When you think of New Orleans, Louisiana, most people automatically think of Jazz music, Great food, Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, but we can’t forget about Voodoo and the Voodoo Queen herself Marie Laveau. She is probably one of New Orleans greatest Historical figures and what we know about her life is very little.
Let me explain about Voodoo a little first. I am not going to dwell on it to much right now, maybe in a later post. Voodoo was brought to French Louisiana during the colonial period by workers and slaves from West Africa and later by slaves and free people of colour who were among the refugees from the Haitian revolution at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought as slaves to Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin, who brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs that are rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo.
Marie Catherine Laveau was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday September 10th, 1801. Her mother was a free biracial woman perhaps Creole. Some sources say her father was Charles Laveau, a wealthy, white plantation owner but others suggest that her father was a free man of colour, who spelled his surname, Laveaux. Laveau was believed to be a very beautiful woman throughout her life.
On August 4, 1819, she married Jacques (“Santiago”) Paris, a free black man who had come from Haiti. Their marriage certificate is preserved in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. The wedding mass was performed by Father Antonio de Sedella, the Capuchin priest known as Pere Antoine. Jacques Paris died a year later. After his death Marie had a white, common law husband, named Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion, with whom she had between 7-15 children, including Marie Laveau II, born c. 1827, who sometimes used the surname “Paris” after her mother’s first husband. She wasn’t free to marry Glapion because it wasn’t legal at the time for a free black woman to do. They stayed together until his death in 1835.
Most Voodoo Queens were known to exercise great power, and had the role of leading many of the ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. These brought in crowds numbers in the hundreds and thousands. They were considered practitioners who made a living through the selling and administering of amulets, or “gris-gris”, charms, and magical powders, as well as spells and charms that guaranteed to “cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies”. Their power and influence were widespread and largely incontestable, recognized by journalists, judges, criminals, and citizens alike. These females of African and Creole descent emerged as powerful leaders in their society.
She is believed to have been a highly sought-after hairdresser to many high standing locals of New Orleans. Many say she gained power and prestige by becoming a confidante and sometimes Voodoo practitioner to these powerful citizens. Many also say blackmail may have played a role in her success. Her customers also came to her to buy voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags (small cloth bag, containing a mixture of small ritual objects) believed to bring black magic etc. Also, politicians, lawyers, businessman, wealthy planters – all came to her to consult before making an important financial or business-related decision.
Not much can be confirmed or proved on Laveau’s magical abilities but she appeared to excel at obtaining inside information on her wealthy patrons by instilling fear in their servants whom she either paid or cured of mysterious ailments. She had a huge following especially when her religious rite on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in 1874 attracted some 12,000 black and white New Orleanians. She also saw the poor and enslaved. Although her help seemed non-discriminatory, she may have favoured the enslaved servants of her “influential, affluent customers”, as many “runaway slaves…credited their successful escapes to Laveaux’s powerful charms”. Also as a Roman Catholic, Laveau encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass as a strategic way to protect their true beliefs. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system.
On June 16, 1881, the New Orleans newspapers, the Daily Picayune posted her obituary, which, according to “Voodoo in New Orleans” by Robert Tallant, announced that Marie Laveau had died peacefully in her home. This is noteworthy if only because people claimed to have seen her in town after her supposed demise. Again, some claimed that one of her daughters also named Marie had assumed her name and carried on her magical practice, taking over as the queen soon before or after the first Marie’s death. According to official New Orleans vital records, Marie Glapion Laveau died on June 15, 1881, aged 86.
Her influence continues today, her grave site in the oldest cemetery in New Orleans is a major tourist attraction; believers of Voodoo (tourists as well) offer gifts here and pray to her spirit. Laveau is generally believed to have been buried in plot 347, the Glapion family crypt, in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. Tourists continue to visit and some draw “X” marks in accordance with a decades-old rumour that if people wanted Laveau to grant them a wish, they had to draw an “X” on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, yell out their wish, and if it was granted, come back, circle their “X,” and leave Laveau an offering. Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture.