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Marie Laveau (1794? – 1881)

“The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans”

Written and compiled by George Knowles 

Marie Laveau is perhaps the most famous name associated with Voodoo in America, and in her time was revered as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  Marie Laveau was in fact two women, a mother (1794-1881) and her eldest daughter of the same name (1827-1897).  Marie Laveau gained a reputation as one of the most feared yet popular women in the history New Orleans, and today many myths and legends surround their lives.

Marie Laveau I was born a free woman of colour in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic sometime around 1794.  She was a mulatto of white, black and Indian mixed blood, the daughter of a wealthy Creole planter, Charles Laveau and his mistress Marguerite Darcantel.  Laveau moved to New Orleans in her youth and was raised a devout Catholic under the ministry of Pere Antoine, the chaplain at St. Louis Cathedral were she attended Mass on a daily bases.  She was described as beautiful, tall and statuesque, with curly black hair, flashing bright eyes, reddish skin and “good” features (meaning she looked more white than Negroid).

          

St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans – 1838 – 1858 – Present day. 

On the 04th August 1819 Laveau married Jacques Paris (a quadroon – three-fourths white) a carpenter and a free man of colour from Saint-Domingue in Haiti.  They were married at St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine, and afterwards took up residence in a house at block 1900 North Rampart Street, given to them as part of her dowry from Charles Laveau.  Shortly after their marriage Paris mysteriously disappeared, possibly back to Haiti, for he was not heard from again in New Orleans.  His death certificate was filed some three years later in 1822, but no record of interment has ever been found.  Laveau had obviously been devoted to Paris for she assumed the title of “Veuvee (widow) Paris”, later she even had his name inscribed on her tomb located in St. Louis Cemetery No 1 on Basin Street, which reads “Famille Veuvee Paris nee Laveau”.

The tomb of “Famille Veuvee Paris nee Laveau”, located in the St. Louis Cemetery No 1 on Basin Street, New Orleans.

In the absence of Paris and to support herself, Laveau became a skilled hairdresser catering to the wealthy elite of New Orleans’ high society.  With her own good looks and regal bearing, she soon gained a regular clientele, which included some of the most influential white, black and Creole women in the city.  Overtime, many confided their most intimate secrets to Laveau, including details about their husbands, their affairs, business dealing, fears and social standing in high society.  As she quietly listened to their confessions, Laveau mentally filed away the information sure she could use it to her own advantage in the future. 

In 1826 Laveau became the mistress of Captain Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, another quadroon and free man of colour.  According to his death certificate held in the archives of the Civil District Court, New Orleans, he was born in St. John the Baptist parish in 1789.  Later Glapion served as a Captain in the Company of Men of San Domingo, and was held in high regard for his service to New Orleans during the War of 1812.  While they were never formally married, they lived together at the house in North Rampart Street, were in quick succession they had 15 children, the first was a daughter Marie Laveau II, born on the 02nd February 1827.  Glapion died on the 26th June 1855 and was buried in the Laveau family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No 1. 

By 1826, Laveau had built an extensive network of spies and informants among the black servant community of New Orleans, many of who regarded her with a mixture of fear and respect.  Secretly, Laveau had been training with the famous “Voodoo doctor” Jean Montaigne (Doctor John or John Bayou as he became known), who was then the most powerful Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, and learned from him how to make the most potent charms, potions and gris-gris.  She also gained an extensive knowledge of herbs and natural healing remedies. 

Laveau’s hairdressing skills took her into the homes of the affluent elite, were she was often called upon to provide extra services:  telling fortunes, predicting the future, advising on love affairs and preparing “gris-gris” for those needing a cure, charm or hex.  As her reputation as a Voodoo Queen increased (of which she was one of many then operating), she gave up hairdressing to devote all her energies into becoming the “supreme” Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. 

Blacks had been practicing the old religions (Santería, Voodoo and Shango worship) ever since their arrival from Africa and the Caribbean in the early 1600’s.  The first black slaves in America had been brought in by English privateers and landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.  At that time the number of slaves imported was quite small, but with the development of the plantation system in the southern colonies, demand of more labour became an issue, and the number of slaves imported greatly increased.  Another important source of labour was indentured servants, most of who were poor Europeans hoping to escape the harsh conditions of their own countries, and seeking to find new opportunities in America. 

As slaves became increasingly important to the economic and social structure of the colonies, particularly in the South, laws affecting slave ownership and behaviour were modified.  Brutal treatment such as chaining, branding, mutilation and murder were regulated and prohibited by law, but instances of cruelty continued well into the 19th century.  Overtime, as slaves and indentured servants were released and became free, they also received a number of legal rights, though in the main these were loosely enforced.  They had the right to own private property, set up businesses, arrange marriages, contract for work and perhaps most importantly limited rights to worship and practice their own religions. 

