Most of this story is probably pure hooey. Or maybe not.
Maybe the self-styled, Mississippi-born witch who sold powders and potions in a French Quarter shop in the 1970s really did find a metaphysical portal into another reality. And maybe that portal is now located under an odd wooden bed in a small apartment that’s attached to a retail property that’s currently on the market for $1.2 million.
And maybe the late, great rhythm and blues star and devout weirdo Dr. John used to hang out at the place. And maybe pop art pioneer Andy Warhol once visited. And, who knows, maybe there are disembodied spirits flitting around the property like termites around a streetlight.
The two-story, stucco townhouse at 521 St. Philip Street was built sometime around 1825. By Vieux Carré standards, it’s a plain Jane. It’s painted neutral gray, and except for the modest neoclassical dentition up at the top, there’s no ornamentation whatsoever.
Most of the building is cut up into residential condos that surround a small courtyard. The part that includes the metaphysical portal into another reality is the ground-floor, a 1,680 square-foot strip of storefronts that opens onto the sidewalk.
There are four old-fashioned shop entrances. The far left door leads to an antiques and curio store — and spooky séance parlor — called Le Coffre Au Tre’sor (The Treasure Chest). The next door opens into a tiny, tiny, foyer called The Chess Cave where New Orleans chess master Jude Acers keeps a board and chairs. The third and fourth doors lead to the Hands of Fate tarot, palmistry, astrological salon, which is also the jumping off point for Wicked History Tours.
The McEnery Company, the real estate firm that’s marketing the retail space, calls it “Spiritual and Historic.”
The witchcraft business
Mary Oneida Toups arrived in New Orleans at the blossoming of the hippie era in 1968 and pretty soon got into the witchcraft business. She set up a botanica at 521 St. Philip, where she stocked the “biggest selection in the country” of all-natural medicinal and magical remedies.
A photo of the place from 1972 shows shelves lined with jars and jars of hyssop, poke berries, queen’s root, and such. That’s “Witch Queen” Toups standing in the back, wearing a decidedly 1970s-patterned blouse, arms crossed.
1972 was also the year Toups founded a coven of like-minded, anti-establishment spiritualists. According to a March 1972 Times-Picayune column, she officially registered her association of occultists with the state, like a church.
As columnist Howard Jacobs wrote: “She has incorporated and legally established ‘The Religious Order of Witchcraft,’ designed to avert any repetition of past persecution and to safeguard witches from the archaic wrath of ignorance.”
The doctor was in
Dona Kolva knows all about Toups, at least as much as anybody knows.
Kolva has worked in the Le Coffre Au Tre’sor for seven years and has collected facts and anecdotes from folks who remember or study the entrepreneurial witch who once occupied the St. Philip storefront. Kolva said Toups was mostly a good witch, interested in healing and the well-being of others. She used to hold Wiccan ceremonies at Popp Fountain in City Park.
Her husband, Boots Toups, was pals with musician Mac Rebennack, who had cooked up a flamboyant, voodoo priest stage persona called Dr. John. The doctor seems to have been affiliated with the botanica. According to Dr. John’s witty autobiography “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” Boots and Oneida asked him to lend his name to the operation.
As he recalled: “The Dr. John Temple of Voodoo was run out of a gris-gris shop on St. Philip Street, and over the years I hung out there quite a bit.”
According to Kolva, Dr. John might have crashed from time to time in the small apartment behind the shop, where the Witch Queen had built an altar. Before they laid new flooring in the apartment a few years ago, there was a big pentacle (a benevolent pentagram) painted on the floor.
A small bed topped with an elaborate wooden canopy, and a wall-mounted widescreen television now stand where the altar and pentacle were located. The symbols of Toups’ spirituality may be gone, but the magical portal into “another space and time” as the online real estate brochure puts it, is apparently still fully functional.
Kolva said that clairvoyants perceive ghostly blue figures in the area. In fact, visitors see, hear and sense mystical stuff all over the place, she said.
Once in a while, they might see remarkable corporeal entities too.
One time, actor Benedict Cumberbatch dropped in — though he didn’t have much to say, Kolva said. And supposedly Andy Warhol recorded a visit to Toups’ shop in his copious diaries. The silver-haired artist curated an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1970 and had a solo show at a local gallery sometime later in the decade.
Kolva said that Toups gave up the shop in the late 1970s when she and Boots parted company. She died not long after.
Kolva, 67, is the perfect keeper of Toups’ legacy. She’s an enthusiast for all of the precious antique jewelry, guitars, sports jerseys and oddities in the place. She’s an enthusiast for the spooky facts and superstitions that come with the territory. And she clearly has an affection for Toups’ assertive role in life.
“You know she was a free spirit,” Kolva said. She came to the French Quarter from somewhere quite different, and like uncountable folks before her, “she reinvented herself and became what she was,” Kolva said.
Even in her former life in Meridian, Mississippi, “I think she did know what she wanted to be,” Kolva said. “You don’t just read about witchcraft and become a witch. There’s something in you that makes you leave the comfort of what you know.”
Kolva, who was born in North Dakota and lived in Los Angeles before settling in New Orleans, said she won’t be heartbroken if the property sells and she has to depart 521 St. Philip Street.
“I do hate to leave,” she said, but she’s mostly retired anyway and wishes the property owner well.
Who knows, maybe the former lair of the Witch Queen will become a nice coffee shop or something.
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