Peace be with you, my friends! I have decided to share with you some information about the most famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau who yielded tremendous influences of the culture and politics of 19th century Louisiana.
Without Marie Laveau, I would not be who and what I am today.
The following is an essay I wrote several years, the first installment deals with historical information about Marie of a personal level, especially in her capacity as a social activists, business woman and political figure of her time. The second installment, to follow, deal with Marie’s involvement in Voodoo. I believe firmly that without Marie Laveau, Voodoo as we know it would not have survived into the 20th century and beyond. Without her, I would not be who and what I am today. So I bow low and touch my head to the ground in profound respect for the great Marie Laveau and I share with you this two part post about this magnificent woman and Voodoo Queen.
It would be impossible study New Orleans Voodoo and not make mention of a woman who is inarguably the most central figure of Voodoo Creole culture: the infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Laveau was a feared and respected woman during her lifetime, rising from obscurity as the illegitimate daughter of a French plantation owner and his slave mistress to becoming a dominant figure on the New Orleans social and political scene yielding immense power over the police and court magistrates of her time. Marie Laveau earned her reputation through tactics such as espionage, intimidation and exploiting her reputation as a powerful Voodoo priestess. However, all this she did in the name of survival, refusing to accept her lot in life and choosing an existence that she deemed acceptable, and in fact used her influence to help those cast aside by society and even to save many criminals from public execution, a practice which she considered inhumane and barbaric. Laveau’s refusal to submit to the will of the white upper class, her acts of kindness and charity to those less fortunate along with her awe-inspiring reputation as Voodoo Queen caused her to become a legend in her own time and to live on in the hearts of Voodoo practitioners today.
We have very little factual evidence regarding the life of Marie Laveau, since all truth has over time been clouded by legends. The myth of Laveau was perpetuated by the writer Robert Tallant in his book Voodoo in New Orleans, published in 1946. In this work, Tallant sensationalized the Voodoo practices of Laveau and made her appear to be little more than a manipulative, satanic nymphomaniac who conducted orgiastic rituals involving group sex and demon conjuring, a description not at all truthful to the kind and charitable nature of the real Marie Laveau. Shortly after the publication for his book, which was an instant bestseller, Tallant was found dead in his apartment. The cause of death was never established, but Voudouissants attribute it to the wrath of the spirits angered by his blatant show of disrespect towards Laveau. In any case, Tallant’s book made known the name and legend of Marie Laveau to the rest of America and because of his writings, countless tourists visit historical sites associated with this legendary figure about whom they ironically know very little. Perhaps the truth about Marie is known only to history itself, but there is no disputing the fact that she is beloved by Voudouissants and by the city of New Orleans.
Laveau was born in 1794, the daughter of Charles Laveau and his young mistress Marguerite on a plantation on the outskirts of New Orleans. She was of French, Spanish, African and Native-American extraction. This exotic mélange gave her a light skin tone and exquisitely beautiful features. Being the illegitimate daughter of a white man and a slave girl, Marie occupied the lowest level of the social scale and had no chance of leading a happy of successful life in rural Louisiana, so in her early twenties she left for New Orleans. At aged twenty-five, she married a carpenter named Jacques Paris who abandoned her after a short time after. After his disappearance, she began calling herself “La Veuve Paris,” or The Widow Paris, most likely because widows held a more respectable social position than abandoned women. In later years, with her own reputation firmly set, she would go back to using her maiden name by which she is known today. Shortly after the disappearance of her husband, Marie began a lifelong affair with a freeman of color named Christophe de Glapion with whom she had fifteen children, but never legally married due to the fact that her marriage to Jacques Paris was never dissolved, and possibly because she enjoyed her freedom and did not wish to be subjugated to her husband’s will.
Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Marie worked odd jobs as a maid, cook and eventually a hairdresser and in that time was exposed to the Voodoo culture of the city only recently imported by slaves from Saint Domingue, today Haiti. She studied Voodoo under a local practitioner named Doctor John and started to prepare charms and perform services for the rich Creole women for whom she worked and she also sold gris gris at the open air market on Congo Square. There were several Queens operating in New Orleans at that time, and little by little Marie usurped them all by means of threats and intimidation, and even by physically attacking them in the streets in front of crowds of onlookers. By 1830, she was considered the one and only reigning Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Marie, herself a devout Catholic, quickly won over the local clerics by insisting that her devotees attend mass, at a time when much of the population was not as devout as they had been under French and Spanish rule. She developed a close personal friendship with the rector of Saint Louis Cathedral, Père Antoine, who agreed to let her and her followers use the grounds of the Cathedral for their Voodoo ceremonies. Père Antoine had been installed as the rector of the cathedral and representative of the Inquisition in the Louisiana territory during Spanish rule and stayed on after the American annexation. Soon after arriving in New Orleans, he cast aside his duty as inquisitor and preached a catechism of love and tolerance in response to seeing firsthand the evils of slavery in the colonies. It was even rumored that he aided runaway slaves in their attempts to escape. Marie Laveau no doubt saw a friend and an ally in Père Antoine, since they both fought for the humane treatment of people of all races, and a friendship developed between them that would last until his death. Today, Père Antoine occupies an important place in the New Orleans Voodoo pantheon and many New Orleanians believe that his spirit still watches over Saint Louis Cathedral and both he and Marie Laveau have been spotted walking together along aisles of the church as they must have done in life.
Marie amassed a small fortune through the services she performed as a priestess of the Voodoo, but nevertheless she continued to work as a hairdresser for ladies of the upper class. She maintained this menial job because it was a valuable source of information pertaining to the New Orleans elite and ruling classes. Marie spent time with the wives of court magistrates, businessmen and local politicians from whom she learned many secrets that she used to earn favors from those in power. Marie also had a network of spies throughout the city composed of her friends and followers who were mostly slaves and servant girls. Thus, with the approval of the church, her complete control over the local political scene and her reputation as a powerful Voodoo queen, there was nothing that Marie could not accomplish.
Over time, she amassed much property and wealth both from the exorbitant fees she charged rich women for her services and in the form of gifts from wealthy patrons to whose benefit she yielded her influence. However, Marie was not concerned exclusively with material gain, and she was known to help those less fortunate regardless of race or ethnicity. While she charged enormous fees to rich clients, she also made generous donations to local charities, especially those that catered to the needs of abused women and orphans. Marie even set her friends to work making dresses out of special material she ordered from Europe so that girls from poor families could have elegant, white dresses to make their first communion. As an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, especially public execution, Marie often exercised her influence over the court magistrates to spare convicted criminals from death. In fact, she cared deeply for the plight of the incarcerated, observing that they were treated far worse than slaves, and she would often visit local jails to bring the prisoners communion and read the Bible.
Towards the end of her life, Marie Laveau retreated from the public eye, perhaps because in her old age she no longer wished to be the imposing social figure she had been her whole life or because she felt it was time to slow down and enjoy all the fruits of her hard work. Marie died in 1881 in the house that she shared with her daughter, also named Marie, on the Rue Sainte Anne, according to an obituary published in the Times Picayune. She was laid to rest in an above ground crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery, in which her daughter would also be buried. The plaque on the grave reads, “Ci-gît la Veuve Paris, née Laveau. Que tous ceux qui passent par ici prient pour elle.” Here lies the widow Paris, born Laveau. Let all those who pass by pray for her. In short, Marie was a strong willed Creole woman who refused to accept the role dictated to her by a system dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men and instead chose to create her own destiny and help those for whom she cared along the way. This is the real Marie Laveau, an influential free woman of color, a devout Catholic and a believer in the Voodoo and a benefactress to the underprivileged. This is Marie the woman. The legend of Marie Laveau is somewhat more mysterious and sensational.