Mary Oneida Toups: A 20th Century French Quarter Witch

Witchcraft

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Mary Oneida Toups:

A 20th Century French Quarter Witch

Today, Witches are coming out of the broom closet loud and proud. No longer worried about those pesky burning stakes or a bad reputation, witchery has almost become a trend for modern women. Maybe Ryan Murphy triggered our inner Gold Dust Woman, or perhaps we ran out of F*&$# to give and learned to appreciate our magick. 

For many of those who play with crystals and pull oracle cards on the full moon, their only reference to historical witches in the US is those poor gals in Salem. But down in the Bayou, and not too long ago, New Orleans welcomed a Mississippi sorceress when Mary Oneida Toups arrived in the Crescent City. High Priestess Mary paved the way for those who practice Witchcraft as a creed. She validated the sanctity and grew her coven into a legitimate church. 

Who was this Witchy Woman? 

Witchcraft in New Orleans

Everyone knows there are witches in New Orleans. Part of the Big Easy’s history that has sustained the test of time is the legend, lore, and life of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. American Horror Story created an entire season around New Orleans witches. And kudos to Mr. Murphy for finding a place to mention the mysterious Mary Oneida Toups. 

 Back in the ’70s, Mary Oneida Toups led an alternative coven down here. ~ Fiona Goode. 

But Ms. Mary was worth more than a mere mention. Her legacy is mysterious, intriguing, and groundbreaking. She blew into town with a mission, and it was either pure drive or some serious spell-casting, or maybe both, that put New Orleans Witchcraft on the esoteric map of magickal places for occult practices.

Mid-Century Modern Magick

In the 1960s, the West Coast was buzzing with New Age gurus and communes, and New Orleans was bumping with their own brand of woo-woo. In 1966, Anton Lavey founded his Church of Satan in San Francisco. And in 1968, at 39 years old, Mary Oneida Toups left her home in Meridian, Mississippi, to cultivate her craft and plant her roots in New Orleans. 

The 1960s in New Orleans had their own evolution of occultism. Dr. John was screaming about gris-gris and vodou as he created his Night Tripper image, which may have contained more truth than fiction. As Mary settled into her new home, her path would inevitably cross with Dr. John’s.

Albert “Boots” Toups, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward, was a high-degree Freemason who liked to dip his toes in Santeria and rootwork. The stars aligned when Boots met Mary, and they would become a Wicked French Quarter Power Couple. Boots encouraged Mary to master her craft, and together, their magick was unstoppable. 

In 1971,  Ms. Mary opened her Witch’s Workshop at 521 St. Philip Street in the French Quarter. She sold candles, sprays, oils, and, for those really serious about their rituals, bats’ hearts. Journalist Horace Sutton was intrigued by Mary. Horace and Mary sat down for a chat, and Horace bravely inquired about the dead bats on the shelf, “It’s important to sell people the whole dried bat so they can be confident it’s the real thing and not some old chicken heart.” A witchy businesswoman with integrity.

Witch's Workshop

The Witch’s Workshop in the French Quarter

But New Orleans wasn’t always down with some “practical magick.” Even though Voodoo had been recognized as a religious practice, Witchcraft was on the fringe of the Catholic-dominated city. 

French Quarter Fortune Telling

Through much of the 20th century, fortune-telling for money was illegal in New Orleans. Bottom of the Cup Tea Room, a staple in the French Quarter, opened its doors in 1929. Clients would come from all over the South to have their tea leaves read and their fortunes told “on the house” with the purchase of tea and biscuits. Today, Bottom of the Cup flipped the pitch, and you are offered a cup of tea on the house for a reading, which will run you between $40.00 and $150.00. 

But, the always-in-motion Wheel of Fortune landed perfectly in Mary Oneida Toups’ tarot spread, and when she arrived in New Orleans, her influence broke new ground for New Orleans Witchcraft. Mary wanted more than her French Quarter Witch’s Workshop; she wanted her own coven.

New Orleans Witchcraft

The Witch’s Workshop was doing well, and Mary was now a well-known Witch in New Orleans. She held ceremonies on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, like Maire Laveau a century before her. Soon, the City of New Orleans granted her a permit to conduct rituals and ceremonies at Popp’s Fountain in City Park. 

