New Orleans Witch faces charges for stealing human bones

Cara Schulz —  September 15, 2016 — 31 Comments

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Ender Darling, whose legal name is Devon Marie Machuca, is charged with several counts of trafficking in human parts and burglary of a cemetery. The charges come after a January raid on Darling’s home yielded human bones.

Darling, a practicing Witch, caught the attention of authorities after a Facebook post offering to send human bones to other Witches went viral to the point that the story got its own hashtag #bonegazi. By some accounts, Tumblr alone showed were well-over 40,000 notes and shares on a single mention.

Screen capture of original post

Screen capture of original post

The July arrest warrant issued stated Darling denies digging up any remains from the Holt Cemetery, but admitted to collecting bones which surfaced after rainstorms. Darling also denies selling the remains, saying that reimbursement for shipping costs was all that was requested. According to computer records seized in the raid, at least one other Witch appears to have purchased human bones from Darling.

Timeline of events

16 November:  According to police reports, Darling sent messages through Facebook which indicated that they were obtaining bones from a nearby graveyard.

11 December: Darling posts on Facebook about having human bones for use in Witchcraft and offering to send bones to other Witches if they cover the cost of shipping.

12 December: Fellow New Orleans resident Desier Deja Galjour shares Darling’s post on Facebook and asks people to spread the word. They do.

14 December:  Local media picks up the story

17 December: Tumblr users try to find out identity and location of Darling.

18 December: Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann says he has ordered an investigation into the possible removal of human remains from Holt Cemetery in New Orleans.

28 January: After 6 days of surveillance, Police search Darling’s home. Authorities confiscate a laptop, cellphone, and at least 11 bones and four teeth. They also issue a summons for Darling and roommates for possession of marijuana.

Early February: Darling moves away from NOLA to Florida, saying that they feared for their safety.

17 June: In response to public outcry,  the “Louisiana Human Remains Protection and Control Act” is signed into law. It stiffens penalties for removing human remains from cemeteries. A first-offense violation is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or a year in prison. A second offense is punishable by two years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

15 July: After a forensic lab confirms the bones removed from Darling’s home are human, an arrest warrant is issued. Darling is taken into custody Tampa, Florida.

27 July: Darling is transferred to the Orleans Justice Center

 Queer and Trans youth attracted to Witchcraft

Darling’s friend, Kristy Casper-Saxon says the outrage is less over Darling picking up bones off the ground and has more to do with religion, ethnicity, alternative appearance, sexual orientation and gender. Darling identifies as a transgender genderqueer person of color.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Casper-Saxon said, “I think this is targeting a member of a racial minority and sexual minority. Everything about [Darling’s] identity questions the status quo, and that’s what we love about them.”

According to an article in VICE, there are a growing number of queer and trans youth practicing Witchcraft. A younger queer Witch told Vice “the capacity for Witchcraft to accommodate alternative expressions of gender is what makes it appealing to a new generation of Witches.”

David Salisbury, author of Teen Spirit Wicca and LGBTQ activist, believes that queer youth have been coming to Witchcraft for decades, but their expertise with social media is making it more visible. Salisbury told The Wild Hunt, “And as the old gender norms of Wicca are being reexamined by the masses, queer people are becoming more comfortable in talking about why they’re attracted to it. I think that can only grow.”

He also thinks finding a place of welcome as a trans or queer person is a fabulous reason to embrace Witchcraft, “Queer people are particularly suited for the Craft because we know what it’s like to be between or outside of the norm. Witchcraft requires that we slip into those “between” spaces to bring about change.”

Ethics of using human bones in Witchcraft

“This is where I go to find my human bones for curse work and general spells that require bone. I find human bones are easier (to) work with for me rather than animal bone. I can relate and work with the energy they carry if that makes any sense.” Darling wrote in the Facebook post that ignited the controversy.

[Photo Credit: MusikAnimal / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: MusikAnimal / Wikimedia]

Darling’s use of human bones has had Pagans and non-Pagans alike asking why modern Witches use human bones while practicing Witchcraft and wondering what are the ethics in obtaining and using such bones.

