Catherine Deshayes, also known as La Voisin, began her career as a palm reader and midwife/abortionist to supplement the meager income her husband earned as a jeweler. By 1860 when she was burned at the stake for witchcraft she had become one of the most notorious poisoners in history.
To improve her business, La Voisin added spells and potions to the fortune telling and midwife services she offered her clients. She sprinkled her concoctions with liberal helpings of toad bones, mole teeth, spanish flies, iron filings, human blood, and mummy dust (human ashes) along with more potent and often lethal secret ingredients. Aided by Étienne Guibourg a priest who performed black masses and the magician Lesage, her highly theatrical business thrived. High ranking members of the French aristocracy relied on her when they wanted to secure powerful lovers or eliminate their rivals.
Throughout the decade of the 1670’s several suspicious deaths heightened the aristocracy’s already considerable fear of poison. In response to the growing panic, Louis XIV ordered the investigation and arrest of fortune tellers, alchemists, and anyone else who sold potions.
La Voisin’s career came to an abrupt end when she was arrested in a raid. The French court accused her of being a witch and a poisoner and she was sentenced to burn at the stake. Before she was executed, however, she named the many members of the aristocracy who had used her services. Among the clients she implicated included the king’s mistress and the Duke of Luxembourg. Although she presented no evidence, her testimony ruined numerous reputations.
Found guilty of witchcraft, La Voisin was burned. Two full years after her death the scandal raged on. So many people had been implicated in the that the King rescinded his order to rid France of poison and put an end to The Poison Affair.
Every year on the first Friday in March Catemaco Mexico hosts the Congreso Internacional de Brujos (The International Congress of Witches). Traditional healers, shamans, prophets fortune-tellers and every other possible type of magical practitioner from all over Mexico gather in the charming lakeside city for an all-night cleansing ceremony.
On the day of the cleansing the brujos’ powers are at their strongest. Visitors from all over the world pour into the city to hire their services. Throughout Catemaco signs point the way to the famous witches of the community. Candles, potions, charms and all sorts of magical supplies fill the shops.
As the colorful and entertaining mixture of magic, ancient indigenous beliefs and dance performances draws larger and larger crowds, charlatans increasingly have descended on the festival. In recent years, serious practitioners have clashed with some of the more flashy brujos who travel to the town to scoop up tourist dollars.
For 200 pesos or so visitors can cure what ails them, cast out a demon, ensure a lover’s faithfulness or curse an enemy. But buyer beware. Not everyone brujo can do what he claims. And often amulets are extra.