Mary’s coven was growing with those who took their magick seriously. In an interview with Opelousas Daily World, she told the reporter that the members of her Order were “high-caliber witches” and she wasn’t interested in ”drug-abusing hippies.”  Priestess Mary wasn’t about full moon warriors; Witchcraft was her way of life. 

In 1972, Mary’s recognition was crossing political borders, and Louisiana leaders were either afraid of her or respected her. The State of Louisiana chartered Mary and gave her a Certificate for The Religious Order of Witchcraft. Witchcraft in Louisiana became a recognized organized religion with nonprofit status, and High Priestess Mary Oneida Toups was the leader. 

Certificate of Religious Order of Witchcraft

The Religious Order of Witchcraft

Mary’s Practice Evolves

Known as a White Witch, Mary didn’t dabble in the Dark Arts, though that may have been a claim she made strategically. In 1975, Mary published “Magick High and Low.” It was considered a resource for both experienced practitioners and those new to Witchcraft. It put her on the radar of some of the most prominent occultists in the world. Individuals like Israel Regardie, Aleister Crowley’s personal secretary, sang her praises.

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. ~ Alison Fensterstock. 

Mary Oneida Toups

Mary Inside Her Witch’s Workshop

Mary was even held in curious high regard by the local conservatives. She was invited to give a talk about Witchcraft to the ladies auxiliary of the Society of Petroleum Engineers at their luncheon held at Court of Two Sisters in the Quarter. But she was still a Witch with secrets. 

During her reign of the French Quarter, it is widely believed that she held a seance at the famous LaLaurie Mansion. She claimed to have made contact with Madame Delphine LaLaurie, though nobody knows the specifics of the experience. In 1977, a mummified severed head was found in a trash bin outside of her “abandoned occult shop.” But Mary had a perfectly acceptable explanation: she was practicing Egyptian magick, and when she began to feel “bad vibrations” from the head, she tossed it. 

When a Witch Dies 

Mary and Boots had their ups and downs. There’s never been an actual marriage document found, but there are a few clues that they broke up a couple of times. In the 1970s, a section in the Times-Picayune was dedicated to information about court judgments, showing that they had separated and got back together at least once. 

Then, to add more mystery to the Witch’s life, in October 1983, Dr. John and Boots ran ads in the Times-Picayune stating, “I am not responsible for any debts other than those contracted by myself.” The standard verbiage used when settling a divorce. Or maybe they were referring to a will… The men posted that ad just a few weeks after Mary had reportedly died. Could they have both been romantically linked to Ms. Mary? 

The dead walk the alleys of St. Louis No. 1 more than the living. And when I pass over, I’ll certainly be one of them. ~ Mary Oneida Toups

Mary Oneida Toups was 53 years old when she died. Dr. John wrote in his book, Under the Hoodoo Moon, that she was poisoned by her enemies. However, according to her predecessors in the Religious Order of Witchcraft, she died of a brain tumor. Her obituary is impossible to find, and so is her grave. Which was surely Mary’s intention. 

French Quarter Ghost Tours

If you spit in the French Quarter at 9:00 PM on a Friday night, chances are your spat will land on a New Orleans Ghost Tour patron – or a poor Ghost Tour Guide. You’ll hear stories about Madame LaLaurie, the Casket Girls, Zach and Addie, and if you’re lucky, your guide will indulge you with the story of the rough and bawdy Brick Top. But you won’t likely hear anything about High Priestess Mary Oneida Toups. Which is unfortunate. 

Some would argue that Ms. Mary was the most powerful Witch to have ever practiced Witchcraft in New Orleans. Well-read and a self-taught expert on many of the world’s religions, she applied sacred texts and scripture to her practice and the rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But her brand of Western Ceremonial Magick and her esoteric footprint in New Orleans’ occultism and Witchcraft rarely makes the cut on a New Orleans Tour. 

However, if you are on our Wicked Women Weekend in New Orleans, you will have the opportunity to visit Mary’s old shop. And maybe even get to make contact with the High Priestess herself!