The Story of Cincinnati’s Very Own Voodoo Doctor

King Prince Dawson peddled herbs, charms, and probably more in Bucktown and Walnut Hills in the late 1800s.

King Prince Dawson said he was a Voodoo Doctor, and who in Cincinnati was going to prove him wrong? Back in 1888, there were all sorts of spiritualists, theosophists, agnostics, cultists, and philosophers set up in the Queen City—some even (sort of) authentic. But Dawson had the voodoo market all to himself.

 

King Prince Dawson’s Mohawk hair style and his extravagant mustaches were unique in Cincinnati.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Although he was a legend in Cincinnati’s Black communities, King Prince Dawson first landed in the mainstream media in 1888 when he was charged with performing an abortion. Witnesses saw him exiting a Bucktown tenement in which a young woman was found bleeding next to a fetus of an estimated five months gestation. Dawson was arrested at his home near Peebles Corner, in Walnut Hills, and charged with performing the criminal procedure.

When the Voodoo Doctor appeared in court, he testified that he did not perform abortions and that whether he did or didn’t was irrelevant because he wasn’t even in Cincinnati on the day in question. He was, he swore, in Xenia. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [May 8, 1888], this was too much for the prosecuting attorney, James D. “Dick” Ermston:

“Dick Ermston, who is prosecuting the case, said yesterday that he began to believe Dawson was the voodou he has been called, for he seems to have been in Xenia and here at the same time.”

Called to testify, Dawson claimed to have no surgical instruments but a knife he used to remove corns, no acquaintance with the woman on whom the procedure had been performed, and no knowledge of abortion, and repeated that he had been in Xenia anyway. According to The Cincinnati Post [May 8, 1888]:

“To hear his story one would think him the most innocent man on earth—only an herb doctor who went about doing good and paring corns.”

That must have been the impression made upon the jury, because Dawson was acquitted of all charges. The verdict proved disappointing to the Courthouse bootblack, known as Jumbo, who had hoped to claim one of Dawson’s mustaches when they were clipped off at the Workhouse. He believed he could sell each hair to superstitious folks at 10 cents apiece.

Who was King Prince Dawson? His name was much in dispute. He went by Dr. K.B. Dawson, Dr. Prince, and King Prince in addition to his “voodoo” name. Some official records list him as Dawson fer Brock or Dawson Brockhaus. Newspapers describe him as visiting Xenia regularly but also traveling south, often returning with substantial sums of money. He boasted of several mistresses and 40 children.

Though known to be African American, Dawson also claimed descent from a Cherokee chief and a part-Indian Cherokee princess. He specifically named Hole-in-the-Day (the Elder), a famous chieftain, as a forbearer, even though Hole-in-the-Day was Ojibwe, not Cherokee. Dawson also said a Tartar prince and an African princess were united in his family tree, or that he was a royal Zulu prince. He carried around documents to prove his genealogy, some written on papyrus. He usually added 20 to 30 years to his age, claiming to be 86 or even 100 when he was in his 60s.

The truth seems to be that his real name was Dawson Brock, born in Kentucky around 1840 and relocating to Xenia before 1870. He was married at least twice and divorced at least once and had two daughters, one of whom may have died young. He served with a colored regiment during the Civil War, possibly as a cook, and operated a grocery store in Xenia before adopting his voodoo persona and relocating to Cincinnati.

King Prince Dawson’s overcoat was legendary, assembled from multiple animal pelts and clinking from dozens of medals sewn onto it.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It’s difficult to imagine anyone mistaking King Prince Dawson for anyone else. He is uniformly described as remarkably tall, over 6 feet, and his haircut and facial hair must have been unique in Cincinnati. He wore his hair in a broad Mohawk, even though they didn’t have that word for the style back then. His mustaches—and the papers always referred to them in the plural—hung down nearly a foot on either side of a beard alternately described as either forked or in the “imperial” style.

Dawson usually dressed in a very long overcoat assembled from a zoo-full of animal pelts—cat, rabbit, fox, buffalo, seal, muskrat, and mink—held together by multi-colored stitching and clinking from dozens of medals sewn onto it. His shoes and a shoulder bag he carried displayed ornate beadwork in the Native American style.

The heart of King Prince Dawson’s voodoo practice was his herbs and decoctions, and his usual haunts suggest what those preparations were for. He was a regular on George Street and Longworth Street, the heart of Cincinnati’s red light district. He had many clients in Bucktown and Walnut Hills, the major Black neighborhoods at the time. Regular medical doctors avoided all of these neighborhoods, particularly doctors who prescribed medications promoting birth control or effecting abortions. The evidence suggests that these were the treatments the Voodoo Doctor carried around in his satchel.

Dawson lived in a shack in a ravine west of Gilbert Avenue near where that street turns into Montgomery Road. When the Cincinnati, Lebanon and Northern Railway ran a route through the area, he was displaced and set up shelters in several neighborhoods. Arrested for stealing chickens in 1906, he spent a few months in the Workhouse, where to his dismay he was completely shaved.

King Prince Dawson had just been released from jail when he was run over by a train while walking the tracks toward Addyston. His left foot was amputated, and doctors thought he might survive. It was not to be. He died a week later.

Dawson’s body lay unclaimed for a couple of weeks before his daughter, Millie McFarland, arrived from Dayton to identify the remains. He may be buried in the United American Cemetery in Columbia Township, but his grave is unmarked.

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