The REAL Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen
Marie's Legendary background
In order to understand Marie Laveau, we should take a quick look at the women who raised her- two very different ladies, both headstrong and determined.
Her grandmother Catherine was snatched from Africa at only 7 years old, yet earned her freedom by buying herself out of slavery. Ultimately she became an entrepreneur and bought her own land and house, working toward having her five children freed as well.
Marie's mother Marguerite, owned by the white man who'd fathered her, was freed at the age of 18, immediately entering into an arranged relationship with an affluent white man twice her age. She bore him three children and seemed happy, but Marguerite took lovers as well, including an affair with Charles Leveaux that produced Marie. Marguerite gave birth to her daughter at her mother's home before returning to her relationship, leaving the baby girl with Cathrine.
These were illiterate, uneducated but tenacious women, navigating the very separate worlds of white and black in New Orleans, but it would take Marie Laveau to figure out how to play the races against each other to earn the respect and fear of the entire city..
Marie Laveau's mysterious start
Marie's childhood was spent quietly at her grandmother's cottage, until at age 18 she married Jacques Paris, a Haitian immigrant. Little is known about Jacques or their marriage, because in less than a year, he disappeared and Marie began calling herself the "Widow Paris."
Did her husband return to Haiti, abandoning his young wife, or was there something she wasn't telling? No one knows.
A year later, Marie took up with Christophe Glapion, a white man with whom she lived until his death in 1855. Though the law didn't allow them to marry, they're said to have had 15 children together, one of whom was the even more infamous Marie II, heir to Marie Laveau's legacy.
After Jacques disappeared, Marie worked as a hairdresser, building a client base of wealthy women. The affluent didn't go to the salon- the salon came to them, and that gave Marie access to all the best houses and families in town - and their slaves.
In exchange for charms, prayers and spells, the household's slaves would tell Marie their secrets and dirty laundry- and they knew everything, of course! Marie could then impress her client with all of the miraculous things the "spirits" had told her.
Of course, Marie could "fix" the problem - for a fee, naturally.
If there weren't any problems, it wasn't hard to create some- perhaps by putting a beautiful woman in a husband's path or having one of her followers scratch a symbol on your steps so you'd know you'd been "hexed" and be desperate for it to be taken off.
Little by little, word of Marie's gifts spread until she was the accepted Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Marie Laveau at the Voodoo Museum
Marie's Reputation Grows
The most famous story of Marie's power tells how she was offered a house on St. Ann Street in exchange for getting a rich man's innocent son freed when he'd been accused of murder.
The video details the story, which involves Marie holding three hot peppers in her mouth, infusing them with her intentions, then putting them under the judge's seat. The video doesn't go into it, but a cow's tongue with a nail driven through it was also placed under the prosecutor's seat, rendering him speechless and unable to proceed with the case and Marie got the house.
There are a number of obvious problems with the story, regardless of whether you believe in Voodoo or not, starting with the idea that nobody noticed a massive tongue lying on the floor?
More to the point, Marie lived in the same house until she died- the one that records prove was purchased and built by her grandmother Catherine. Her neighbors and friends knew this, and so did her detractors, but once the story took hold it became universally accepted.
One part is true- Catherine's house was on St. Ann Street, and the tour guides point to the right lot, but tend not to mention that the original house was torn down in 1907.
Congo Square Fest
Modern day Congo Square
Marie Conquers Congo Square
The greatest indication of Marie Laveau's growing power was that she ruled over the rites in Congo Square.
Once Mass was over the slaves had the rest of Sunday to themselves, and thousands spent it each week in Congo Square, on the outskirts of town.
There they'd trade the goods they'd made or raised, barter, and visit family members who'd been sold to other masters. Most importantly, they worshiped together in the old ways. Sounds of their chanting and drums carried throughout the city from dawn until dusk, and although newspapers often carried stories of the "horrid savages" and their behavior, the gatherings were never broken up by the authorities.
At the center of it all was the Queen, leading the chants, selling her cures, getting the latest gossip from the slaves while outside the cheers and screams for "Queen Marie! Queen Marie!" could be heard far and wide.
Whether you used her services or not, it was impossible not to know who Marie Laveau was, even as the newspapers railed about the "ignorant darkies" and their "superstitions."
Marie Grows Young Again
Yet the biggest trick up Marie's sleeve was yet to come. As Marie grew old and frail, she participated less in Voodoo rituals and focused more on her less vigorous Catholic faith. She went to mass every day and worked with condemned prisoners to convince them to repent before they went to the hangman.
At the same time, a woman began emerging from the St. Ann house every day, dressed in Marie's clothes, greeting people and doing all the things people were accustomed to Marie doing- yet she was decades younger! She spoke to people by name, mentioning topics they'd had private conversations about. Soon the word had gotten around- Marie Laveau was so powerful that the lwa had granted her eternal youth!
Surely not everyone believed that, since Marie was constantly walking back and forth to St. Louis Cathedral, but perhaps they didn't want say do anything to anger the powerful Voodoos.
Regardless, this "new" Marie was about to take their faith to a whole other level.
