To some, it looks like a construction site, but relic hunter Shane Mears only sees opportunity. The earth’s already tilled, after all, so he can take advantage of it. He sticks a five-foot steel poker into the ground and taps around, hoping to make contact. When he does hit something, it’s not just an artifact of New Orleans’s past – it’s something incredibly creepy.
Treasure hunting is in Mears’s blood. He got his start by exploring historic locations with his dad, metal detectors in hand, in the 1980s. There was a lot to find in his home state of Louisiana, although he didn’t stay there forever. After spending his childhood in Gentilly, he shifted to Metairie and then on to a new state, Florida.
In Florida, Mears chased a different career. He became a car salesman, and a successful one at that. But he wouldn’t live on the panhandle forever – a natural disaster brought him back home. Indeed, many other native Louisianans felt the same in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which was when he made his return too.
When Mears made it back to Louisiana, he settled in the state’s most famous city: New Orleans. There, he got a new job in the service industry, tending bar at a French Quarter eatery. Out of working hours, though, the former car salesman had plenty of time to pursue his passions.
For one thing, Mears has appeared on two reality television shows, both of which were swiftly canceled. The now-bartender still gets in front of the camera, though. He helms a YouTube channel where he puts on a very thick bayou accent and speaks to his viewers about his outdoor pursuits.
Mears loves to fish, and he calls himself the Cajun Swamp Whisperer, a nickname he hasn’t come by without merit. He trawls in the Mississippi River in search of catfish, the bigger the better. In the past, he has pulled more-than-50-pound fish from the water, but no catch could compare to the one he made in May 2020.
On that trip, Mears made the ultimate reel-in, one that even experienced fishermen probably won’t experience in their lifetime. He caught a catfish that was all white, save for its rose-colored fins. It was relatively small for the Cajun Swamp Whisperer at 25 pounds, but it didn’t matter – it was a special catch.
On land, Mears has captured some treasures too. Since he first wielded his metal detector, he has found more than 100 cannonballs, as well as a fraction of a carriage and countless marbles made of clay. He even found a belt buckle from the time of the Battle of the Alamo – and he shifted that for $7,000.
Even when he’s not looking for age-old relics, Mears happens to find them. Once, he said, he was playing Pokémon Go, the mobile virtual-reality game in which characters appear on screen as you walk around. As he scouted prized Pokémon, he found something else – a Louisiana Militia button, which traced back to the pre-Civil War era.
Those who know Mears said that this type of thing just happened to him. Cathy Smith, his New Orleans neighbor, told local website Nola.com that she had often made a loan to him of supplies for his excavations, including extension cords and shovels. In return, he has handed over some of his finds to her, including earrings and antique dolls.
Smith said that he’d bring her the discoveries designated to her and say, “Cathy, look what I found, take this.” She didn’t hesitate to do so – and she was “not surprised at all” by the good fortune he has had while treasure hunting. She said, “Shane does have a little magic in him.”
It’s not all magic, though: Mears knows where to look for such treasures too. Mostly, he waits for construction crews to churn up the land and then visits the sites at night when they’re empty. He told Nola.com in July 2020 about his favorite place to dig, disclosing, “I love it when somebody is building a swimming pool.”
At these sites, Mears follows the same treasure-hunting protocol. He takes a five-foot-long rod made of steel and sticks it straight into the ground. If it comes out clean, he moves it and plunges it back into the earth. If he hits something clicky or crunchy, he digs up whatever he has hit.
Most of what Mears finds won’t end up for sale – it’s not about the money for him when he goes on treasure hunts. Instead, he treks to construction sites, old wells, abandoned outhouses and homes to find a little piece of history. He said that every discovery helps him accept his own mortality.
The fisherman and treasure hunter explained, “There’s something about it. You’re back in time, in a time capsule by yourself, bringing these people back – these people who were forgotten.” And Mears would do just that with a June 2020 find, one made just after he caught that white catfish – an omen, he said.
Magic in the air in New Orleans wouldn’t be anything new. You may already associate the city with its voodoo traditions, but you might be surprised to find out that it didn’t arrive in the bayou as a form of witchcraft. Instead, it was a religion originally called Voudun, followed by West Africans at the time, many of whom had been brought to the United States as slaves.
In other areas of the country, plantation owners would have forced their slaves to convert to their religion. But the French who had colonized Louisiana didn’t do the same – the slaves greatly outnumbered their masters, so the latter group took steps to keep the former as happy as possible.
The New Orleans-based slaves who followed voodoo believed that their supreme creator, Bondye, who could not be reached by humankind. Instead, they reached out to less-powerful spirits called Ioa, to whom they would give offerings, sing and perform rituals. Each Ioa controlled a different area of life, so they’d pray and leave gifts to the one who could help with a particular dilemma.
Perhaps a voodoo follower felt unrequited love for someone. To sway the person in their direction, they would make offerings to the spirit of love, called Erzulie Freda. And although many people associate the religion with zombies or needle-pricked voodoo dolls, that practice has nothing to do with the former slaves’ belief system.
