in the Ozark country believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks,” wrote Vance Randolph in 1946’s Ozark Magic and Folklore. “These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers. … I have known several water witches intimately and have seen more than a score of them at work, and they themselves are sincere believers in their ability to find water.”

As Randolph explained, a water witch uses a forked branch, usually from a peach tree, to locate the place where a well should be dug. The branch would begin to twitch in his or her hand, with various water witches claiming different ways to determine how many feet down one must dig.

Randolph was a journalist and author who primarily focused on Ozark history and folklore. Although he grew up in a well-to-do home in Pittsburg, Kansas, he married into a Missouri Ozark family and spent much of his career befriending “the hill people,” as he called them, and collecting Ozark folklore, from ghost stories and superstitions to medical remedies and folk songs. He gave lectures and wrote a number of books, as well as writing for national publications including Esquire magazine.

He first encountered a water witch in 1919 in Pineville, just north of the Arkansas border. By his own estimation, Dr. Oakley St. John was one of the last people you would “expect to find in any superstitious practice.” Randolph describes him as an “outspoken atheist and materialist.” But neighbors assured him that “Doc” was the best in the Ozarks, so Randolph began hanging out at his Pineville pharmacy to learn more.

“I used to laugh at this water-witch business,” Doc told him, “but I got to fooling with it one day and discovered that I’m a pretty good witch wiggler myself. I can’t defend the thing scientifically, but I can find water in these hills. I’ve never staked a dry hole yet.”

Doc St. John would cut a green, forked peach tree branch, like a slingshot handle, almost three-feet long and walk slowly back and forth. As Doc held the witch stick parallel to the ground, a prong in each hand, it would begin to turn in his hands where the water was underfoot.

Randolph witnessed it himself. He wrote:

There he stood, holding the thing as if it were a living, writhing reptile.

‘Look at that!’ he cackled triumphantly. ‘I couldn’t hold it still if I tried! It would twist the bark right off the God damn’ stick!’

I shivered a little and felt as if the hair were rising on the back of my neck. There was something uncanny and obscene about that witch stick. ‘Let me have the thing a minute,’ I said shakily.

St. John handed it over, and I carried it back and forth exactly as he had done, but nothing happened. The stick in my hands was just a stick, and nothing more.

The Healer

Brandon Weston did not encounter the works of Vance Randolph and his equally prolific wife, Mary Parler, until he took a folklore class at the University of Arkansas in the mid-aughts.

Brandon Weston

“That was the first time I heard anybody talking about what my family was doing and practicing and believing, but in an academic way,” says Brandon, whose family has been in the Ozarks for at least five generations. “I loved [Ozark Magic and Folklore]; it’s really interesting. But it was first published in the forties, so you have seventy-plus years where people haven’t been writing about Ozark folklore.”

That’s where Brandon comes in. As the owner of Ozark Healing Traditions, he offers services ranging from house blessings and spiritual cleanses to paranormal consultations and even poltergeist removal. With most of his clients, he does magical consultations—working with people to figure out their issues and then choosing how to address them. Brandon also gives frequent talks on Ozark lore at various events and conferences, these days mostly over Zoom, like TEDxFayetteville in 2018.

“The folklore that I was collecting was very different from what Vance had been collecting, because there’s this huge generational gap. So my work started focusing more on collecting modern Ozark stories, remedies, and beliefs.”

Brandon first spent a few years collecting material from Ozark storytellers, healers, and old timers, and soon became a practitioner himself. He established Ozark Healing Traditions in 2013. He calls himself a spiritual healer and native plant herbalist, but he also uses the term “yarb doctor,” yarb being an old Ozark word for herbs and healing plants, as well as “power doctor,” which he describes as “someone who knows how to use that other healing, or their ‘gift,’ as it is often called. These healers hold knowledge of healing prayers, charms, rites, and rituals, as well as the use of countless household items, repurposed for powerful healing.

“I’ve always had a connection to what we might call magic and the spirit world,” Brandon says. “Ever since I was a kid, I was very sensitive to things like that, but I didn’t recognize it in myself until somebody much older than me said, ‘This is in you, too.’”

For the first hundred-odd years after White settlers came into the Ozarks, they formed essentially a closed society thanks to geographic isolation.

“It was necessity that birthed a lot of these practices,” Brandon explains. “We’re feeling a lot of the same pressures that our ancestors felt at one time, and I think that pressure is giving rise to a lot of interest in folk healing and folk beliefs going back to some deeper or older connection. In the Ozarks, you can really boil all of our traditions down to this very deep connection to the land that permeates everything.”

The Astrologist and The Tarot Reader

Cindy McKean, owner of Kansas City Astrology and Tarot, says her clients have three things in common: they’re curious, they’re adventurous, and they’re open.

Cindy McKean

“The reputation of psychics and fortune tellers is that they’re frauds. They’re people who tell you soothing words to get your money. I had to work against that, coming from a place where empirical evidence has to be produced in order for your words to have any meaning,” says Cindy, who worked as a clinical research director at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City before opening her business.

“I’m not in the profession of convincing people that this is a good answer or that it’s accurate,” she says.

