Doctor John (19th century)

Famous American witch
doctor, Doctor John (also called Bayou John and Jean
Montaigne) was a free black man who owned slaves in
antebellum New Orleans.

A huge man, Doctor John claimed he was a prince in
his homeland of Senegal, sent into slavery by the Spaniards
and taken to Cuba. There he became an excellent
cook and convinced his master to grant his freedom. Next
he worked as a sailor, returning to Senegal, where he no
longer felt at home. Returning to sea, he ended up in New
Orleans, where he found work as a cotton roller on the
docks. He noticed he had the “power,” and his bosses
made him overseer.

Doctor John’s fame spread, and he found he could get
money for his tricks and services. He built a house on
Bayou Road and bought female slaves. He married some
of them, performing his own ceremonies, eventually
boasting 15 wives and more than 50 children. New Orleanians
stared at him in public, for he rode in a carriage
with horses as fine as any white man. When Doctor John
rode horseback alone, he wore a gaudy Spanish costume.
Later he affected an austere black costume with a white,
frilly shirt and grew a beard.

Leaving the Voodoo (see Vodun) meetings to the administration
of the queens, Doctor John specialized in fortune-telling,
healing and making gris-gris. His house was
filled with snakes, lizards, toads, scorpions and human
skulls stolen from graveyards. Blacks and whites came to
him for advice, love potions and the placing or lifting of
curses. Others followed his commands out of fear of Doctor
John’s secret knowledge. Most of his wisdom did not
come from the spirits, however, but from a huge network
of black servants placed all over town. He either bought
or took information from them, thereby giving him an
advantage when thickly veiled white girls came to him
desiring to know if their lovers were faithful.

One of Doctor John’s specialties was the starting or
stopping of poltergeist phenomena, usually showers of
rocks and stones on the victim’s home (see lithoboly).
Policemen stood baffled as the rocks rained down, apparently
from nowhere. Naturally, Doctor John could stop
such harassment, for a fee. One case reports that the
slaves of a Samuel Wilson paid $62 to stop a shower of
rocks, but Wilson took Doctor John to court to retrieve
the $62. A few days later, the rock showers began again.
Unable to read or write, Doctor John supposedly
amassed a fortune, even burying $150,000 on his property,
according to local stories. He never forgot his poorer
neighbors, however, dispensing food to anyone who
needed it. But by the end of his life, his poor business
sense caused his financial demise. He didn’t trust banks,
convinced that once he gave a bank his money he would
never see it again. His investments turned sour, and his
wives and children were continually leaving with part of
his assets. Others cheated him outright. Finally, Doctor
John employed a young black to teach him to read and
write, and he spent long hours learning to sign his name.
One day, a con artist had him sign his name at the bottom
of a long paper, and Doctor John lost all his Bayou Road
property.

Doctor John tried to regain his prestige, but younger
people—principally his protégée, Marie Laveau, then her
daughter of the same name—had taken over the voodoo
business. At age 80, he was forced to move in with children
from his white wife, though he despised mulattoes.
New Orleanians gossiped that Doctor John was “fixed,”
or the victim of spells greater than his. He died in August
1885 at age 82, four years after the death of the first Marie
Laveau.

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