In fact, much of the sinister imagery attached to voodoo has nothing to do with the practice itself. Yes, people left offerings to the gods from whom they needed help, but they didn’t use any of the sensationalized figures often associated with the religion. Still, there are some unusual facets of it, one of which came to light with Mears’s June 9, 2020, discovery.
On that day, Mears’s treasure hunting brought him to Brooklyn Avenue, which runs along the west bank of the Mississippi River. The neighborhood has long had a religious influence, and that was true long before roads and bridges crossed through it. People had long prayed to Catholic gods just as fervently as they worshiped voodoo ones.
By the time Mears got to Brooklyn Avenue, though, it looked a lot different. Where he stood was once the location of a string of old houses. A construction site opened up the ground there, giving the bartender a chance to explore where the abodes used to stand. Perhaps some of the residents’ treasures would appear in the upturned earth.
First, Mears uncovered some animal bones, and then things started getting more interesting. He also found an old lace-up shoe like the ones women wore in the 19th century. But both of those discoveries paled in comparison to what he unearthed next. And, at first glance, it might not have seemed like much: it was a glass bottle.
But the vintage-looking container – barely bigger than an airplane bottle of liquor – had something inside. First Mears noticed a liquid inside of it, and then he saw the creepier contents. He spotted a bug floating in there, and then he pinpointed a tooth that appeared to come from a human.
Mears also noted strands of human hair inside of the bottle. This plus the tooth led him to believe he had found something that once belonged to a child. He described it as potentially “a tooth fairy deal,” but the chomper was far too big to have come from a kid.
And that was when Mears realized that the bottle probably had its ties to the religion of Louisiana’s former slaves. He said, “I had the sense it could be something voodoo-ish.” So he did what any modern-day explorer would do to answer his question: he got online and started searching.
Mears typed the keywords “tooth,” “hair,” and “antique bottle” into Google. He then initiated the search, which returned a result of something he had never heard of: a witch bottle. After that, a quick skim of Wikipedia revealed that such an item was a “counter-magical device used as protection against other witchcraft and evocation.”
This news delighted Mears, so he took to Facebook to share his find with the online community. On June 10, 2020, he wrote about how he had sifted through an area where a 19th-century home once stood and that the bottle was likely the same age. He explained how “such an object may have been used as a protection spell for the property. It also may have been used in voodoo to cast a different spell.”
Regardless of the bottle’s true purpose, Mears wrote, it was an undeniably “rare, creepy-cool find.” But the relic hunter didn’t quite get the same reaction from his fellow Facebook users. Instead, 1,300 people commented on the post, and many suggested that he could have caused issues in the metaphysical realm.
One Facebook user wrote warned Mears that removing the bottle would cause bad things to happen because he’d “intervene with its purpose.” That same person advised, “Best leave it to continue to do its work and stay out of the way.” Another commenter echoed, “Put it back! Put it back!”
Others were a bit more excited about what Mears had found. The chief curator of the Historic New Orleans Collection museum, Jason Wiese, had never heard of a witch bottle before. However, he told Nola.com, “I’m really curious about the nature of the object, if it indeed had a ritual or magic purpose.”
The event manager at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, Stephanie Mackin, felt similarly about the hair-filled container. She and the rest of the museum’s staff knew quite a bit about historic bottles, but none knew anything about those of the witch variety. They were all “very intrigued” by it because of this.
But those versed in voodoo tradition were familiar with witch bottle creation. Sallie Ann Glassman, a practitioner of the religion, explained that people continued to make similar jars in an effort to sway fate in their favor. This was nothing new, either – remember how people would make offerings to gods called Ioa?
Glassman explained how people continue to make such offerings, just as the person with the 19th-century witch bottle had. She said, “I’ve seen money jars and love jars, and jars to get people to go – bad neighbors and boyfriends – and to heal; all kinds of them.”
And Mears’s friend, Smith, did a little research into witch bottles herself – she had previously written a novel about the city’s voodoo culture. She referred to the container as a medicine bottle, but otherwise agreed with Glassman. It was probably filled as on offering in exchange for something the person wanted.
Smith added that finding such a voodoo-related relic in New Orleans wasn’t anything new. Instead, she said, “People find charms in houses, under houses and in the walls.” And it’s not just relic hunters in the Big Easy who find them, either. These offerings have popped up in properties across the globe.
In Watford, England, a team of contractors had the job of tearing down a pub’s chimney. Unlike Mears, they didn’t poke around in search of artifacts, yet they found one. It was a witch bottle from the 19th century, but this one was stuffed with glass shards, fish hooks, and multiple human teeth.
As it turned out, the pub had once been the home of a woman named Angeline Tubbs, who emigrated to the United States as a teenager. But she was born in the building in 1761, years before she went on to become a fortune teller – an interesting tie to the witch bottle found in the place.
In the case of the Watford witch bottle, the person who owned the property made clear that they’d keep the container where they’d found it. They told the BBC they would “probably hide it away again for someone to find in another 100 years or so.” Mears had different plans for his witch bottle, though.
Mears hadn’t fully decided what to do with the container, but he leaned toward making it a family heirloom that the world could enjoy, too. He told Nola.com, “I was thinking of donating it to one of the museums. That would kind of be the best home for it. It would be neat if my grandson and granddaughter could go in and see what I did.”