David Salisbury said that working with bones is similar to working with stones and crystals, “My experience with bones is that, like crystals, they carry the energetic memory of their experiences. While stones carry the current of the land, bones carry the current and memory of the human experience, ancestry. Bones can help open the way for stronger contact with the spirits for that reason.”

Salisbury added that the skull is a valuable bone to work with because it holds the current of human thought and expression. He noted that it’s very rare for a Witch to use a human skull due to the cost and legal obstacles to obtaining one. Instead, he makes an accomodation, “I’ve performed many successful workings with my resin substitute.”

Darling picked up bones that were visible on the ground. In an interview with The Advocate, Darling said that they don’t think they did anything illegal or unethical, either by removing the bones from the cemetery or sending them to other Witches for their use.

“This is me passing along something I feel nature has given me,” Darling said.

Salisbury explained that the ethics around obtaining human bone use would preclude removing them from a cemetery. “I would not use found or taken bones from cemeteries. They can be purchased online from people who donated their bodies to science and art who knew that their remains would go to some type of human use,” he said.

“Cemeteries to me are resting places and I wouldn’t want to carry the ethical burden of taking something that was intended to be laid to rest.”

We were unable to reach Darling directly for comment.

Darling appeared in court Friday and was charged with burglary as well as the possession of marijuana. They pled guilty to all charges. They were fined and sentenced to five years probation on the theft charge, and “15 days on possession with credit for time served.” A probation hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Nicole Krieger

    If someone used my bones to curse someone I would be seriously pissed off

  • Lupa

    “it’s very rare for a Witch to use a human skull due to the cost and legal obstacles to obtaining one”

    For what it’s worth, it’s really not that difficult to legally obtain human bones without having to steal them from a cemetery. While private companies like eBay and Etsy don’t allow their sale, other businesses like the Bone Room in the U.S. and the Cabinet of Curiosities in the U.K. specialize in their sale. The U.K.’s Human Tissues Act allows ONLY for the sale of human remains over 100 years old, and there are specific prohibitions on the sale and possession of Native American remains in the U.S. But those are the primary legal restrictions, other than a couple of states that have their own restrictions.

    OTOH, the sources of human bones can be ethically questionable, to say the very least. Grave robbing was a frequent problem in the Victorian era where a lot of antique medical specimens come from, and more recent specimens from India and China (where their export was only recently banned) often do not have reliable provenance attached to them. I work with animal bones in my practice, but I won’t use human bones because it’s ironically a lot harder to trace their origins.

    • David Salisbury

      Thanks for mentioning the Bone Room, Lupa. I was going to bring that up but I wasn’t sure if they sell to all states or not (some states have prohibitions on owning any sort of human remain, even if legally purchased, though I’m not familiar with which ones).

      • Lupa

        No problem. I wanted people to know they have options besides grave robbing! AFAIK, it’s only Georgia, New York and Tennessee that prohibit moving human remains across state lines.

  • Charles Cosimano

    “Alas, poor Yorick.” Well, somebody had to say it.

    • Verity

      I was just thinking that, since the RSC Hamlet filmed a few years ago featured a real skull as Yorick, donated by someone in their will for that very purpose!

  • zormpas

    Yet another reason I want to be cremated. In my “belief system”, its possible for someone to cause harm to the deceased by mal-using their remains. I think collecting ANYBODY’S remains without their prior consent is unethical.

  • Moisés Abdalla

    “I think this is targeting a member of a racial minority and sexual minority.”
    Hmm… No, it isn’t. A very specific charge is being brought against Ender Darling, and it’s not related to ethnicity or sexuality.

    • MadGastronomer

      Because specific charges are never ever used to harass minorities. Nope, never happens. Neither are laws ever made that target minorities overwhelmingly without reference to whatever axis they are minorities along. Just ignore those crack laws. Oh, and ignore the way laws are selectively enforced against minorities, too.

      I don’t know whether Darling is being persecuted because of their race or gender, but you clearly don’t know anything about how legal discrimination works.