By the time Laveau was born, New Orleans was already established as the free black capital of the southern colonies, were blacks and whites lived together in a multi cultural society.  In the wake of the Haitian slave revolts of 1791-1804, many Creole plantation owners from Saint Dominique and other West Indian islands, fled with their slaves to America, settling and developing the plantations of southern Louisiana.  Many of the slaves they brought with them also practiced Voodoo, one of the main religions of Haiti, which quickly grew and spread.  After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, and with the influx of thousands of Voodoo practitioners, New Orleans soon began to rock to the beat of the drums. 

In those early days the main meeting place for Voodoo worship and ritual was Congo Square on North Rampart Street (now called Beauregard Square), but eventually the frequency of these meetings frightened the ruling whites, who feared their meetings could lead to another uprising.  As a result in 1817, new laws were passed in New Orleans forbidding blacks to gather for dancing or any other purpose except on Sundays, and then only in places designated by the Mayor.  The most acceptable place was again Congo Square, were on Sundays they continued to dance, sing and worship their gods.  It also became a popular “must see” place of risqué entertainment for whites and visitors.

Sunday Congo Square dances. 

Before Laveau began to dominate the scene, there were a number of other prominent masters who ruled over Voodoo in New Orleans, the most famous of these was Jean Montaigne (Dr. John or John Bayou).  Dr. John was a freeman of colour who claimed to have been an African prince in Senegal.  As the story goes, he had been enslaved by the Spanish and taken to Cuba, from where he was freed by his master due to his loyal service.  He then became a sailor and world traveller, eventually landing in New Orleans to find work at the port.  There he quickly began to dominate the practice of Voodoo and found many willing to pay for his charms, potions, cures, gris-gris bags, and other magical items. 

Dr. John soon became a rich man and bought a large house on Bayou Rd that he filled with all the paraphernalia of Voodoo.  He travelled about in a fine carriage pulled by a matched pair of horses worthy of a planter.  He also bought a number of slaves, the women of which he married according to African tradition.  It was later said he fathered as many as fifty children.  Dr. John’s work as a Voodooist mainly involved telling fortunes, casting spells, removing curses, curing minor illnesses and dispensing his gris-gris.  The lucrative rituals at Congo Square he left to the numerous Voodoo Queens to fight over.  Dr. John was probably the first of his kind to make a serious profit out of Voodoo practices, until his protégé Marie Laveau came on the scene. 

By the time Laveau appeared, Congo Square was still the main location for Voodoo worship, but secretly (although most people knew) rites and ceremonies were also conducted in other places, included a plot of land in the Vieux Carre on Dumaine Street (now known as the French Quarter), the banks of Bayou St. John and on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  Laveau started her rise to power by quietly taking control of Lake Pontchartrain.  There she bought a cottage called “Maison Blanche”, and using the knowledge gained in the boudoirs of New Orleans, began to pander to the vices of the city’s high society.  She invited the wealthy elite and others thrill-seekers to take part in orgiastic dancing, drinking and lovemaking. 

In the meantime her network of slaves and servants working in the homes of the wealthy elite, continued to feed back information about their owners, their habits and confidential affairs.  As a result, Laveau had the most detailed knowledge of political workings and social power in New Orleans.  It wasn’t long before the rich and powerful were calling on her for help with their illicit affairs, business judgements and domestic issues, which Laveau was happy to resolve for a price.  High and mighty judges, politicians and others paid for her help to win elections, and even the police and media were not immune to exchanging reciprocal services. 

By the early 1830’s there were still a number of Voodoo Queens operating in New Orleans, all vying for control of the Sunday Congo Square dances.  Having gained control of the Lake Pontchartrain, Laveau now set her sights on disposing of her rivals and becoming the supreme Voodoo Queen of the whole area.  If her rites and gris-gris did not frighten them off, Laveau (a big and statuesque woman) was not apposed to meeting them in the street and beating them until they yielded.  The battle of the Queens lasted several years until one by one under a pledge of loyalty, those that remained agreed to act as sub-queens, while those that refused she ran out of town. 

After gaining control of the Congo Square Dances, on Sundays, Laveau would enter the square before the other dancers and entertaining the fascinated crowds with her snake Zombi.  In the meantime her secret meetings and rituals at the lake inevitably became known, so Laveau used them to further her reputation as the supreme Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  She invited the public, press, police and other thrill-seekers to attend and charged them a fee for admission, thus making Voodoo a very profitable business. 

