THE WITCH QUEEN of new orleans
By Alison Fensterstock
Reading time 14 Minutes
Chalmette, the seat of St. Bernard Parish
Chalmette, the seat of St. Bernard Parish, is about a fifteen-minute drive from the French Quarter. Though it’s part of the relatively small greater New Orleans metro area, it has none of the gothic elegance, lush tropicality or hardscrabble urban toughness that hundreds of years of film, literature and rap videos have conjured up as the city’s aesthetic. It’s a place of drive-throughs, strip malls, big-box stores and modest, sand-colored, low-ceilinged brick houses, with the stacks and smoke of an oil and gas refinery stretching up into the skyline. The flat, modern look of Chalmette comes in part from the fact that so much of it is literally new, or rebuilt; St. Bernard Parish was one of the areas hardest hit by the flooding that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, swamped in places by up to 15 feet of rushing water. But also, it always kind of looked like that.
It’s an incongruous place to find the reliquary for the last personal and spiritual effects of Mary Oneida Toups, the onetime Mississippi housewife who became, at midlife, New Orleans’ most popular witch. Katina Smith, who served as the most recent high priestess of the witchcraft order Toups founded in 1972, pads over the creamy, soft-pile carpet in the hallway of her Chalmette ranch house to open the door of a back bedroom. Hanging there is a large painted portrait of Mary Oneida as she looked in photos taken in the late sixties or early seventies, few of which are publicly available. She has a long, thick fall of brunette hair, dramatically drawn eyebrows and heavy lashes. In three-quarter profile, her chin is slightly lifted. She doesn’t look stern, but she’s not quite smiling, either. “This sat in 11 feet of water in Biloxi, for days after Katrina,” Smith says. It looks slightly faded with age, but otherwise fresh and colorful. Since it dried out, says Smith, it’s never been cleaned or treated.
Smith never got to meet Mary Oneida Toups; she joined the Religious Order of Witchcraft in the nineties, years after the older witch had died. From what she’s pieced together out of Toups’ surviving effects, combined with what vital records bear up and the memories of her former relatives by marriage, Toups was born Oneida Hodgin in Meridian, Mississippi in the spring of 1928, the youngest of four children. At some point before meeting a Navy man named David Berry, she had a son, Charlie. They lived together in New Orleans as a family for a few years, according to a former sister-in-law, before the couple went their separate ways in the mid-sixties. (If the date of the split is fuzzed by time, in her onetime in-laws’ memories, it’s borne up by an old family photo scanned in and posted on Facebook by a Berry niece; it’s unmistakably the same face as in Katina Smith’s spookily fresh painting, but surrounded by a wide halo of glossy blonde bouffant.)
By 1968, when Mary Oneida was approaching 40, she was running a bar on the corner of Ursulines and Decatur Streets in the French Quarter with her new husband, “Boots” – the record is rocky as to whether his Christian name was Albert, Arthur or Alvin - Toups. By 1970, the first mention of her first occult shop (she had two, both in the Quarter, throughout the course of the seventies; one was written up for displaying a mummified human head) appears in the city’s daily paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 1972, she officially chartered the Religious Order of Witchcraft with the Louisiana Secretary of State.
The French Quarter in the late sixties and early seventies wasn’t quite the neon-colored tourist mecca it is today. It was a destination for booze, live music and nudie bars, to be sure, but the strippers, musicians, barflies and attendant characters still lived there and ruled the place, not the visitors who came to gawk and revel before heading home. Easy Rider, shot memorably there in part in 1969, was a fairly accurate description: it was full of hippies, hustlers and night creatures of all stripes. Acolytes of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the London-founded Scientology offshoot that supported itself by selling trippy, apocalyptic literature, roamed the narrow streets to proselytize in their severe, flowing midnight-blue robes. The Bodhi Sala, a local LSD-soaked Buddhist cult, threw famous parties on Ursulines Street, promising psychedelic Nirvana.
Certainly, it wasn’t just New Orleans – with its centuries-old rep for dark arts and witchery – that was on an alternative spiritual trip. The kids who turned on and tuned in during the sixties and seventies were often as hungry for new or new-to-them models of faith and practice as they were for blotter paper. Exemplified by the Bodhi Sala and the Processeans, Eastern religion and radical psychology were in vogue. So were cults derived from Judeo-Christian belief systems like the Children of God, Los Angeles’ Source Family, and a little later, the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies – not to mention the doomed People’s Temple. And magic was surely in the mix. Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966; two years later, a woman named Louise Huebner was named the official witch of Los Angeles in a ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl. Wicca got a boost in interest from early second-wave feminists attracted to a theology that equally privileged the masculine and the feminine. Pop culture was in on it: the Beatles bought sitars and learned yoga with the Maharishi; Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin got into Aleister Crowley. And in New Orleans, of course, a jive-fluent session guitarist named Mac Rebennack reinvented himself as a gris-gris-carrying hoodoo man named Dr. John.
So surely Mary Oneida Toups wasn’t the only middle-aged mom
So surely Mary Oneida Toups wasn’t the only middle-aged mom at the time to get a spiritual epiphany and go rogue. But compared to her neighbors and other hip contemporaries, she seemed fairly straitlaced. She gave talks and presentations about witchcraft to sedentary-sounding groups like the ladies’ auxiliary of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, who hosted her at a luncheon at the Court of Two Sisters restaurant in 1973. When the local newspaper reported that a child murder in Opelousas had “ties to witchcraft,” in 1972, she wrote an earnest letter to the editor defending her faith. (Unfortunately, all that seems to have earned her is the interest of a goings-on-about-town columnist named Howard Jacobs, who made hay of her as the “officially chartered witch” for a few weeks’ worth of his Remoulade feature, and then lost interest.) Toups wrote a book, Magick High And Low, and signed and promoted it at bookstores, libraries and local literary festivals throughout the seventies – including an Author’s Day sponsored by the Press Club of New Orleans – as well as at her own shop. Katina Smith speculates that Toups spent most of her time studying her new practice and working with other students of the craft, with whom she was known to perform rituals at a disused, overgrown part of New Orleans’ 1300-acre City Park called Popp’s Fountain. “She was busy,” Smith says. “And if you look at how little time passed between when she started studying and when she wrote the book, she would have had to have had an extremely learned teacher.”
If Smith knows who her old order’s founder studied with, she’s not saying. We do know that instead of delving into New Orleans’ storied occult traditions – the vodou and hoodoo syntheses of West African and Caribbean religion, syncretized old-world Catholicism, rootwork and folk magic – Mary Oneida Toups practiced Western ceremonialist magick with a k, in the tradition of Aleister Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – and apparently struck up a correspondence with the Great Beast’s former personal secretary Israel Regardie, to whom she dedicated her book.
The sixtyish magician wasn’t the only one so honored. Crowley himself, who had died a little over twenty years before she published, got a dedication. And so did Dr. John – whose mojo-working, goofer-dust-and-graveyard-dirt, High-John-the-Conqueror Night Tripper persona wasn’t all theater. Mac Rebennack frequented the Spiritual churches of New Orleans, where women in white presided over worship that blended Afro-Caribbean tradition and Catholicism with plenty of music, heavy on the drumming. In his 1994 memoir Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper, Mac remembers the church leaders playfully keeping him in check as his witch doctor persona took off: “In the coming and goings, a couple of the reverend mothers managed to catch me on the side and pull my coat about the real doings of gris-gris,” he wrote. “They’d tell me, ‘Mac, we got you fronting this thing, but you got to know the real deal; we got to school you about gris-gris.’”
Under a Hoodoo Moon also has a few details about Boots Toups, Mary Oneida’s second, or possibly third, husband. He was a native of the city’s 9th Ward, an accomplished Freemason and conversant in esoteric doings from vodou to Santeria to the Spiritual church’s teaching. According to the book, Boots and Mac ran a temple out of Mary Oneida’s shop – the second one, located at 521 St. Philip St. - which they certainly may have done. Local newspaper stories about the witch confirm that the store sold candles, floor washes, gris-gris bags and other hoodoo and voodoo accouterments. Whether that was for the French Quarter tourists who expected that kind of thing, or for the followers and co-practitioners of her husband and his buddy, we don’t know.
Boots and Mary Oneida’s relationship seems to have been rocky; according to the Times-Picayune’s classified section from the seventies, which at that time ran information about court judgments, they separated and reconnected at least once, although there doesn’t seem to be any record of a legal union in the state of Louisiana. During the period in the late sixties that they operated the bar on Decatur Street, it was always advertising for help; by late 1969, it was for sale. Curiously, in the same issue of the Times-Picayune, on October 13, 1981, both Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. and an individual reporting his name as Arthur Alvin (Boots) Toups both ran ads declaring “I am not responsible for any debts other than those contracted by myself” - an ad that used to be standard for a party entering into divorce. It surely could have been coincidence, but it was still strange timing for the two old friends and voodoo men. More so, because the ads ran about three weeks after Mary Oneida’s death, at age 53, from (according to Katina Smith) a brain tumor, or (according to Under a Hoodoo Moon) poison by her enemies.
Before her death, Mary Oneida had been working with a magician named Russell George, who ran her shop after she passed away and in 1994, incorporated his own business, the Witches’ Closet, at the same address. George was High Priest to Katina Smith’s High Priestess in the Religious Order of Witchcraft in the early nineties although, Smith said, he wasn’t forthcoming with many details about her predecessor. By 2005, the Order had moved its base to Biloxi, Mississippi, which was damaged as much if not more than Chalmette during Katrina and Rita, and most of the hardworking witch’s things – those still in the possession of her congregants, at least – were lost. George died in 2014, and 521 St. Philip is now a tourist information center, handing out free pamphlets about swamp tours and local hauntings. Katina Smith, at least in the winter of 2015, when I interviewed her for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ quarterly magazine, was still overseeing the R.O.O.W., but only until they could find a new priestess; she was changing her own course of study. She had never, she said, been able to find an obituary or a gravesite for Mary Oneida.
In 2013, on the FX network program American Horror Story, the hardworking witch got a special shout-out, courtesy, probably, of some sharp show consultant. During the third season of the show, subtitled “Coven” and set in a fictional school for witches in New Orleans, a severe, black-clad witch supervisor played by Jessica Lange brings her charges to Popp’s Fountain in City Park. Keeping up a running line of instruction to her charges, she tosses off a factoid so brief you might miss it. “Back in the ‘70s,” Lange says in character, “Mary Oneida Toups ran an alternative coven there.”
Alison Fensterstock is a writer in New Orleans, where she has worked as a staff critic and reporter for the alt-weekly Gambit and the daily Times-Picayune. Her writing about American music and culture has appeared in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, the Oxford American and other places. She also writes a quarterly column for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities about the more esoteric and eccentric history of that very interesting state.