      • Franklin_Evans

        If you know anything about the majority culture around there, you’d make the very reasonable assumption that they take respect for the remains of the dead very seriously, and not out of hostility towards any identity group.

        Look up the cases with the same or similar charges, brought in that jurisdiction. If you find none, or only ones brought against a minority, then you can expect your sarcasm to be taken seriously.

        For me, not before.

        • MadGastronomer

          Again, I’m not saying that it is or isn’t true that they’re being persecuted based on race and gender. I am saying you’re wrong that specific charges mean that it’s not true, because specific charges are often used that way.

          I don’t care if you take me seriously or not, you’re simply wrong.

          • susn brittain

            The folk who challenged Ender Darling on her theft of bones from the cemetery….a cemetery that holds primarily the bodies of people of color…are also from minority/marginalized folk who resent like hell the continuing treatment of themselves, and their ancestors, as something less than human to be used without concern or consent. The ferocity with which people have persued this case and Ender has been, in large part, because Ender absolutely refused to accept any accountability for their actions in stealing remains and refusing to respect the sanctity and rest of those in the cemetery

          • susn brittain

            Many, many of the people who confronted Ender are also practitioners of faith other than xtian

          • susn brittain

            I mean, we’re talking about folk from the social justice community who challenged Ender and decided to go to the legal authorities only when Ender refused to accept accountability for their thefts and when one of Ender’s friends was defending them as well

          • MadGastronomer

            Once again, I am not saying it IS an example of discrimination. I am challenging Franklin’s claim that it can’t be because it was “specific charges”.

          • Franklin_Evans

            You used this incident to invoke how marginalized groups are mis- and maltreated. I responded to the implication that this must be such an example. I always support close scrutiny of such things, but not when a simpler explanation not involving malice is more likely. Susn Brittain speaks to that point very well.

          • MadGastronomer

            I did not. The article invoked “how marginalized groups are mis- and maltreated”. You claimed that this wasn’t an example of that because it was very specific charges. I explained why that’s not a reason why it’s not an example of discrimination.

    • Jules Morrison

      Clearly this accusation relates to the ferocity they are being pursued, rather than the non disputed factual substance of taking bones and selling them at cost. Without prejudice as to whether they actually are being pursued harder, that is what Kristy is alleging.

      • Christian Day

        Yes, but this goes way beyond treating Ender Darling harshly. Louisiana just passed one of the harshest laws in America and now no one can own human bones of any kind unless you are a museum, research facility or state agency. You can now face up to a $5,000 fine and a year of hard labor and those laws cannot be applied to Darling because that crime was committed before the new and harsher law. They are going to be harsh on anyone who does this and it’s very disappointing because many of us were not pilfering graveyards disrespectfully but rather obtained bones legally through places like boneroom.com. Of course I no longer have anything and haven’t in quite awhile since knowing this was going on and working through the skull is a fundamental part of my work. It’s so discouraging that Ender Darling created this situation. How Darling acted was reprehensible.

  • I don’t know, but I suspect that the symbolic power of human bones gathered in a graveyard is much stronger than for human bones from a “legitimate” source.

    • MadGastronomer

      Depends on what you’re using them for.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    This foolish Darling has managed to tarnish Wiccans, Gays and Transgendered people through lack of basic ethics and her personal need for notoriety. Sorry MadGastronomer
    I no longer do knee jerk defense of Wiccans after being burned a few to many times by some of the corrupt ones in our community. The sameness for gay and transgender people. We have our assholes as well.

    Sure there is persecution,real persecution, but in 9 cases out of 10 in the old Alternate Religions Educational Network, investigation of those cases found them muddied with misbehavior by the person claiming persecution. Town case of minority persecution,you literally have to have a good record of the active persecution and a clean character record, or you would lose a case in court.

    Darling would hardly qualify as a good person based on her stealing bones from a graveyard and then bragging about it. That is major offense our society and in most societies.

    • Sass Wolf

      I agree that Darling’s actions were offensive, but that’s no reason to ignore their preferred pronouns.

