John, Dr (c.1801—August 23, 1885) - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

John, Dr (c.1801—August 23, 1885)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Dr John is the most famous of the male New Orleans Voodoo doctors. He worked closely with Marie Laveau, possibly serving as her teacher and mentor. His name retains renown because of its adoption by the New Orleans musician Mac Rebennack.

His birth name is unknown but Dr John was also known as Bayou John, Jean Bayou, John Montaigne, John Montanet, John Monet, Jean Racine (Racine means root), Jean Gris-Gris, Jean Macaque, Hoodoo John, and Voodoo John. He was a practitioner in New Orleans from the 1820s to the 1880s but flourished especially in the 1840s. He sold amulets and charms and was an accomplished astrologer. In his time, he was described as the “black Cagliostro.”

He was born a prince in Senegal. His face displayed medicine scars (cicatrisation) from his native Africa believed to indicate Bambara heritage and royal status. Kidnapped by Spanish slavers, he eventually wound up in Cuba where he learned to be a chef. Allegedly his master was very fond of him and granted John’s freedom in his will.

John took to sea; serving as a ship’s cook, he traveled the world including trips back to Africa. When he got tired of traveling, he got off the ship in New Orleans where he lived for the rest of his life. He first worked as a cotton-roller, eventually attaining the status of overseer on the docks, and began to establish his magical practice. He allegedly practiced divination by interpreting marks on bales of cotton. Both black and white people began to consult him.

He is described as a large, charismatic man and an extremely effective healer. He became wealthy enough to retire from his day job and buy land on the Bayou Road, then a swamp, where he constructed a home. Eventually he owned substantial real-estate holdings on Bayou Road between Prieur and Roman Streets.

John Montanet appears in the United Census of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. His address is given as 232 Prieur Street. In 1880, his age was given as 79. According to the 1880 census his household included five of his sons and daughters, the youngest only one year old.

Dr John served as a healer, magician, amuletmaker, and fortune-teller. He is described as divining via shells, perhaps the same or similar as the Yoruba cowrie shell divination system, dilogun.

Dr John unifies various spiritual, herbal, and magical traditions: it is unknown how old he was when he left Africa and what training he brought to the West but in Cuba he must have been familiar with Santeria and/or Palo, based on Yoruba and Congolese traditions respectively. New Orleans Voodoo, which he mastered and helped formulate is based on spirituality combined with Congolese, Native American, and European traditions.

He was controversial. Although some adored him, he enraged others. He lived well, like the prince he was born. Dr John allegedly had a harem of some 15 women, white as well as black. His white wife especially aggravated some.

Like Cagliostro, Dr John maintained the equivalent of soup kitchens: the former chef himself cooked gumbo and jambalaya for the poor and hungry. At the end of his life he was in financial distress; he was not educated in finances and had been cheated of his real-estate holdings. He spent the end of his life living with a daughter. He died of Bright’s disease on August 23, 1885. Folklorist Lafcadio Hearn eulogized him in an article published in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1885, called “The Last of the Voodoos.”

In The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot, by Louis Martinié and Sallie Ann Glassman (Destiny Books, 1992) Dr John plays the role of the Magician.