Strange as it might seem, Laveau was still a devoted Catholic and overtime began to incorporate various influences of Catholicism to her rituals, including:  the practice of baptism, candles, bells, crosses, holy water, incense, chants, prayers and statues of the Saints (many tribal gods are identified with Roman Catholic saints, the Snake god for example, is identified with St Patrick).  She even gained the approval of the local priest at St. Louis Cathedral by encouraging her followers to attend mass.  While she continued to charge the rich for her services, she also gave freely to the needy and administered to their suffering.  

Once a year Laveau presided over the ritual of St. John's Eve, held on the banks of Bayou St. John, it started at dusk on the 23rd June and ending at dawn the next day, St. John's day.  The ritual typically started with Laveau dancing with her snake Zombi wrapped around her, and as the night wore on there would be much drinking, singing, naked dancing, drumming, feasting, bonfires and animal sacrifices in which offerings were made to the “loas” (ancestor spirits) for protection.  Many of the dancers would fall into ecstatic trances, possessed of the loa spirits, during which they would perform cures and give advice to onlookers.  Hundreds of people attended the St. John's Eve ritual, and each was charged an admission fee. 

Such was Laveau’s reputation, that even in her own time, rumours, myths and legends about her abilities began to spread.  One story that continues to hold some credibility occurred during the 1830’s.  A young man from a wealthy highly respected Creole family, seriously violated a young girl from a family of lesser social status, but still of good reputation.  Her father was a friend of the local district attorney and charged the young man with rape.  This greatly alarmed the young mans father, for public sentiment strongly favoured the young woman.  The attorney he had employed for his sons defence saw no way of beating the charge and seemed willing to settle for a light sentence, which would greatly affect the family’s good name and position in high society. 

Not wishing to bring shame on his family, the young man turned to Laveau and begged for her help, promising his father would pay her handsomely if she could somehow bring about his acquittal and spare his family from disgrace.  Laveau assured him that it could be done, but would hold him to his promise.  When the young man told his father, he was sceptical, but replied that if she succeeded, he would give her a house he owned on St. Anne Street. 

On the night before his trial Laveau allegedly performed certain rituals and made gris-gris bags, which she then distributed around town.  So confidant of her own power and the fear she could instil in people, she even attached her name and a message “the defendant is innocent” to the bags, just so the recipient would know from whom it came and what she required of them.  The next day when the court convened, Laveau sat in a prominent position in the public gallery where everybody could see her, and despite a rigorous presentation by the prosecuting attorney, the case was dismissed and the young man acquitted. 

While her success in this case cannot be attributed to the magical power of her gris-gris alone, more it was achieved through the power of her reputation, and the general fear and superstition that surrounded Voodoo.  More probably it was through her network of spies that Laveau was able to determine which Judge would be trying the case and who was most likely to sit on the jury, and then use the fear of Voodoo to intimidate and influence the course of the trial.  Whatever the case, Laveau was rewarded with a house at 152 St. Anne Street (now 1020). 

Through the 1830’s and 40’s Laveau continued to provide intimate liaisons and aid business transactions on behalf of the rich and powerful of New Orleans, she also continued to presided over risqué parties and Voodoo rituals held in wealthy private homes all over the city and nearby areas, including the backyard of her own house at 152 St. Anne Street, the house she acquired from the Creole gentleman after his sons trial and acquittal of rape.  The St. Anne Street house she had filled with the all paraphernalia of Voodoo, and later became the main abode for Laveau’s eldest daughter Marie Laveau II. 

Laveau was not just about Voodoo however, in 1853 when a Yellow Fever epidemic threatened New Orleans, a special committee of gentlemen was appointed at a mass meeting of the people held in Globe Hall, their mission was to requested Laveau’s help on behalf of all the people to minister to the fever stricken.  They needn’t have worried, for Laveau was already out fighting the decease wherever it could be found.  Many of those who survived the endemic owed their survival to Laveau’s dedicated care and ministrations. 

Laveau also made frequent visits to the sick and condemned in the New Orleans’ prisons, there she would sit and pray with the condemned and provide what comforts she could to ease their last moments.  Whenever a prisoner excited her pity, Laveau would endeavour to petition the law courts and Judge’s on their behalf in efforts to obtain a pardon, or at least have their sentences commuted.  How often she succeeded (if ever she did) has not been recorded. 

Toward the end of the 1850’s, another story that became part of Laveau’s myth and legend began to circulate, this one in regard to a wealthy businessman called J. B. Langrast.  Langrast while wealthy was of little repute in New Orleans.  He owned a house on Dumaine Street with a large yard from were he made a living selling scrap and junk.  Most of the stuff he sold was allegedly stolen and give him a very dubious reputation.  He also had an intense hatred of Voodoo, which he thought was merely a scam to cheat believers out of their money, but evidently much more profitable than his own dodgy dealings. 

