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Cemetery NewOr blog

Getting to Know Marie Laveau

Christian Papadellis
by Christian Papadellis

October 28, 2021

5 minute read

Among the many sights our Spotlight On New Orleans tour has to offer, none will give you that spine-chilling feeling more than St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Just eight blocks from the Mississippi River, on the north side of Basin Street, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 awaits. Filled with hauntingly beautiful architecture, the cemetery serves as the final resting place of several notable figures, including the famed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.

 

Who Was She?

 

Known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau was famous in her lifetime for creating healing charms and potions as well as for her intensely theatrical Voodoo ceremonies. While Laveau’s story has been told time and time again (more recently in the third season of the popular TV series, American Horror Story), distinguishing fact from fiction has always posed a challenge. Nearly everything most historians have come to understand about her comes from oral tradition passed down from one generation of Voodoo practitioners to another.

 

Believed to have been born September 10, 1801, Marie Laveau was a descendant of the colonial white settlers, black slaves, and free people of color that made up a significant portion of Louisiana’s population. Laveau’s mother, Marguerite Darcantrel, was a freed slave and mistress of her father, Charles Laveaux, a wealthy bi-racial businessman.

 

On August 4, 1819, Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris, a free man of color from Haiti, at the St. Louis Cathedral. Paris was a carpenter and while married to Laveau, lived with her in the French Quarter. After Paris went missing and was presumed to be dead in 1824, Marie began to refer to herself as “the Widow Paris” until 1826, when she entered into a common law marriage with Louis Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion, a member of a prominent society family. To make ends meet, Marie began to work as a hairdresser for the wealthy women of New Orleans society. Here, in the intimate chambers of high society women, the legend of Marie Laveau first took root.

 

What is Voodoo?

 

While pop-culture depictions of Voodoo conjure up a sinister image of zombies and Voodoo dolls, Voodoo is actually a religion that incorporates elements of the West African religions brought over by slaves in the colonial era, the Catholicism these many slaves adopted, as well as the traditions of a few indigenous North American tribes.

 

Marie’s first introduction to Voodoo came from “Voodoo doctor,” Doctor John, a.k.a John Bayou, around 1830. Bayou had already made quite a name for himself across New Orleans for his flamboyant clothing alongside his elaborate healing rituals. Laveau would later adopt similar qualities to Bayou when performing her own ceremonies. Unlike Bayou however, Laveau was a devout Catholic and her use of Catholic idols and prayers is what made her practices acceptable among her elite clientele. In fact, her cottage in the Rue St. Ann housed Catholic-style altars with candles, holy icons, and offerings.

 

The Voodoo Queen

 

Laveau practiced Voodoo in both public and private platforms. In private, she took on the ills of New Orleans society. Women who had their hair done by Laveau took her in as their confidante and asked for a variety of charms and potions. Some wanted healing for minor illnesses and afflictions while others wanted to know if their lovers had been unfaithful. While interactions such as these were private, Laveau frequently performed public ceremonies.

 

Establishing her reputation as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie took charge of Congo Square, one of the few locations in the rigidly segregated city of New Orleans where people of different races could interact. Here, Laveau performed rituals that recognized spiritual forces she could communicate with through dance, music, singing, and animals—especially snakes. She also ran other operations at the ‘Maison Blanche,’ a place built for secret Voodoo meetings. While Laveau’s practices were met with a more positive reception, the Voodoo practitioners who used their practice for malicious intent grew to be sensationalized in popular media. Vooodoo was deemed sacrilegious and hence, the secret meetings at ‘Maison Blanche’ began. This fear of Voodoo from the city’s elite is what led the practice to be considered part of the occult in popular culture.

 

Legacy

 

Marie Laveau was known for her strong and charming personality, along with her philanthropic nature and theatrical flair. Though famous for her Voodoo practices, she was also revered as a saintly figure in her lifetime for nursing the sick, posting bail for people of color, and visiting condemned prisoners in their final hours. While many in New Orleans society believer her to be a fraud, or worse, a threat, historians recount tales of women in elegant carriages, wearing expensive veils sneaking away to Marie’s cottage in the middle of the night for help.

 

Though she officially retired in 1875, she still continued her charity work until the day she died—June 15, 1881. News of her death stunned the vibrant city of New Orleans and tributes came pouring in at once. Eminent writer Lafcadio Hearn referred to her as “one of the kindest women who ever lived,” while glowing obituaries flooded the New Orleans Times-Picayune and even The New York Times.

 

While many associate her with Voodoo, the occult, and the tall tales spun about her over the years, Laveau’s charity, kindness, and winning charm are what cemented her legacy as one of the most fascinating women in American history.

 

We hope those of you going to New Orleans this fall find the trip to her gravesite at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 as enchanting as her life story!

 

 

 

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