By David Witter

“Gator” has been working as an office trader, trading commodities as well as bonds, off and on since he was 20, with mixed results. But he says things have changed in the last year, since he met Frank “Papa Doc” Steele, who owns and runs Augustine’s Spiritual Goods, 3114 S. Halsted, with his wife.

Gator, who’s now in his late 30s, says he went to the shop because he’d heard about Steele’s powers of hoodoo, the New Orleans form of voodoo. “I came into the shop to get my chart done and began talking to Frank about trading through the planets. He began talking to me about the voodoo stuff, but at first I was a little skeptical.”

Gator had a series of long talks with Steele, who also dabbles in bond and commodity trading, and bought from him amulets and “mojo bags” filled with items such as devil’s shoestring, graveyard dust, and lodestones. “We charted bonds through the planets, and I was amazed how right he was. Recently I took a position on grains, and we had a little ceremony–and grain futures went through the roof.”

Then Gator got a job at a major downtown trading office and became convinced that in the haphazard world of trading it couldn’t hurt to practice a little voodoo economics. He asked Steele to build him a voodoo altar.

People build altars to solicit help from spirits for a variety of causes–love, revenge, prosperity, protection–and periodically place on them offerings of things the spirits like, including cigars, rum, perfume, and jewelry. Steele agreed to build the altar–which would solicit help first from Papa Legba, chief spirit, then from Brigitte, Lucia-fer, and Charlotte–though he wanted to share it with Gator.

On a rainy night, the first night of the new moon, Steele, Gator, and Judy, an artist friend of Gator’s, gathered at Steele’s shop for the first part of the dedication ceremonies. They washed a small steel cow in a ritual bath, then rubbed a small table with “mojo oils”–from cinnamon, rosemary, and basil–and let them soak into the wood. “All of these spices are put on for a specific purpose,” Steele said. “Basil is used to diffuse the anger of men–in Haiti and New Orleans prostitutes use it for protection. Cinnamon is sweet, and it is used as a draw for both love and money. Rosemary also brings out the feminine spirit.”

Judy wrapped the steel cow in gold leaf to bring Gator and Steele wealth, prosperity, and abundance. On the wall behind the altar Steele tacked up yellow, blue, and green parrot feathers, Mardi Gras beads from New Orleans, crosses of red and white dice, a braid of tobacco leaves, a picture of Saint Anthony (the New Orleans Catholic version of Papa Legba), small shelves to hold candles, and personal symbols, including pictures of Gator, a computer, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Nicholas Leeson. “We have to put Bill and Hillary up there because he’s the president, and we are all in love with Hillary because she’s such a strong woman who controls the prosperity of the White House,” Steele said. “Then we put up the picture of Nick Leeson, the man who brought down the Barings Bank, to represent radical financial power.”

Three weeks later they met again for the last steps of the dedication. A tape deck played first drum music, then Gregorian chants. Incense wafted through the room, which was illuminated only by red and black candles.

Gator opened a can of black paint and began painting the top of the altar black. Steele worked on the sides of the altar, using gold paint and stencils to reproduce the patterns of sigils, the intricate symbols of the spirits they would solicit. “The spirits are all female, because women are in charge of sustenance, which is associated with money,” Steele said. “Lucia-fer, Brigitte, and Charlotte represent a tripartite or holy trinity, with Lucia-fer being the mature woman, Charlotte the young maiden, and Brigitte the wise old woman. As far as trading goes, women are also more calculating, wiser, and less likely to take dramatic risks. I have used derivations of this in charting my trading, so hopefully the use of these female spirits will infuse Gator with some of their cunning.”

For the final step Gator snapped a lighter and sterilized a knife in the flame. Then he cut his finger and let the blood drip into a pot of red paint. “The red symbolizes many things, but in my instance it simply means going into the red,” he said as he slowly painted the bottom of the altar, where the red is intended to act as a warning. “As far as the blood goes, this serves to bond me with the altar, making it more or less a part of me.”

After he’d finished painting, Gator placed on the altar a plastic skull with red eyes and a top hat, the symbol of Baron Samedi, the god of death and the underworld. “The baron is there to remind you of the great depths you can suddenly fall into,” Gator said, wrapping his finger in a handkerchief. “This is especially true in the bond market, which often rises and falls in dramatic swings.”

He stared at the altar for a moment. “I like the honesty of it,” he said. “I was able to come here and build this altar with all of the correct spirits and symbols that would make me sure of my positions, without any hypocrisy or charades. Hoodoo gives me stability, direction, and focus. It allows me to keep my head cool, trust my choices, and hold my positions. Now I feel that I have the power to really trust myself.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of altar by Chip Williams.