      • Jules Morrison

        Agreed and as a general principle: a trans person’s gender (including pronouns) is not a cookie to be taken away if they are bad.

  • I have to agree with Salisbury; taking human bone, even that washed up by rain, from a cemetery isn’t ethical. Those bones are more likely than not to come from someone who would not like their remains being used in magic and especially in cursing. Better to use bone from a source where the person knew it was going to be used by others, not buried.

  • Rok

    A woman literally takes the bones of another human being, and someone finds a way to make it about “queer and racial discrimination”. What a world.

  • Lizz Huie-Fulks

    I really do not believe she is a true witch. I think she is trying to use the “religion’ aspect to get the charges dropped. I just have a feeling she is not a witch.

    • Jules Morrison

      The Tumblr post talking about witchy uses of human remains, predates any charges (and in fact caused the attention that resulted in charges). I see no reason to assume they aren’t a witch. Being a witch has no built in guarantee of high moral character.

  • Franklin_Evans

    Having read the Wash Post article, and seeing that their family has commented on their actions and behavior, I have two opinions to offer.

    If this is a sign of New Orleans or south La. taking aim and gender identity minorities, it is either very well hidden or a red herring.

    I’m very much rejecting Darling’s justifications and excuses. Human remains are taboo in the culture there, having nothing to do with religion per se, and I would put the family members and friends of deceased people whose bones they’ve taken first. “I’m only this, I’m not making a profit that” is ridiculous. They’re showing deep disrespect for others, and playing the persecution card is just not flying with me.

  • Christian Day

    This story has horrified me from the moment it came out. For this person to now argue that this is a trans rights or racial issue is ridiculous and I hope that she does not dupe activists in either of those areas into seeing her cause as a just one, especially those of African descent. Holt Cemetery is a graveyard for the most poor of New Orleans and, as a result is largely African American and I don’t imagine most of the people buried there would want to be used in such a way. Yes, there were some there who surely practiced African Traditional Religion of some form or another because it is steeped into this city, but they certainly wouldn’t want just anyone, black or white, to be pilfering their bones for curses. I have asked those very spirits for help in my magic and I would only ever dream of leaving an offering there. I would never deign to take anything away. It’s not my place or anyone else’s with the possible exception of actual family, and even that should be with a level of consent given by the deceased before death. Moreover, while I realize that the spectrum of color and race can be a complicated one these days, Ender Darling, at least on the surface, is whiter than I am. Granted, I don’t know her ancestry. I’m 1% black and .25% Pygmy according to my DNA so who the heck knows what she is but one thing she is not is a symbol of trans or racial persecution. She certainly disrespected a good many African American people pilfering through that graveyard the way she did.

    In my own teachings, I stress the importance of working with the human skull as a conduit of spirit energy and then I stress even more the importance of obtaining one in an ethical manner. This is an issue of respect. What if the person whose’s grave Ender stole from wouldn’t have wanted to be used in such a way? By purchasing a skull or other human bones from a reputable site such as boneroom.com, you can be more confident in knowing that the person you are working with was at least ok in some way with experimentation, even if it was solely medical. And, even then, I advocate doing a bit of psychic work to tape into such remains before purchase.

    What upsets me most about this is the aftermath. There is a legitimate use for a skull and other human bones in magic and it’s not about cheap curses and petty tricks. It’s about honoring your dead through that conduit of energy and building spiritual relationships with them. But because of Ender Darling, the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law in June forbidding the ownership of human remains to anyone but established research institutions, museums, and state agencies without exception for religion of any kind. This is one of the strictest laws in America and, because I knew it was coming, Robert, the skull that I’ve worked with and my best friend Shawn worked with before for years before me when he was alive, is on the altar at our shop in Salem where the law does not prohibit such ownership. I am incredibly disappointed that the most important spiritual connection I have can no longer be with me or with anyone who works with the actual bones of our dead. What was a cheap object for hexes and harm to Ender Darling is a portal of mystery to me and many who work as I do. This has me so upset that I am pursuing this in the courts and I encourage anyone who wishes to join in this battle to reach out to me.