Rarely in history have we had a person quite as extraordinary as Marie Laveau the Queen of New Orleans Voodoo. Our Pop Culture, and the bigoted, misogynistic propaganda of her time would have us believe that she was a dark and manipulative corruptor of souls through black magic and potions. This image of her could not be further from the truth. She was in reality, one of the strongest and most loving women of history, fighting the odds to help and protect her people during a very difficult time. She was a healer, a community leader, and a spiritual guide. What she practiced was a polyglot religion that was “always inclusive, not exclusive”, that taught love and faith, a religion that helped keep her people strong in the face of adversity.
Marie Catherine Laveau was born a free woman of color in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana on September 10, 1801, two years before the Louisiana Purchase. Her mother Marguerite Henry (D’Arcantel) had been a free born woman of color who was also part Choctaw Native American. Her father Charles Laveau Trudeau was a surveyor and politician of French descent. It was from her mother that she would learn many of the skills that would, later on, make her famous. She was raised to be a devout Catholic. Marie would often encourage others to that faith. She was known to have volunteered often to help the church in good works. She prayed for and tended to yellow fever victims through the church.
The main thing that makes Marie Laveau’s name so recognizable is her fame as the 3rd Queen of New Orleans Voodoo. It can be assumed that she grew up with a knowledge of this religion passed down to her from her grandmother Catherine who had purchased her own freedom in 1795, and who had been a Voudou priestess herself, a mantle passed down from her maternal line, traceable to their arrival in the Louisiana colonies around the mid 1700’s from Senegal. Marie Laveau practiced what is called Louisiana Voodoo which developed from an infusion of Haitian Voudou (a mix of the religious beliefs and practices of the Dohomey people from Benin Africa, Fon, Senegal, and several other Tribal belief constructs after it had been mixed with Catholicism, and western European paganism), Native American religious beliefs, and Christianity. Contrary to the mainstream media’s diabolical portrayal of Voodoo as a black form of witchcraft, the Voodoo she practiced was benevolent. She did mostly what is called root work, the purpose of which is to protect and save people, medicinal to the mind, body, and spirit. Her patron Loa was Damballah Wedo the guardian of wisdom. She used her skills in this art to work as a healer and midwife, to help guide her community and keep it together. Often, she held ceremonies and gatherings at her home, all of which were reported to have been peaceful.
One of the things that rocketed her to notoriety were the public ceremonies she presided over on some special days at the Congo Square meeting area that is located in what is today called Louis Armstrong Park, where freeborn people of color and slaves alike were allowed to gather on Sundays to celebrate together, have markets for freedom, or simply to socialize with their own kind. She became so famous that she even had white patrons of all social ranks coming to her for help and guidance. She passed her skills in Voodoo down to her daughters in turn as they had been passed down to her. Marie Eloise became a devout priestess and root worker herself, very much following in her mother’s footsteps. Marie Philomene was more flamboyant leading the rituals at Congo square and almost marketing her skills to the public. It was she who moved the more ceremonial celebrations further out from the main city to Bayou St. John currently within the area of City Park, inviting even more diverse people to attend. Eventually these gatherings got so large that they had to be moved to an area near Lake Charles. Many of the stories we hear today were of Marie Philomene Laveau II, the 4th Queen of New Orleans Voodoo.
Marie Laveau married her first husband, Jacques Paris (Santiago) on August 4, 1819 at the Catholic church she had gone to all her life, St. Louis Cathedral, by Father Antonio de Sedella. Paris was a French immigrant who had come to New Orleans to escape the Haitian revolution and worked as a carpenter. Together they had two daughters Felicite born pre marriage in 1817, and Angele 1820. Both daughters vanished mysteriously from record after 1820 around the same time that Marie’s husband disappeared to be presumed dead. After which Marie Laveau began calling herself the widow Paris and became a hairdresser for the more affluent houses of New Orleans. It was in this role of domestic service that she developed her large social network, comprised not only of her clients, but also of their servants and slaves. They felt they could tell her anything and some even feared her. As a result, she was able to know how to manipulate situations to protect her people and keep matters under better control.
Sometime after 1822 She entered into a domestic partnership with another man of French descent named Christophe Dominich Duminy de Glapion, later to be common law married. Together they had seven children, though it was rumored that they had as many as fifteen. Only two daughters are known to have lived to adulthood, Marie Euchariste Eloise Laveau 1827-1860(2), and Marie Philomene Glapion 1836-1897. She did not take another husband after Glapion passed away in 1855. Their relationship was said to have been a happy one.
In 1839 Marie Laveau was given back her family’s brick and white stucco cottage called Maison Blanche (the White House) at 1020-1022 St. Ann Street, by a wealthy family as a show of gratitude for her help. Their son had been accused and arrested for a rape he had not committed. She left a note for the judge and used a charm to assure an innocent verdict thereby saving the young man from the gallows. She lived in her White House until she peacefully passed away in her bed at age 79 on June 15, 1881. While she lived there it was known as a place of health, happiness, and community. She would hold ceremonies and potlucks for others of the voodoo religion there. After she passed on, her daughters continued this practice until the house was torn down in 1895. A new house was built on the location in 1905 and now serves as a small apartment house named after her.
Marie Laveau is now buried in the St. Louis I cemetery not far from where she had lived and worked. She was interred in the Glapion family crypt, lot 347, with a catholic funeral. The location became a pilgrimage point for many seeking her help over the years, believing her to be so powerful that she could still render aid to them from beyond the grave. Visitors would draw x s on her tomb, shout their prayer while turning three times, and then leave an offering. After their prayers had been answered they would come back and thank her and circle the x s. As of March 2015, people must leave the offerings at a shrine across the street from the cemetery because access to her grave site is very restricted. The Archdiocese of New Orleans carefully controls the St. Louis cemeteries to try to stop vandalism. Now, you have to have a license and permission to go into them. Though it means no more rituals or offerings at her grave, it also means that idiots cannot desecrate it. This became a concern when in December of 2013 someone covered her tomb with pink latex paint, the removal of which did considerable damage to the plaster structure.
People began thinking that they had seen or talked to her spirit way before she had died. Part of her legend was that she was so powerful that she could be in multiple places at the same time. What had happened was a case of mistaken identity. Both of her surviving daughters looked very much like her as adults, and she did not show her age much. The result was that people were in fact seeing all three of them in different locations at different times. After her passing many of the first sightings of her ghost were her daughters going about their daily lives. It is said that a granddaughter of Marie Laveau’s by one of the other Maries, also bore an uncanny resemblance to her and practiced the Louisiana Voodoo religion, leading to a perpetuation of the sighting that were not actually her ghost. Unlike the movies would have us believe all the verified and reported ghost sightings of Marie Lavaeu have been calming and compassionate. There have been sightings of her as a ghost near her grave, however she has also been seen at the shrine across the street and walking near the cemetery walls. Not surprisingly most of the sightings of her ghost these days are immediately around her home of so many years, as if she is still watching over her people, peacefully walking in her white dress. Another location she has been sighted regularly has been Congo square, as if still joining her people in song.
-Author: Dawn DuVurger