Dec 30, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Strange Story of the Voodoo King of New Orleans

Throughout history there have been those individuals who have transcended the bounds of mere mortals to be launched into legend and lore. Whether it is because of their abilities, reputation, or mere rumors, these are the people who have managed to take a place in legend, to become larger than life. Oftimes, it is hard to disentangle fact from fiction with such individuals, their legacies a mix of real history and the murky realm of uncertainty. One such individual was a man who started out as a slave, only to become one of the most feared and powerful Voodoo masters of 19th century New Orleans. 

Born in the 19th century in the African country of Senegal as a Bambara, an ethnic group native to much of West Africa, the man known as Jean Montanet claimed to have been a prince’s son, with traditional ceremonial scars across his cheeks, although whether this was tru or not is unknown. What is known is that when he was young, he was captured by Spanish slavers, who sold him at some Spanish port, after which he was shipped off to Cuba into a life of slavery. There he was known for his cooking skills, as well as for his immense physical strength, and he managed to earn his freedom by using his magnetic charm to forge a friendship with his master. After this, he joined the crew of a Spanish vessel and spent some years traveling the world with them as a free man and a cook. At some point, he tired of his travels and decided to settle down in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the next chapter of his life would unfold.

In New Orleans, Montanet found humble work as a cotton roller, and it was here where his intimidating presence and his authoritative manner managed to hold an influence over his coworkers, as well as his claims that he was a practitioner of gris gris, a magical system originating in Senegal and practiced by the priests. The slaves he worked with soon fully believed that he was a potent magic user and Voodoo practitioner, and had mysterious powers such as the ability to mentally influence people and to tell the future. Montanet did everything he could to fan such rumors, which which made him highly respected and even feared among the slaves, and he was seen as a strong leader who few were willing to disobey. He was soon being consulted for his purported fortune telling powers by both black slaves and whites alike, and Lafcadio Hearn would write of this in 1885:

His physical strength gave him considerable advantage above his fellow-blacks; and his employers also discovered that he wielded some peculiar occult influence over the negroes, which made him valuable as an overseer or gang leader. Jean, in short, possessed the mysterious obi power, the existence of which has been recognized in most slave-holding communities, and with which many a West-Indian planter has been compelled by force of circumstances to effect a compromise. Accordingly, Jean was permitted many liberties which other blacks, although free, would never have presumed to take. Soon it became rumored that he was a seer of no small powers, and that he could tell the future by the marks upon bales of cotton. I have never been able to learn the details of this queer method of telling fortunes; but Jean became so successful in the exercise of it that thousands of colored people flocked to him for predictions and counsel, and even white people, moved by curiosity or by doubt, paid him to prophesy for them.

Jean Montanet

People swore that he could read the future, and were held in awe by his abilities, willing to pay large amounts of money for him to read their fortunes and advise them. All of this made Montanet rather wealthy, and he was able to purchase a sprawling tract of property on the Bayou Road. Here he continued to conduct fortune telling services for exorbitant fees, with droves of people of both races and both sexes coming to see him even from far-away creole towns in the parishes. He combined his fortune telling with the profession of Voodoo and creole medicine, and became known as a great healer, as well as for crafting myriad potions, elixirs, tinctures, and salves, as well as trick bags, gris-gris bags, charms and amulets for all manner of purposes. He was even said to be able to cure people of yellow fever when an epidemic swept through, credited with saving countless lives. His reputation grew, and the eccentric Montatet’s reputation went far and wide. Hearn writes:

Parties paid from ten to twenty dollars for advice, for herb medicines, for recipes to make the hair grow, for cataplasms supposed to possess mysterious virtues, but really made with scraps of shoe-leather triturated into paste, for advice what ticket to buy in the Havana Lottery, for aid to recover stolen goods, for love powers, for counsel in family troubles, for charms by which to obtain revenge upon an enemy. Once Jean received a fee of fifty dollars for a potion. "It was water," he said to a creole confidant, "with some common herbs boiled in it. I hurt nobody; but if folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take the fifty dollars every time!" His office furniture consisted of a table, a chair, a picture of the Virgin Mary, an elephant's tusk, some shells which he said were African shells and enabled him to read the future, and a pack of cards in each of which a small hole had been burned. About his person he always carried two small bones wrapped around with a black string, which bones he really appeared to revere as fetiches. Wax candles were burned during his performances; and as he bought a whole box of them every few days during "flush times," one can imagine how large the number of his clients must have been. They poured money into his hands so generously that he became worth at least $50,000!

Testimony to his remarkable skill in the use of herbs could be gathered from nearly every one now living who became well acquainted with him. During the epidemic of 1878, which uprooted the old belief in the total immunity of West Africans and colored people from yellow fever, two of Jean’s children were “taken down.” “I have no money,” he said, “but I can cure my children,” which he proceeded to do with the aid of some weeds plucked from the edge of the Prieur Street gutters. One of the herbs, I am told, was what our creoles call the “parasol.” “The children were playing on the banquette next day,” said my informant.

He was now one of the richest men in the city, and his money and charm supposedly allowed him to accrue a harem of a reported fifteen wives, both white and black, and rather curiously he also owned slaves. Montanet was also known for distrusting banks, instead keeping his money hidden away in his home or buried underground, and it was said that he had vast sums that he had buried and then forgotten the locations of. As he amassed this great wealth, his reputation as a powerful Voodoo priest continued to grow, to the point that he was said to appear in people’s dreams or curse those who offended or defied him, as well as the ability to start or stop poltergeist activity, speak to ghosts, or drive away demons and evil spirits. He held sway over a large population of occultists and magic practitioners, and even others in an already prominent Voodoo community that had existed in New Orleans since the early 1700s were bowing down to him. This was a reputation that Montanet did nothing to discourage, despite the fact that there is some doubt over whether he even really believed in any of this stuff. Hearn would say of it:

He was in many respects a humbug; but he may have sincerely believed in the efficacy of certain superstitious rites of his own. He stated that he had a Master whom he was bound to obey; that he could read the will of this Master in the twinkling of the stars; and often of clear nights the neighbors used to watch him standing alone at some street corner staring at the welkin, pulling his woolly beard, and talking in an unknown language to some imaginary being.

Sadly, even as he became a powerful occult force in New Orleans, Montanet began to experience personal woes that threatened to ruin him financially. Apparently his vast magical magic powers couldn't syop him from being scammed and going broke. Through bad deals and ignorance on what to do with his money he was preyed upon by scam artists and he lost his property, forcing him to play the lottery, gamble, and sell off his remaining possessions. The only way he was able to stay afloat was through continuing his various magical services, and there were whispered rumors that he was perhaps being attacked magically by other Voodoo practitioners. Hearn writes of this downfall:

All business negotiations of a serious character caused him much worry, and as he found many willing to take advantage of his ignorance, he probably felt small remorse for certain questionable actions of his own. He was notoriously bad pay, and part of his property was seized at last to cover a debt. Then, in an evil hour, he asked a man without scruples to teach him how to write, believing that financial misfortunes were mostly due to ignorance of the alphabet. After he had learned to write his name, he was innocent enough one day to place his signature by request at the bottom of a blank sheet of paper, and, lo! his real estate passed from his possession in some horribly mysterious way. Still he had some money left, and made heroic efforts to retrieve his fortunes. He bought other property, and he invested desperately in lottery tickets. The lottery craze finally came upon him, and had far more to do with his ultimate ruin than his losses in the grocery, the shoemaker's shop, and other establishments into which he had put several thousand dollars as the silent partner of people who cheated him. 

He might certainly have continued to make a good living, since people still sent for him to cure them with his herbs, or went to see him to have their fortunes told; but all his earnings were wasted in tempting fortune. After a score of seizures and a long succession of evictions, he was at last obliged to seek hospitality from some of his numerous children; and of all he had once owned nothing remained to him but his African shells, his elephant's tusk, and the sewing-machine table that had served him to tell fortunes and to burn wax candles upon. New Orleanians gossiped that Doctor John was “fixed,” and the victim of spells greater than his.

However, even in these dire times Montanet still retained the superstitious reverence of people in all parts of the city and was still feared and respected, inspiring awe and excitement whenever he made a public appearance. Over the years he would be known by many names, including Prince John, Jean Montaigne, Jean Montenee or Jean Montanet, Jean La Ficelle, Jean Latanié, Jean Racine, Jean Grisgris, Jean Macaque, Jean Bayou, Voudoo John and Bayou John, among others. He would continue his magical activities all the way up to his death at the age of 84 in 1885, and even in death his legend would grow and make him a larger than life figure in the history of New Orleans and the occult. Hearn has written of his legacy:

In the death of Jean Montanet, at the age of nearly a hundred years, New Orleans lost, at the end of August, the most extraordinary African character that ever gained celebrity within her limits. Jean Montanet, or Jean La Ficelle, or Jean Latanié, or Jean Racine, or Jean Grisgris, or Jean Macaque, or Jean Bayou, or "Voudoo John," or "Bayou John," or "Doctor John" might well have been termed "The Last of the Voudoos"; not that the strange association with which he was affiliated has ceased to exist with his death, but that he was the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches whose African titles were recognized, and who exercised an influence over the colored population. Swarthy occultists will doubtless continue to elect their "queens" and high-priests through years to come, but the influence of the public school is gradually dissipating all faith in witchcraft, and no black hierophant now remains capable of manifesting such mystic knowledge or of inspiring such respect as Voudoo John exhibited and compelled. There will never be another "Rose," another "Marie," much less another Jean Bayou. That an unlettered African slave should have been able to achieve what Jean Bayou achieved in a civilized city, and to earn the wealth and the reputation that he enjoyed during many years of his life, might be cited as a singular evidence of modern popular credulity, but it is also proof that Jean was not an ordinary man in point of natural intelligence.

Whether Montanet ever had real magical powers or not, it is a fascinating tale of a man who clawed his way from lowest depths of slavery to become one of New Orleans' most colorful historical figures and legends. It is unclear how much of the stories of his feats are true or not, but he certainly made an indelible mark in history, and he remains one of those individuals that have managed to carve their place into legend and lore. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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