As stated in the previous post, much negative sensationalism surrounds the prominent historical figure, Marie Laveau. This is mostly due to the book Voodoo in New Orleans, by Robert Tallant, but here we will not concern ourselves with this dark, untruthful depiction of Marie Laveau, and instead we shall explore the legends and popular folklore associated with her role as Voodoo Queen and see firsthand the influence she has had on the city’s Voodoo community. It is my pleasure to share with you two stories involving the notorious Marie Laveau which many New Orleanians learn in early childhood and which helped to establish and solidify Laveau’s position as reigning Voodoo Queen.
Exploring the legends and popular folklore of Marie Laveau Legendary Voodoo Queen and the influence she has had on the city’s Voodoo community.
Sometime in the late 1830’s, the son a respected New York businessman committed the brutal crime of raping and murdering a local Creole girl whom he had met at an Octoroon ball, one of those gala affairs where upper class gentlemen would go to meet young multiracial girls whom to take as mistresses. He had brought her to his hotel suite and repeatedly violated her with pieces of a broken champagne bottle which caused severe bleeding that lead to death by hemorrhaging. This caused a massive scandal and sent waves of rage throughout the city and all of New Orleans wanted nothing more than to see the murderous Yankee swing from a tree. The father of the accused man had heard of Marie’s reputation as the feared and respected Voodoo Queen who performed ecstatic dances of spirit possession on the banks on Lake Ponchatrain, and more importantly as a manipulator of men, and he knew that if anybody in the city could save his son, it was Marie Laveau.
Marie met with the worried businessman in her elegant apartment in the Vieux Carré and over tea she listened to his pleas and agreed to help win his son’s case and assured that he would go free, but on the condition that once his son was declared innocent, he would sign over to her the deed to a Creole cottage that he owned on the Rue Sainte Anne, only one of his many properties throughout the city. The businessman agreed readily and the deal was struck. In the meantime, several onlookers had gathered below the balcony of Laveau’s townhouse and observed first hand this historic meeting and within minutes the city was abuzz with gossip about Marie’s involvement with the already sensationalized case.
Later that same day, Marie left her home and walked through the Vieux Carré with her pet snake, Zombie, resting on her shoulders. Zombie, everybody knew, was her animal familiar and companion in Voodoo, so they assumed that she was about to undertake a spiritual working. Marie made her way through the city and entered Saint Louis Cathedral, knelt at the front altar and began to pray, all the while with Zombie curled tightly around her neck and shoulders. She pleaded to her saints, spirits and Almighty God to help sway the trial in the young man’s favor and to forgive him the ghastly crime he had committed. Then, she placed three guinea peppers under her tongue and asked God to let the searing pain that she endured serve as penance for his crimes and to let her bear his punishment. Marie stayed in her knees in the church for hours, her mouth on fire and tears pouring down her face. At the end of the day, she returned home, but not before making a surprise visit to the courthouse. Unbeknownst to anyone, she entered the courtroom, removed the guinea peppers from her mouth and placed one under the judge’s bench, one in the jury box and the third under the seat of the accused, where the businessman’s son was to sit.
The next day, while court was in session, the doors swung open and Marie entered the courtroom with Zombie in tow, resting happily around her neck. The crowd mumbled and whispered as she made her way to the front row and took a seat. From the comments of the judge and the halfhearted fight put up by the prosecution it was evident that the trial had swung in favor of the accused. By the end of the day, both the defense and the state of Louisiana had rested their cases and the jury returned with a verdict of “not guilty.” True to his word, the Yankee businessman, right there is the courtroom, signed over his property on the Rue Saint Anne and it became Marie’s home until her death in 1881. The house was demolished in 1913, but native New Orleanians know the story of the ivy covered mansion that once stood on that vacant lot and of how its infamous resident came to be the proprietress.
