Introduction

Marie Laveau is a woman who has captured the minds of scholars and the general public alike. It has become nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. Marie Laveau is still the most well-known figure in the Louisiana voodoo culture, and with this fame comes wild stories about witchcraft, possession, and dancing with the devil. There are very few primary sources to base facts on, and this has led to many taking creative liberty when relating the stories of her life.

There are few things that scholars can agree on about Miss Laveau outside of the basic facts that she was a free woman of color who lived in New Orleans and was a prominent practitioner of Voodoo. Her life, family, and powers have all been argued and debated by the people of New Orleans, who have had a love affair with the priestess for well over 100 years. This, after all, is a woman who, even in death, is a tourist draw. The time frame covered will be from the birth of the first Marie in 1783 and continue through the death of Marie the second in 1895.

Life and Times of a Voodoo Queen

Marie Laveau was born in 1801 or 1783, depending on whom you ask. [1] The most recent document discovered by Dr. Ina Frandrich in the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is the Baptismal certificate that gives her birthday of September 16, 1801 and not 1783. The confusion lies in the fact that the name Marie Laveau was the name of both Mother and Daughter, who were known Voodoo practitioners.

Aside from the famous duo, at least 10 other Marie Laveau’s lived near the aforementioned mother and daughter pair in the same time frame.[2] It is a known fact that she was Creole, and the definition of Creole has ambiguity. [3] To some, it means a mix of French and African; to others, it is an adjective for things native to Louisiana. It will refer to someone of mixed ethnicity, also known as a “free person of color,” who lives in New Orleans for all intents and purposes. The French influence bleeds over into the multiple spellings of the last name, depending on who is doing the spelling. In the first version of this book ‘The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie Laveaux: A study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth-century New Orleans,” you can see that it was originally spelled with an X. In the new book version, the spelling was changed to clarify any confusion about who it was referencing. [4] For the most part, whenever someone is speaking of Marie Laveau, it is interchangeable between the mother and daughter.  Early in her life, the first Marie worked as a hairdresser and was popular with both free women of color and white women.

Marie (the first Marie) was born a free woman of color and was married to Jacques Paris on July 27, 1819. [5] If we are to accept the new finding of her Baptismal certificate brought up in the Ina Frandrich book, this would make her 17 years old, and that would have fit in with the societal norms for the age of matrimony. From this point on, there are many different ideas about what her family was like. She had anywhere from 5-10 children with her companion of thirty years, Christophe Glapion. Most say that they were never formally married because he was a white man.

Others have pointed out that besides the marriage certificate to Jaques Paris, he is scarcely mentioned again. There are no death certificates or other concrete evidence to explain where he went. There has been speculation that he was done away with by one of Marie’s spells when he angered her, or to make room for Christophe Glapion. There will be instances in research and fiction where she will be referred to as the widow Paris to create a distinction between the mother and daughter.

Feminist

Women were allowed into roles of leadership due to the extremely unique social dynamics of New Orleans. [6] There were a large number of free women of color that were heads of households. The dynamics of the city were one that, by appearance alone, you could not tell the social standing of someone who was creole or “colored”. It was very common for white men to have relationships with creole women and to put them up in a home of their own to care for any children that had been born of that relationship.

The man could also have a wife and a primary family at another residence, and this was considered very normal for the time frame. Marie Laveau and her companion Christophe Glapion were defying social convention by living together as a mixed-race couple and also as an unmarried couple. She did not give much thought to what others had to say about her, knowing most would not cross her for fear of retribution.

Congo Square and the Voodoo Rituals

The dances and the music that was celebrated in Congo Square were often a throwback to those from Africa. They kept some aspects from their homeland and other aspects to assimilate into New Orleans culture. [7] The people in the square were from many different places in Africa, and the voodoo rituals became a blending of traditions from all of these places. [8]

This was the gathering place in the center of town where slaveries, free people of color and whites alike would meet. There are many stories about Marie and the time that she spent there, but she was never bothered by the police or given any type of ticket or citation when she was there. [9]

The bamboula and other African dances were performed at Congo Square on Sunday afternoons. Anglo-Protestant newcomers to New Orleans were both fascinated and appalled by the scene. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Congo Square has gone through many changes and is now the tourist destination known as Jackson Square. Located within walking distance of the French Quarter, it is a far cry from the days past of voodoo rituals and African dances. The dramatization of voodoo rituals by newspapers and the people of New Orleans played a big part in the taboo factor of the religion of voodoo. There were numerous attempts by people to discredit these followers.

The stories were so dramatic and over the top that different sources reported anything from a rooster, cat or small child being added to the cauldron on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. [10] These stories were never backed up by any sort of facts, even though people went looking.  These tall tales were often mentioned in the primary sources utilized by every scholarly author who writes about Voodoo in New Orleans. The Louisiana field workers project took place between 1936-1941 and went around documenting the stories of elderly New Orleanians.[11] It has been called into question the validity and accuracy of these sources.

Conclusion

The facts and the fiction have long since become inseparable in the case of the famed voodoo queen.  Janet Allred summed it up best in her review of Martha Ward’s book “voodoo queen the spirited lives of Marie Laveau” “Her power was indeed legendary, but legends can take on a life of their own and must be tested carefully against evidence”[12]

Since there is so little evidence, the stories become the bulk of what we have left. She has taken on many roles, depending on the scholar or author who is writing about her. She has become the type of heroine that authors live to tell stories about. We may never know the truth about who this woman was but she has left behind an abundance of stories that are still entertaining people over one hundred years later.  

The controversy has followed her into the afterlife, with some saying the tomb that draws tens of thousands of visitors a year is not really where she is buried. Local legends say that her final resting place is a secret so as to not to disturb her in the afterlife.

To this day, the site of her burial is a mecca for tourists and true believers alike, and the evidence is left in graffiti, and scattered around the tomb are offerings left by those who are hoping the have a wish granted by the great Voodoo queen. The offerings of flowers, cigarettes, liquor, and small trinkets are numerous at this crypt in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Biography


[1] Janet Allured ,”The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie laveaux: A study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth-century new Orleans/Voodoo queen: The spirited lives of Marie laveau.” ( H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences, 2006), 2.

[2] Janet Allured, The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie laveaux: 2006 2

[3] Martha Ward, Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009),  xiv.

[4] Ina Johanna Fandrich . The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie Laveaux: A study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth century New Orleans  i

[5] Carolyn Long, A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau 3

[6]  Sylvia Frey. “The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie laveaux: A study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth-century New Orleans”.Journal of Southern History, 73(2), (2007) 454-456.

[7] John W. Blassingame,  Black New Orleans, 1860-1880. (University of Chicago Press, 2008.) 6

[8]  Laurie A. Wilkie  “Magic and empowerment on the plantation: an archaeological consideration of African – American world view” southeastern Archaelogy: 137

[9] Robert Reinders “The Churches And The Negro In New Orleans, 1850-1860.” Phylon 22, no. 3: 241-248.Historical Abstracts with Full Text, 1961 247

[10]  Blake Touchstone.  “Voodoo in New Orleans.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 13, no. 4 : 371-386. 1972

[11] Ina Johanna Fandrich. 2005. “The Birth of New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen: A Long-held Mystery Resolved. Louisiana History.” 46, no. 3: 293-309.

[12] Janet Allured The mysterious voodoo queen, Marie laveaux: A study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth-century new Orleans/Voodoo queen: The spirited lives of Marie laveau. ( H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences, 2006), 3.

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