St. John's Eve tradition continues
The Bayou St. John Spectacular
Marie II wanted to capitalize on her mother's success and gather a much wider audience. The celebrations on the Bayou were the easiest way to do that, and Marie II went to work.
As the night before St. John the Baptist's birthday, St. John's Day is the most important night of the year for practitioners. The night before there was a celebration on the swampy banks of Bayou St. John.
Bonfires were lit all along the bayou where people would picnic, dance, pray and give thanks to the saints for their intervention. Groups would walk and mingle in the early summer air, talking with their neighbors.
Until Marie II started making sure that tourists knew about it, St. John's Eve was strictly a local event. Within a decade it had grown to nearly incomprehensible proportions with tens of thousands of spectators crammed together along the waterway to see Marie rise from the waters surrounded by floating white candles and beginning the chant that was picked up all along the shore.
Even that wasn't enough, though. There was a second celebration- this one at Maison Blanche, Marie II's cottage on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, half a mile away from the crowd.
Only a lucky few were invited to this much more intimate celebration, and by some strange coincidence, it happened that those guests were able to make large donations and/or people of great influence.
Those private parties are where tales of bacchanalian orgies originate- or at least what people imagined went on there- like Tuesday night at a dive bar when Brad Pitt stops in, everybody says they were there when it happened.
Marie sat on her throne, with her feet resting on a crate holding her massive python, Zombi. From there she directed the ceremony with a dozen or so lovely young mulatto ladies and a couple of fierce dark skinned men, all dressed in thin white linen. As they chanted and danced to the drums, they would be overtaken by the spirits- a form of possession the faithful call being "ridden" by the lwa. Their dancing would grow more frantic, their clothes becoming transparent as they worked up a sweat, eventually devolving into an orgy involving participants and viewers alike.
Marie Laveau's Tomb
Unfortunately, there's real damage done by those xxx's
- Destruction & Desecration of Historic New Orleans Tombs
New Orleans unique cemeteries draw tens of thousands of visitors a year. Unfortunately the urban legends they're being told are doing real and permanent damage to these historic monuments.
The end of an era
Ironically, Marie II seems to have died several years before her mother, and perhaps because of the legacy of the family name, was quietly buried, though exactly where her remains are is a mystery. Some say in a wall vault in St. Louis No. 1, some say in the family tomb above, but the most likely place was in St. Louis No. 2, in a vault that was destroyed to make room for the sexton's cottage. The remains would have been moved to Girod Street cemetery, also now destroyed.
Marie I died in 1881, and the writeup in the paper was tender and kind, despite the many negative things they'd written about her over the years. It concludes:
All in all Marie Laveau was a most wonderful woman. Doing good for the sake of doing good alone, she obtained no reward, oft times meeting with prejudice and loathing, she was nevertheless contented and did not flag in her work. She always had the cause of the people at heart, and was with them in all things. During the late rebellion she proved her loyalty to the South at every opportunity and freely dispensed help to those who suffered in defense of the "lost cause." Her last days were spent surrounded by sacred pictures and other evidence of religion, and she died with a firm trust in heaven. While God's sunshine plays around the little tomb where her remains are buried, by the side of her second husband and her sons and daughters, Marie Laveau's name will not be forgotten in New Orleans.
And that's true- she's never been forgotten- but what we think we know of her from the legends that have sprung up around her and who she really was are woefully different. Today that 'little tomb' is constantly being marked with an "xxx" by tourists, who then knock three times and whisper their wish into the tomb, hoping Marie will answer them from beyond the grave.
Some things stay the same, though: the way to make sure Marie will listen to your plea is to leave a donation at the foot of the tomb.
Voodoo Saints & Sinners
Altar to Papa LaBas (aka Legba, and counterpart to St. Peter), with images of Catholic Saints.
He likes candy, toys, alcohol and shiny coins & favored colors are red and black. He's said to be quite mischievous.
Like St. Peter he's the gatekeeper and you have to appeal to him to gain entry into otherworldly realms.
Contradiction: Devout Catholic AND Queen of the Voodoos?
France and Spain both had versions of the "Code Noir-" the rules and regulations slaves and their owners had to abide by.
While still horrible, these rules were considerably kinder to the slaves than those in the American South, requiring the slaves be given Sunday off, allowing them to earn their way out of bondage, and requiring they be given small plots of land they could cultivate on their own.
Owners were required to baptize their slaves and make them attend Catholic mass- and not allow any other religion.
Voodoo is a religion of specialization- it holds that there is one god who has many helpers called "lwa," each with a distinct personality, preferences, and specializations. It didn't take long for the slaves to match up the lwa with Catholic Saints, neatly resolving the religious conflicts.
Since the beliefs meshed so well, it's not surprising that Marie Laveau was as dedicated to her Catholicism as to Voodoo.
But how did it work?
So here's the question: how did she continue to get business? Many of her clients had real problems that she was charging big money to solve. Presumably, if the situation wasn't resolved, that would be the end of her reputation.
But business boomed and her reputation quickly spread. Was she somehow coercing the slaves to act behind the scenes? Was the power of belief so strong that the women subconsciously resolved the problems themselves?
Or could some otherworldly force have been at work after all?