Another legend, popularly told in the Voodoo community occurred about twenty years after the court case incident and beautifully shows the compassionate nature of Marie Laveau towards individuals reviled and spat upon by society. Laveau was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, public executions in particular, and she often used her influence to spare convicted criminals from going to the gallows. One notable case occurred in the summer of 1854 when a convicted thief and murderer was scheduled to be hanged in Congo Square, the city’s central square. It was common knowledge and Marie had spoken out against this particular execution and that she had tried to exercise her influence with the court magistrates to get the accused’s sentence commuted, but to know avail. Marie’s failure to win over the judges caused rumors to circulate about her waning influence and this angered Marie almost as much as the practice of public execution itself.
The day of the execution was warm and bright and hundreds gathered under cloudless skies to witness the event at Congo Square. The black-hooded executioner read the death sentence and securely tightened the noose around the condemned criminal’s neck. As he was getting ready to pull the lever and send the man to his death, Marie arrived at Congo Square with her ever present snake Zombie wrapped tightly around her. The crowd parted to make way for the Vaudou Queen to approach the scaffolding. She looked up at the executioner and the condemned, her face stern with anger. The crowd remained silent. As she stood there, the once clear sky filled with clouds and a violent wind beat down on all those present. The executioner, fulfilling his obligation, pulled the lever and sent the condemned man hurdling toward the ground. Just then, the noose came undone and the rope slipped over his head and the landed on the ground unharmed. According to tradition and law, this miraculous occurrence was considered an act of God and the criminal’s sentence was converted to imprisonment and he was thus saved from death by hanging. After that day, the people of New Orleans never again doubted the power and influence of Marie Laveau and they took the miraculous escape as a sign of Marie’s unparalleled favor in the spirit world.
Marie lived out the rest of her days quietly. She was seen around town attending daily mass and social gatherings, but in her later years she did not do so much dramatic grandstanding as she had in earlier years, possibly because by then her reputation had been firmly established and she had made for herself a comfortable life and no longer needed to impress people. One peculiar mystery surrounding Marie Laveau was her youthful appearance well into old age. Many attributed this to the belief that the Voodoo spirits blessed her with a youthful appearance and an unnaturally long life, but it was most likely due to a good genetic makeup. Also, it is known that Laveau had a daughter with Christophe Glapion, also named Marie, and that she bore a striking resemblance to her mother and that after her death she took over the practice, which would account for sightings of Marie Laveau well into the 20th century. It is believed that Marie Laveau died at her home on the Rue Sainte Anne in 1881, and that he daughter died of a heart attack at a Mardi Gras ball in 1897, these details are recorded in Robert Tallant’s book based on eyewitness testimony of contemporaries of both Maries. Both women are believed to be buried in an above ground crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery which has become a shrine where devotees pay tribute to the great legendary Voodoo Queen. There have been several ghostly phenomena associated with Marie’s tomb. Each year, countless vagrants who call the cemetery home claim to see her ghost dancing from tomb to tomb, and on one occasion a patron of the local drugstore claimed that Marie materialized in front of him and asked if he knew who she when, when he responded in the negative, she slapped him in the face and levitated out of the drugstore and over the fence toward her grave. Many claim that Marie watches over the city in the form of a big, black crow. A popular superstition involves marking her grave with three X’s in red chalk and making a wish or asking her to bless a gris gris. In any case, Voodoo practitioners know that Marie lives on in spiritual form and that their beloved queen who held her own as a Francophone, Creole, Catholic and Voodoo woman in a world dominated by white Anglo males, can hear and bless them from the spirit world. Regardless of whether Marie Laveau possessed mystifying supernatural powers or if her influence was due to bribery and espionage, the fact remains that she was a woman who lived on her own terms and refused to conform to the cookie cutter image that society had prescribed for her and thereby made her own destiny. It is no wonder that Marie Laveau lives on as the ever reigning queen on New Orleans Voodoo, since Vaudou itself is a religion of survival and self determination.