Perhaps out of jealousy, Langrast dared to challenge Laveau’s authority as the leader of Voodoo in New Orleans.  Whenever a robbery or murder occurred (which was often), Langrast publicly accused her and her followers of using Voodoo to commit such crimes.  Naturally this did not please Laveau, and soon gris-gris bags containing rooster’s heads and other nasty things began to appear daily on his doorstep.  Some claim that Laveau cursed him with insanity, for his personality started to change, he began muttering to himself and appeared in public to be nervous and agitated.  Eventually he fled New Orleans in fear of his life.  Many of Laveau’s followers believed that fear and the power of her gris-gris had forced him to leave, but more realistically, it was fear that one of her followers might kill him if he stayed, that caused him to go? 

In 1875 at the approx age of 81, Laveau made her last appearance at the Congo Square dances.  She then announced her retirement in order to concentrate what time she had left tending to the sick and condemned in New Orleans’ prisons.  Within a few years however, age finally caught up with her, and unable to look after herself she moved into a back room of 150 St. Anne Street.  There under the care of her eldest daughter Marie Laveau II, she lay bedridden until she finally passed into the world of the “loas” (ancestor spirits) on the 15th June 1881. 

Marie Laveau II 

One of the most enduring legends about the life of Marie Laveau I is that of her perpetual youth.  In 1875 when she retired from active public appearances, the average man in the street at that time never noticed her disappearance, for she continued to appear and preside over the Congo Square dances, yet she seemed much younger and more full of vigour.  Indeed unbeknownst to many, it was her look-alike daughter Marie Laveau II who now began to appear in her mother’s footsteps. 

After Laveau I became confined to her bed in the St. Anne Street house, Laveau II gradually took over her mother’s business, thus adding to the many myths and legends that surround the Laveau name.  Laveau II was a strikingly tall woman bearing many of her mother’s features; she also had a strong and dominant personality that she used to control the lives of others.  Like her mother, Laveau II started out as a hairdresser, but then ran a bar and brothel on Bourbon Street between Toulouse and Saint Peter Streets, which proved a good training ground for when she eventually took over her mother’s position as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. 

Laveau II continued to run rituals and parties from “Maison Blanche” out by lake Pontchartrain, the house which her mother had built for secret Voodoo meetings and liaisons for the rich elite.  There she provided lavish parties called Quadroon balls, at which only the best champagne, fine food, wine and music was offered.  She also took special care to fulfil the desires of the rich elite, white men and women, politicians and high-ranking officials, but all for a price.  Like her mother, she also made special arrangements with the police and media, who never raided her premises without prior notice, and then only for show and appearances sake. 

Having been taught by her mother, Laveau II was also adept in the use of herbs and other healing techniques, and sick people often came to the house on St Anne Street for treatment or a cure.  Most of her healing medicines combined the use of natural products, roots and herbs that contained genuine curative elements, but she also employed other factors, including the body’s own natural healing mechanisms and the powerful effects of suggestion.  To this end her cures were often accompanied by ritual praying, chanting and the burning of candles and incense for added affect. 

While Laveau II continued to reign over the Voodoo ceremonies and run the Maison Blanche, she never gained the same high respect her mother had earned.  Apparently she lacked the warmth and compassion of her mother, and instead inspired fear and subservience.  Some claim Laveau II drowned on the 11th June 1897 during a big storm on Lake Pontchartrain, while others claim she died of a heart attack during one of the quadroon balls? 

Much controversy still surrounds the burial sites of the two Laveau’s.  The tomb of Marie Laveau I is thought to be that located in St. Louis Cemetery No 1 on Basin Street, in the vault of “Famille Veuvee Paris nee Laveau” where people today still place flowers and mark X’s in chalk on the vault walls in hopes to gain her blessing.  The tomb of Marie Laveau II is given as that in St. Louis Cemetery No 2 on Iberville Street, in the vault of the Desdunes family, however historians now place her in a different tomb a few feet away, under the name Mrs. Charles Laveau …and so the myths and legends continue???

 

End.

Sources

The Laveau – Paris marriage certificate of August 4, 1819; is still preserved in Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

Mysterious Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen  -  by Raymond J. Martinez.

The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft  -  Rosemary Ellen Guiley

 

http://www.parascope.com/en/articles/voodooQueen05.htm

http://www.csicop.org/si/2002-01/i-files.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Laveau

http://www.frenchcreoles.com/CreoleCulture/famouscreoles/marielaveau/marielaveau.htm

 

Written and compiled 16th July 2007 © George Knowles

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