“There has to be a lot of humility there, saying, ‘Look, I’m not always right. This is what I see. This is what you could do.’”

Before a tarot or astrology reading, the first thing Cindy asks is, “Are you ready for the truth?”

“Truth is the key to opening up what will really pop out in the charts or the cards, and if it’s a case of medium-ship, what you will hear from the person who has passed,” she says. “A lot of people aren’t ready for the truth, and they come out and say it. So I know, okay, I can tell them, but I’m going to have to deliver it a whole lot more gently.”

Of course, sometimes the cards tell Cindy things that don’t require a psychic connection. If a client is asking if their ex still loves them, and the cards show that the ex is remarried with three kids, Cindy knows that the client probably realizes the answer—their ex has moved on. She likens the process to getting a blood test and having high cholesterol; the doctor doesn’t know for sure what will happen, but can tell you where you’re headed.

Cindy likes to frame her readings around what questions a client has. “The library of one’s life is so vast and wide. You would never walk into a library and tell the librarian, ‘Oh, just get me a book.’ What book? ‘Anything.’ Clearly, there must be something you’re looking for, so I need an area to focus on,” she explains. “If I see divorce coming up and they haven’t asked about divorce, I don’t bring it up. Why add that into someone’s world? Thoughts have wings that might even speed up the process. Why not just let it be, or maybe even let it pass?”

Information Age Ills

Many experts see modern-day interest in magic, folk healing, and paranormal practices and rituals as symptomatic of the information age. Dr. Chase O’Gwin, assistant professor in psychology at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, studies the psychology of horror as well as parapsychology, or mental phenomena that are inexplicable by orthodox scientific psychology.

“In the nineteenth century, that was why we invented the modern horror genre, with figures like the mad scientist,” Chase explains. “Science was riding too close to the cusp of our humanity. This resurgence is part and parcel of that. We need a place to inscribe our humanity again.”

Dr. Chase O’Gwin

The Medium

Jillaine Marie in St. Louis says there is a personal responsibility that comes with her work. She sees younger generations turning to psychics, mediums, healers, tarot cards, and astrology as a rejection of traditional community institutions, such as Christianity, or incorporating their faith along with spirituality and metaphysics.

“The young are like little sponges,” Jillaine told me over Zoom this summer. “Your generation—millennials, Gen Z—is really in this shape shifting world of, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore. We’re done.’”

Jillaine’s arm went cold as she said that, an indication from her spirit guides that she was on the right track. Jillaine works as a psychic medium in the St. Louis area: part life coach, part therapist, part spirit guide.

Jillaine Marie

Ten minutes before a session begins, Jillaine opens up her energy and waits for, as she puts it, “a soul to step into the room” and establish communication.

“When you read energy, it’s not like me and you having this conversation,” she says. “When I connect with a soul, I’m getting an impression of words, symbols, downloads of memories. In a sense it looks like it would be like my memory, but it’s not, obviously, because it’s somebody I don’t know.”

A download is a good metaphor for the process. Jillaine explains it like a computer and a hard drive: A person’s physical body is the computer, and their soul, memories, emotions, and personality are the hard drive. Once you take out the hard drive, that information is still on there, even if it’s not in the computer, or if it’s hooked up to a different computer.

“It’s still living and breathing in that hard drive. That’s kind of what the soul is,” she says. “I really like it to be an all-around story. Now, you could talk to a hundred other mediums that will have a whole different perception on that.”

There are all types of spirits, just like there are all types of humans, she says. “I always instruct people that they shouldn’t work without protection.” Jillaine generally deals with whitelight spirits and doesn’t open up dark energy, though she says there are plenty of practitioners in the area who will.

Protection can range from clearing out spirits by burning sage, wearing crystals and articles of faith, using sacred salt, keeping energy positive, and saying protection prayers.

As we wrapped up our interview, Jillaine and I both looked at our respective Google calendars to schedule a time for a follow-up.

“You have a grandmother on the other side, don’t you?” she said to me as I was typing. I’m thirty-two years old, so that’s not an unlikely assumption. But for reasons I can’t explain, what she said next chilled me to the bone.

“She’s right behind you.”

Immediately, my stomach dropped.

On a shelf behind my desk that Jillaine couldn’t see and could not have been aware of, was a Ziploc bag full of recently discovered love letters between my grandparents from the 1950s. I had brought them home to scan in case something happened to them.

“You’re giving me the chills,” I admitted.

“She’s already behind you,” she said. “I’m going to write this down, because I know she’s going to come back in. That’s how consciousness works, and that’s how energy works,” she explained. “That’s why I like spirits to show me themselves. I don’t do names a lot. Some mediums do, it’s just not my thing. I see a V with her. I don’t know why. It’s just not something that’s being gifted to me.”

I didn’t tell Jillaine that my grandmother’s name was Janet Virginia Kranz, and she always, always, signed her name “Janet V. Kranz.” Then Jillaine said something that didn’t surprise me at all.

“She’s got a lot to say.”

Photos // Enrique Macias/Unsplash, Cindy McKean, Chase O’Gwin, Jillaine Marie, Alicia Pitts Photography, Elijah Hall/Unsplash