Jean Montanet Was The Original Dr John

Mac Rebennack and Harold Battiste created the musical character Dr. John based on the life of one Jean Montanet, a 19th century New Orleans vodou practitioner reputed to have been born in Senegal, West Africa.

Montanet was the original Dr John as well as being an African medicine man of considerable prowess. For a time he held sway over a large population of occultists in the swamps of 1800s-era southeast Louisiana.

Though born of nobility to the Bambara tribe, it mattered little to the Spanish slavers who descended on the Senegalese and kidnapped the hapless Montanet. This in spite of the fact that the young man was a crowned prince. The Spaniards set sail with Montanet in chains and upon landing on the shores of their home country auctioned the young royal off to the highest bidder.

History did not record the price the man fetched.

Jean’s new owners sailed him to Cuba where he was sold once again, and taught the culinary arts to good effect by his new master. Montanet was a charmer and after a time his owner decided to reward him by giving him his freedom. In a bit of irony Jean Montanet was hired as an ocean-going chef by a group of Spaniards.

After sailing the high seas for some time, young Jean grew weary of the life of a mariner.

On a call in New Orleans the young chef spontaneously deboarded and decided to cast his fortunes to the Crescent City. Montanet was built like a bull and quickly found work as a cotton roller; one of the most physically demanding jobs on the wharves of his new city.

Had that been the sum of his abilities the narrative of his life would have long ago been lost to the sands of time but young Jean was also a gris-gris man, that is, a practitioner of the ancient art of voudou. He was also a gentleman of considerable magnetism and soon enough had built a flock of devotees who were more than happy to pay him good money for poultices, tinctures, trick bags, and charms.

Fortune telling was one of the conjure man’s many specialties.

If you were suffering from a sore heart or a lost love then you may have sought relief from Dr Jean. Old maids were said to have flocked to him for he had a special talent for the lovelorn. The spinster set were not immune to Jean’s charms.

The good doctor cut quite the figure. Allow historian Robert Tallant to elucidate:

“He soon became someone at whom people stared in the streets, for he owned a carriage and pair as fine as any possessed by any white gentleman and a blooded saddle horse, on which he rode through the streets, attired in a garnish and elaborate Spanish Costume. Later he forsook all this for austere black and a frilly white shirt front and affected a beard.”

Through his work as a sorceror, Jean Montanet eventually became financially successful. He would take the hands of 15 women in marriage. 14 of these ladies were Black slaves and Montanet procured their freedom via purchase. The 15th was a white woman of “the lowest class.”

One can imagine the tut-tutting from the more prudish Americans some of whom took to calling him Devil John.

Jean’s work in the occult was lucrative and soon enough he bought a large parcel of land in what is now the Treme neighborhood. In those days the area was nearly completely undeveloped and lots could be had for a fair sum of money. A medicine man with a following could well afford to assume the life of gentry.

Jean Montanet lived to be 84 years old, passing away in 1885. His 15 wives had bore him some seven children. Montanet had an estate valued at $12,000, a fortune in that era.

His 1885 death certificate states that he died of Bright’s disease. The given spelling of his name was John Montance.

Not even a century later, Mac Rebennack would channel Jean Montanet in his creation of the modern day character Dr John. The folk lore and spirit world of the New Orleans area’s swamps and bayous would provide a rich territory for Mac to mine. And he did it all with a “satchel of gris-gris in his hand”

Just like the one time crown prince, ex-slave, and eventual conjure man of the 6th Ward of New Orleans.

The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans by Ina J. Fandrich
The Last of the Voudous by Lafcadio Hearn
Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commercy by Carol Morrow Long
Shrovetide in Old New Orleans by Ishmael Reed

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